Giuseppe Capecelatro, Archbishop of Taranto

Giuseppe Capecelatro (1744-1836). Portrait from Carlo Brulleau, around 1833-1835, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Source
Giuseppe Capecelatro (1744-1836). Portrait from Carlo Brulleau, around 1833-1835, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Source

Taranto 1778 - 1799


Giuseppe Capecelatro (also Capece-Latro) (1744-1836) is the man to whom we probably owe a large part of the still existing objects from sea-silk. He was an extraordinary personality of old Neapolitan nobility, highly educated, a lawyer and man of the Enlightenment, sensitive to the plight of the lowest classes. At a time when the aristocracy enjoyed and the people paid, the archbishop of Taranto promoted employment opportunities that resulted from the rich fishing grounds in the sea of Taranto.

Swinburne wrote in 1783 about the difficult economic situation of Taranto, but also saw hope in the person of Capecelatro, who had swapped a career in the Church with the service to his community: «...but there is great reason to hope these inconveniencies will be removed by the patriotic and judicious endeavours of the present Archbishop Monsignor Joseph Capecelatro, who has abandoned the road that leads to the purple, and other objects of ecclesiastical ambition, in order to devote his life and talents to the welfare of his flock, and the improvement of his native country.» In the processing of sea-silk Capecelatro saw a way to improve the lives of people. He himself took over the marketing for the highly priced sea-silk.



Spiegazione delle conchiglie che si trovano nel piccolo mare di Taranto, Capecelatro, Napoli 1780
Spiegazione delle conchiglie che si trovano nel piccolo mare di Taranto, Capecelatro, Napoli 1780
Capecelatro was also interested in natural science. In 1780, only two years after his election as Archbishop of Taranto, he publishes a study about the mussels and snails in the Mar Piccolo: «Spiegazione delle conchiglie che si trovano nel piccolo mare di Taranto». It is dedicated to the Russian Empress Catherine II. Mediator at the court of St. Petersburg is the Tarentine musician Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), who serves there as director of music. So, together with several pen shells and gloves the knowledge of sea-silk attained the Russian court. This would show lasting effects (Sada 1983).

Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg (1750-1819), lawyer and writer in Berlin, is guest of the Archbishop Capecelatro in Taranto in May 1792. He reports on this visit in detail in his diary. «A margine, simpatico e significativo è l’episodio ricordato da Stolberg: la donna invitata dal Capecelatro per spiegargli tutti i passaggi della lavorazione, si inorgoglisce e si commuove per l’interesse e gli apprezzamenti manifestati dallo straniero. Il giorno dopo Stolberg con sorpresa, riceve in dono dalla donna un paio di guanti, segno tangibile della sua riconoscenza. Sebbene di umili origini e forse analfabeta, la sconosciuta tarantina ha dato prova di grande dignità e garbo tanto da colpire la sensibilità di Stolberg il quale ha avvertito la necessità di tramandarci l’episodio.» (Girelli Renzulli 2000) The Tarentine woman not only explains in detail the processing of sea-silk, but also offers him a pair of gloves. They now belong to the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock.

In 1797 Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, visits Taranto together with his wife, Queen Maria Carolina. They live in the country house of the Archbishop and receive from him several sea-silk caps, «alcuni berrettini di bisso» (Vacca 1966).

In the turmoil of 1799 Capecelatro was arrested, taken to Naples and sentenced to ten years in prison. Probably through the mediation of the just mentioned Queen Maria Carolina, he was released again in 1801. He never returned to Taranto.


View on the Palazzo Sessa in Naples, around 1800. Source
View on the Palazzo Sessa in Naples, around 1800. Source

Naples 1801 - 1836

In Naples Capecelatro lives on the second floor of the Palazzo Sessa, which before was inhabited by the British Ambassador, Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma. From Emma Hamilton we know, that her later lover, Lord Nelson, presented her gloves of sea-silk: «On 18 March 1804, Nelson, on board the Victory, while blockading the French off Toulon, sent Emma Hamilton … a pair of curious gloves; they are made only in Sardinia of the beards of mussles. I have ordered a muff: they tell me they are very scarce, and for that reason I wish you to have them.» (Appleby 1997) Was this only an overstatement of the seller? Or could this statement be understood that in Sardinia, at this time, nothing was known about sea-silk production in Taranto?

