Not too long ago, my Dutch paesan Francesco Pepe told me about the film Li chiamarono. . . Briganti (1999) by Neapolitan Pasquale Squitieri, known for his spaghetti westerns and crime films, and starring Enrico Lo Verso, Squitieri’s long term companion Claudia Carnidale, and Franco Nero. I haven’t seen Squitieri’s film about southern Italian brigands because, as far as I know, it hasn't screened in the States.
That fact that right-wing Squitieri – he has pronounced that “Italian culture is right-wing” and defended Mussolini’s 1938 racial law (Rome's new mayor, "former fascist" Gianni Alemanno, recently appointed Squitieri head of the Rome Film Festival) – made a film about peasant rebels fighting the nascent Italian state alerts us to the ways in which representations of southern Italians and, in particular, southern Italians as brigands have shaped perceptions of Italy and its people.
It is estimated that some 115,000 Piedmontese soliders decended on the southern regions of Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily to brutally put down peasant rebels, killing over 5,000 during the ten years after Unification in what many scholars call a civil war
In his book Darkest Italy, historian John Dickie reminds us that “the brigand is a figure prominent in genres ranging from the oral narratives of the peasantry to the novels and plays of the bourgeoisie.” Writings about peasant bandits were used to both exalt them as heroes and demonized them as part of violent military campaigns to suppress them. Dickie’s work on brigandage during post-Unification points to the “cultural significance of brigandage” that can be extended beyond the time period in question to help us unpack discursive imaginings of those invented entities sometimes known as “Italy” and “Italians.”
“NEW YORK IS FILLED WITH ITALIAN BRIGANDS” screamed a New York Times headline in 1905, expressing the prevaling concern that southern Italians choosing to be first brigands and then emigrants. (It was Italian prime minister during World War I Francesco Saverio Netti who is credited with the statement "Either brigand or emigrant" to descripe the southern working poor's limited options.) Indeed there were plenty of brigands roaming the imagination of New Yorkers, especially that of the newly arrived Italian immigrants. Bandit-heroes in the form of rod puppets walked the wood plank stages of the Sicilian opera dei pupi from Boston to Brooklyn during the late 19th and early 20th century. Cheap broadsides with titles Storia del brigante Antonio Gasaparone ed i suoi sei Compagni, stati graziati in Roma dopo 47 anni di prigionia (1912) and Maria Nambrini bella giovane di anni 16 che commise tre omicidj (sic) per cause d’amore e poi divenne célèbre Brigantessa (1907) were sold throughout the United States. (I bought my copies during the 1980s from the E. Rossi and Co. in New York City’s Little Italy.)
Sicilian poet Vincenzo Ancona from who emigrated from Castellammare del Golfo (Palermo province) to Brooklyn composed
“La storia d’un briganti” (A Brigand’s Story), an epic of fifty-eight octaves about Castellammarese Pasquale Torregiani (1842-1870), a twenty-year-old who led a revolt against military conscription in the nineteenth century until he died at the hands of the authorities in March 1870.
Nenti e’ la vita, puru di cent’anni
quannu c’un omu nun lassa ‘na storia
e nenti e’ la figura d’unu granni
quannu a la morti non passa a la gloria
di chiddu chi cuntavanu li nanni
rinnova a cui la senti la mimoria
doppu di tantu tempu ormai luntanu
la storia d’un banditu, Turricianu.
Life is not worth anything if you are a hundred years old
and don’t leave a mark on history
a great man is not worth a thing
after death and achieves no glory
if he leaves behind no stories for the elders to tell
For those who hear this story it will renew the memory
after so much time
the story of the brigand Turricianu.
Completed in 1974, Ancona’s narrative verse was an indictment of the historic exploitation of the Sicilian peasantry and an expression of hope for a different and just society. With these poems, Ancona offered a diasporic voice critiquing the economic and political conditions that were the basis for his own emigration.
Blood Washes Blood is a brilliant account of journalist Frank Viviano’s attempt to solve the 19th century murder of his great-great grandfather, a legendary bandit nicknamed “The Monk” who traveled the Sicilian countryside around Terrasini (Palermo province). The Monk’s betrayal by powerful elites in a system of favoreggiamento (favoring bandits and mafiosi) and manuengolismo (using bandits and mafiosi to achieve one’s goals) is a story similar to the one told by Francesco Rosi in his 1962 film Salvatore Giuliano. (Jane and Peter Schnedier write about this system of power in their excellant book Reversible Destiny.)
In 1991, rappers Lupo (Giuseppe Paterniti) and Vulcano (Raffaele Riberti) joined forces with DJ Nicita in the city of Messina. Rapping in Sicilian and Italian about social issues such as the disparity between North and South and the hard drug trade, the group thrived in the early days of rap italiano. The name they chose for the groups wasI Nuovi Briganti, the New Brigands. Twelve years later, the folk-combat band Legittimo Brigantaggio (Legitimate Brigandage) from Lazio has taken on the mantel of the armed southern Italian peasantry in the ever rescripting of the concepts "Italy" and "Italians."