The word “brigand” – brigante in Italian – is heard quite a bit with reference to Southern Italy, and I have noticed a certain confusion, particularly amongst English speakers, as to its significance. It’s an important term in understanding the Italian South and the history of Italy, so I thought I’d contribute my two cents to the question, “What is a brigand?” in an Italian context.
BRIGAND: IN THE DICTIONARY
Taking the dictionary definition, there’s no doubt, the term has strong negative connotations. Bandit, robber, outlaw, marauder and highwayman are common synonyms for brigand, which is often used to describe a member of a band that ambushes and robs people in forests and mountains.
Brigandry or brigandage – brigantaggio in Italian – is classically the form of the word that depicts the criminal activity carried out by brigands.
So why then, when in Southern Italy, do you hear the word brigante pronounced with a quasi-reverence?
BRIGAND – BRIGANTE: HISTORIC USE
Words have a way of changing their meaning. In the Middle Ages, an Italian brigante was a type of foot soldier, an adventurous member of a mercenary unit. The term’s negative characteristics apparently came through the French, who used it during the Napoleonic period to disparage Italian revolts to their occupation. Thus, brigante referred not only to bandits in the pure sense of the word but also included those with social and political motivations.
Most notably, the word brigand has been employed to describe individuals and groups in Southern Italy, who combatted with troops of the new Kingdom of Italy during the Italian unification process, which was, in reality, an annexation by the House of Savoy. Not just isolated skirmishes, the revolt took on the form of a Southern Italian movement, particularly between 1861 and 1865, and is called the Grande Brigantaggio or the Great Brigandage.
WHAT IS A BRIGAND, HERO OR CRIMINAL?
History books, as we know, are written by the victors, so rest assured, most “evidence” of criminal activity in the archives will be detailed and well documented, at least from the official point of view. In Southern Italy, the vast majority of the accused never had an opportunity of defending themselves. This is not to say that every brigand was a saint; however, in the years following unification, there was a cause, and much of the activity could be characterized as falling somewhere between an uprising against an oppressive takeover and basic survival. Brigands included humble people and former soldiers. They were encouraged and aided by the Bourbons in exile as well as the Catholic Church.
The opposition was massive. To give a brief idea of the force employed to squelch any resistance to the new monarchy, let’s look at Naples in 1861, when Victor Emmanuel II appointed Enrico Cialdini military commander of the city. In just the first couple of months under his control, his reports (as documented by Vittorio Messi in his book La sfida della fede) record staggering figures of the brutal Neapolitan repression: 8,968 shot dead, of which 86 were clergy, 10,604 injured, 7,112 prisoners, 918 houses burned to the ground, 6 towns completely burned, 2,905 families searched, 12 churches sacked, 13,629 deported and 1,428 towns under siege. Does that sound like a happy, Verdi-singing Italian unification to you?
Italy was criticized internationally for its ruthlessly cruel methods of suppressing the brigands. Such a drastic situation obviously sheds light on the mass emigration from Southern Italy that began in this period.
And if it isn’t clear already, I would like to emphasize that the brigante and the mafioso are two different individuals entirely. Their association is a gross misconception. For southerners, the brigand is a folk hero, a Robin Hood figure in defense of his people. They were popular, locally and all the way up to an international level, with a distribution of their images on souvenir cards of photos taken at their capture, both dead and alive, as propaganda against them.
SOME FAMOUS BRIGANDS
As in the classic definition of a brigand, mountainous and wooded areas were their favorite haunts, remote locations not known to outsiders where they could more easily hide. Numerous stories and films portray some of the more famous brigands as attractive, heroic protagonists cutting brave figures in bucolic settings. For example, the town of Brindisi Montagna in Basilicata has an outdoor multimedia extravaganza every summer that tells the brigandage story featuring the region’s own Carmine Crocco with a cast of 300 and a host of animals in a large, natural amphitheater.
Crocco (1830-1905), nicknamed Donatello, worked his way up from humble birth to Generale dei Briganti or Generalissimo, a brigand general with an army of 2,000 men under his command. He was born in Rionero in Vulture, making him familiar with the isolated forests of northern Basilicata, an epicenter of the post-unification revolt. His intelligence and courage were admired internationally and although sentenced to death at his capture, he lived the last 29 years of his life in prison.
