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The keys of the city

Frame of medals with keys of the City
Frame of medals with keys of the City, 19th century - Palazzo San Giacomo, Floor 2

In past centuries, symbolic keys were offered to the sovreign or the leader who made a triumphant entry into the city, probably after conquering it by political or military means; it was a sign of subjugation and respectful greeting which the representatives of the citizen's government offered their new lord according to the rules of an ancient ceremony.

Two examples of the object hich was the protagonist of this symbolic offer are to be found in a frame of medals exhibited on the second floor of Palazzo San Giacomo. The two keys, probably of the 19th century, are covered with well-preserved gilt and arranged so that they face each other as if in a mirror.

The ring of each of these keys is in the form of a garland of oak and laurel leaves with a crown among them, while in the internal space there is an unbridled horse, a symbol which was often used in representation of the city of Naples. The ring is attached to the stem by a shield on which is engraved the monogram CDN (Città di Napoli) in interwoven italic letters. The key-piece itself, or "ward", is perforated in a forom suggesting a cross "reinforced" by four small Greek crosses, that is, with arms of equal length.

 A key of the city
A key of the city

The ceremony at which the keys were offered as a way of conventionally representing the subjection of the city to a new government is strictly connected to ancient symbolic meanings associated with the key, which has the "power to open and shut, that is, symbolically, to free or to tie".

According to such meanings, the keys were given to the conqueror by representatives of the local government, that is by those who, "being in custody" of power over the city, were entitled to hand it over to the new lord. Acceptance of the offer, consequently, meant "tying oneself" to the city and from that moment on having its destiny in one's hands.


Accounts of two ceremonies: handing over the keys to the emperor Charles V of Hapsburg and to Charles of Bourbon

ancient print of Charles V
Charles V, from B. Biancardi, Lives of the Kings of Naples, 1737

On his return from a victorious expedition in Tunis, th emperor decided to pay a visit to the city where, when the news arrived, a sumptuous welcome was organised. At midday on 25 November 1535, the imperial procession came in sight of Capuana Gate; the marquis viceroy of Villafranca, Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, was the first to go to receive Charles V, followed by the clergy led by the chied chaplain of the kingdom, Monsignor Caracciolo.

Later, it was the turn of the City Nobility, and one of them who represented the Seat of Capuana, Ettore Minutolo, knelt and pronounced the usual formal greeting and offered the emperor the keys of the city.

The emperor was visibly pleased, expressed his thanks and declared that he well knew the loyalty of Naples to him and to his predecessors; he then returned the symbolic keys to Minutolo, stating that Charles V respected the long and complex ceremony and entered the Capuana Gate, pased through the city and proceeded slowly with his train towards Castel Nuovo.


Charles of Bourbon and the ceremony at Maddaloni

detail of a painting that portrays Charles of Bourbon
Charles of Bourbon, oil on canvas, 18th century (detail). National Museum of Capodimonte

Having passed through the Papal States, the Spanish army in Italy, led by the General Captain Duke of Montemar and under the orders of Don Carlos of Bourbon, entered Neapolitan territory on 28 March 1734. So began the conquest by the son of Philip V of Spain and Elisabetta Farnese of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, "the most beautiful crown of Italy".
There was little resistance from the Austrian troups who occupied the territory, and the 18-year-old Don Carlos had little diffficulty in reaching Maddaloni on 9 April.

The City Nobility and a few representatives of the City of Naples went to the small town to pay their respects to the Infanta of Spain; after a short wait, they were admitted to kiss the hand of the future king of the Two Sicilies, among them the Prince of Centole, who announced: "These, Your Royal Highness, are the keys of our City, which could not be put into more valorous hands mor able to defend it. Take them with pleasure, and as a sign of generosity, we humbly entreat you to confirm all the Favours and Privileges which until now our faith in service has merited from the king of this Kingdom...".

The keys of the Kingdom and the Book of Privileges were offered on a gold tray. Don Carlos replied benevolently but without undue enthusiasm: "I, as decided by the king, eceive in my name your obedience and assure you of your privileges and their observance". The formal offer had been given, but what was more important for the city was that it had had confirmed the favours and privileges that Naples had always enjoyed.


Area Cultura e Turismo Servizio Beni Culturali - Archivio Storico Municipale
Salita Pontenuovo, 31 - 80139 Napoli
e-mail: archivi.storici.biblioteche@comune.napoli.it
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