Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Brigands in Italy, past and present




To confound the efforts of the Bourbonists in Southern Italy with the achievements of the brigands is about the same sort of mistake as to identify the followers of—say—Smith O’Brien with the members of Rockite or Whiteboy associations. And yet this is an error which the Italian government and the Italian press have often propagated—certainly not refuted.

Now, Bourbonism has not got a good name in Italy, whether deservingly or not, this is not the place to discuss; but, assuredly, there was no necessity to lay to its charge the frightful excesses and shocking cruelties of assassins by profession.

In the first place, brigandage is not a recent crime in Italy. It has existed for centuries. The journey from Rome to Naples, one of the most frequently made in the Peninsula, has never ceased to be perilous; just as the road from Bologna to Ancona, and from Bologna to Florence. Robbery has had its localities from which it has never been rooted out, and the spot whereon the diligence was rifled last week was not five hundred yards from where it was stopped last year, the year before that, and half a century ago. One of the reasons for this is, there never has yet been an efficient police force in Italy. Another is, the sympathies of the peasantry have been always with the brigand.

It is very difficult for an Englishman to “realise” to himself the indifference with which one of these events is treated by an Italian public. A very meagre paragraph in a newspaper will perhaps announce that the “malle post” was stopped last week on the Apennines, and all the passengers robbed—that the gendarmes are in pursuit of the “malandrini,”—“the knaves;” and, it is hoped, will come up with them.

No one inquires if violence were used, if resistance were attempted, if considerable property was stolen, or, in fact, asks any details of the incident, which would seem only to interest the actors or their immediate friends. Go where you will, none discuss, none allude to it. You will hear about the Pope, the French in Mexico, the Ballerina’s legs, or the war in America; but not one syllable on a topic which touches the very civilisation of the land, and threatens at this moment to endanger its actual existence as a nation. If brigandage was treated with silence so long as its evils were purely social, none can say that it has not avenged itself by publicity, now that a political character can be ascribed to it. From the day that Bourbon and brigand became convertible terms the press has occupied itself largely with the theme, and from one end of Europe to the other has it been proclaimed, that the only obstacle to a united Italy is an organised system of murder issuing from the Roman States, paid by the ex-King, and certainly not discredited by the French.

The attempts of the Royalists—for so the partisans of the ex-King continue to be called—in the south of Italy were necessarily such as a guerilla warfare only could compass. Limited to a mountain region, and acting with ill-armed and undisciplined forces, they could only look for success by surprises, by bold and sudden attacks, by daring and unexpected advances, far more calculated to harass and weary their opponents than to vanquish or overcome them. They looked, in fact, by perpetuating a system of disturbance and disorder, not alone to require a larger force to meet them, but to exhibit to the world of Europe the picture of a so-called chosen government exercising the most cruel sway and imposing severities greater than had ever been heard of in the land!

That France had no especial objection to this “politique” is not unfair to surmise. The French authorities in Rome were doubtless cognisant of many of the arrangements by which these forces were recruited, armed, and paid, and could, had they been so minded, have offered much opposition to their projects; but we have not yet seen any signs of such disfavour, and the Italian press has not been measured in their complaints and demands on this head. It is intelligible enough, that France should like to place the Italian question “in Chancery”—to prolong a litigation as to whose issue she has not yet fully made up her mind, and the solution of which either way cannot be wholly to her satisfaction.

If France did not desire to suppress brigandage, she had no wish to dignify or defend it. Secretly, indeed, the present Emperor might not be sorry to see the discredit thrown upon the cause of legitimacy by the invectives which coupled together the name of De Trassegnies with such fellows as Crocco, or Stoppa, just as he derived a compensation for his displeasure at the invasion of the Æmilia by witnessing the defeat and downfall of Lamoricière.

