Renaissance and Reformation Southern Italy, 1500–1700
Ronald G. Musto
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0504


The history of southern Italy during these centuries coincides with that of the Kingdom of Naples (the Regno di Napoli). For numerous reasons, including historical and modern geopolitical designations, it is separate from that of Sicily and Sardinia. This history is one of constant change, of foreign influence, of internal turmoil and innovation, and of renewal. The Spanish period in southern Italy (1504–1707) shares the fate of early modern Mediterranean and Iberian studies. There are three major historiographical issues. The first is the overwhelming prominence of Naples both as a physical, political, cultural, and economic capital and as the focus of most modern research. These factors often eclipse the rest of the South. The second is the Question of the South, covered in Ronald G. Musto’s Oxford Bibliographies article “Southern Italy, 1300–1500.” The third, a corollary of the second, is the Spanish Black Legend. The early modern Regno, like its master Spain, has been the object both of this legend and of subsequent historiographical disdain among Anglophones for the monarchical and supposedly backward nature of its governance, economy, and Catholic culture. We address the Black Legend in this article. This bibliography includes more recent books and articles from both Anglophone and Continental scholars. It generally does not include dissertations. With Ferdinand the Catholic’s defeat of the Regno’s French invaders and the imprisonment of the last Aragonese claimant, the Mezzogiorno became part of the Spanish and then Habsburg global empire: another wealthy province like Mexico or the Philippines administered by a viceroy. But what the South lost in autonomy it gained in international position in trade and other economic activity, cultural exchange, and influence. The Regno’s politics and culture now reflected Spanish priorities. Under the Viceregency of Pedro de Toledo (1532–1553), the Regno began to see mass migration from rural areas of poverty and local political repression into its cities, most especially Naples. The Regno’s revenues increased rapidly but were just as rapidly siphoned off by Habsburg wars and display elsewhere in Europe and the Mediterranean. New arts and sciences flourished despite the pressures of Spanish autocracy that suppressed the humanist academies and of the Inquisition that periodically repressed religious and intellectual expression. By 1600, in the wake of earthquake, plague, food shortages, and fiscal mismanagement, the Regno was on the verge of economic exhaustion and widespread popular discontent, revolt (especially that of Masaniello in 1647), and subsequent repression. With the War of the Spanish Succession and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, it became a possession of the Austrian Habsburgs. Many of the topics here also overlap with entries in Ronald G. Musto’s Oxford Bibliographies article “Naples, 1300–1700.”

The Spanish Black Legend

The original Black Legend—of Spanish atrocity and genocide in the conquest of the Americas—was first formulated in the works of the Spanish missionary to the Americas, Fra Bartolomé de Las Casas, OP (b. 1474–d. 1566) from his firsthand witness and accounts that he gathered, by Fra Antonio Montesinos, OP, and by other missionaries. Their reports were debated and addressed by the Spanish royal council and then filtered through the selective lenses of politically motivated writers and publishers among Spain’s enemies, including the Netherlands and England. For good reason, the black legend’s outline and conclusions of Spanish rapaciousness, cruelty, and tyranny—and of Catholic repression—were accepted by nearly all subsequent writers and historians. The term “Black Legend” was first employed by the Spanish journalist Julián Juderías in 1912. The legend affected attitudes both toward Spain and its American empire, but also its dominions in Europe, including the Regno of Naples. Thereafter these were seen as backward, immobile, and repressive, dominated by political tyranny, religious inquisition, and monkish ignorance and superstition. The works below offer a small sampling of works on Bartolomé de Las Casas (Hanke 2015, Clayton and Lantigua 2020), on the origins and survival of the black legend (Lawrance 2009, Samson 2020), and on its impact on the Regno (Galasso 1994, Musi 1994). Its effect on Anglophone attitudes—and historiography—has been traced by Maltby 1971. For the Black Legend’s impact on general perceptions of the Mezzogiorno, see the section “The Question of the South” in Ronald G. Musto’s Oxford Bibliographies article “Southern Italy, 1300–1500.”

  • Clayton, Lawrence A., and David M. Lantigua, eds. Bartolomé de las Casas and the Defense of Amerindian Rights: A Brief History with Documents. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2020.

    Over two dozen excerpts of Las Casas’ works with introductions and a biography.

  • Galasso, Giuseppe. Alla periferia dell’impero: Il Regno di Napoli nel periodo spagnolo, secoli XVI–XVII. Turin: G. Einaudi, 1994.

    Naples was on the periphery of the Spanish Empire, but it shared the opprobrium given Spain in the Black Legend of oppressive absolutism, of which the Inquisition was the most potent symbol for Protestant, Enlightenment, liberal, democratic, Masonic, and humanist polemics. Modern research has revised this image, now seeing the Regno’s important role in forming the modern state.

  • Hanke, Lewis. Bartolomé de las Casas: An Interpretation of His Life and Writings. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 2015.

    The fundamental English-language work on Las Casas. A reprint of the 1951 edition.

  • Lawrance, Jeremy. Spanish Conquest, Protestant Prejudice: Las Casas and the Black Legend. Nottingham, UK: Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2009.

    Examines how Las Casas’ eyewitness account has been transmitted and transformed. In particular, it scrutinizes the role of early modern visual culture, relating the imagery of Las Casas’ Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies to the Baroque “theatre of cruelty.”

  • Maltby, William S. The Black Legend in England: The Development of Anti-Spanish Sentiment, 1558–1660. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1971.

    Protestant England, long at war with, or hostile to, the Spanish Empire, matched the Netherlands in the bitterness of its anti-Hispanism and anti-Catholicism. This vituperation and “grotesque exaggerations” (p. 136) also colored Spain’s possessions in Italy, especially after the Spanish conquest of Naples and the atrocities of the Sack of Rome in 1527. Maltby traces English attitudes and historiography through the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods into their modern survivals.

  • Musi, Aurelio, ed. Nel sistema imperiale l’Italia spagnola. Naples: Edizione scientifiche italiane, 1994.

    Debunking the Black Legend of Spanish domination, this volume brings together Anglo-American, Spanish, and Italian historians to revise the image of decline. Authors include B. Anatra, F. Benigno, A. Calabria, P. Fernandez Albaladejo, C. J. Hernando Sánchez, J. A. Marino, A. Musi, G. Muto, L. A. Robot García, and B. Yun Casalilla.

  • Samson, Alexander. Mary and Philip: The Marriage of Tudor England and Habsburg Spain. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.7765/9781526142245

    The chapter “Anti-Spanish Sentiment in Early Modern England” scrutinizes Hispanophobia in the historiography of the reign, arguing that not only has it overshadowed any positive reassessment but also that it essentializes xenophobia as defining early modern England and reinforces the Black Legend’s denigration of Spain. Despite clever redeployment of anti-Spanish tropes, including associating Spain with Islam and Africa, Philip and Mary’s reign divided opinion and reflected fundamental ambivalence.

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