Memories of a Desperado
In March to Athens on 4 March 2012 at 23:07
March to Athens
Day 117-XLIII, from Tolve down the river valley, 20 km.
Day 118-XLIV, rest in the country side.
In the countryside, March 4
There is not a single inhabited centre for thirty kilometres in this region, so for the first time we decided to camp out in the open.
In Tolve our assembly attracted lots of people, but all of them were very shy. They only came to see, not to participate. On the other hand they were most generous. They brought us food, and they didn’t stop until we left. I myself couldn’t sit down on a bench to relax, without people coming to me with sweets, coffee and home-made sausages.
It was so much that we had to refuse at a certain point. Our shopping carts are bulking with pasta, bread, lentils, beans, fruit and pastries.
Yesterday we started to follow the river. That’s all we have to do from here on. Follow the stream, down to the sea. We take the old national road. There are no cars, only a tractor every now and then. We pass by little patches of forest and miles of green sloping hills, where the young winter grain is about to burst up towards the light.
Some of the fields are blue. But those are not crops, on closer inspection. They are solar panels. It could be a view of the future. As a small scale biological farmer you would sow your fields with all that you need. Beans and corn and patatoes and hemp. Then you have a vegetable garden and an orchard, a vineyard and an olive grove. And finally, one field well exposed to the south you could use to cultivate energy.
At the crossing with the road that leads to Tricarico we halt. Above us there are half a dozen homes from the fascist era. They are all abandoned but one. The home of a sheperd.
This used to be such a farming community. But then the times changed, the shepherd tells us. After centuries of feudal servitude the peasants had finally inherited their land, and then they left it. They went to live in the villages and the cities, like their overlords had done, and they used machines instead of manual labour to work their estates.
For once we have a real day off. No popular assemblies, no encounters with the locals, no electricity and no internet. I make use of this favourable circumstance to catch up on some reading. Something appropriate. The autobiography of one of the most famous briganti that ever roamed these lands. Come divenni brigante, or ‘How I became a desperado’, by Carmine Donatelli Crocco.
It’s a great narrative. Crocco takes you by the hand and leads you through the valley of his childhood, where his parents worked as peasants on the land of a local nobleman. He shows you around the little hut where they lived, eight people in a single space, the roof and the walls blackened by the ashes of the fire. Theirs was a life of misery, but Crocco recalls it with nostalgia and with immeasurable love for his parents, who worked like mules to grant their family a bit of happiness.
Then came the day that his mother was irrevocably offended by a local signorino. She had thrown herself at his throat in the defence of her children, and she had been heavily wounded by the aggressor.
Crocco wouldn’t forget the scene, and he wouldn’t forgive.
Later on, the same little nobleman barely escaped an assassination attempt. Crocco’s father was arrested by the royal guards, together with many others, even though he had a valid alibi. He served months of prison, until the real offender turned himself in. During that time, Crocco’s mother lost her mind, and Carmine and his brothers and sisters were scattered to work as underpaid peasants for various little nobles.
His mind had been poisoned, Crocco would write almost fifty years later in prison. He admits that he committed cruelties of all types, he has brought mourning into thousands of families. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he simply mentions the reasons of his anger.
When he reached eighteen years he was conscripted into the army of Naples. He had no choice. Only if you had enough money you could pay to avoid military service. If not you had to pay with your obedience, your time and possibly your life.
He got drilled as a soldier, and the experience definitely came in useful.
One day he received a letter from his sister. Her honour had been blemished by a local townsman. Upon reading about it, Crocco immediately deserted. But before he fled the army he committed his first homicide by killing a fellow soldier who had offended him.
Back in town, he killed the townsman who had tried to ‘merchandise’ his sister’s honour, he took to the hills and he formed a gang of desperados.
Crocco wasn’t planning to live his life as a fuggitive. When the south was annexed by the north, he adhered to the new regime, hoping to be able to start all over. Later on, when he conquered Aliano – the village where Carlo Levi would spend most of his exile - he admits that he would gladly and peacefully live in this town as the local lord.
