Reforms of judicial systems in 18th-century Italy.
Concepts, methods, successes and failures of Bourbon and Habsburg attempts to establish centralised judicial authority

PhD Project

My dissertation examines how rulers in two of the largest Italian states of the 18th century – the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy and the Duchy of Milan in the north of the peninsula – sought, within the context of the emergence of the state in the modern sense, to incorporate courts more fully into their sphere of influence. Many courts in early modern Italy, unlike today, were feudal, municipal, guild, or even religious institutions that drew their authority from a variety of sources and often operated independent of the territorial sovereign. The study examines the concrete reform measures carried out by the sovereigns to concentrate and organise more judicial power under direct royal supervision. Examples of this include the creation of new supreme courts, as the Real Camera di Santa Chiara in Naples in 1735, and the reform attempts in Naples in Milan to limit the feudal jurisdictions and restructure the local court structure. Particular attention is paid to the reasons why certain projects were not, or only partially, successful, i.e. why other authorities continued to persist. The continued existence of such institutions, sometimes with modifications, took on a variety of forms: older institutions were able to resist the reform or they continued in new institutions.

Previous research in this field has shed light on the developments described above by focusing on the formal sources of law and using methods of legal interpretation. In the research focusing on the Italian and European (legal) history, the period of the so-called "enlightened reforms" is often considered a necessary transitional stage from a medieval form of territorial rule to the emergence of the modern nation-state in the 19th century.

My study, by contrast, takes a more institutional approach, and in particular addresses the questions of how new courts were set up, existing ones reformed or abolished, and how these courts were organised and financed. For the selection and presentation of the material, the theory of historical institutionalism is decisive.

With the help of this theoretical framework and examination of the sources, it is possible that the ruler, as the author of the reforms, is not portrayed as an advocate of progress and that the social actors opposing this development are not presented as proponents of old, perhaps outdated, medieval ideas of a fragmented power.

Approaching the subject matter in this way, processes and dynamics can be studied and analysed over longer periods of time without the danger of falling into an ex post perspective that judges a linear development according to its outcome in terms that were coined only in the 19th century.

At the same time, the comparative method will help generate analytical depth, which is the reason for the comparison of the two Italian territories (the Kingdom of Naples-Sicily and the Duchy of Milan) that were once part of the Spanish empire.

The main sources for this research project include the reform plans, decrees and edicts of the respective monarchs and executives that refer to the courts and judges. In addition to the judgements, I will use other documents, such as reports by the executive bodies, scientific and literary writings, or articles of the press, to study the implementation of the aforementioned reforms.

First and foremost, this project intends to make a legal-historical contribution regarding the rule of law in the former Spanish-controlled territories in Italy. Moreover, it should also further legal-historical reflections on the tension between judicial independence and accountability.

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