Sicilian Risorgimento

Song: Si vecchiu (You are old) 

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By Fara Misuraca
Translation in English by Nino Russo

   The period preceding the Italian unification is often regarded, as "Sicilian Risorgimento", and it is looked upon as a transitional and preparatory period that brought to the annexation of 1860. In reality, if we want to do a corrected, even if always subjective, revision of history we could get to the conclusion that for Sicily the Italian unification resulted in the splintering of a an economic and social development process, already arrived at satisfactory results.

   The history of a Sicily prior to the unification it is not just an history of a dynasty, but above all the history of a society not idle, inactive as it was represented to us, even by illustrious writers as Tomasi di Lampedusa and Leonardo Sciascia, but above all of a society on the move, acquainted, no more no less, with the other regions of Italy and of Europe, of the transformations that had taken place in the course of the XVIII and XIX century, which brought to the transition of the feudality to the world of the bourgeois. For the sake of simplicity, let's establish two dates between which this process can be analyzed: The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 and the landing at Marsala of Garibaldi in 1860.

   An important role in this period was played by the Bourbon’s dynasty of the Neapolitan side and by the regimen instituted by them which encompasses about 125 years, and the coincidence of the Bourbon’s Southern realm with the era of the bourgeois revolutions in the West. The Southern monarchy of Charles Bourbon was born in 1734, when after a war the Neapolitan region and Sicily were taken away from Austria. This was certainly a positive happening and maybe the most important of the VII century because it was giving to Southern Italy and Sicily the "status" of independent states.

   The Bourbons of Naples were Italian princes, with an exception for Charles who was only half Italian. The government was for long time inspired to the principle of Italian nationality and engaged to give itself a modern juridical and statutory structure capable to face and manage the social changes of the times. The Bourbons caused the falling of the feudalism, thanks to their absolutism; they established a modern judiciary and civil administration system; they initiated a noteworthy industrial development in relation to the times.

   It was due to the Bourbon's politic that Naples became a capital of European level and prestige. People like Gaetano Filangeri, Bernardo Tanucci, Antonio Genovesi, Domenico Caracciolo in Naples and as Agostino De Cosmi, Tommaso Natale, Paolo Balsamo, Rosario Gregorio, in Sicily had the possibility to put forward their talent in pursuing their work be it cultural or political. After the French revolution, unfortunately, the Bourbon's system showed its inability to accept the new institutional and bourgeois requests, and, above all, and this was a great mistake, it was incapable to accept the autonomy aspirations of Sicily, which from an independent realm found itself suddenly a vassal to the realm of Naples. The bourbons more than once conceded and removed the constitution and this did not make them likable to the Sicilians.

   All this said, to make understandable how the dissolution of the bourbon's realm and the affirmation of the Savoia state came to be, we should, briefly, make some reflection. The two states were contemporaneous and comparable even territorially: both had dominions in the continent and dominions on islands. The differences between the two states cannot be found in the state of the economy, in the culture or politic, where the Southern state did not have for sure less of those. On the contrary! But in the capability that the Northern realm had in the affirmation of the peninsular hegemony over Sardinia and in the breaking up between Naples and Sicily: the Sardinian society accepted supinely the piedmontese supremacy, Sicily did not. Right or wrong it refused the Neapolitan supremacy. 

   If we only think about it, this different attitude if not justifiable it is understandable. Sardinia did not have behind an history and an important realm, it could not boast a Roger or a Frederick, Sicily could. Sicily had had or believed to have had an historic political and influential role, in the good and in the bad, over all Europe, Sardinia did not. The result of such a situation is that the attitude of the Sicilian "baronage" is one, if not the main cause, of the dissolution of the Bourbon's monarchy. Sicily does not identifies itself with the Bourbons and in their consolidation and development process initiated by them and is always the protagonist of all the revolutionaries outbreaks starting from the one from 1812, the one from 1820, 1837, 1848 and finally the one from 1860.

   Because of the geopolitical importance of the island, the Sicilian question is not, unfortunately, only an internal problem, but it takes international characteristics. Lord Bentinck was sent to Sicily not to support the king but the opposition and Sicily was very much conscious to be an important pawn in the international politic; it tried to use this situation to its own advantage, but the Bourbons of Naples, in the last stretch of their dominion, did not understand it.

