Many contemporary observers remarked on the violence and crime that attended the revolution of 1848-49 in Italy. Federico Chabod, one of Italy's most prominent historians, suggested that most liberals and moderates were generally shocked and alienated by the disorder of the period which helped set the overall conservative tone of the rest of the Risorgimento. Part of their anxiety no doubt came simply from seeing popular political demonstrations in the streets, but there is growing evidence that various forms of crime, or at least the perception of certain crimes, greatly increased as a result of the revolution, and this was particularly true of brigandage and banditry.
Part of the image of growing lawlessness in the countryside during and after the revolution seems to be tied to the growth of the corpi franchi or volunteer militias that sprang up in response to the general call to fight against Austria. Such militias were often hastily recruited and were generally perceived as containing the dregs of society, that is people who simply had nothing better to do and whose motives were less than admirable. Following Pope Pius IX's April allocution against the Austrian war and the subsequent defeat of Piedmont's army, many of these corpi were repatriated, and they contributed to the popular demonstrations and general disruption at home. Another problem was the break up of the regular police forces, some of which were purged, while others were marched off to war as regular units of the army. Combined with the political and social upheaval of the period, such factors hampered efforts to combat crime, especially in the countryside where the mobility of mounted military police was crucial in controlling brigandage.
Ironically, the worst outbreaks of brigandage came after the Restoration, although some of the bands traced their origins back to the revolutionary period itself. In quantitative terms the southern Veneto was perhaps the most affected area, registering a large number of rural robberies and assaults during the early 1850s. To deal with the problem the Austrians erected a special military commission in Este which eventually tried about two thousand five hundred people. Of these, four hundred fifty were condemned to death. Despite such numbers, however, the most infamous incidents of brigandage following the revolution occurred in the Papal States, where the spectacular and theatrical exploits of Stefano Pellone, also known as Il Passatore, captured the public's imagination. Particularly shocking were the various invasions of whole towns by Pellone's large bands of brigands who, having disarmed the local forces of order, proceeded to pillage and murder more or less at their leisure. The names of Cotignola, Brisighella, Castel Guelfo, and the other towns that suffered some form of this fate soon made their way through the Papal States and beyond. Of all these "invasioni," however, none became as notorious as that of Forlimpopoli, where on January 25, 1851, Pellone and his men appeared on stage during an operatic production at the communal theater and proceeded to "tax" the local gentry in the audience more or less accor ding to their station. Pellone's career and life would soon be cut short during an ambush by papal soldiers, and the large scale invasions soon tapered off. Nevertheless, his followers and other brigand bands would continue to operate in the northern Papal States throughout the 1850s.
The legacy of brigandage and rural crime bequeathed by the revolution in Italy had substantial political impact. This was particularly true of the Papal States where such events undermined the restoration, giving lie to the papal government's attempt to present itself as the guardian of stability and order after the "anarchy" of the republic. Likewise, the pressure of brigandage kept the regime off balance as it tried to rebuild its police bureaucracy and public force. It compelled ad hoc decisions that later had to be rescinded and it allowed little room for administrative innovation or even effective reorganization. Finally, the battle against the bandits would call forth a series of harsh measures, including m artial law, arbitrary arrests, and multiple public executions that would help discredit the regime and its Austrian allies both at home and abroad.
Piero Brunello. Ribelli, questuanti e banditi: proteste contadine in Veneto e in Friuli, 1814-1866. Venice: Marsilio, 1981.
Leonida Costa. Il rovescio della medaglia. Faenza: Lega Editori, 1974.
Armand Dubarry. Le Brigandage en Italie. Paris: Plon, 1875.
Giovanni Manzoni. Briganti in Romagna, 1849-1850.
Briganti in Romagna, 1851-1853. Imola: Galeati, 1976.
jgc revised this file (http://www.cats.ohiou.edu/~chastain/ac/banditry.htm) on September 9, 2004
Please E-mail comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
© 1997, 2004 James Chastain.