A close confidante of Queen Maria Carolina, English-born Lady Emma Hamilton started out as a housemaid who tried her hand at acting and ended up having several rich lovers. Tricked by one of those lovers into being the companion of his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples, the couple ended up marrying in 1791. Together they entertained guests from all over Europe.
Emma developed a form of entertainment called Attitudes in which people had to guess the names of famous characters (such as Medea and Cleopatra) that she portrayed. For her performances, she wore Neapolitan peasant dress; she also created new styles of dance and fashion which were quickly emulated. Considered very beautiful, many portraits were painted of her, including one by George Romney.
Through her husband, Emma became a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina and even advised her during the revolution to overthrow the monarchy. She began an affair with Horatio Nelson, the famous English naval hero, when he came to live in Naples and the affair was tolerated by Sir William.
Several opulent homes around Naples can still be seen where Sir William and Lady Hamilton lived. The Palazzo Sessa is where they collected paintings, ancient Greek vases, and samples of minerals. Much of the collection of ancient ceramics formed the nucleus of the British Museum’s collection.
The Villa Angelica is where Sir William conducted his extensive research in vulcanology and lived during the spring and fall. Then, the Villa Emma was the summer home of the couple where they enjoyed sea bathing and a view of Mt. Vesuvius.
Shortly after the Parthenopean Revolution in 1799, Nelson was recalled to England. Sir William and Lady Emma left with him, never to return to Naples. Her husband died in 1803 while her lover Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, leaving instructions for the care of his mistress and young daughter Horatia – instructions that were not honored.
Emma became obese and a lavish spender. She went deeply into debt and wondered where all her fame had gone. She spent a year in debtor’s prison and fled to France where she eventually died a lonely alcoholic in abject poverty.
Places To See: Palazzo Sessa situated on Pizzofalcone at Vico Santa Maria Cappella Vecchia 31, Naples. Villa Angelica is in Portici where you can visit a selection of Vesuvian Villas as well as the Reggia di Portici, now a university. Go to Villa Campolieto at Corso Resina 283, Ercolano and ask about Lady Hamilton’s villa there. Villa Emma in Posillipo is located at Via Russo, No. 27.
Website Recommendation: For more about the Neapolitan houses of Sir William Hamilton, see The Friends of Herculaneum Society