April 7, 2009

Running with the Devil: The Biography of “Fra Diavolo,” Michele Pezza

Michele Pezza
By Niccolò Graffio
“The free man is a warrior. He tramples ruthlessly upon that contemptible kind of comfort that grocers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and other democrats worship.” – F.W. Nietzsche: The Twilight of the Idols, 1889.
Though Nietzsche obviously meant it philosophically in the context he wrote it, he could very well have had Michele Pezza in mind when he penned that quote. More than once in his short life on this earth, Pezza eschewed the creature comforts many of us today take for granted to “trample ruthlessly” upon those who he felt threatened his freedoms. It has been pointed out often enough “the winners write the history books”, and Pezza ultimately was not on the winning side. Thus, much of what we know about him comes from the pen of his enemies. The truth, sadly, depends on who you ask.

To some (like the French) he was a murderous brigand; to his fellow Campanians, on the other hand, his memory is enshrined as a folk hero. To many students of history he is remembered (as one author put it) “an inspirational practicioner [sic] of popular insurrection.” Since genuine objectivity is often lacking in articles of this nature, my purpose in writing this is to try to sift through the propaganda surrounding him in order to paint a clearer picture of this admittedly fascinating individual.

The controversies surrounding Pezza began with his birth. He was born on April 7th, 1771 in the town of Itri, in the Kingdom of Naples. According to many sources, he was “born of low parentage”. In light of modern scholarship, however, this hardly seems accurate, and was probably due to French attempts at denigrating the memory of a man who was instrumental in thwarting their attempted hegemonies on the Italian peninsula.

Pezza’s family owned some olive groves and was known to be active in the wool trade. He is known to have learned how to read and write, at a time when illiteracy was typical. All this strongly hints at some wealth in his family. Aside from this, nothing about his early life is known with certainty.

His nickname, “Fra Diavolo” (“Brother Devil”), was apparently bestowed upon him in his childhood. According to most sources: during a solemn religious occasion, Pezza, dressed in clerical robes, displayed such rambunctiousness that someone gave him the moniker, which stuck.

Pezza’s first run-in with the law occurred when, as a young man, he wound up getting into a fight with two other men over the affections of a local lass. Here the details are murky, obfuscated by the passage of time and contradictory recollections. Sympathetic sources claim the two had planned to “rough up” Pezza to get him out of the picture. Whatever the truth, Pezza, known to possess a bad temper and a strong physique, wound up killing both men.

Facing certain incarceration, Pezza fled to the hills and took up life as a brigand, an occupation that apparently suited him well. Eventually captured, he was tried for the two killings and convicted of manslaughter. Instead of being imprisoned, however, he was “allowed” to join the army. His first encounter with the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse came when he took part in the Neapolitan army’s disastrous attempt to liberate the Papal States from the French, who had invaded them and set up two puppet regimes in their territories: the Cisalpine and Roman Republics.

The French Army Entering Naples Under the Command of General Championnet by Jean Jacques Francois Taurel
The French and their Polish cohorts easily defeated the vastly outmanned and outgunned Neapolitans. Then, turning the tables, invaded the Kingdom of Naples itself, capturing the capital city of Naples on January 22nd, 1799 and proclaiming another puppet regime, the so-called “Parthenopean Republic”. Though the expedition ended in disaster, Pezza distinguished himself, first by ambushing the enemy, then by leading retreating troops out of harm’s way.

The event that probably pushed him “over the edge” and forever cemented his dark reputation came on December 30th, 1798, when French & Polish forces captured his hometown of Itri. They then gave themselves over to plundering and reprisal killings of the locals, which culminated on January 14th, 1799 when, to avenge the killings of two French soldiers by partisans, they robbed, raped and finally killed dozens of townspeople, including Pezza’s own father!

Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo
At this time the Neapolitan government-in-exile, de facto led by Queen Maria Carolina, the wife of King Ferdinand IV of Naples (and sister of Marie Antoinette), set up shop on the island of Sicily and began making plans for retaking the territories of the lost kingdom. Towards this end the Queen appointed Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo to organize a resistance movement. Ruffo sent out word to the “briganti” in Southern Italy to answer the clarion call to battle (and obtain pardons for past offenses in the process).

Pezza was one of the first to answer. Well-received in Sicily by the King and Queen, he was made a captain in the Bourbon army and dispatched north where he landed near Gaeta with a force of 400 men. Shortly afterwards (February 9th, 1799 to be exact) Ruffo landed in Calabria with a force of soldiers and volunteers said to have numbered 5,000. Soon its ranks swelled into a motley horde of soldiers, brigands, clerics, nobles, peasants, even women and children! Dubbed “The Christian Army of the Holy Faith”, what it lacked in discipline it more than made up for in tenacity, ferocity and a fervor in battle not seen since the days of the old Norse berserkers.

Pezza’s band likewise quickly grew in size and strength till it numbered around 4,000, so great apparently was the Southern Italian love for the Little Corporal’s brand of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Pezza’s force soon joined up with Ruffo’s, with Pezza serving as a subordinate commander.

