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The viceroys, alter ego of the monarchs, constituted the backbone of the Spanish system of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and allowed the Spanish nobility to take part in the “imperial” enterprise and prevent it from being completely ruined as a result of the inflation that you lived in Spain. Patrons, soldiers, rulers and little monarchs smeared with Italian opulence. Juan Fernández de Velasco, in Milan; Garcia de Toledo, in Sicily; Pedro «El Grande», in Naples. In the collective success story of the Spanish government in Italy there was no lack of leaders as unclassifiable as Pedro Tellez-Girón and VelascoDuke of Osuna, who served as viceroy of Sicily and then Naples during the reign of Felipe III.

Above all, a viceroy was required to collect taxes and avoid conflicts with the local nobility. Create a fleet from scratch, like you did Pedro Tellez-Girón during his Italian stay, and keeping enemy corsairs squashed did not enter the daily tasks. Not of course in those desired by distrustful Madrid officials or by other Mediterranean powers such as Venice and the Ottoman Empire.

Cold war with Venice

Both in Sicily and Naples, “The Daring Viceroy” (nickname he received for his unorthodox methods) he established a private fleet to fight the Corsican Berber with the same weapons that they used. In Naples, the viceroy came to gather a total of 22 galleys and 20 galleons, who were engaged in launching pirate actions against privateers and Muslim merchant ships. Very lucrative actions in the economic and military fields, since an offensive strategy allowed the corsair to be kept away from the Italian coasts, but which won the duke countless enemies inside and outside Spain.

At the political level, Osuna was aligned with the most bellicose faction of the Court. The one that had known the glory years of Felipe II and knew of the damage that the Pax Hispánica was doing to the reputation of the Spanish Empire. Hence his hostile attitude from the beginning towards Savoy, a former ally of Spain, and Venice, an ancient and constant enemy. To counter Venetian support for Spain’s enemies in the area, Osuna waged a cold war with Venice on the Adriatic.

Almost at the beginning of his time in Naples, Pedro “The Great” He confiscated a Venetian merchant ship to offset earlier grievances, so he announced his intention to attack the Serenissima by obstructing her trade. Even signed the return of several ships with this country, the viceroy excused himself for not making it effective. According to an anecdote fictionalized by the biographer Gregorio LetiOsuna agreed, if at all, to return the empty ships because the goods had already been sold:

“The Lordship has forests of wood,” said the Commissioner of Venice with a haughty tone.

“In that case,” replied the viceroy, “if the bajeles don’t work for you, I’ll stay with them.”

Galleys and other ships in an Italian port.  Painted by Jacob Knyff (1638-1681)
Galleys and other ships in an Italian port. Painted by Jacob Knyff (1638-1681)

Osuna’s galleons and galleys staged several encounters favorable to the Spanish against the increasingly outdated fleet of the most serene. The cold war became at times a hot one, since the black flag, characteristic of the duke’s private ships, flew with impunity in the Adriatic, for centuries a sea owned by Venice, was unbearable for diplomatic representatives of this country . Faced with Venetian pressure, requests followed from Madrid to stop an unauthorized war against Venice, which was winning Spain to the great detriment of Venetian trade and at little cost. This produced the anomaly that the navies of both countries continued at war, while the diplomats did not stop promising each other peace and good intentions. The folds of geopolitics …

In Madrid, there was also a lack of supporters to continue hostilities and give Osuna wide sleeves, which promised to cut the tentacles of Venice and Turkey in the Adriatic. The Grand Duke defended himself with the best of arguments to the Venetian criticism: “The more the enemies of the Empire complain about your ministers, it is when Your Majesty is best served.”

The conspiracy against the warlord

Deranged by the duke’s aggressiveness, Venice sought to discredit him by means other than military and to remove from the equation the most warlike faction in Spain, the one that could compromise the Peace of Pavia, signed in 1617. The duke was credited with being the field organizer of the conjuration of Venice (1618), one of the darkest episodes of the eighteenth century. Together with the Governor of Milan and the Spanish Ambassador in Venice, Osuna would have paid a group of French mercenaries settled in the city of the canals to provoke an uprising.

Portrait of Francisco de Quevedo

According to the Venetian versions, jealous of the glories of the RepublicThe three planned a coup d’etat in which a group of French soldiers were to set fire to the arsenal, blow up several bridges, and facilitate the landing of the Spanish infantry in the city. Twenty Spanish galleys would be in charge of initiating the landing, once the port had been taken. The conspiracy failed because it was allegedly discovered in its preparations and the French mercenaries were lynched by the crowd, while the poet Francisco de QuevedoA friend and secretary of the Duke of Osuna, he was forced to disguise himself as a beggar to escape the city.

Or at least that’s the Italian version of the story, hard to believe and without proof. Venetian authorities arrested hundreds of soldiers, who had entered the city of canals disguised as peasants, and searched the embassies of France and Spain, finding in this second weapon and ammunition to raise a small army. As a result, the Spanish ambassador had to flee in a brig to save his life in front of the mob, while a doll with his face and another with Osuna’s were beaten in the streets.

La Serenísima would have taken advantage of the clean to endorse the death of the viceroy of Naples, as can be seen in the fact that the Senate of Venice published a side prohibiting dare to speak or write that Spain had been involved

However, several details suggest that the operation was a covert purge of corsairs and foreign mercenaries, who had been causing problems in Venice for some time. The same gangsters and Protestant soldiers who had summoned to fight against Osuna’s fleet. La Serenísima would have taken advantage of the clean to endorse him the dead to the viceroy of Naples, as can be seen in the fact that the Senate of Venice published at the moment a side prohibiting dare to speak or write that Spain had been involved. It was one thing to let the gossip spread and quite another to accuse the Madrid court of such a falsehood.

To this is added that none of the alleged heads of the plan was reprimanded for its failure and that there is no record of troop mobilization at that time. That being the case, the plan was crude and meaningless at a time when Osuna was stifling Venetian commerce. Your signature is nowhere to be seen.

Fall from grace

In 1619 Osuna was ordered to return to Madrid to account for his alleged excesses in Naples, whose nobility was not at all happy with his methods. After delaying his departure as long as possible, and a little more, because he even refused to recognize the authority of an interim viceroy; Osuna arrived in Spain a year later. Contrary to what her enemies expected, the fall from grace of her protector, the Duke of Lerma, did not initially affect Osuna, because it was Uceda himself (have children and they will gouge your eyes out) who orchestrated it and who took over a Boiling Cut. The Venice ambassador was surprised that “the duke, who left Naples as a man whom everyone believed lost, seems to have bewitched Madrid, where it is now bigger than ever ».

View of the entrance to Arsenal by Canaletto, 1732.
View of the entrance to Arsenal by Canaletto, 1732.

While settling the matter in court, the sudden death of Philip III disturbed all the plans of the former viceroy. The representatives of the new king sought a cleansing among the most insolent elements of the previous reign as a lesson to the most notorious. A neat policy that was going to be a feint, but that placed the duke at the zero point of the explosion. Only a month after the king’s death, he was imprisoned and accused of corruption, partial justice, venality, acceptance of bribes and many other crimes.

His last years of life were a pitiful pilgrimage through different Spanish prisons in which he showed greater physical losses every day. Gouty, sick of body and mind (his forgetfulness suggests some degenerative disease), Osuna accepted prayer as if he were Don Juan made flesh and blood or, perhaps, a grotesque version of the myth.

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