The Cook that Broke the Spell: Giovanni Passanante Speaks for Rebellion against the Savoy Dynasty

When King Umberto I came to Naples on 17 November 1878, on his first visit since becoming king of Italy, it never occurred to anyone that he would become a target for an assassin, although an anonymous letter had reached police headquarters several days before saying that the king's life was to be attempted.

Although 17 November was something of a grey day, Naples, setting aside the heated arguments in the city council regarding the debt that would be entailed by the expenditure on its reception, hastened to offer the most splendid of welcomes to Umberto and his queen, Margherita. At the station the royals would step on to a carpet painted by Morelli, Michetti and Vietri and the queen feigned embarrassment as if fearing to walk upon it, but they calmed her fears. Also at the station and for the queen's benefit there was a mass of flowers in a bronze vase, paid for from a subscription raised in the poorer districts at the rate of a penny a head. For even the poor were eager to give thanks to the man who kept them poor and idle. The king was accompanied by minister Benedetto Cairoli who sat in the wrong seat beside the king. At 2.25 pm., the cannon of Sant'Elmo gave the signal and the royal procession set off under a hail of flowers. All of a sudden, on the Carriera Grande a young man leapt on to the carriage: in one hand, wrapped in a red rag on which was written "Long live the Universal Republic! Long live the Orsinis!" he was wielding a knife 40 centimetres long which he had sold his own jacket in Medina to a second-hand clothes dealer for 3.40 lire to purchase. This young would-be assassin was a surprise to everybody, a party-pooper in that his action left it plain to see that, as far as he was concerned, there was another Italy, one that did not believe in handshakes or smiles, an Italy of toil and suffering.

His attempt failed, but - as the queen, no less, was to confess - the spell of the House of Savoy was broken. The attempt was a signal, a protest by a citizen of the 'new Italy', sensible and expressive of the objections and curses emanating from the harassed southern populace in whose eyes the liberators from the north had shown themselves to be worse oppressors than the Bourbons. The knife barely scratched the king's arm; the king leapt to his feet, clouting the attacker on the head with the scabbard of his sabre whilst Margherita tossed the bouquet of flowers into his face and screamed "Cairoli, save the king!" Cairoli promptly intervened and seized the attacker by the hair and was stabbed in the leg for his pains. The assailant was handed over to the captain of the cuirassiers and received the first of several beatings. The whole thing had happened so quickly that when the procession carried on with its slow progress very few people knew that anything had happened. But when monarchist Naples learned of the incident that evening, it raced to the king's side to cry: "Sire, the assassin is not from Naples!" The demonstrations carried on for eight more days until the royals left Naples and at the station the king assisted the limping Cairoli on to the train. Even though the assassination bid had been the individual action of one man acting alone, the country was in uproar and throughout Italy there were demonstrations against the monarchy and everywhere there sprouted up clubs called after the young republican trooper Barsanti, who had been killed at the age of 21 for mutiny in barracks. Bombs went off in Florence and Pisa and in Pesaro rifles were looted from a barracks. The government fell on 11 December. In the Chamber of Deputies, representative Toscano placed the assassination bid in the broader Italian social and economic context, exacerbated by the incompetence of her governments and the wrong-headed remedy in the shape of the tax upon flour, the imposition of which had triggered riots and led to 258 dead, 1099 injured and 3788 arrests. "Thrust thus into despair, what did you expect the proletariat to do? Only two courses were left to it: a life of crime and banditry, or emigration … Gentlemen, it is high time that we blushed to the very roots of our hair over this state of affairs!" warned Toscano to no avail.

The young would-be assassin was just 29 years old. His name was Giovanni Passanante, a native of Salvia in the province of Potenza, and he was a cook. He had rejected the usual fate reserved for southerners, to become either bandits or emigrants, and had instead become a political agitator and his intention in Naples that day had been to have done with poverty and hunger by lashing out at the king, the man responsible for all the nonsensical decrees blighting Italy and the lives of Italians.

He knew how to read and write, although many were to mock his ungrammatical writings (but then even Garibaldi's memoirs include mistakes) in which he dreamed of a better society that might be achieved by means of the Universal Republic. And it had even occurred to him that under that Republic there would be pensions for all. He had picked up his ideas from the early socialists and from the republicans and spent his spare time immersed in reading, a dangerous and suspicious pastime in a largely illiterate society. In Potenza, the boss of the inn where he had worked had sacked him after stumbling upon him reading once. In his pockets - one biographer tells us - there was always some republican or socialist newspaper and he never missed a chance to explain the new ideals to other people. Reported to the authorities, he had been secretly kept under surveillance and on the night of 16 May 1870 had been caught red-handed by the police while surreptitiously sticking up subversive manifestoes on the walls in Salerno, where he had moved. He was arrested and convicted. In Salerno, he opened an inn and let people eat there even if they had no money to pay and went bankrupt. After which he travelled around looking for work, ready, like any good southerner, to turn his hand to anything.

He had happened to arrive in Naples in search of work. On the walls he read the posters eulogising the coming of the king and looked in vain for a contrary message, whereupon he had determined to strike and sold his jacket to that end. At his trial he was to make it plain that, had he had accomplices, he would have had more money too and might have armed himself with a revolver, instead of the pathetic knife that cost him 40 centesimi (it cost 18 pence and he had had to beg the seller for a discount). After he was arrested he tossed 12 pence into the street, having no further use for it.

Subjected to unspeakable tortures to get him to reveal the conspiracy, he reiterated that he had acted alone, that he knew nobody and the inmates in the San Francesco prison could hear his screams. The police and judicial investigation took a full four months trying to extract a confession from him by any means necessary and Inspector Di Donato uttered words that the would-be regicide never had, such as "I despise the internationalists and communists as traitors." Experts who examined Passanante ruled out insanity, but their findings are startling and defy explanation. They made a case for Passanante, whom they described as a sensitive man, sympathetic to the point where "his answers are indicative of an extraordinary delicacy and strength of mind (…) His explanations of his thinking is normal and rapid (…) Investigation of his previous life has not discovered any act of dishonesty." In addition, in his speech he was "forthright and resolute" and his physiognomy was "soft, even given to smiling" and he placed great store by "keeping faith with friends and principles. One has to know how to keep a secret and how to sacrifice one's life for a principle." This would come out during the trial when the president of the court asked him if he was acquainted with Salerno internationalist Matteo Mario Melillo, a journalist arrested as an accomplice. Passanante was to deny this and said that that was for Melillo to say and not him.

The trial was held on 6 and 7 March 1879. It was a judicial sham and even the most elementary procedures were trampled underfoot with brazen cynicism and the president, Ferri, refused to draw lots for the jury but hand-picked them one by one so as to ensure that their findings would not reveal the feelings of the citizenry who, whilst deploring the violence of Passanante's action, by no means sympathised with Umberto I and the all-conquering dynasty. Leopoldo Tarantini, appointed to defend the accused, travelled to Rome before accepting the task, to kneel before the king and apologise for the task that he would, as a professional duty, have to perform. The public in the courtroom knew that the court was riding roughshod over the most elementary guarantees and frequently mumbled about it, whereupon the president threatened that he would be forced "in the event of repetition of displays of sympathy with the accused" to order the courtroom cleared. There was no applause for the king, but plenty of displays of sympathy for Passanante who conducted himself with subtle, tongue-in-cheek irony, making a mockery of the proceedings. He explained his action: "Rather than an attempt upon the life of the king, against whom I have nothing personal, it was meant as a deathblow against the monarchy, a protest and a chastisement to the starvelings acclaiming him because it brought home to them the slavery of their bellies, their poverty and their hunger." At this, the president pointed out that life had changed, and Passanante returned: "The former government stood for the three G's 'galas, grist and gallows', which these days have been replaced by the 3 C's: 'chatter, crying and coughing up'." His defence counsel, whilst confining himself to asking for the court's clemency, had touched the hearts of the jury and the president called a 45 minute recess to forestall the danger of any extenuating arguments' being taken on board. The prosecution was asking for the death penalty. In under 15 minutes the court had made its decision, but four jury members - as Francesco Saverio Merlino was to reveal a year later in a book published in France - voted to acquit him and five voted to acknowledge extenuating arguments. It took the president only five minutes to sentence "Giovanni Passanante to the death penalty, to be carried out in accordance with the law, to loss of rights under Article 3 and to pay the costs of this trial". "Oh, and as to the costs" - the condemned man grinned and said with a slight wave of the hand - "the costs will be borne by you!"

