The Matese Gang : the insurgent guerrilla's 'propaganda of the deed' in 19th century Italy

The history of Italian Anarchism in the second half of the nineteenth century, which was its formative period as an organised movement of men and ideas, is also the history of a whole series of attempted insurrections (Or ‘conspiracies’ as they were called). These were exploited by the government to justify the usual picture of the anarchist as a bandit and villain, but at the same time they contributed considerably through their popular fame to the understanding and spreading of libertarian ideas.

These attempts were failures, and we must accept that this was often due to their dilettante approach. But it would be unfair to lay the blame on the men concerned; the fault came more from the period. Their faith in insurrection as a means to social renewal, and optimism that a handful of brave men would be enough to change the course of events, were typical of the nineteenth century belief in general progress and in particular of the ‘risorgimento’ (The name given to the national liberation movement from Austrian domination).

The anarchists were certainly not the only people to start these conspiracies. Before them there had been the ‘Carbonari’, the ‘Mazziniani’, and others from Ciro Menotti to Garibaldi, whom official historians have felt obliged to treat with far greater respect than Cafiero, Bakunin, or Malatesta. However in contrast to their more ‘famous’ contemporaries, the anarchists never had any intention of taking power and imposing a new status quo through force of arms. With greater honesty they simply intended to perform exemplary actions to awaken the understanding of the exploited masses by pointing out to them the path to follow and the enemies to fight. This was what ‘propaganda of the deed’ meant.

At the Berne congress of the International, Cafiero and Malatesta declared: ‘the Italian Federation believes that the ACT OF INSURRECTION, made to affirm the principles of socialism by ACTIONS, is the most effective means of propaganda, and the only one which, WITHOUT DECEIVING AND CORRUPTING THE MASSES, can penetrate to the deepest levels of society…’

In an Italy still busy celebrating unification, which had only meant a change of overlords for the working class, the anarchists alone encouraged the oppressed to build their future by themselves. One of the most important attempts at insurrection from a point of view of planning and resulting propaganda, was the one made in 1877 in the Matese region by members of the Italian Federation of the International, henceforth known as ‘the Matese gang’. They included many of the men who best represent Italian anarchism at that period, especially Carlo Cafiero and Errico Malatesta. The region was not chosen casually. It was hard to penetrate, mountainous, sparsely populated, and ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. It was easy for making sorties into the various centres of population and then retire to the safety of hide-outs in abandoned farms. It also corresponded well to their intention of making contact with the peasants, especially those in the south, for they were the natural ground for sowing the ideas of the anarchist social revolution, being regarded by the ruling class as mere ‘objects’ to be ruled.

On the 3rd of April 1877, Carlo Cafiero arrived with a few friends in the Matese. Making use of his distinguished appearance, (the witnesses later called him ‘a lord’), he was able to pass as an English gentleman with a number of servants who was looking for a quiet spot to stay. With this cover he rented a house in the small village of San Lupo, which was isolated being one and a half hours by carriage from Solopaca on the Naples-Benevento-Foggia line. The house which was called ‘Taverna Jacobelli’, was large, detached, and in particular had a rear exit leading directly to the woods at the back. Here they planned for the others to concentrate over the next few days with all the supplies of arms, munitions, packs, water-bottles, etc., which were necessary for guerrilla operations.

The anarchists had arranged things carefully, and observed their usual secrecy. However, due to the treachery of a certain Salvatore Farina, the Minister of the Interior, Nicotera, knew all about their plans long before the arrival of Cafiero in S. Lupo. Nevertheless, he made no move, and had them observed. The purpose was clearly to catch them in a trap at the right moment and to make political capital out of the whole business; governments and institutions change, but the mentality of Ministers of the Interior always stays the same. But this wait and see tactic was not successful, either because of the anarchists’ skill, or because of the freedom of movement they were allowed so as not to arouse their suspicions. As a result they were able to almost complete their concentration of men and supplies at Taverna Jacobelli before the local police authority had realised fully what was happening.

