Bronte's history

The English Duchy at the foot of Etna

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A short history of Bronte (1799 - 1981)

Who was Graefer?

by Mario Carastro

Who was Andrea Grafer | The English garden in Caserta | Life in Caserta | Following Nelson duke of Bronte | Administrator of the Duke| Death of Graefer| The wife Elisa | Death of Nelson | Conclusions



Administrator of the duke

Veduta generale della DuceaThe 26th of September 1801 Graefer writes to the Duke (4):“I am proud of the  honor made me by your lordship, to judge me worthy of administering the Duchy of Bronte. Gladly I shall sacrifice both my health and my life, to protect the interests of your lordship. Just a few years shall be sufficient to show how effectively my time has been dedicated to improving the estate, but I must however inform Your Lordship that I won't be able to bring the income of the property by 6000 ounces to 30,000 pounds. I can not promise it on an economic basis, being ignorant of aerostatic and unable to build castles in the air. Nor can I get using a political path for the instinctive revulsion that such way would raise in me...”.

Graefer shows a typical English humor, but also betrays the suffering he must have endured because of gout, of which he was afflicted, and of his perplexity related to the difficulty of ensuring the expected return to the new owner. "If someone coming from England, thought to make a fortune with this feud surely would be wrong. But if he would try to cultivate and improve the property just to have fun,  could do it without losing money. In any case, the company would require at least two years of study of the soil and climate."(7).
Flora Fraser (5) points out that her letters to Nelson are full of despair “talking about the lack of any entertainment that was not to plow the scrawny soil”.

The expression to us, people of Bronte, certainly seems exaggerated but you get the idea of the sadness that had taken him completely.

The administration not only failed to make profits but he had launched himself in the construction of the city palace of the Duke and for that he always required new funds.

The building in question would probably be the old ducal palace still existing in part along the Corso Umberto, though now divided into several units, and ranging from in front of the Capuchin Church until the Via Roma including a garden, whose area is now occupied by the Town Hall Square and the parking of Venia Square.

“In the feud there is not a house worthy of hosting an English family ... there are only huts ...(7).

Nelson, convinced by his own insistence or even because was completely taken up with his frenetic activity, accepted his proposals to renounce for two years to receive the annuity and invest it in the construction of the city building and agricultural improvements.

The costs for the construction of the building were consistent and Nelson himself admitted(7): I am told that the house, as it was built, is absurd. Instead of a residence for the factor was erected a princely palace, a folly by Graefer.

Certainly Graefer did not hold in high regard  the people of Bronte to the point that he wrote, as reported by Charles Knight(3): “Nothing would make me happier than having  with me four or five families of English settlers. This would be enough to quickly change the system, hateful and born from ignorance, with which we cultivate the land in Sicily." And again: "The stewards, with few exceptions, spend half the day hanging out at the market. On Monday, just because of a little wind, the workforce disappears. In those days the farmers laze in the town making small crowds in the streets. When they decide to start work are already tired .... "

The management of the Duchy of Graefer was ultimately a true disaster, so that Horatio Nelson, to cover losses, was also forced to sell a package of shares of the East India Company(3).

Charles Kight summarizes: “The man spent without measure, paid donations, granted pensions. When Nelson came to know he blurted saying that the administrator thought to be directing a charity organization: "Graefer thought that I approved giving to the poor”(7).

Death of Graefer

On 21 August 1802, the English banker Abraham Gibbs, operating in Palermo and used also by Horatio Nelson, and then becoming an administrator "on the fringes" of the Duchy, wrote to the Admiral(7):

"I afford to annex a letter of Mrs. Graefer, which, I regret to say, send to your Excellency the sad tidings of the sudden death of poor Graefer. Judging from my feelings, and the sorrow that I feel for the death of one so worthy, I can imagine how much sorrow this may generate in the soul of your worship, and how much pain Mrs.  Graefer must prove at such hard time.
I did my best to try to comfort her, hoping she can bear the loss with strength of character and resignation. Mrs. Graefer begged me to intercede with General Acton, so that the applicant could be allowed to carry on the administration of the property, pending a decision of your Lordship. The General, however, said this afternoon that, at the request of the Knight Forcella, has been appointed for this purpose another suitable person, to prevent any damage to the interests of your lordship"

To the sincere sorrow of Gibbs there is not a similar feeling on the part of Nelson. On September 20, 1802 the Admiral writes to his friend banker and "agent of prey" Alexander Davison (2): “... we have suffered from the loss of some friends.... (Omitted) ... I also lost Mr. Graefer, my governor of Bronte: he died on August 7, 1802. Embarrassingly enough 'but I try to make the best of every situation and it is possible that this will be resolved in my favor in terms of money. I have at my disposal an accurate estimate of the (income potential) of my property; more than £. 3000 net per year, and an ever growing appreciation every year”. (Omitted).