In Capecelatros correspondence with Antonio Tanza, his vicar who took over his episcopal duties in Taranto, we find several orders of garments from sea-silk: 1802, «una camisciola di lanapinna ed un paio di calzette dell’istesso genere» for a marchese Taccone, 1804 four pairs of men's and two pairs of ladies gloves «di lanapesce» and twelve «berrettini sfioccati»(?), 1805 six men and four women's gloves «di lanapinna», twelve pairs of men's gloves «di lanapinna travagliati con qualche maggiore delicatezza» and six pairs of long ladies gloves, which should be executed with the greatest caution, as they were intended for the court of St. Petersburg (Vacca 1966).


Wilhelm von Humboldt: Detail of an engraving from J. L. Raab after a painting from C. Krüger. Source
Wilhelm von Humboldt: Detail of an engraving from J. L. Raab after a painting from C. Krüger. Source
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was Prussian resident at the Vatican from 1802 to 1808. In his correspondence with Carl August von Struensee, the Prussian Finance Minister, we find sea-silk mentioned several times. On February 18th,1803 he answered Struensee's request to send a pinna marina: «...und der Pinna marina werde ich mir alle mögliche Mühe geben, und wenn Er mir nur ein Paar Monate Zeit lassen wollen, hoff ich Ihre Befehle genau erfüllen zu können» (von Humboldt 1968). On March 12th, 1803 again on the same topic: «Pinna marina aus Neapel angefordert...». On Christmas Day 1803, he reported about his efforts to get the wool of pinna marina. On March 31st, 1804 a shipment of 3 pounds Pinna marina - an amazing amount- is mentioned. It is likely that Capecelatro, with whom he was also corresponding, was his contact person in Naples.


In 1808, Capecelatro became Minister of the Interior under Gioacchino Murat, King of Naples from 1808 till 1815. The king was also the brother in law of Napoleon. Capecelatro was described by an admirer as «... il più amabile di tutti i vescovi e arcivescovi». He was a gifted host and networker. From the Swedish King Gustav III the words are passed on: «Lorsqu’on vient à Naples, il faut y voir Pompei, le Vésuve, et l’archevêque de Tarente.» He stood in correspondence with almost all the scholars and writers of his time: with Goethe, Herder, Kotzebue, Germaine de Stael, Lamartine, Walter Scott, King Ludwig I of Bavaria and many others. With Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar (1739-1807) he had a deep friendship.

The German philologist and librarian Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770-1852) visited Naples - and Capecelatro - in 1808. «Er fand hier die bekannte würdige Frau Etatsräthin Brun mit ihrer Tochter. .... Beym Abschiede schenkte der Erzbischof der Mad. Brun und Ida meergrüne Handschuhe, die aus den Fasern einer bey Tarent haufigen Seemuschel (pinna marina) gearbeitet werden.» (Morgenstern 1813)


The German Baroness Elisa von der Recke (1754-1833) published her diary in 1815, in which she describes a journey through parts of Germany and Italy in the years 1804 to 1806. On a summer day she visited the summer residence of the archbishop in Portici, near Naples: «Der Erzbischof machte mir bei dieser Gelegenheit ein Geschenk mit einem Paar Handschuh von brauner Farbe, deren seidenartigen Stoff ich nicht kannte; er heißt Byssus, und findet sich an einem Muschelthiere des Meeres, Pinna Marina genannt. Er fordert eine Behandlung wie die Baumwolle, bedarf jedoch eines kleinen Zusatzes von Seide, um verarbeitet zu werden. Dies Muschelthier ist an der calabrischen Küste so häufig, dass der Erzbischof mehrere Arbeiter zum Reinigen und Weben dieses Stoffes in Tarent angestellt hat, welche Arbeiten liefern, die bekannter zu seyn verdienten. Leider ist der Erzbischof der einzige Mann von Geist und thätiger Kraft in der Gegend!» (von der Recke 1815) In the appendix of her diary, we find a text of Capecelatro, describing the processing of sea-silk: «Schreiben des Herrn Erzbischofs von Tarent Don Giuseppe Capece-Latro, auf Veranlassung mehrerer Anfragen aus vielen Ländern Europa's, über die Natur der Tarentinischen Steckmuschel und die Art ihre Wolle zu verarbeiten».

In the Biblioteca arcivescovile Monsignor G. Capecelatro in Taranto his personal library is accessible, and in the library of the Società di Storia Patria di Napoli in Naples we find letters to and from Capecelatro. It is likely that a study of these papers would let us know more about sea-silk and the history of sea-silk objects. Perhaps there even traces of new objects could be found.


Further sources: Lorentz 1833, Croce 1927, Solito 1998