March 20, 2012

Remembering Civitella del Tronto: The Last Bastion of Bourbon Resistance

The Fortress of Civitella del Tronto, Abruzzi
(Photo courtesy of
By Giovanni di Napoli
"Rather than stay here, I would love to die in the Abruzzi in the midst of those good fighters." — Queen Maria Sofia, during her exile in the Papal States
March 20th marks the anniversary of the surrender of Civitella del Tronto, the last bastion of Bourbon resistance during the conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. We honor the stalwart defenders by remembering them and those who fell before them.

When Giuseppe Garibaldi and his motley band of freebooters invaded Sicily on May 11, 1860 he set in motion a series of events that proved to be calamitous to the people of Southern Italy. Upon landing at Marsala he declared himself dictator in the name of King Vittorio Emanuele II and L'Italia (Italy). Unsure what L'Italia meant, many Sicilians assumed it was the name of the King's wife, la Talia.

Corrupt and treacherous officials were bought off by Mazzini and Cavour's (1) agents to insure the Sicilians' passivity, if not their actual support. While most were content to wait and see what happened, some "patriots" and many separatists did join the uprising. The majority however, were undoubtedly recruited by means of clientelismo: groups of men loyal to, and obeying their landlords or "men of respect." Evidence that the rebels' loyalties laid with their homeland and not with some incomprehensible struggle for Italian unity can be seen in the fact that few were convinced to leave the island to help "liberate" their brothers in Naples.

Aided by foreign powers (i.e. France, Britain and Sardinia-Piedmont), the mythical Mille (Thousand) was soon over twenty-one thousand strong. Their ranks swelled with foreign "volunteers", mostly from Northern Italy. The conspirators fomented unrest and exploited the Sicilians' desire for self-government with false promises of greater autonomy and social reforms. Garibaldi himself had to brutally suppress some malcontents at Bronte when these 'promises' were not forthcoming. By June 6th, with the exception of the fortress at Messina, the Bourbon regiments were driven from the island.

Having captured Sicily, the invaders crossed the Straits of Messina into the mountains of Calabria meeting with little resistance. As in Sicily, inept and corrupt leadership hamstrung the mainlanders. Despite having superior firepower and an advantageous position, the traitorous Bourbon General Briganti kept retreating before the Garibaldini without firing a shot. Finally, at Melitto incensed soldiers riddled the general's body with bullets when they discovered he would have them retire again without a fight. Thoroughly demoralized, many deserted, but others continued the retreat under the questionable command of General Ghio. Led into a trap, the column eventually surrendered near Soveria. Garibaldi advanced to Naples virtually unopposed. He arrived by train, in advance of his army, on September 7th.

Looking to spare his capital the devastation of war King Francis II regrouped his army (including the 12,000 men stationed at Salerno) north at Capua. Unfairly dismissed by historians, accounts of the loyal Neapolitans' attempt to drive out the invaders and suppress the upstarts show they deserve better. One of the bright spots for Bourbon legitimacy was the intrepid garrison of Civitella del Tronto, whose unwavering loyalty to their King and daring acts of bravery are a shining example of Neapolitan valor.

In The Last Bourbons of Naples, Harold Acton described them thus:
"Men do not fight so tenaciously without a cause. The garrison which held the last bulwark of the Bourbons with little hope of victory were not only martyrs to military honour; they were not only concerned with redeeming lost prestige; they were fighting for a King they loved with all his faults, for a Queen who embodied an ideal of womanhood, and for an independence whose loss their passive compatriots were all too soon to deplore." (2)
Located in the Abruzzi’s rugged province of Teramo, the citadel of Civitella del Tronto guarded for centuries the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies' northernmost frontier. Overlooking the medieval village, the hilltop fortress was built under Spanish dominion between 1564 and 1576. Considered an architectural treasure, at 82,020 square feet it was the second largest fort in all of Europe. In 1557 it withstood an assault by the second Duke of Guise and pretender to the Neapolitan throne, François de Lorraine. Later renovated by the Bourbons, Civitella was besieged several times during the Napoleonic wars. King Francis I later commissioned a memorial in honor of the heroic commander Matteo Wade, who bravely defended the fort against the French in 1806.
Matteo Wade Monument, Civitella del Tronto
(Photo courtesy of Comune di Civitella Del Tronto)
When King Vittorio Emanuele II led his forces from the Marches (fresh from the conquest of Ancona) into the Abruzzi without a formal declaration of war, Civitella served as the key base of operations in the region against the invaders. Initially under the timid command of Major Luigi Ascione, the 500 man garrison was soon lead by the more capable Major Giuseppe Giovane, who was duly promoted to Colonel. With the support of local villagers the loyalists pulled-off several daring sorties, disrupting enemy supply lines and inflicting heavy casualties on the Piedmontese and their collaborators.

The bulk of Piedmont's army continued onward to rescue Garibaldi's redshirts at the banks of the Volturno during the decisive battle on October 1st. After the subsequent setbacks at Garigliano and Capua, His Sicilian Majesty Francis II withdrew to Gaeta with the remnants of his forces. On the 4th of November the bloodthirsty General Cialdini laid siege to the city, indiscriminately bombing military and civilian targets alike. The young King showed his mettle by putting up a staunch defense, but with Europe's superpowers conspiring against him, Francis faced insurmountable odds. The heroics of his wife, Queen Maria Sofia, who under a hail of bullets tended the wounded and encouraged the men to fight on, are now legendary.