A picture of the internal garden  of the Nelson Castle.

The property of Nelson in Bronte (in green the ample garden) in a map of the 1875. The green area is now occupied  by  Municipal Palace, by some private houses (fronting  Roma road) and the parking of Venia Square.

One of the few houses  that still preser­ve tracks of the original  architecture of the ducal palace.
The V° duke in "The duchy of Bronte" writes that" the first and only time in which I slept there was in 1868, when I was 14  in occasion of his first visit to the feud.

The wife Elisa

The Duke is burned by the losses due to Graeter's mismanagement, to the point of thinking to be rid of the cause. The duchy, with the disap­pearance of Graefer, is to be administered in Palermo by the Marquis Antonio Forcella chosen by Lord Acton, prime minister of the realm, and in Bronte by Mrs. Elisa Graefer.

The Duke, however, could have not been very satisfied with the choice. In his correspondence(2) cannot not be found any letter written to the Forcella while there is an intense correspondence with the banker Abraham Gibbs.

On board the Victory off Toulon he writes to Gibbs on August 11, 1803:
«My dear Sir, Yesterday I received your letter of July 5 with much pleasure and I shall be grateful if, in your infinite goodness, you would address my Bronte s property on a track that, if I can not get a proper income, would at least receive a rent; as I do not intend to loose another six pence but I'll gladly pay a commission to respectable people who can collect the rent and sending it to me in London. Since you are perfect for this delicate matter I shall speak to you more explicitly.
I had told Graefer, in our first conversation, that I was ready to give up two years' rent for the construction of a house and agricultural improvements. I served a foreign king with more attention than my king, and if Bronte, given to me by the King, can not be solved in my favor for so long, would cost me a fortune and would not be a convenient gift, I could have avoided a lot of jealousy. I'm not happy with my accounts. I did my duty, according to my Sicilian conscience, and I'm satisfied. And it is necessary before anything else, Sir John Acton to know what was done and what you intend to do.
 All I ask is immediate and final justice. I will not sign any other orders on the property. If I can not get back the possession, receiving the full value, I should be paid the same net revenue, which was paid to the hospital. That was. on the average of the seven previous years, 6,700 ounces. Your kind assistance will oblige me to consider myself, my dear sir, your humble servant. Nelson and Bronte».

Can be noted the dissatisfaction of the Duke for the fact that Bronte does not give him back anything because of legal disputes for his complete possession and enjoyment, so as to have repeatedly asked for help Acton. To take care of this business is Gibbs, who has the full confidence and with whom he establishes a bond of friendship. And it is Gibbs who handles relations with the widow of Nelson Graefer, Mrs. Elizabeth.

Since the death of her husband she continued to live at Bronte and to deal with the Dukedom.

The audit of the administration by Gibbs reveals the conduct of the spouses Graefer, before and after the death of Graefer, probably not quite correct or at least very influenced by private interests. So much so that the correspondence of Nelson notes his intention to free himself from the woman.

From aboard the Victory, in fact, he writes to Lady Hamilton, on the24 August 1803(4):
“Yesterday I received some letters from Mrs. Graefer ... She would want me to try and get a pension for her from the king of the Two Sicilies ...
She argues that if I had been in their place, the cost to administer Bronte would not have been lower. This is possible but it proves very little. In fact convinces me, even more, to believe in her and her husband's miscon­duct. 
What does it mean that the house has cost too much? Who built it? Certainly had not been carried out my orders ... In the situation in which I am, I have not any time for private affairs. Yet these letters are also able to send me into a rage. Luckily now it is gone…”

And again on March 14, 1803 aboard the Victory off Toulon (2): «... In reference to Ms. Graefer - what she has done, only God and she knows it, but I decided that Gibbs will offer the 100 pounds a year and, if accepted, I will agree and close. I am sending the last letter of Mrs. Graefer .... »

Also on July 1, 1804:

Horatio NelsonHoratio Nelson

The admiral Horatio Nelson. There are many of his pictures preserved in the Museum that Bronte's Council has dedicated to him in the apartments of the Maniace.s Duchy  ("the Castle")

 «... Gibbs is still in Palermo, I am sure he will do good things for my property, so I hope. He wrote recently, intending to give me a hint (but without showing that the proposal had came from him) to say that I thought it was better that Mrs. Graefer and her daughter moved to England for the education of the girl.

But I do not want to deal with this recommendation: it would mean that she would come to me in England, saying that she can not live with what she has and that I had told her to come to England and that she had not thought of this eventuality. In short, Gibbs wants to get rid of her .... ».