   Differently of what was going on during Charles III reign and the regency of the illuminist Tanucci, after the incorporation of the reign of the two Sicilies nobody had been able to heal the internal dissensions. On the international diplomatic plan, different solutions had been proposed for the "Italian question", the most important foresaw a federation of states with the pope as the head or the formation or two distinct Italian states (Northern and Southern), but in collaboration. This last hypothesis was viable up to the eve of the Marsala landing, when Sicily, replacing everybody, hugged the Savoia cause, regretting it bitterly later on. To this period, which in the beginning we called "Sicilian Risorgimento" we have to tie the birth of the separatism and independency which will give birth to the autonomy of Sicily.

Sicily 1860

   On December 2, 1860, the command went from the pro-dictator Mordini to the lieutenant of Vittorio Emanule II, Massimo Cordero di Montezumolo. This figure head marked the end of the 1860 revolution and should have marked the starting of the construction of a unitary state.

   In his proclamation (December 1, 1860), Vittorio Emanuele reassures the Sicilians: "…the government which I come to bring, will be a government of reconciliation and harmony…". All it was, but that. The behavior of the North toward the South and Sicily in particular was one of conquest and dominion. The "Piedmont's Syndrome" was born. La Campana della Gancia (a local daily), May 5, 1861, tells: " It is for us painful to see us be made as from Piedmont, to see us treated as conquered or bought sheep, when we have the conviction of our own glory". "Piedmontese" for the Sicilians was all that was not Sicilian and in the political meaning, Pedmontese was all that could be attributed to the Historic Right. The representatives of the central government did not show themselves to be the least bit up to the task, generally they were bureaucrats, followers, today we will call them "yesmen", who had as goal that of looking good and satisfy their chiefs.

   But the biggest mistake is that of considering the islanders and, generally, the people of the south, inferior and immature. The " Piedmontese" assured themselves and pretended to govern the Island in reactionary ways, illegal, despotic and unethical. The government of Turin even thought about a military dictatorship (advocated by the "good" Ricasoli), but rejected by Cavour. As a matter of fact he was afraid of the backlash from all of Europe for such a behavior toward the people of the South. Even if not applied by law, the military dictatorship was practically used, and the lieutenant Montezumolo in his messages was always riveting that concept.

   In December 16, 1860, in fact he wrote to the Council of Ministers' president about the opportunity to silence those persons who could disrupt the public order, "…Maybe an arising which could give us the reason to put our hands on the primary chieftain of the factions (opposition), could have rather good than bad consequences. We will be vigilant and when any plausible occasion presented itself, we will not miss it…" (Palermo's archives of state).

   With similar ideas and examples the officers charged to govern, did not have any scruples to break and trash the law and the citizens' rights. Not only that, but the worst thing (the most illiberal) was that to charge the local functionaries with power and privileges which they had never had. The Cavour liberalism became support of the conservative and reactionary agrarian problem of the Island. The result of such a politics was one of exploitation and of oppression of the low class of people, much more than it had always been during the absolutism of the Bourbons. Even Crispi, and it is enough to say it, some years later, declared that Sicily under the Savoia looked like a police state (Italian Parliament's Acts, debate in the chamber of deputies, 1875). Another sad page in history was the reaction of the government of Turin during the return of Garibaldi from Sicily, in 1862.

   Garibaldi had come down with the idea to organize an expedition to "free" Rome from the pope. He had hope to get help from Sicily. In his honor were delirious mass manifestations, but more than for him these manifestations were against the "Historical Right". Turin did not make a move, waited for Garibaldi and his army, for the majority Sicilians, to cross the strait. Everybody knows what happened in Aspromonte. The fatalities of that encounter were almost all Sicilians. As usual Sicily paid the expenses. 

   The state of siege was declared: Towns and villages went under sword and fire. Thousands of people were arrested, many summarily executed (in Alcamo, Siciliana, Grotte, Recalmuto, Bagheria, Fantina, Casteltermini). A few months went by and to this first state of siege another followed, even harsher, this time to combat the brigandage and the refusal to the military obligatory draft (which Sicily had never had). But, what was the brigandage? Why in our society phenomena were developed like brigandage and the mafia, which were certainly a deviance from the "Unitary society of Piedmont"?