That the partisans of the Bourbon cause were driven, as all men in a guerilla war must be driven, to exactions and excesses which a regular soldiery need not practise, is not hard to understand. That they had to get what they could how they could, to associate with such as were willing to join them, and make companionship with many whose characters and acts they could not approve, are only the ordinary conditions of all such enterprises. Borjes has told us, in that curious journal he kept, that he had to witness acts of cruelty against which his nature revolted, but against whose perpetration he was totally powerless. It is far easier to blame men for engaging in such enterprises at all, than to point out how they should guide themselves when once in them. The more rigidly honourable and high-minded a man was in such a position, the more certain he would be to draw on him distrust and suspicion. Borjes himself was first regarded as a spy, and never to the very last did he possess the full confidence of the Italians. To attempt to dissuade men from cruelty, who knew that they would themselves be shot the moment they fell into the hands of the enemy; to argue against pillage with those whose whole aim and object were what they could rob; to enforce lessons of obedience and discipline amongst men who had, many of them, deserted just because of that very discipline and obedience, were amongst the tasks of the Bourbonist leaders. Never was there a more hopeless project; but still it was one to which calumny need not have added itself to falsify and defame!

Brigandage, as I have said, dates long back in Italian history. It may be traced from the days of the Saracens to our own. In the time of Murat it was at its height, and though the energetic measures of the French went far to repress, they never succeeded in extinguishing it.

With every revolutionary change, the prisons were broken open, and the worst malefactors, once more at large, recommenced their work of rapine and violence. The weaker party in these political struggles never hesitated to avail themselves of such aid, and in the memorable expedition of Cardinal Buffo in 1799, Fra Diavolo, Prono, and Scarpa were all engaged.

Brigandage held a high head in those days. Taccone, who was the terror of the whole Basilicata, made a triumphal entry one morning into Potenza, the chief town of the district. The first authorities of the place met and conducted him in state to the cathedral, where a Te Deum was sung in honour of his arms! After which—strange sequel!—he selected a young lady from one of the chief families of the town and compelled her by force to accompany him!

On leaving Potenza, he repaired to Labriola and laid regular siege to the proprietor in his castle, and at last compelled him to surrender,—with, however, the pledge that no injury should be done the family or its dependants. The promise availed little: a scene of the most infamous violence followed, and the castle itself was burned to the ground!

Parafante was another whose deeds would fill volumes. Having captured once, in a wood near St. Euphemia, a Frenchman named Astruc, an intendant of the royal domains, he imposed on him for ransom the conditions that all the brigands then detained in prison should be liberated, and food and raiment given them. Terms which were agreed to and rigidly kept. The State, be it remarked, had at that time under its orders an army of 100,000 men, nearly 5000 of whom were in the very province where this event occurred! A fact that has not the less significance at the very hour I am writing, when the report of General La Marmora declares that the royal forces in Southern Italy are 80,000 strong, and the brigands are at most 400!! And yet with this disparity of force, brigandage continues to defy all the powers of the government, and actually threatens the very stability of the kingdom.

The world has heard a good deal of Chiavone, and very striking photographs of a stern but handsome fellow in a picturesque dress are to be seen of him in almost every city of Italy. His real character and career are, however, far less romantic than is generally believed. Originally a “Garde chasse” at Sora, he was known by and had a certain influence over the poachers who largely abounded in that district. His band consists for the most part of charcoal-burners, a rude and savage set of people, who even in peaceful times are reputed to lead lives of lawlessness and violence. Chiavone has no reputation for bravery; he is, on the contrary, reputed to be backward in every enterprise of peril. He usually infests that portion of the kingdom which adjoins the Roman frontier, over which, when pressed, he at once escapes, and, it is rumoured, hastens on to Rome to narrate his daring and successful exploits! Without devotion to be a partisan, or courage to be a brigand, he is a mere robber, living by and caring for nothing but pillage.

It is only fair to say that he has had no share in the cruelties attributed to his followers. Many acts of mercy and even benevolence are told of him, and he would seem to take a pride in his character for kindness. Some say that in all there is an assumption of those traits which are known to be the attributes of Garibaldi. It is totally erroneous to suppose that this man possesses any real influence, or that he has the qualities by which influence is won or exercised. His extraordinary reputation is entirely owing to the art by which he has continued to make himself a foreground figure, in constant communication with Rome, from which he issues pompous proclamations and wordy “orders of the day:” far safer exploits than meeting the Bersaglieri of Piedmont in the passes of the mountains, or confronting the Lancers of Aosta on the plains!