Meanwhile, a rigged plebiscite was held by Garibaldi on October 21st, with near unanimous approval for annexation with Piedmont. Dissenters were intimidated and in some cases murdered. In Sicily, over 400,000 people voted "Yes" and less than 700 "No." The count was approximately 1,300,000 to 10,000 in favor of unity on the Neapolitan mainland. With such popular support, is it believable that less than one percent of the population required constant and brutal subjugation by the occupational forces?   

Perhaps part of the discrepancy was that the foreign soldiers were also allowed to vote.

On October 26th Vittorio Emanuele met Garibaldi at Teano (near Naples) and was acknowledged as the first "Rè d'Italia." They set-off for Naples to collect his ill-gotten booty, entering the city on November 7th. Unusually heavy rains marred the conqueror’s victory procession, causing his black hair dye to run down his face.

No longer of any use, Piedmont stopped financing the Garibaldini volunteers and they in turn started melting away. Vittorio Emanuele never cared for the adventurers and once joked that things would be simpler if the Neapolitans captured and hung Garibaldi. Instead of partaking in the celebrations the redshirts were sent to Caserta for one last review, but the so-called "re galantuomo," or gentleman king, never showed. Only a handful were incorporated into the Piedmontese military, while the rest were demobilized. Disappointed by the slight, Garibaldi briefly retired to the island of Caprera, leaving the remaining butchery of the Southern Kingdom in Vittorio Emanuele's capable hands.

The affront at Caserta left a bad taste in many mouths, including commander Charles Stuart Forbes, one of Garibaldi's comrades. Forbes' indignation is as revealing as it is biting:
"Towards evening the receiver [Vittorio Emanuele] of the stolen goods [The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies] sent to say that he could not possibly mix in the society of the robbers [Garibaldini] on that day at any rate, but requested the bandit chief [Garibaldi] to act for him, and take a last fond look at the about-to-be disbanded gang." (3)
After the fall of Gaeta on February 13th, 1861 and the exile of the Bourbons to the Papal States the Piedmontese were able to reinforce their positions in the Abruzzi and confine Colonel Giovane's troops to Civitella. Other loyalists took to the hills waiting for their opportunity to exact revenge. The stronghold was subjected to constant shelling. Unable to dislodge the defenders, the frustrated Piedmontese commander Ferdinando Augusto Pinelli brutalized the civilian population. Pinelli's atrocities were so bad that he was recalled to Turin (and awarded the gold medal for military valor) and replaced by General Luigi Mezzacapo.

Despite the hopelessness of their position the entrenched defenders were determined to resist to the last. However, with news of Gaeta's capitulation Colonel Giovane agreed to surrender under the same terms with about one hundred men. Like their comrades from Gaeta many soon found themselves in the concentration camps of Northern Italy or on the wrong end of a firing squad. Taking the opportunity to redeem himself, Major Ascione resumed command of the remaining garrison and stubbornly resisted. They believed the report of Gaeta's fall was a ruse to get them to submit.
Antique weapons, Il Museo delle Armi della Fortezza di Civitella Del Tronto 
(Photo courtesy of
On March 13th the fortress in Messina surrendered. A few days later on March 17th the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was officially annexed to the nascent Kingdom of Italy. (4) This, of course, did not mean autonomy like they promised, but rather the piedmontization of the Southern Kingdom. Following Britain's lead, foreign states began to recognize the new kingdom. Through ruthless intrigue, treachery and violence unity was achieved. After seven centuries the southern Regno was officially no more.

Naively hoping to avoid further bloodshed, Francis II dispatched General Giambattista della Rocca from Rome with orders to cease hostilities. Still not convinced, Ascione and his men refused to surrender. Mezzacapo resumed the bombardment and proceeded to pound his adversaries into submission. On March 20th, 1861 the valiant defenders laid down their weapons. The Bourbon flag was lowered and the tricolor was hoisted in its stead. In typical Piedmontese fashion, several prisoners were executed without a trial. They would serve as an example to any who would defy the "liberators." A few days later the walls of the fort were demolished.

To be sure partisan resistance didn't end here. Over the next several years Southern loyalists waged a guerilla war against the invaders, incurring savage reprisals. To legitimize the brutal repression the insurgents were painted with the broad brush of "brigand." At its peak over 120,000 soldiers were needed to suppress the revolt. "In Naples we drove out the King in order to establish a government based on universal consent," wrote Massimo d'Azeglio, the former prime minister of Piedmont. "But we need sixty battalions to hold southern Italy down, and even they seem inadequate. What with brigands and nonbrigands, it is notorious that nobody wants us here." (5) In the end it was the opportunity to emigrate that finally put out the conflagration. When only given the choice between "briganti o emigranti" many Southerners chose to leave.


(1) Giuseppe Mazzini was a terrorist agitator for the unitary movement. Count Camillo Benso di Cavour was the devious mastermind behind Piedmont's aggrandizement. Together with Giuseppe Garibaldi, dubbed the "Hero of Two Worlds," the triumvirate formed the "soul, brain and sword" of the Risorgimento, or resurgence.

(2) Quoted from The Last Bourbons of Naples (1825-1861) by Harold Acton, Methuen and Co LTD, 1961, p. 522-523

(3) Quoted from The Making of Italy by Patrick Keyes O'Clery, Nabu Public Domain Reprints, 2007, p. 234

(4) Venetia wasn't incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy until 1866 and Rome in 1870.

(5) Quoted from Modern Naples, 1799–1999 by John Santore, Italica Press, 2001, p. 191

Further reading:
The Making of Italy by Patrick Keyes O'Clery
The Last Bourbons of Naples by Harold Acton
A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily by Denis Mack Smith
Terroni by Pino Aprile
The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour