Posts Tagged ‘briganti’

Memories of a Desperado

In Italy, March to Athens on 4 March 2012 at 23:07

March to Athens

Day 117-XLIII, from Tolve down the river valley, 20 km.

Day 118-XLIV, rest in the country side.

In the countryside, March 4

Dear people,

There is not a single inhabited centre for thirty kilometres in this region, so for the first time we decided to camp out in the open.

In Tolve our assembly attracted lots of people, but all of them were very shy. They only came to see, not to participate. On the other hand they were most generous. They brought us food, and they didn’t stop until we left. I myself couldn’t sit down on a bench to relax, without people coming to me with sweets, coffee and home-made sausages.

It was so much that we had to refuse at a certain point. Our shopping carts are bulking with pasta, bread, lentils, beans, fruit and pastries.

Yesterday we started to follow the river. That’s all we have to do from here on. Follow the stream, down to the sea. We take the old national road. There are no cars, only a tractor every now and then. We pass by little patches of forest and miles of green sloping hills, where the young winter grain is about to burst up towards the light.

Wild wild West

The river valley of Tolve

Some of the fields are blue. But those are not crops, on closer inspection. They are solar panels. It could be a view of the future. As a small scale biological farmer you would sow your fields with all that you need. Beans and corn and patatoes and hemp. Then you have a vegetable garden and an orchard, a vineyard and an olive grove. And finally, one field well exposed to the south you could use to cultivate energy.

At the crossing with the road that leads to Tricarico we halt. Above us there are half a dozen homes from the fascist era. They are all abandoned but one. The home of a sheperd.

Sowing energy

The abandoned farming community

This used to be such a farming community. But then the times changed, the shepherd tells us. After centuries of feudal servitude the peasants had finally inherited their land, and then they left it. They went to live in the villages and the cities, like their overlords had done, and they used machines instead of manual labour to work their estates.

The shepherd's herd in our camp

Around the fire

For once we have a real day off. No popular assemblies, no encounters with the locals, no electricity and no internet. I make use of this favourable circumstance to catch up on some reading. Something appropriate. The autobiography of one of the most famous briganti that ever roamed these lands. Come divenni brigante, or ‘How I became a desperado’, by Carmine Donatelli Crocco.

Comrade José Miguel out of socks

It’s a great narrative. Crocco takes you by the hand and leads you through the valley of his childhood, where his parents worked as peasants on the land of a local nobleman. He shows you around the little hut where they lived, eight people in a single space, the roof and the walls blackened by the ashes of the fire. Theirs was a life of misery, but Crocco recalls it with nostalgia and with immeasurable love for his parents, who worked like mules to grant their family a bit of happiness.

Then came the day that his mother was irrevocably offended by a local signorino. She had thrown herself at his throat in the defence of her children, and she had been heavily wounded by the aggressor.

Crocco wouldn’t forget the scene, and he wouldn’t forgive.

Later on, the same little nobleman barely escaped an assassination attempt. Crocco’s father was arrested by the royal guards, together with many others, even though he had a valid alibi. He served months of prison, until the real offender turned himself in. During that time, Crocco’s mother lost her mind, and Carmine and his brothers and sisters were scattered to work as underpaid peasants for various little nobles.

His mind had been poisoned, Crocco would write almost fifty years later in prison. He admits that he committed cruelties of all types, he has brought mourning into thousands of families. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he simply mentions the reasons of his anger.

When he reached eighteen years he was conscripted into the army of Naples. He had no choice. Only if you had enough money you could pay to avoid military service. If not you had to pay with your obedience, your time and possibly your life.

He got drilled as a soldier, and the experience definitely came in useful.

 One day he received a letter from his sister. Her honour had been blemished by a local townsman. Upon reading about it, Crocco immediately deserted. But before he fled the army he committed his first homicide by killing a fellow soldier who had offended him.

Back in town, he killed the townsman who had tried to ‘merchandise’ his sister’s honour, he took to the hills and he formed a gang of desperados.

La 'brigantessa' Michelina de Cesare

Crocco wasn’t planning to live his life as a fugitive. When the south was annexed by the north, he adhered to the new regime, hoping to be able to start all over. Later on, when he conquered Aliano – the village where Carlo Levi would spend most of his exile – he admits that he would gladly and peacefully live in this town as the local lord.

His hopes were vain. Crocco, together with most of the southern people were deceived by the new king. Deceived, and once again offended. The Piemontese never failed to show their utmost contempt towards the locals of the south.

Changing sides is an old Italian tradition. Crocco did so as well, more than once. Not out of cowardice, but out of deception. After the Piemontese had shown that they weren’t any better than the old regime, Crocco headed the reactionary resistance, collecting all discontent peasants and nobles under the banner of the old kingdom of Naples.

In many places the villages opened their gates, and Crocco was hailed as a liberator. If they didn’t surrender, they were conquered, plundered and destroyed. For a brief while Carmine Donatelli Crocco ruled over these lands like Hannibal and Spartacus had done many centuries before.

The king of Italy sent an army to destroy the menace of the desperados. But the army was defeated. Crocco was more than a simple brigante. He was a valourous condottiero. And different from many of his ferocious generals, he was capable of acknowledging the valour of his opponent, and of being merciful.

 During the height of his power, his name was on everybody’s lips. But some of the people who had adhered to the new kingdom spoke about him with contempt. The mayor of one of the villages near Crocco’s headquarters boasted that he could easily beat the desperados with the help of the local guard.

Crocco heard about it. He wrote a short letter to the mayor. ‘Dear mayor. I urge you to send me the flag, the portrait of the king, the portrait of Garibaldi and the village treasury. They are to be brought to me by the commander of the guard. If you don’t comply, I will come and get it myself. You have eight hours.’

Six hours later, the commander of the guard delivered all the requested goods and implored Crocco to spare the village.

In the long run it couldn’t last. The state kept sending down troops to the rebelious region, and many of the people who had supported the cause of the ancien regime switched sides again, depending on the how the wind was blowing.

Crocco was forced to keep fighting for his own survival and that of his two thousand men and women, without any political friends. He kept on plundering villages, he kept on committing cruelties, but slowly the balance slid to the other side.

During the last three years of his career as a desperado, he was limited to isolated attacks on coaches, travelers and farms. Many of his men got caught or gave themselves up, or got killed.

In the end, Crocco was betrayed by one of his generals. The Piemontese had offered this Judas life and liberty if he would lead them to his leader. He didn’t succeed, but the days of the desperados were at their end.

With twelve of his faithful men, Crocco continued to flee from justice, heading north to the Papal States, where he turned himself in to the pope.

The pope had him imprisoned, he didn’t extradite him to the Italian state, because that would mean he also had to extradite the small fortune that Crocco had on him when he reached Rome.

Six years he spent in a papal prison. Then Rome was turned over to Italy, and Crocco sent to trial.

He was sentenced to death, a sentence that was later changed into forced labour for life. In between, near the turn of the century, Carmine Crocco, the most legendary of desperados, found time to write his memories.

Those memories were handed to me in the form of a book by comrade Max. I had told him to look out for stories about the briganti in the towns we passed. Like I said, I had tried to speak to the elderly of Vaglio, but they didn’t tell me a thing. While reading Crocco’s autobiography I found out what might be the real reason why they didn’t want to remember the briganti

“We attack Vaglio, a village at six miles from Potenza which resists with admireable valour. The menace of destruction in case they don’t surrender only strengthens the tenacity with which the inhabitants defend their village. Our messengers are received with bullets and fire. Various of our men die in the process. Divided into four columns, we attack from four different sides. We occupy the village while the heavily fortified monastery continues to resist. Our troops, enraged by the unexpected defense, slaughter anyone they come across, men and women, and they set fire to the monastery. The village is plundered. Anyone steals whatever he can. We leave the monastery burning. The 16th day of November [1861].”

(from the autobiography of Carmine Crocco, pp. 117-18, translation yours truly)

They heyday of the desperados came to an end a few years later, after equally ferocious persecutions by the state. But it wasn’t the end of the phenomenon of brigantaggio.

Sporadic acts of guerilla continued all over the south throughout the 20th century. As late as the 1970s, the authorities in Calabria admitted that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of citizens in the wild mountains of the inland.

 Up until this very day, so the story goes, if you venture far off into the forests of Calabria, you might encounter the last of the desperados, living in their caves, preying on remote farms and unsuspecting wanderers…



Over the Top

In Italy, March to Athens on 2 March 2012 at 21:33

March to Athens
Day 115-XLI, from Potenza to Vaglio Basilicata, 12 km.
Day 116-XLII, from Vaglio to Tolve, 19 km.

Arrival on the top at Vaglio

Tolve, March 2

Dear people,

Yesterday at last we reached the mountain pass in Vaglio Basilicata. We enter the little village under the watchful eye of the elderly. They are all sitting in a row on the central square. Most of them were probably born here, they have known each other for all of their lives. And it’s possible that they never went far away from the village. They know the outside world from the radio first, the television later. They never got around to using internet. Then they see us arriving with our shopping carts, and their conversation begins to sparkle. We definitely made their day.

The elderly in the square are exclusively men. The women are at home cooking, or in church praying. When you venture into the little alley ways, you might encounter some of them. Little old ladies curved over their canes, dressed black as crows, spying at you suspiciously from under their veils.

Centuries of social distinction between the sexes can still be felt in these regions. In public, man commands. At home, woman is in charge. And typically, women are much more reserved than men. A couple of days ago, I met an old man on a country road and I asked him about the direction. We had a little conversation after that. From the garden of their house close by, his wife had noticed everything. And so she yelled to her husband, in dialect: “Walk on! Come here!”

“Wait, woman!” the old man answered. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dealt her a blow later on. Because woman may command at home, but she may never question her husband’s authority in public.

I Napoletani


Leaving the square in Potenza


In the square I spoke to some of the old men, because I’m trying to find out if the stories about the briganti are still part of the popular tradition.
The men didn’t want to talk. “It’s all in the past.” And so I wonder if they really don’t know anything, or if they don’t want to share their knowledge with an outsider.

Making a snowman


All around Melty the indignant snowman


In the 1860s, when Piemonte annexed the south of Italy, they imposed their taxes on the poor peasants of the zone.

If you had the fortune of possessing a goat, it was possible that one day the tax collector of the new kingdom of Italy would knock on your door and take away your goat. The only valuable possession left after that would be your gun. You would take it, you would seek refuge in the hills and you would start a war against the state.

The period of the briganti coincides more or less with that of the Old West in America. But while the West has turned into a myth that has become part of the collective memory of the western world as a whole, the story of the briganti has been forcefully forgotten.

The history of Italy as a nation begins with a civil war. The north sent an army to the south to quel the guerilla. After years of resistance the briganti were exterminated, often their women and children as well. The state won and erected monuments to its own glory. In the official version of what happened, the briganti were painted as ruthless outlaws. Any other version was banned.

So maybe it’s true. Maybe the old men in the village square don’t know anything at all.

Acampada Vaglio

Come daylight we prepare to start our descent. There’s excitement making its way through the group, because of the news coming in. While we are here, camped on a lonely mountain top between the last heaps of snow, a popular revolt is spreading all over Italy. It began in the Val di Susa, where the locals have been resisting against the construction of a high speed railway for years. They are well organised, and they have become a reference for all the various popular movements.

The last few days roads, motorways and railway stations have been blocked from Sicily up to the Alps. There has been a battle at the barricades on the A32 near Turin. Various villages in the valleys have been effectively taken over by the ‘No-Tav’ partisans.