One of the boldest exploits of brigandage was accomplished by Cipriano della Gala, a very different sort of leader from Chiavone. This man, himself an escaped galley-slave, had a brother imprisoned at Caserta and under sentence of death. Resolving to liberate him, he got together a number of his followers whom he dressed like soldiers of the National Guard, and he himself, wearing the uniform of an officer, appeared at the prison at Caserta with a man in his custody whom he desired to consign to the gaol. The prison doors were at once opened, and the band rushing in made themselves masters of the place. The gaolers were killed and the prisoner liberated. A few soldiers of the National Guard endeavoured to arrest the brigands, but they were speedily beaten off, and Cipriano and his followers escaped safely to their mountains.

This feat, be it remembered, took place in a town of considerable size, and not farther from Naples than Richmond is from London. Nor is it the least striking feature of this brigandage that its depredations are carried to within a few miles of the capital, and that Sorrento and Castellamare have been more than once in the hands of these marauders.

The system of exacting heavy ransoms for the persons carried off by the brigands has been brought to a marvellous degree of perfection in Southern Italy, not only as regards all the details of secrecy and payment, but as to the accuracy with which the captured individual is appraised, and a suitable price appended to him. They would actually seem to know to the very last ducate that could be extracted from terror-stricken and suffering relatives; and there are to be seen at this very hour families who were once in circumstances of comfort, reduced to the most miserable want by the cruel exactions of these wretches. Nor are the stories fabulous of cruel mutilations and tortures inflicted on prisoners to stimulate the zeal of the friends to advance their ransoms.

The payment of a yearly sum to secure immunity against brigandage is not uncommon even in parts of Italy far more favourably circumstanced as regards law and order than the provinces of the South. An instance of this occurs to me which was related by a friend of my own, and which came under his own experience. He was invited to shoot at the château of an Italian nobleman near St. Stephano, and having one day strayed from his companions, he wandered for hours through the mountains unable to discover his road. In a very wild and lonesome glen he found himself suddenly confronted by a man armed to the teeth, and evidently a brigand, who demanded why he was there: and almost without waiting for an answer told him to give up his arms. My friend demurred, and falling back a pace, cocked his gun and prepared to fire. The other, unmoved by the act, said, “Did you not say you were at ——’s?” “Yes,” said my friend, “I have been his guest for the last ten days.” “Put down your piece, then,” said the robber; “you have nothing to fear from me or mine. The Count is a gran’ Galantuomo, who pays honourably, and deserves all our respect.” The brigand not only acted as guide to the stranger, but showed him as he went some capital sport, and contributed more than one woodcock to his bag.

This occurred in the Tuscan Maremma, and within the last couple of years.

If such courtesies—and I believe them to be not unfrequent—are creditable enough to the individual, they are anything but hopeful as regards the prospects of suppressing brigandage, since it is not amidst the merely debased and degraded elements of the population it finds its followers, but amongst men who are really not lost to a sense of honour, nor destitute of many good and commendable traits. A brigand is very commonly regarded as one in rebellion against the State, and no more—a man who has not given in his “adhesion” to the laws which regulate property, but not of necessity cruel or merciless. Brigands, too, have been known to carry a high head. Antonelli—a great name!—ruled the whole territory of Chieti, and was treated by Joseph Buonaparte on such terms as are supposed to imply equality between the “high contracting parties.” The French General of Brigade Merlin, and Baron Nolli, afterwards Minister of Finance, were accredited to him as envoys. They were received by Antonelli a few miles outside Chieti, and re-entered the city together in a sort of triumphal fashion, to the amazement of the whole population. Part of the conditions for which he stipulated were the rank and title of colonel; and these, and the uniform and epaulettes of the “grade,” were transmitted in due form!

If brigandage does not exactly occupy the same exalted position now as then, it is not assuredly that its influences are less felt, or its exactions less onerous. The newspapers of Italy daily record the achievements of men who certainly set little store by their lives, and who, if only to be judged by their daring, are in no way inferior to the followers of Garibaldi. That this pestilence constitutes the greatest pest of the Peninsula, none can doubt, nor has Italy yet found the statesman who is able to deal with it.