A large group of ‘servants’ arrived at the house of the ‘Englishman’ on the 4th of April with various boxes of ‘ornaments and household objects’. The preparations for the insurrection went on all day undisturbed. But towards evening the local commander of carabinieri became suspicious of the activity around Taverna Jacobelli, and decided to send in a reconnaissance patrol. This patrol kept their distance to begin with, but then they saw what looked like lantern signals in the dark, and approached the house. It was a move worthy of the proverbial intelligence of the carabinieri, because they stumbled upon the group of Internationalists in the wood at the back of the house, who opened fire. The shooting was wild because of the darkness, and the anarchists did not know the size of the force they were up against. Two of the four carabinieri were wounded, and as we shall see, one of them died a few weeks later as a result of a subsequent infection; a fact which had great importance in the trial following the insurrection. But he was the only casualty of the whole affair. On hearing the shooting, other carabinieri in the neighbourhood were rushed to the spot in force, but they were unable to do anything except ascertain that the insurgents had left. The anarchists had made rapid preparations and taken the road to the mountains even though many comrades had not yet arrived, which reduced their ranks. ‘Operation Matese’ for better or worse was under way, albeit badly, for several comrades arriving later were arrested at Solopaca and Pontelandolfo nearby, and those who had escaped had only been able to take a small part of their supplies. They had no rations, and above all they had left their ramrods behind at Taverna Jacobelli, which were essential for cleaning and loading the rifles of that period. From this point of view, the patrol’s unexpected attack caused great harm to the group’s effectiveness. But at the same time their forcing the issue had made the anarchists move, before the trap planned by the minister, Nicotera, was ready. So at least the Matese gang was able to perform a part of the actions they had planned. It was certainly appropriate to say that ‘not all the evil had bad results’ as the proverb goes.

Dawn on the fifth of April 1877 found the anarchist group marching north. They wanted to get away as far as possible from the police forces who were following them, and to make for the most isolated villages where it would take some time for the alarm to be given. The weather however, was very unfavourable. At that time of year the Matese mountains were covered with snow, and the higher one went, the worse the weather became. The cold and the difficulty of securing a regular food supply, was for a good part of the expedition the major enemy of the insurgents. The group was led by Cafiero, Malatesta, and Pietro Cesare Ceccarelli, and the leadership changed round every twenty four hours; a first if limited attempt at rotation of command. They marched the whole day further into the Matese, and also the whole of the following one.

On the 7th April the anarchists made for the region of Cusano, and having spent the night in a farm, skirted round the lake of Matese, heading for the village of Letino. They entered the village at ten o’clock of the morning of the 8th, a Sunday, carrying a huge black and red flag, and were cheered by the people who were surprised and delighted. By chance the Council was in session in the Town Hall at that very moment discussing what to do with some old weapons that had been confiscated from poachers. The Internationalists were in time to requisition them, and to distribute them together with rifles from the National Guard to the people.

They then followed this with actions of even greater importance.

The insurgents declared publicly that King Vittorio Emanuele II was deposed, and broke his portrait into pieces. They then went on to burn all the “paperwork” of the District in a great bonfire in the square: lists of property, tax records, mortgages etc., to symbolise the abolition of the rights of the state and of private property. Finally they destroyed the measures fixed on the mills, which were used to calculate the hated tax on grain.

Ideological reasons lay behind these actions. Cafiero went up on the podium of a big cross (which had been replaced by the black and red flag) to explain in the local dialect to the crowd, the principles of the social revolution, together with its goals and methods.

It all happened amid sympathy and enthusiasm from the people of the village; to such an extent that even the priest, Don Raffaele Fortini, went so far as to say that the Gospel and socialism were the same thing, and pointed to the Internationalists to everyone’s applause.

The group left Letino about one o’clock in the afternoon and headed towards the neighbouring village of Gallo, which was just under five kilometres away. But before reaching it, they were met by another priest: the parish priest of Gallo. Perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps fear, he wanted to know the group’s intentions and stopped awhile to chat with the anarchists. He even opened his tunic, showing the filth underneath, to show them that he was exploited just like the others.

In any case, when he understood what the whole thing was about (in his fashion: “change of government and burning papers”) he turned back quite happy to calm his fellow-villagers and, just to make sure, shut himself up in his house.

The anarchists arrived at the Town Hall of Gallo at about two in the afternoon. Malatesta shot open the locks, and they entered to repeat the scenes at Letino. The only novelty was the distribution to the people of the small amount of money that was found in the care of the District Tax Officer. Everything took place, as before, with enthusiasm and without any kind of difficulty.

But the government troops, even if they had kept out of sight, had not stayed still with their arms folded. Under the command of General De Sanget almost twelve thousand men had meanwhile laid siege to the entire range of the Matese: three companies of riflemen to the south, an infantry regiment in the north, and other forces from Campobasso, Isernia, Caserta, Benevento and Naples. It was thus that the Internationalists, on leaving Gallo, found themselves practically and unexpectedly surrounded.

In whatever direction they turned to find some other village to occupy, they found garrisons of soldiers, and had to turn back on their tracks to escape detection. The bad weather further complicated the situation. A terrible downpour of rain mixed with snow surprised them not far from Gallo, soaking their arms and ammunition and making walking more difficult than ever. Things were going badly.