The whole theme of this campaign seems to have been each side trying its best to outdo the other in terms of atrocities committed. The French and Polish forces engaged in reprisal killings of civilians (when they weren’t raping and looting). Ruffo’s forces engaged in atrocities against the enemy, and anyone suspected of collaboration. Pezza on the other hand, unfettered by the rules of war, indulged the bloodlust of his troops and his own desire for vengeance against the French (who after all, did murder his father and his paesani).
Making numerous raids on French outposts, he regularly tortured and killed captured French and Polish soldiers (including a French general!). He also terrorized locals suspected of collaboration. Soon the French paid “Fra Diavolo” the highest compliment: they put a hefty price on his head. Cardinal Ruffo, on the other hand, grew so concerned over Pezza’s behavior he forbade his force from entering heavily populated areas for fear of the slaughter they might leave behind.
The Christian Army of the Holy Faith
The Parthenopean Republic, which never enjoyed popular support, finally collapsed on June 19th, 1799 with the retaking of the city of Naples. Encouraged by both Queen Maria Carolina and her British ally Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, Pezza and his men entered the city, exacting a brutal retribution against the erstwhile republic’s Jacobin supporters. By late September Royal forces had largely driven the French from the kingdom, and shortly afterwards liberated the city of Rome, itself. Modern historians put the death toll of the insurrection (among Neapolitans) as high as 60,000.

For his services, Pezza was knighted the Duke of Cassero by the King and Queen, made a colonel in the Royal Army and given an annual pension of 2,500 ducats. The Queen reportedly even gave him a lock of her hair! Pezza then settled down near Itri with his new bride, Fortunata Rachele Di Franco, to the quiet life of a nouveau arrive. Over the next five years they produced two sons between them. By all accounts it seemed Pezza would simply rest on his laurels and eventually write his memoirs, but far to the north a would-be French Caesar had other plans.

Napoleon Bonaparte never accepted his defeat in Italy. On December 2nd, 1804 he had himself crowned Emperor of France at Notre Dame de Paris. On May 2nd, 1805 at Milan Cathedral he had himself crowned King of Italy with the Iron Crown of Lombardy. He then decided to put his brother Joseph on the throne of the Kingdom of Peninsular Sicily (Naples). In January of 1806 the French returned to Naples and this time they came loaded for bear! Over 32,000 French troops poured into the kingdom and on February 14th Naples fell to them, with the King and Queen once again being forced to seek refuge on the island of Sicily.
Fra Diavolo was quickly recalled to duty and ordered to organize a resistance, but the French assault was so great he was forced to fall back, eventually to join his sovereigns in Sicily. He gathered more forces and returned with the British to reinforce Gaeta. En route he befriended the British Admiral Sir Sydney Smith, who was one of Napoleon’s greatest foes. Smith saw in Pezza a kindred spirit, as well as someone who would be ideal to sow chaos among French forces.

If the behavior of the French in the Neapolitan Insurrection was bad, during the Calabrian War it was appalling! Reprisal killings now consisted of slaughtering entire villages of peasants without a single survivor! Going tit-for-tat, guerillas murdered French POWs en masse. Unlike the previous campaign, however, Pezza spared the lives of many if not most of his French captives, preferring to ransom them instead. There is even an unsubstantiated story of him showing courtesy to a group of captured French ladies. Why the change of heart? No one really knows. Perhaps his years living as a nobleman and family man finally civilized him.

"Fra Diavolo"
In any event, Pezza would not be as lucky this time around. The French were desperate to rid themselves once and for all of Fra Diavolo, and a huge bounty was placed on his head. Betrayed to his enemies at Baronissi on November 1st, 1806, he was captured and led back to Naples under heavy guard. Put on trial as a brigand, he indignantly pointed out to the tribunal he held the rank of colonel in the Royal Army of Naples and demanded(!) to be treated as a prisoner of war. The tribunal ignored this and sentenced him to hang as a common criminal. Admiral Smith desperately tried to trade a number of French prisoners for him, as did Queen Maria Carolina. It has been reported that even his nemesis, Colonel Joseph Hugo (father of Victor Hugo), appealed for clemency; all to no avail. Emperor Napoleon I wanted him dead. On November 11th, 1806 Michele Pezza, Duke of Cassero, was hanged in the public square of Naples. His last words were reportedly: “It pains me that I am condemned as a bandit and not a soldier.”

It would be easy for many to simply dismiss Pezza’s life and behavior in wartime as that of a barbarian, if not a psychopath. That would be doing this man and history a great disservice. His behavior should be understood in the context of the times (and the place) he lived in. As mentioned earlier, the behavior of French forces in the region could hardly be considered “chivalrous”, and in the light of objective research, by even the standards of the times was downright barbarous! Napoleon’s forces in the Neapolitan Insurrection apparently failed to grasp the wisdom of that ancient caveat about war: “Brutality invites brutality.” It should therefore be noted the Neapolitans and Calabrians were fighting off vicious invaders (who came in the name of a megalomaniac) with the only means available to them.

Out of all this chaos came Pezza. Intelligent, resourceful, patriotic, fearless, stern, warm, ferocious, adaptable, loyal and utterly ruthless! He was an example of how disparate qualities can exist in one man. His skills in battle, plus his later maturity as a soldier and human being, earned him the admiration of allies and the begrudging respect of enemies. Even later French historians lamented his hanging as an unjust act.* The campaigns he waged against the French were a lot more similar to today’s guerilla wars than many would like to admit. His impact on history is undeniable. Whatever your opinion of him, he is a historical figure worthy of note.

*- “Michele Pezza underwent the death reserved for highwaymen. Generals Hugo, Scribe and Dumas have made him unjustly into a bandit. The impartial historian can only see in this man a brave officer who although unfortunate in the course of his last campaign, did not deserve the sad fate inflicted upon him by a special tribunal.” – Edouard Gachot: Historie Militaire de Massena, pg. 240, 1911.

Further reading: John A. Davis: Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions, 1780-1860.