Fra Diavolo - Encyclopedia

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FRA DIAVOLO (1771-1806), the popular name given to a famous Italian brigand associated with the political revolutions of southern Italy at the time of the French invasion. His real name was Michele Pezza, and he was born of low parentage at Itri; he had committed many murders and robberies in the Terra di Lavoro, but by good luck combined with audacity he always escaped capture, whence his name of Fra Diavolo, popular superstition having invested him with the characters of a monk and a demon, and it seems that at one time he actually was a monk. When the kingdom of Naples was overrun by the French and the Parthenopaean Republic established (1799), Cardinal Ruffo, acting on behalf of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV., who had fled to Sicily, undertook the reconquest of the country, and for this purpose he raised bands of peasants, gaol-birds, brigands, &c., under the name of Sanfedisti or bande della Santa Fede (" bands of the Holy Faith"). Fra Diavolo was made leader of one of them, and waged untiring war against the French troops, cutting off isolated detachments and murdering stragglers and couriers. Owing to his unrivalled knowledge of the country, he succeeded in interrupting the enemy's communications between Rome and Naples. But although, like his fellow-brigands under Ruffo, he styled himself "the faithful servant and subject of His Sicilian Majesty," wore a military uniform and held militaryrank, and was even created duke of Cassano, his atrocities were worthy of a bandit chief. On one occasion he threw some of his prisoners, men, women and children, over a precipice, and on another he had a party of seventy shot. His excesses while at Albano were such that the Neapolitan general Naselli had him arrested and imprisoned in the castle of St Angelo, but he was liberated soon after. When Joseph Bonaparte was made king of Naples, extraordinary tribunals were established to suppress brigandage, and a price was put on Fra Diavolo's head. After spreading terror through Calabria, he crossed over to Sicily, where he concerted further attacks on the French. He returned to the mainland at the head of 200 convicts, and committed further excesses in the Terra di Lavoro; but the French troops were everywhere on the alert to capture him and he had to take refuge in the woods of Lenola. For two months he evaded his pursuers, but at length, hungry and ill, he went in disguise to the village of Baronissi, where he was recognized and arrested, tried by an extraordinary tribunal, condemned to death and shot. In his last moments he cursed both the Bourbons and Admiral Sir Sidney Smith for having induced him to engage in this reckless adventure (1806). Although his cruelty was abominable, he was not altogether without generosity, and by his courage and audacity he acquired a certain romantic popularity. His name has gained a world-wide celebrity as the title of a famous opera by Auber. .

The best known account of Fra Diavolo is in Pietro Colletta's Storia del reame di Napoli (2nd ed., Florence, 1848); B. Amante's Fra Diavolo e it suo tempo (Florence, 1904) is an attempted rehabilitation; but A. Luzio, whose account in Profili e bozzetti storici (Milan, 1906) gives the latest information on the subject, has demolished Amante's arguments. (L. V.*)

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