What’s the next best thing to visiting a place? Reading about it. While I would have loved to have been able to follow through with my Calabria tours this past spring, the lockdown gave me the opportunity to catch up on a few books that had been waiting patiently on my shelf. Amongst them, La Brigantessa by Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli.
The book’s dramatic cover sets the tone for this historical novel set in Southern Calabria during the period of Italian Unification. The story takes place in 1862, a tumultuous time, particularly difficult and tragic for the Italian South. For the average visitor to Italy or the casual reader, the Risorgimento can be confusing when one hears of the victories of Giuseppe Garibaldi and sees statues of him up and down the peninsula, but then becomes aware of a negativity clouding the subject. The novel presents the dichotomy between the south’s initial support of Garibaldi and the subsequent delusion with the outcome of the political movement that favored the north.
Thus, the figure of the brigante or brigand (and at times also his female counterpart, the brigantessa) plays an important role in what would become a southern revolt. The book cover features an historical photo of the famous brigantessa Michelina Di Cesare, dressed and posed in traditional clothing. Such images were treated as souvenirs and used as propaganda against the dissenting voices of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. At her death, Michelina Di Cesare was stripped and displayed in public. The nude photo would also be circulated by the government…
For Gabriella, the heroine of La Brigantessa, life’s cruelty forces her to take refuge in a brigand’s lair, where she learns that circumstances have compelled many a would be upright citizen to don the mantle of brigandry. The author describes the plight of the brigand chief and others fated to this fringe existence: “For it is the law that failed Stefano, his sister, and countless others who have been trod on by the wealthy and entitled, and who have suffered injustice and humiliation with no recourse but to take to the hills and skulk like wild animals with the constant threat of pursuit, capture, torture, and death. Or life imprisonment, if luck is on their side.”
CAMINI, GERACE AND THE ASPROMONTE
The story unfolds in the Aspromonte Mountains of Southern Calabria, the author’s place of birth. Before her family moved to Canada, Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli spent her first few years in Camini, a village on a hill overlooking the Ionian Sea, where her fictional protagonist would have been born a hundred years earlier. Other scenes take place in the nearby town of Gerace, one of Italy’s official borghi più belli d’Italia or Most Beautiful Villages. Gerace is well known for its many churches and lovingly restored medieval center.
The characters live and breathe the air of the Aspromonte Mountains, whether in one of its numerous settlements or in its wilds, from the campaign of Garibaldi at the Battle of Aspromonte to the fight for freedom hunkered down in a brigand hideout. These mountains afforded rugged rebels a protective shelter with their “many hollows and copses … jagged promontories and furrowed brows” and “seemingly impenetrable woodlands.”
DRAMA AND ROMANCE
The author sinks her teeth into dramatic description, grabbing the reader from the start with an explicit recounting of Camini’s hog butchering, an important annual event in the agrarian culture. The narrative reveals the hard work and challenges of village life, while recounting the strength of familial and community bonds.
Just eking out an existence was difficult enough for the common people. And at times, the outside oppression pushed villagers over the edge, from survival mode to the unbearable. This was the period in which Southern Italians began to flee to the Americas in great numbers.
How will the young Gabriella, the reluctant brigantessa, endure such obstacles? Sustained by an image of her betrothed, familial and communal values, a supportive priest, and yes, even a brigand, she battles for survival in a harsh world. But through it all, from tasty pigeon soup and washing down by the river to brigands’ heads gruesomely displayed on spikes and preserved in glass jars, the reader must hold the mule’s reigns through to the end to resolve the age-old question: Who gets the girl? Or la brigantessa?
La Brigantessa by Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli is published in print and electronic versions by Inanna Publications out of Toronto, Canada and is widely available. Visit the Inanna Publications website for more information.
The shepherd figure pictured above is in the collection of the Ethnographic Museum at the House of Culture in Palmi, Calabria.
All about the beautiful region in the toe of the Italian boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my award-winning book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating area of South Italy. Available in paperback and electronic versions.
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