His hopes were vain. Crocco, together with most of the southern people were deceived by the new king. Deceived, and once again offended. The Piemontese never failed to show their utmost contempt towards the locals of the south.
Changing sides is an old Italian tradition. Crocco did so as well, more than once. Not out of cowardice, but out of deception. After the Piemontese had shown that they weren’t any better than the old regime, Crocco headed the reactionary resistance, collecting all discontent peasants and nobles under the banner of the old kingdom of Naples.
In many places the villages opened their gates, and Crocco was hailed as a liberator. If they didn’t surrender, they were conquered, plundered and destroyed. For a brief while Carmine Dontalli Crocco ruled over these lands like Hannibal and Spartacus had done before many centuries before.
The king of Italy sent an army to destroy the menace of the desperados. But the army was defeated. Crocco was more than a simple brigante. He was a valourous condottiero. And different from many of his ferocious generals, he was capable of acknowledging the valour of his opponent, and of being merciful.
During the height of his power, his name was on everybody’s lips. But some of the people who had adhered to the new kingdom spoke about him with contempt. The mayor of one of the villages near Crocco’s headquarters boasted that he could easily beat the desperados with the help of the local guard.
Crocco heard about it. He wrote a short letter to the mayor. ‘Dear mayor. I urge you to send me the flag, the portrait of the king, the portrait of Garibaldi and the village treasury. They are to be brought to me by the commander of the guard. If you don’t comply, I will come and get it myself. You have eight hours.’
Six hours later, the commander of the guard delivered all the requested goods and implored Crocco to spare the village.
In the long run it couldn’t last. The state kept sending down troops to the rebelious region, and many of the people who had supported the cause of the ancien regime switched sides again, depending on the how the wind was blowing.
Crocco was forced to keep fighting for his own survival and that of his two thousand men and women, without any political friends. He kept on plundering villages, he kept on committing cruelties, but slowly the balance slid to the other side.
During the last three years of his career as a desperado, he was limited to isolated attacks on coaches, travelers and farms. Many of his men got caught or gave themselves up, or got killed.
In the end, Crocco was betrayed by one of his generals. The Piemontese had offered this Judas life and liberty if he would lead them to his leader. He didn’t succeed, but the days of the desperados were at their end.
With twelve of his faithful men, Crocco continued to flee from justice, heading north to the Papal States, where he turned himself in to the pope.
The pope had him imprisoned, he didn’t extradite him to the Italian state, because that would mean he also had to extradite the small fortune that Crocco had on him when he reached Rome.
Six years he spent in a papal prison. Then Rome was turned over to Italy, and Crocco sent to trial.
He was sentenced to death, a sentence that was later changed into forced labour for life. In between, near the turn of the century, Carmine Crocco, the most legendary of desperados, found time to write his memories.
Those memories were handed to me in the form of a book by comrade Max. I had told him to look out for stories about the briganti in the towns we passed. Like I said, I had tried to speak to the elderly of Vaglio, but they didn’t tell me a thing. While reading Crocco’s autobiography I found out what might be the real reason why they didn’t want to remember the briganti…
“We attack Vaglio, a village at six miles from Potenza which resists with admireable valour. The menace of destruction in case they don’t surrender only strengthens the tenacity with which the inhabitants defend their village. Our messengers are received with bullets and fire. Various of our men die in the process. Divided into four columns, we attack from four different sides. We occupy the village while the heavily fortified monastery continues to resist. Our troops, enraged by the unexpected defense, slaughter anyone they come across, men and women, and they set fire to the monastery. The village is plundered. Anyone steals whatever he can. We leave the monastery burning. The 16th day of November .”
(from the autobiography of Carmine Crocco, pp. 117-18, translation yours truly)
They heyday of the desperados came to an end a few years later, after equally ferocious persecutions by the state. But it wasn’t the end of the phenomenon of brigantaggio.
Sporadic acts of guerilla continued all over the south throughout the 20th century. As late as the 1970s, the authorities in Calabria admitted that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of citizens in the wild mountains of the inland.
Up until this very day, so the story goes, if you venture far off into the forests of Calabria, you might encounter the last of the desperados, living in their caves, preying on remote farms and unsuspecting wanderers…