Misgovernment and fiscal oppression having aroused much discontent throughout the two Sicilies, a revolt broke out at Palermo in May 1647, and the people of Naples followed the example of the Sicilians. The immediate occasion of the latter rising was a new tax on fruit, the ordinary food of the poor, and the chief instigator of the movement was Masaniello, who took command of the malcontents. The outbreak began on July 7 1647 with a riot at the city gates between the fruit-vendors of the environs and the customs officers; the latter were forced to flee, and the customs office was burnt. The rioters then poured into Naples and forced their way into the palace of the viceroy, the hated Count d'Arcos, who had to take refuge first in a neighbouring convent, then in Castel Sant' Elmo, and finally in Castelnuovo.
Masaniello attempted to discipline the mob and restrain its vandalic instincts, and to some extent he succeeded; attired in his fisherman's garb, he gave audiences and administered justice from a wooden scaffolding outside his house. Several rioters, including the duke of Maddaloni, an opponent of the viceroy, and his brother Giuseppe Caraffa, who had come to Naples to make trouble, were condemned to death by him and executed.
The mob, which every day obtained more arms and was becoming more intractable, terrorized the city, drove off the troops summoned from outside, and elected Masaniello "captaingeneral"; the revolt was even spreading to the provinces. Finally, the viceroy, whose negotiations with Masaniello had been frequently interrupted by fresh tumults, ended by granting all the concessions demanded of him. On July 13, through the mediation of Cardinal Filomarino, archbishop of Naples, a convention was signed between D'Arcos and Masaniello as "leader of the most faithful people of Naples," by which the rebels were pardoned, the more oppressive taxes removed, and the citizens granted certain rights, including that of remaining in arms until the treaty should have been ratified by the king of Spain.
The astute D'Arcos then invited Masaniello to the palace, confirmed his title of "captain-general of the Neapolitan people," gave him a gold chain of office, and offered him a pension. Masaniello refused the pension and laid down his dignities, saying that he wished to return to his old life as a fisherman; but he was entertained by the viceroy and, partly owing to the strain and excitement of the past days, partly because he was made dizzy by his astonishing change of fortune, or perhaps, as it was believed, because he was poisoned, he lost his head and behaved like a frenzied maniac.
The people continued to obey him for some days, until, abandoned by his best friends, who went over to the Spanish party, he was murdered while haranguing a mob on the market-place on the 16th of July 1647; his head was cut off and brought by a band of roughs to the viceroy and the body buried outside the city. But the next day the populace, angered by the alteration of the measures for weighing bread, repented of its insane fury; the body of Masaniello was dug up and given a splendid funeral, at which the viceroy himself was represented.
Masaniello's insurrection appealed to the imagination of poets and composers, and formed the subject of several operas, of which the most famous is Auber's La Muette de Portici (1828).
See Saavedra, Insurrección de Napoli en 1647 (2 vols., Madrid, 1849); A von Reumont, Die Caraffa von Maddaloni (2 vols., Berlin, 1849); Capasso, La Case e famiglia di Masaniello (Naples, I 893); V Spinazzola, Masaniello e la sue famiglia, secondo un codice bolognese del sec. xvi. (in the review Fiegrea, 1900); AG Meissner, Masaniello (in German); E Bourg, Masaniello (in French); F Palermo, Documenti diversi suite novità accadute in Napoli l'anno 1647 (in the Archivio storico italiano, 1st series, vol. ix.).