The men spent the whole of the ninth and the tenth of April trying to find a hiding-place and to break out of the encirclement, but they had no success. They were tired, hungry, and soaked by the rain, which did not look as if it was going to ease. The rifles were by now useless, and the lack of ramrods, which had been left behind at S. Lupo, meant that they could not be cleaned or reloaded. With these conditions even a final shoot out had become impossible.

On the eleventh the group finally found a place to rest three miles beyond Letino, at the Concetta farm, and decided to stop there to rest. The idea was to wait until the weather got better and then to try, once more, to break out of the net of government troops. But it remained only a plan because a peasant, hoping for a reward, had given information to the soldiers, and on the twelfth of April a detachment of riflemen burst into the house, taking the anarchists by surprise.

Because of the state of the men and their weapons, there was no resistance. The insurrection of the Matese had finished.

The prisoners were sent to various jails in the district and, soon afterwards, they were all concentrated in the prison of S. Maria Capua Vetere to await trial. At the start the outlook was far from bright: Nicotera, Minister of the Interior, on a wave of the anti-anarchist hysteria predictably whipped up by the “right-thinking” press, intended to judge the whole group by a war tribunal. In that case, there would probably have been only one conclusion, the firing squad.

That things did not turn out this way was due, apparently, to the intercession of Carlo Pisacane’s daughter, Silvia, who (life’s coincidences!…) had been adopted just before by his Lord the Minister. The latter (still life’s coincidences!) had also been a comrade-in-arms of Carlo Pisacane on the Sapri expedition. A sin of his youth, evidently, but one that saved the skin of Malatesta and friends.

However, their problems were not solved as a result. Even if the possibility of a summary judgement had been removed, the accusations still included a list of crimes that boded ill. The preliminary investigation finished on the 27th of December 1877, with instructions to the court as follows:

a) Against all the arrested, including those from Pontelandolfo and Solopaca, the crime of conspiracy with the object of removing and destroying the form of government, encouraging the people to arm themselves against the powers of the State, provoking civil war, inciting them to fight amongst themselves and to devastate, massacre and rob an entire class;

b) Against the twenty-six who performed the actions in S. Lupo, Gallo and Letino, also the crimes of actions in an armed group to further the above mentioned purposes, and joint responsibility in the crimes of intentionally wounding by fire of arms Antonio Santamaria and Pasquale Asciano, carabinieri, in the performance of their duty: wounds which caused the permanent weakness of one of Asciano’s limbs, and, after forty days, the death of Santamaria.

Luckily for the accused, King Vittorio Emanuele died on the 9th January, and his successor, Umberto I (who was as everybody knows, a “good king”) granted the country an amnesty which even embraced many political crimes. And as a result of this the long list of accusations against the Matese gang was somewhat shortened.

The trial was held before the Court of Assizes at Benevento and started on the 14th of August 1878.

It unfolded amidst great popular sympathy for the accused, the same sympathy they had felt around them as they burnt the “paperwork” in Letino and Gallo. The anarchists soon proved to be a tough nut for the public prosecutor. Intelligent, well prepared, sure of their own minds, they replied promptly to the judges, refuted them, and missed no chances of making propaganda for their own ideas of equality and freedom. In this they were skilfully helped by the defence-lawyers, among whom was the very young, but already capable, Saverio Merlino, who was also an anarchist.

To oppose their line of defence, which was juridically unimpeachable, the Director of Prosecution Forni was obliged to concentrate all his murderous energies on the shooting of the 4th of April, and the consequent death of the famous carabinieri. He maintained that the rebels had fired and killed intentionally, from “blood-lust”. Cafiero and Malatesta replied vigorously to this grotesquely exaggerated accusation and the defence-lawyers showed that, as we have already mentioned, death was caused not by the anarchists’ bullets but by the “consequent infection” (in other words the wretched soldier had been badly looked after). The darkly dramatic picture of the anarchist murderer became even more inconsistent, as did the arguments of the prosecution which depended upon projecting such an image.

The verdict was announced on the 25th August, after an hour and a quarter of discussions. The jury declared the accused NOT GUILTY of the death of the carabinieri and applied the amnesty to the other charges. The Matese gang was absolved and granted liberty. It was the sentence the people had been waiting for. A crowd of two thousand welcomed the anarchists, applauding them, on the way out from the prison, a tangible sign of the response that “propaganda of the deed” encouraged among the exploited in that period. A correspondent from the “Corriere del Mattino” of Naples, the next day concluded his article on the subject thus: “A trial like this in every province, and the government would be killed at its own hands.”

From: A: Rivista Anarchica, June 1972. First English publication Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, no. 5. p37-39. Translated by: A. Hunter.