We read about in the newspaper. We want to play our part. “Let’s do an action. Let’s block the closest motorway we can find…” Many people are ready to go straight away, but the assembly urges them to be patient. Our comrades in Val di Susa have called for a general strike and a complete block of Italy next week. We will be at Altamura, we have time, and we might heed the call…

Spring emerging on the mountain pass


Valley of the Castagno, in direction Puglia

The Conquest of the South

In Italy, March to Athens on 23 February 2012 at 18:57

March to Athens

Day 108-XXXIV, from Bivio Palomonte to Buccino, 12 km.

Putting up camp in Buccino

Buccino, February 23

Dear people,

We doubled our altitude today. And most of it was left for the last few kilometres up to Buccino. People were exhausted when they arrived, but satisfied. The walk was marvellous. The olive groves are gradually making way for the bare forests of winter. In twelve kilometres we encountered only a single car, twice. Carabinieri. They informally interrogate us. As a last word they say ‘occhio’, which means look out. So I wonder if there are still briganti active in this territory…

I’ll get to that another time. But first, the historical context.

A break along the way


Relaxing in between the olives

After the execution of Murat, the Bourbon family returned to the throne. All over Europe it was ‘restoration’ time. The reigning families wanted to pretend that the revolution had never happened. They thought that after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo they could simply return to business as usual.

They couldn’t of course. History flows on, and you can’t row against the current.

Revolutionary fervour returned to Europe more than once in the 19th century, and in Italy the masonic lodges prepared for the country to be united.

I won’t go into it. There was a big component of obscure diplomatic plots, there were wars, there was the help or tacit support of Prussia/Germany and Great Britain, and there was more.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was the great hero of the unification. He was a born condottiero, an icon of his days, like Che Guevara a century later.

Garibaldi had fought for the independence of Uruguay from the empire of Brasil, he had fought all over Italy, and finally in France against the Germans in 1870.

His most famous enterprise was the ‘Expedition of the Thousand’, which sailed from near Genova to Sicily, and which would become the start of the conquest of the South by the North.

This time, the peasants had a real hope that something would change. They supported Garibaldi and the unification because they thought the estates of the nobles would be redistributed, so that they could finally own the land they worked.

It never happened. In fact, things got worse after the unification.

The kingdom of Naples might have been a medieval society, but it was a lot richer than many nationalist Italian historians will give it credit for. The south was literally conquered by the north, and treated as a colony. The new king of Italy, who held his court in Turin, implemented his own laws, but left the local nobles in place. And to stimulate the emerging industry, he levied taxes on agricultural products.

Agriculture was the main source of income for the south. When it was taxed, the exports fell, and misery was a result. The peasants had been betrayed. Many of them emigrated to America. And many others picked up their arms and took to the hills to fight a guerilla war against the new kingdom.

These rebels were known as briganti. And this region was the land where they lived, and died.

The 'Platano Valley


Comrade Mami in Buccino

We are sitting of on the steps of the local archeological museum of Volscei, the ancient name of Buccino. Like every evening when we arrive, we start to build camp. The barrels are placed, people go looking for wood, the fire is lit, the pans are filled, and food is cooked. People gather around.

Others among us have been visiting the museum. And they witnessed another familiar story.

We race through the centuries from one showcase to another, and it all makes sense. First there were tools and recipients. Then came art for decoration. Then came jewels, for art’s own sake, a first sign of social distinction. With social distinction came weapons and armours and warfare, and yet more riches…

Then came the Greeks. They did penetrate as far as here after all. Local art started to fade and disappear. Then came the Romans, and once again, culture changed. Etc. etc.

Modern consumerism is just another culture that we have adapted to. It will pass with the current of history. And maybe one day, people will marvel at an archaeological exposition of Coca Cola cans and all the other trash that you find along the roads today.

Above, an ancient clip