Women were not immune to the fight, thus, the figure of the brigantessa, either the wife of a brigand, a woman with the courage and conviction of a brigand or a full-fledged weapon-carrying female brigand. Michelina Di Cesare (1841–1868) was all three. From a poor family and widowed early, she met a young man who would become head of a band in the area that is presently in the Province of Caserta (north of Naples near the border of Lazio and Molise), and became his close collaborator and active participant in the group.
Today, Di Cesare is best known for a posed photo in which she is dressed in traditional clothing with a double-barreled rifle and 2 pistols. Killed in action in 1868, she was disrobed and put on display in her town’s piazza as a warning for the local population, and her naked, mutilated body was photographed by the new government and circulated as a victorious memento.
WHAT IS A BRIGAND INTO THE 20th CENTURY?
The large bands of brigands were broken up by the late 1860s and with the military firmly in the hands of the Italian government, organized revolts of the Great Brigandage had come to an end by 1870. What remained was the “Piemontesizzazione” or the extension and application of economic, military and civic laws and policies of the Piedmont to the other territories in the new Italian state, which had a severely negative impact on the agriculture, industry and social existence of Southern Italians. These historic inequalities seeded and fostered a mistrust of the government that has continued through today.
One of Calabria’s most famous brigands was born in the wake of the Great Brigandage. Giuseppe Musolino (1876-1956) would come to be called U ‘re i l’Asprumunti or the King of the Aspromonte and his name evokes pride in the hearts of Calabresi. His is a sad story, indeed, sentenced to 21 years in prison on false testimony of an attempted murder in his hometown of Santo Stefano in Aspromonte, located in the mountains above Reggio Calabria. Always maintaining his innocence, Musolino escapes from jail and evades arrest for 2 years as he hunts down his accusers, killing several of them and others in self-defense, assisted by people of the area, from peasant farmers to goat herders to the well-to-do who saw him as the symbol of the injustice dealt to Calabria.
At a certain point, Musolino decides to leave Calabria in order to ask the newly crowned Victor Emmanuel III for clemency, and as his bad luck would have it, he was arrested by chance in the Marche region when he tripped and fell as he ran from a pair of carabinieri who ironically hadn’t recognized him. He was given a life sentence and spent 44 years in prison and then his final 10 in a mental institution.
CALABRIA’S LAST BRIGAND
This past June on my Traditions and Food of Calabria Tour, we were strolling through the center of Longobucco, a town in the Sila Mountains, and happened upon Ottavio Forciniti (b. 1959), who is commonly referred to in the region as l’ultimo brigante or the last brigand. The chance encounter raised the “What is a brigand?” question amongst the group. Was he some sort of bandit?
Ottavio, the last brigand, was the youngest of 8, thus the name, and by the age of 5 was parentless. It was a hard life, growing up in a house without running water, always being told what to do and expected to work like his older siblings. He turned into a bit of a hothead, and as a volatile young man, got into a fight outside a bar, using a penknife with his thumb near the edge of the blade, jabbing his opponent a few times with the point. He ran. Better free than in prison. For 8 years.
He describes it as the life of an animal, hiding from his mistakes – in grottos during the day and under the stars when he moved at night, eating what he was able to find in the woods, what those who loved him left in concealed places and the occasional stolen loaf of bread. One day, he received a notice from Rome, saying he was free. At first, he thought it was a trick and remained in hiding, but in the end, the life of a hunted animal became too much for him and he gave up.
Today, Ottavio still spends most of his time in the open air, taking care of his free-range cattle the special Podolica breed of Southern Italy, the way his family has done for generations. His herd has never seen the inside of a stall. In hindsight, Ottavio would have done things differently. He never wanted to be a fugitive, preferring the brigante moniker. He’s had a lot of time to reflect and came across as a very gentle soul. He is free and embodies the brigand spirit.
Read all about the fascinating Calabrian region in my book Calabria: The Other Italy, described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an intoxicating blend of humor, joy, and reverence for this area in Italy’s deep south,” and explore Calabria’s northern neighbor in my book Basilicata: Authentic Italy, which has a chapter about brigands and is “recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by the Library Journal.
Follow me on social media: Basilicata Facebook page, Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page, Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for beautiful pictures and information.
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