The death of the Duke Nelson

On October 21, 1805 Horatio Nelson died at Trafalgar. Duke of Bronte becomes the brother Reverend William and it opens another page for the Duchy of its history.
Mrs. Graefer continues to live in Bronte, where his daughter Maria Carolina married one of the notables of the town, Joachim Spedalieri, and receives from the Duchy, until her death in 1817, an annual pension of 100 ounces. This demonstrates that neither Nelson nor Gibbs managed to get rid of her.
It is certain that the position of wife Graefer first , local representative of the Marquis Forcella after, and the family bond with Spedalieri enabled her to occupy a prominent place in the Bronte society and gain some prosperity.
On October 29, 1807, as F. Fraser(5) reminds us, we find her among the guests at the birthday party of Horatia, the daughter of the Admiral and Lady Emma at Merton Place, the luxury villa bought by Nelson a few miles from London in 1801 for 9,000 pounds.
She will always be in correspondence with Lady Hamilton, the friend at the origin of her history of Naples, who despite the difficulties in which she was after the death of Nelson was still willing to write in November of 1808 to the Queen of Naples to seek 'provision of a pension for her (2). But from September 1808 on the throne of Naples there was Joachim Murat. The royals had again fled to Palermo and just now the queen did not have any power, therefore Mrs. Graefer wrote to her friend Emma on August 27, 1809: "... The Queen wrote saying that she was ready to grant me a pension, I was always able to produce a document showing that was my right. Tell me if this is a response worthy of a Queen! How can anyone expect justice from the Court of Palermo? I do not dare to repeat once again my reasons. I have for you just one request: Do not send ever a line to that ungrateful wretch…”.


La Ducea Nelson dall'alto3So ends the story of Graefer in Bronte. At Caserta, as we have seen, to take care of the English Garden there were the children of J. Andrew Graefer since 1798. Their work lasted during the reign of Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat, and then, after the Napoleonic period, again under the Bourbon monarchy to the end of the 1860.

In conclusion I like to make a hypothesis to be verified: Is it possible that Graefer could have been also interested in the setting up of the garden of Maniace Castle?

What is known as the Villa Vecchia, beyond the perimeter wall of the Italian garden, does not look like a informal, landscaped garden?

I am convinced, as I have already reported, that the spending spree made by Graefer for the construction of a princely palace, as defined by Nelson, is likely to relate to the ducal palace of Bronte. The complex of the Maniace Abby in 1799 must have been a heap of ruins, located in an unhealthy and difficult to reach site.

The reconstruction and transformation in residence of the Abbey, as we see it today, probably belongs of a later period: certainly after the arrival of the Thovez and at the end of the great litigation, when the Duke lost part of his interest in Bronte.

Upon his arrival in 1799 in Bronte, in my opinion, Graefer, in the continuity of feudal power, must have established himself in the same palace used, by the old feudatory Old and New Hospital of Palermo, as warehouses and seat of administration, and decided, spending enormous sums, to broaden it and make it more comfortable and more suitable to the dignity of the new owner, that he imagined in Bronte in the near future to enjoy a pleasant and well-deserved rest after the fatigues of war.

In fact, in the letter dated 26 September 1801 (4) he wrote to Nelson: «... I hope your Lordship will soon rest from the fatigues... and that the glorious and unforgettable actions of your Lordship will be worth to hasten the achievement of peace ... then maybe we shall see your Lordship and his elected company to come here in the guise of shepherds and shepherdess, or of peaceful farmers, to enjoy the rural serenity.... »
It is then ascertained that, in the last decade of the 17th century, the hospital had managed the feud in "economy", as was said at the time, that is, directly, and therefore needed for this office and warehouse in Bronte and in Maniace(8).

But if reality was different?

If the letter of 26 September 1801 was referring to the Abbey and Graefer, while residing in the palace of Bronte, could have started also the reconstruction work of the Maniace buildings in 1802, the year of his death, and he could have already completed the construction of the apartments of the ducal castle, so as to make it credible that the complaints of Nelson were related to those, then it is also reasonable to think that he, who was the great architect of the English garden of the regal palace of Caserta, could also have been interested in the garden of the castle.

The guide distributed to visitors, the reading of which prompted me to do this brief survey on Andrea Graefer, should bring, in my opinion, to this interesting hypothesis, certainly to be verified, that would bind, even more, Bronte to important events and personalities of great prestige.

Mario Carastro

Naples, June 3 2005

Translated by Sam Di Bella

Bronte's history
ANDREA GRAEFER      The seven dukes of Bronte

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