   The mafia, understood as behavior, maybe cannot be charged to the "Piedmontese". As a matter of fact one can refer to the stereotype of the "honored society" of the XVII hundreds, or even to more ancient gangs as the so called "Beati Paoli", that practiced violence and murder to "the end of doing good", to make justice prevail, to defend the weak from the strong. In the Anglo-Saxon countries Robin Hood is respected, but by us it is not so! After the unification there was a "jump in quality", the "mafiosi" became thousands because this kind of behavior was exploited to become rich, to acquire privileged positions, to get ahead in the new society.

   It became a means of social growth, economic and political. The most prejudiced representatives of the agrarian bourgeois (those who had bought the land of the feuds and of the church) and the rougher and more retrograde representatives of the aristocracy, associated themselves with the mafia. As usual the under class (peasants and laborers) were hired as assistants, blinded by the mirage of easy riches. The brigandage instead must not be confused with the mafia. It was prevailingly peasant, born of famine, necessity, by the desire to escape to the obligatory conscription and to the police state, but rarely it connected, as did the contemporary brigandage of southern Italy, to the bourbon's legitimism, that is to resume the power of the Bourbon and expel the Savoia.

   The Sicilian brigands were above all rebels, individual carrier of a social and politic already epidemic disease; they were the expression of a desperate protest. At the start were only soldiers of the bourbon's army, abandoned to themselves; hunger and refusal to serve in the Piedmont's army augmented their number with peasants. To make things worse we have to add the incapacity of the Piedmontese to distinguish between the brigandage for poverty and the political brigandage permeating all Southern Italy. The repression and the carnage were hard and ferocious in equal measure: in treating a combatant against the state and an escapee from conscription.

   The police regime was a tremendous experience: anybody guilty or innocent, if suspected or just disliked by the authorities, or accused by a neighbor was "admonished" and had to undergo "control". The admonished were denied water and salt (as the excommunicated), they were laid off from their job, but they were "controlled" that is, they were obligated to visit every week the probation officer and show that they had a "job" or a means by which to live. Do you have any idea how many people were forced to flee only because his neighbor accused them just to avenge a banal wrong? The police pressure had no limits and the state was either incapable or did not want to find a solution. It was simply logical that the brigandage would degenerate in civil disobedience and in an insurgency without goal, if not the personal one to survive, without political prospective and without hope. From all of this was born in Palermo the revolution of 1866… the most difficult breakage with the Savoia state, it, too, a consequence of a lacking political prospective. 

1866: Seven and a half (setti e menzu)!

   "One morning of September 1866, the aristocrats, the well to do, the bourgeois, the business people, wholesaler or retailer, the people with the cap and those with the hat , the military garrisons and their commanders, the government office, under offices and lesser offices employees, that after the unification had invaded Sicily as a bunch of locust, were suddenly and badly awaken by a frightful number of screams, shots, noise of mule pulled carts, neighing of horses, running people and yells for help.

   Three or four thousand peasants, field laborers of the Palermo countryside, armed and led, in major part, by former chieftains of the Garibaldi's venture, were assaulting the city. Before anybody knew what had happened, Palermo had fallen almost without resisting: The people joined the peasants, unleashing an insurrection that from the way it begun it seemed unstoppable. Not everyone in Palermo was caught by surprise. Those who were expecting what was happening were all night up and vigilant.

   They were the ones who unleashed that insurrection which they defined "republican", but the Sicilians, with that irony that they use as a life philosophy, even in the most tragic events, called that insurrection "setti e menzu" (seven and one half), because that is how long lasted it, seven and a half day. Keep in mind that the "setti e menzu" is a very mild and innocent play of cards practiced even by children and played by the families in the pre-Christmas season nights.

   General Raphael Cadorna, who was sent bullet like to the Island, writes to his superiors that the insurrection was born, among other things, "…by the almost drying out of the public resources…", where that "almost" is a sedative, a little analgesic to better make go in and understand the underscored concept that if the resources had dried out, it certainly was not the aborigines fault, but due to the insensitive economic politic toward the South of Italy". (Andrea Camilleri, Biografia del figlio cambiato, Edizioni Rizzoli, La Scala).

   In this very colorful way Camilleri describes the start of the "setti e menzu". The revolution was really started by groups of peasants, about 3 or 4000 men, coming from the Palermo countryside. They were led in good part by the same chieftains who had participated to the Garibaldi's venture of 1860. Once in the city, during and between the 15 and the 16 of September, were able to quickly rise the entire populace. 

   The rebellion was huge, government sources talk of 35 to 40,000 men in arms, and certainly, if at the beginning it was an explosive manifestation of popular discontent and protest, its quick flow, the participation of the masses were without doubt the hatching, prepared for long time, by some political forces. The mixing of the popular spontaneity with the organized insurrection was favored by the disastrous economic situation, as said before, and by the starting of the third war of independence which was showing the weakness of the Savoia state after the defeats of Custoza and Lissa.

   The controlling capability of the liberal class, which had supported Victor Emmanuel, had deteriorated and not just in Sicily. In the Palermo rebellion raised up, at the same time and in agreement, the opposition of the extreme right, aristocracy and clergy, and that of the extreme left. The nobles of the extreme right and the clergy had as goal the restoration of the Bourbons and the church, the extreme left had as goal the constitution of a republican state of the Mazzini model.

   But Mazzini, at that point, disassociated himself from it and down right criticized it. Having knowledge of the intensions of the republicans of Palermo, about a month before (to confirm the insurrection lengthy preparation) he had written: "…a republican move, which leads to put in danger the national unity, will be at fault; a move which could be left without the certainty that all Italy could follow, will be a mistake; a move which could remain isolated, could fall soon after in an autonomy, in the dismemberment, in concessions to governments and to foreign leaders…" (Mazzini at Bagnasco in " Palermo July 31, 1865), and maybe, thinking about it, he was right.

   The peculiar characteristic of the 1866 rebellion in any case was the simultaneous participation of the extreme right and the extreme left. It is pinpointing the fact that the Revolutionary Junta had a bourbon as president, the prince of Linguaglossa, and a secretary of the Mazzinian adherents, Francesco Bonafede. How could have been possible to reconcile these two political ideology we do not know, seeing the ferocious repression and the failing of the rebellion. 

   For seven and a half days Palermo was in the hands of the insurgents (from here setti e menzu). Only after the use of 40,000 soldiers e above all an undiscriminating bombardment ordered by general Cadorna the Savoia won over the insurgents. There were thousands of dead and thousands of prisoners, but not official numbers, maybe the unitary state was ashamed of it. But why Palermo one of the cities most important of Italy, one of the cities that had been favorable to the Savoia, consenting to the landing of Garibaldi and helping its victorious progress, after only five years rebelled? And is this an event to consider as regional and isolated or an expression of a disease more advanced?

   Certainly an important weight came from the birth of a national market and the extension of the rigid laws of Turin over the unified state. In Palermo exploded that phenomena which had already verified itself in other European cities, that phenomena which Hobsbawn called "mob" (for mobilization), due to the difficulty to go from an economy of feudal form, country like, assisted, to capitalism (1) That of Palermo was the first "mob" of a united Italy. But not only this we can understand from this protest. Nor less important is its political value. We might say that, maybe, it had a role in the formation of the Italian political class.

   The "seven and a half", or better the party of the left of the seven and a half was born from the crisis of the action party, after the Garibaldi defeats in Aspromomte. This event brought the mazzinian Crispi to opt for the monarchy " …the monarchy unifies us and the republic would divide us…" and this tear toward the right allowed the birth of an intransigent and extremist left led by people like Friscia, Corrao, Bonafede, who continued to fight for a republican ideal so that this people departed very soon from Garibaldi and Mazzini and tried, with no luck, to act alone.

   Bakunin, who was a critic to these personalities, cannot but to consider the South as the place of choice for a proletarian rebellion, because land rich of forgotten, poor and oppressed people. There was not any alternative: either brigands or insurgents (extremist of the legitimist right or of the left). The insurrection was something extremely serious, symptom of a very ill situation, and not only in Sicily, as a matter of fact, on proposal of Mordini, the first parliamentary inquiry in the Italian history, was ordered. It was ascertained that the situation was critical and that the national unity, from not long achieved was in danger. In spite of that no betterment were tried, all was chocked, it all kept going and a state over sludge was built. Up to today we have not seen any fruits…


(1) Hobsbawm had defined the model of "mob": a mobilization which characterizes great pre-industrial cities, in particular those of Southern Europe, metropolis from ancient times, seats of courts and therefore of unemployed poor people (called "popoplino"), the Neapolitan "lazzari" (idem) for example, that dipended from it either for sustenance than for identity. The "popolino" and not the proletarian are the protagonist of the civic "mob", according to Hobsbawam.