His defence counsel had failed to explain that Passanante had said that his intention had not been to kill the king; he had offered no extenuating arguments and only after the death sentence had been pronounced did he table an appeal, but Passanante refused to sign up to it and asked to be judged by the Chamber of Deputies. The sentence was therefore amended to life imprisonment, and what imprisonment! Passanante was to survive for 32 years of unbelievable suffering. In Portoferraio prison he was committed to a dark cell below sea level and hampered by irons weighing 18 kilos. Every night seamen from Elba could hear Passanante's screams of pain as he was savagely beaten by Umberto I's gaolers. The prison governor, Simon, was to brag to Amilcare Cipriani: "I broke Passanante and I'll break you too!" In 1899, a parliamentarian, Bertani, denounced the mistreatment of the regicide. This caused a scandal and experts found the convict reduced to little more than a jelly and he was moved to the criminal asylum in Montelupo Fiorentino where physical and mental recovery were impossible. Thanks to his being made of sterner southern stuff, he hung on until his death at the age of 61 on 14 February 1914.

Umberto I, however, could not cheat his fate and on 29 July 1900 he was shot dead by Gaetano Bresci who had travelled back from America for the purpose. Meanwhile, when [Passanante's native town of] Salvia got the news of the attempt on the king's life, the town council met in extraordinary session to deplore the action of their townsman which had brought shame upon them (as they put it) but had also entered them in annals of the other Italy. It was decided that the mayor, Giovanni Parrella, should be sent to Naples to offer their apologies to the king. But there was a problem: even the mayor was on his uppers and did not possess a suitable outfit for a meeting with the king.. so the council (undoubtedly exceeding its authority) authorised him to draw the requisite sum from the town funds to hire a suit and cover his travelling expenses to Naples. In the presence of the king, the mayor could scarcely mumble. "Majesty … I represent … Salvia… the disgraced…" and could get no further. The king encouraged him by shaking his hand (after all, he had emerged unscathed) and told him: "Killers have no homeland." But, even so, the entire area was held "culpable" and therefore could not make up for having allowed to live, 29 years earlier, the child that later dared the impossible and the king's courtiers came up with the suggestion appropriate to such an unspeakable act of civic shame. The town's name had to be changed and Salvia eradicated (it was so called because of all the salvia that grew in the area) and replaced by a more suitable name, one that sounded sweeter by way of testimony to its attachment to the monarchy and its esteem for the ruling family. That name, they told the fawning Parrella, would be Savoia di Lucania. In short, they resorted to an act of conquest, to an unprecedented act of might and majesty, the way that the Romans used to rename their conquered territories. The mayor returned to Salvia somewhat scared. On 21 November, after only three days, the town council was summoned to an emergency sitting to consider the renaming of the town. That renaming was sealed by royal decree on 3 July 1879 and "at the request of faithful subjects" the area has since been known as Savoia di Lucania. And even though the king was driven out of Italy in 1946, over 100 years later the former Salvia, in testimony to a sealed and intolerable slavishness, is still known to this day as Savoia di Lucania.

Prior to the trial [according to a note from police headquarters in Naples to the Prefecture of Salerno], Errico Malatesta "writing from Geneva to a friend of his emphasised the appropriateness of doing something to mark the holding of the Passanante trial, say, a strike that might embarrass the political authorities." When internationalists protesting at the severe sentence passed on Passanante were arrested in Bologna, Giovanni Pascoli, one demonstrator, shouted: "If these are evil-doers, then long life to evil-doers!" He was to be arrested on those grounds alone and served quite some time in jail. The Italian government managed to get the anarchist newspaper Avantgarde (of which Paul Brousse was the editor) shut down in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, simply because it had put the case for Passanante's attempt on the king.

[Giuseppe] Galzerano 

From: Umanità Nova, 27 November 1988. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.