An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
The revolt of the Sicilian town of Bronte, with its wake of blood created by the insurrectionist peasants and by the Garibaldini which were sent over to put down the unrest, is one of the most contentious episodes of the Risorgimento. It has long been subject of periodical and interminable ideological disputes, lately amidst the polemics that have accompanied the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.
Through an exciting, effective, at times novel-like and always extremely enjoyable narration, Lucy Riall, author of many books on the Italian Risorgimento and 19th century Sicily, outlines the results of research that has lasted for more than a decade and is dedicated to a meticulous and documented reconstruction of the famous peasants’ revolt which took place in August 1860.
The originality of this book lies in the choice to incorporate the happenings of that hot summer in a wide historical fresco and in a dense network of plots and relations. Unlike past – though nowadays prevalent – historical reconstructions, which particularly focus on the acts of violence perpetrated during the process of Italian unification, in the dense pages of her book Lucy Riall concentrates on a noteworthy and duplex widening of the perspective, both in a vertical and horizontal direction.
Along the first axis, the story of Bronte and its Duchy is narrated in a long time dimension, from the 1799 donation of the Duchy to Admiral Horatio Nelson for the service done to the Bourbon cause. Along the second axis, the panoply of the actors involved in the Bronte affaire is broadened well beyond the traditional dichotomy opposing the Garibaldini to local peasants. In this sense, thanks to the recent suggestions of ‘world history’, the role of the British in Sicily during the crucial years of the construction of a British imperial policy in the Mediterranean is thoroughly analysed.
Moreover, in the name of this broadened perspective, and thanks to the examination of the Duchy papers, which were donated by Admiral Nelson’s descendants to the Sicily Region in the 1980s and may now be consulted at the State Archive in Palermo, Lucy Riall’s reconstruction, more than any other before, emphasizes the relevant complexity of the local socio-economic situation. In her account, the riotous local ruling classes acquire a notable space and role. In effect, they are uncovered as active and determinant protagonists of patronage intrigues orientated towards the illegal appropriation of land plots, the boycott of any tentative of reform and the instrumental usage of the peasants’ anger – skilfully channelled against the British by local notables.
A further element of praise, along the thread of the suggestions aroused by ‘cultural history’ and with a particular tribute to the retrieval of Italian ‘microhistory’, is the positing of a subjective perspective as close as possible to peasants’ position and viewpoint. Lucy Riall successfully attempts to reconstruct peasants’ deep mentality and communitarian culture through an anthropological approach and by skilfully making use of the information derived from a meticulous and patient inner reading of the trial papers. What arises is an anthropologically ‘other’ world which often was at odds with the viewpoint and the quasi-colonial paradigm of the British landownership, thus making the reciprocal hostility even more acute.
In this wide, more complex context, at the intersection of multifaceted and diversified determinants, the 1860 revolt appears as the consequence and the combination of a vast accumulation of tensions and hostilities. In this sense, Lucy Riall’s interpretation at least in part ‘relativizes’ the role and the exclusive centrality of General Nino Bixio and his Garibaldini and reduces the polemic potential of the recent and flourishing ‘anti-history’ of the Risorgimento and the Italian unification.
Indeed, after the unfolding of a reconstruction as much as possible grounded on a rigorous historical analysis rather than prone to the needs and urgencies of politics, the last part of the book is devoted to the ‘history of Bronte after Bronte’. Effectively, it is thanks to the numerous and variegated processes of memory construction, much more than through the reconstruction of the facts happened at that time, that the Sicilian town has arisen as a metaphor of the entire story of the Italian Risorgimento. What made Bronte’s revolt an exceptional and symbolic event were, more than anything else, the long discussions and the disputes, that, since the unification, have become entangled in it and that have so far not come to a conclusion. Nor is this documented book likely to extinguish the ever-living flame of such diatribes, because history is not always stronger than the temptation of its public use.
Marco Manfredi is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Pisa. He is the author of many publications on Italian anarchism and the Italian working class between the nineteenth and the twentieth century.