“It pains me that I am condemned as a bandit and not a soldier” - the Life and Death of Fra Diavolo

7 April 1771, the Italian brigand chief, guerrilla leader and folk hero Michele Arcangelo Pezza, better known as Fra Diavolo, was born in Itri.

“The adventures of Fra Diavolo have left a legendary reputation, which has inspired operas and romances, among others M. Charles Nodier's Jean Sbogar. A highway robber and a defender of his nation, he was in fact one of those figures over which history hesitates, and which she abandons to the imagination of romancers. At that time Fra Diavolo personified that type found in every country that is a prey to the foreigner, the legitimate bandit in conflict with conquest. He was in Italy what El Empecinado has since been in Spain, Canaris in Greece, and Abd-el-Kader in Africa. Before attacking the French, Michael Pezza had attacked travellers; he had been nothing more nor less than a brigand, and a price had been set upon his head. Which had not prevented Ferdinand IV, when he had use for the robber, from making him a colonel and Duke of Cassano.” (Victor Hugo)

An illustration from the 1920s showing
Fra Diavolo and his Merry Men fighting the French

Noble robbers somehow got the wrong end of the stick in popular imagination. At least compared to their seafaring brethren, pirates, who overtook brigand chiefs and their bands in popularity at least since Stevenson wrote “Treasure Island”. But once bandits had stolen the hearts away of audiences young and old, ever since Robin Hood and his Merry Men became the poor man’s Knights of the Round Table around the 15th century. Some two hundred years later, individuals rather than bands emerged from English penny dreadful narratives told by the fireside, in broadsheets and books, when ex-Royalist soldiery took to the road and became Highway Men. Usually described as scarily wonderful single perpetrators, these Knights of the Road, from Captain James Hind to Claude Du Vall, Sixteen String Jack and Dick Turpin went out sans merry men to their haunts in Hounslow Heath, Shooter’s Hill and the Great North Road and impressed not only with a brace of saddle pistols pointed at coach drivers and rich passengers, “stand and deliver”, but with a twisted code of honour and gentlemanly manners. Folk heroes on the continent tended to act in concert, though, and were brigand chiefs rather than single knights errant, but displayed a similar conduct of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. And, like the early highway men before the Restoration in England, they openly revolted against authorities, at least in song and story. Ironically enough, it was Schiller’s “Robbers” and his hero Karl Moor who took rebellion in the tradition of Milton’s Satan to the streets and into high literature, written on the wings of the storm of the French Revolution, but many brigands actually received their heroic attributes when their area of operation was occupied by French revolutionary armies and later Napoleon and they fought back. Or rather waylaid and robbed the invaders instead of the locals. And one such case was Fra Diavolo in Italy.

Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem (1620 - 1683): "Travellers attacked by brigands" (1670)

Michele Arcangelo Pezza already received his famous nom de guerre in school when his exhausted teacher cried out that he was not Michael the Archangel but Fra Diavolo, Brother Devil. Before the French came down the Appian Way into the Kingdom of Naples in 1798, Brother Devil had already committed up to four murders, in self-defence, naturally, the saddler who took him in as apprentice during a heated argument, the saddler’s brother who had sworn revenge and two others, his rival over the affections of a young Neapolitan beauty and his accomplice who set upon him on a dark and stormy night. Michele managed to kill them both but thought it wise to take to the hills to get away from the Bourbon authorities as well as local vendetta. He knew the lay of the land from the days when he had served as courier between Naples and Terracino and obviously made some contacts among the local banditti. He must have left a lasting impressions on these folks, because a year after he fled into the wilderness of the Aurunci Mountains, Michele was the leader of a brigand band. And was promptly captured by what passed for Bourbon authorities in the Kingdom. He chose to join their army instead of going to prison or worse, was made a sergeant in short time and found himself among the remnants of Re Nasone’s army, the men of the Bourbon King Ferdinand Big Nose of the Two Sicilies, routed and driven south down the Appian Way by the French under MacDonald after the Bourbon commander “came, saw and fled”, as a contemporary wit put it. It was high time for Michele to become “Fra Diavolo” again when the French sacked his native Itri after the fall of Naples and Papal Rome and the proclamation of the Parthenopean Republic on 21 January 1799. Whether or not the invaders behaved like the worst kind of an occupational army’s soldiery in the newly created French satellite state, the poorest, the Iazzaroni, were up in arms against them and Fra Diavolo organised resistance around his home town. And then he sneaked disguised as a priest into nearby Fondi, cut down the liberty tree the French had erected and replaced it with a cross that stands there to this day. It was the stuff folk heroes are made of.     

Bartolomeo Pinelli (1781 - 1835): "Robbers assault a family" (1817) 

The French never acknowledged Fra Diavolo as military commander even if Re Nasone promoted the capo di massa, the leader of a gang of about a 1,000 insurgents, to colonel and thus quasi legalised the sometimes rather brutal course of action he and his men took. Nothing out of the ordinary in comparison to the terrible occurrences during the Guerrilla War in Spain a couple of years later, but still, the French hadn’t forgotten Fra Diavolo when they occupied Naples again in 1806 and Joseph, Napoleon’s brother, was made King of the Two Sicilies. The Treaty of Florence from 1801 gave Michele a bit of respite, he had married, sired two sons and lived the life of a rich landowner as he seems to have salted away enough money from his forays during the war and was quite well rewarded by Ferdinand as well. Michele took up arms, became Fra Diavolo again and assembled his massa but this time, Napoleon had planned the invasion, everyone was overwhelmed by the speed of the French advance and Fra Diavolo was ordered to act against the troops under Masséna besieging the fortress of Gaeta in Lazio, was thought to be double-dealing, and carried off in chains. Sidney Smith himself exonerated him, though, the Royal Navy’s rear admiral commanding in the Gulf of Naples, the man who twisted Napoleon’s plans in the Near East in 1799 and now fought one of his famous land-and-sea campaigns off and in Calabria. And despite a British victory against the odds at Maida in July 1806, it was a lost cause, Gaeta fell and Fra Diavolo’s insurgents were wiped out by a French flying column. Their capo got away and was betrayed, robbers’ fate, a few weeks later and captured in a pharmacy, by Victor Hugo’s father, of all the people, Major Joseph Hugo. Legend has it that the French offered Fra Diavolo a huge sum to come over to their side, Fra Diavolo proudly refused, even if the reasons why they would attempt to bribe him are not quite clear in the first place. They had put a large sum on his head already in 1799, though, and sentenced him now to death as a common brigand. “It pains me that I am condemned as a bandit and not a soldier”, he was supposed to have said. Wearing a Bourbon uniform nevertheless, Fra Diavolo was hanged in the market square of Naples on November 11, 1806 and that was that. The story of the noble bandit, more romantic rebel leader than bandit chief, in the tradition of Franz Mohr, continued well into the 19th century, from the Greek klephts to the Hungarian Betyárs. Neither did brigandage in southern Italy cease after Fra Diavolo’s death. Quite the reverse, actually, whether it was after the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies reinstated their feudal rule in 1815, before or after the Risorgimento and the consolidation of the modern Italian state and a new form of organised crime evolved with its own grim narrative, in Italy and the Italian diaspora.

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