Thomaso Aniello , called by corruption Masaniello, was born at Amalfi, in Italy, about the year 1622. He established himself at Naples, where he obtained a living by catching and vending fish. At this period, Naples belonged to Spain, and the Duke D'Arcos governed it as viceroy. The city was suffering under many political evils. Its treasures went to Spain, and its youth were sent to fill up the ranks of the Spanish army; and both were wasted in ruinous wars, for the ambition and selfish views of a distant court.

In addition to all this, the people were oppressed with taxes, and outraged by the wanton tyranny of the officers of a foreign power. At last, in the year 1647, the Duke D'Arcos, in order to defray the expenses of a war against France, laid a tax on fruit and vegetables, the common articles of food of the Neapolitan people. This edict occasioned the greatest ferment, especially among the poorer inhabitants. Masaniello, who was now about twenty-five years of age, and a great favorite at the market-place, on account of his natural quickness and humor, denounced the tax in no measured terms. He seems to have perceived and felt the despotism that oppressed the people, and was, moreover, incited to opposition by an event which touched him personally.

His wife was one day arrested, as she was entering the city, attempting to smuggle a small quantity of flour,—an article which bore a heavy tax. She was accordingly, seized and imprisoned; nor could Masaniello obtain her release, but upon paying a considerable sum. Thus the fire which was soon to burst forth into conflagration was already kindling in his soul. Opportunity was only wanting, and this was soon offered.

Masaniello was at the head of a troop of young men who were preparing for the great festival of our Lady of the Carmel, by exhibiting sham combats, and a mock attack on a wooden castle. On the 7th July, 1647, he and his juvenile troops were standing in the market-place, where, in consequence of the obnoxious tax, but few countrymen had come with the produce of their gardens. The people looked sullen and dissatisfied. A dispute arose between a countryman and a customer who had bought some figs, as to which of the two was to bear the burden of the tax.

The eletto, a municipal magistrate, acting as provost of the trade, being appealed to, decided against the countryman; upon which the latter, in a rage, upset the basket of figs upon the pavement. A crowd soon collected round the man, who was cursing the tax and the tax-gatherer. Masaniello ran to the spot, crying out, "No taxes, no more taxes!" The cry was caught and repeated by a thousand voices. The eletto  tried to speak to the multitude, but Masaniello threw a bunch of figs in his face; the rest of the people fell upon him, and he and his attendants escaped with difficulty.

Masaniello then addressed the people round him in a speech of coarse, hot, fiery eloquence; he described their common grievances and miseries, and pointed out the necessity of putting a stop to the oppression and avarice of their rulers. "The Neapolitan people," said he, "must pay no more taxes!" The people cried out, "Let Masaniello be our chief!"

The crowd now set itself in motion, with Masaniello at their head; it rolled onward, increasing its numbers at every step. Their rage first fell on the toll-houses and booths of the tax collectors, which were burned, and next on the houses and palaces of those who had farmed the taxes, or otherwise supported the obnoxious system. Armed with such weapons as they could procure from the gunsmiths and others, they proceeded to the viceroy's palace, forced their way in spite of the guards; and Masaniello and others, his companions, having reached the viceroy's presence, peremptorily demanded the abolition of all taxes.

The viceroy assented to this; but the tumult increasing, he tried to escape, was personally ill-treated, and at last contrived, by throwing money among the rioters, to withdraw himself into the castle. The palaces were emptied of their furniture, which was carried into the midst of the square, and there burnt by Masaniello's directions. He was now saluted by acclamation, as "Captain General of the Neapolitan people." A platform was immediately raised in the square, and he entered upon the duties of his office.

The revolution was soon complete, and Naples, the metropolis of many fertile provinces, the queen of many noble cities, the resort of princes, of cavaliers, and of heroes;—Naples, inhabited by more than six hundred thousand souls, abounding in all kinds of resources, glorying in its strength, and proud of its wealth—saw itself forced in one short day to yield to a man esteemed one of its meanest sons, such obedience as in all its history it had never before shown to the mightiest of its legitimate sovereigns.

In a few hours, the fisherman found himself at the head of one hundred and fifty thousand men; in a few hours, there was no will in Naples but his; and in a few hours, it was freed from all sorts of taxes and restored to its ancient privileges. In a short space, the fishing wand was exchanged for the truncheon of command; the sea-boy's jacket for cloth of silver and gold. He set about his new duties with astonishing vigor; he caused the town to be entrenched; he placed sentinels to guard it against danger from without, and he established a system of police within, which awed the worst banditti in the world, into fear.

Armies passed in review before him; even fleets owned his sway. He dispensed punishments and rewards with the like liberal hand; the bad he kept in awe; the disaffected he paralyzed; the wavering he resolved by exhortation; the bold were encouraged by incitements; the valiant were made more valiant by his approbation. Obeyed in whatever he commanded, gratified in whatever he desired, never was there a chief more absolute, never was an absolute chief, for a time, more powerful. He ordered that all the nobles and cavaliers should deliver up their arms to such officers as he should give commission to receive them. The order was obeyed. He ordered that all men of all ranks should go without cloaks or gowns, or wide cassocks, or any other sort of loose dress, under which arms might be concealed; nay, that even the women, for the same reason, should throw aside their farthingales, and tuck up their gowns somewhat high.

This order changed in an instant the whole fashions of the people; not even the proudest and the fairest of Naples' daughters daring to dispute, in the least, the pleasure of the people's idol. Nor was it over the high and noble alone, that he exercised this unlimited ascendancy. The fierce democracy were as acquiescent as the titled few. On one occasion, when the people in vast numbers were assembled, he commanded, with a loud voice, that every one present should, under the penalty of death, retire to his home. The multitude instantly dispersed. On another, he put his finger on his mouth, to command silence; in a moment, every voice was hushed. At a sign from him, all the bells tolled and the people shouted "Vivas!" at another, they all became mute.

Yet the reign of this prodigy of power was short, lasting only from the 7th till the 16th of July, 1647; when he perished, the victim of another political revolution. His sudden rise, and the multiplicity of affairs that crowded upon him, began to derange his intellect. He complained of sensations like that of boiling lead, in his head; he became suspicious, wavering and cruel. In a fit of frenzy he went to one of the churches and talked incoherently to the multitude. He was taken by the priests to an adjoining convent, and advised to rest and calm himself. After reposing for a time, he arose, and stood looking forth upon the tranquil bay of Naples, no doubt thinking of happier days, when, as a poor fisherman, he glided out contented upon its bosom—when all at once a cry was heard, of "Masaniello!" At the same instant armed men appeared at the cell door. "Here am I,—O, my people want me," said he. The discharge of guns was their only reply; and the victim fell, exclaiming, "Ungrateful traitors!" His head was now cut off, fixed on a pole, and carried to the viceroy, while the body was dragged through the streets and thrown into a ditch, by those who had followed it with acclamations a few hours before!