Forwards, fellow slaves : the life of Teresa Fabbrini

The life and activism of the Tuscan anarchist Teresa Fabbrini (1855-1903), contemporary of Bakunin and Cafiero. Because of her beliefs and the way she lived, the authorities depicted her as a “woman of loose morals”.

Florence, February 1878: in labour circles, the Socialist Propaganda Circle is launched as a direct offshoot of the Women’s Section of the International disbanded in 1877 by government repression. The Women’s Section secretary in charge of correspondence was Serafina Frittelli and it boasted around fifty female comrades.

Within months of the launch of the Circle, in August 1878, a bourgeois newspaper, deploying the usual sensationalist language and vulgarity, wrote:” In Florence the International has attracted supporters even from among the fair sex; on Friday evening, lots of women gathered at the same time as the internationalists met on a separate premises.” That summer, Florence’s internationalists orchestrated unrest among the female cigarette-workers in the area.

One member of that Section, or quite possibly of the earlier one was Teresa Fabbrini, born on 1 August 1855 in Florence, the daughter of Agata Ciancolini and Luigi Fabbrini. According to a later police note, Teresa Fabbrini had moved away to Camogli in 1877, following her husband, Olimpio Ballerini, a brakeman on the railways.

Some years after that Teresa moved to Pisa where – according to the prefect’s notes – “she was extremely active in anarchist propaganda” and “was therefore kept under special surveillance“. We know that between late 1892 and early 1893 she was busily trying to ease the imprisonment of the ‘renowned’ Paolo Schicchi, in part by providing him with reading material. Naturally, prefects and prosecutors were quick to note that she “is considered a woman of loose morals.” And in Pisa in 1893 there was a libertarian women’s group: “Persuaded that revolutionary anarchist socialism is the only institution conforming to the laws of nature and whereby woman will be neither oppressed nor exploited nor used by any man […] a Women’s Circle has been established in the San Marco nelle Cappelle district.”

In the spring of 1893 Fabbrini delivered a number of talks in the suburbs of Pisa (on “Anarchism and socialism and the abolition of any authority principle” and “The causes of hunger”) and published an article addressing women (“A Mother’s Cry”) in the Pisa one-off publication Il Paria.

That same year she moved to Siena, volunteering to contribute to the Livorno-based anarchist newspaper Sempre Avanti! – although, for reasons unknown to us, it chose not to carry her articles – and carried on giving talks: as a result of one of these, given in Colle Val d’Elsa to a mostly female audience, she was charged and sentenced to 28 days’ imprisonment: further charges followed relative to talks given in Siena. That November, after Olimpio was laid off from work, she appears to have returned to Florence and definitely made a trip to Mantua where she met the anarchist lawyer Luigi Molinari. Around this point one of her poems was published in the Messina-based L’Uguaglianza Sociale […] “It is the dazzling rays/of the sun of the future/pouring its light into minds/and transfiguring suffering …” and she spent a short time in Bologna where the prefect, charged by the Interior ministry with keeping a close watch on her put the various transfers Olimpio had had in his work career down to the couple’s libertarian activities. From the public prosecutor of Bologna we learn that the couple had a four year old son. Teresa served her 28 days’ sentence in Florence’s S. Verdiana women’s prison and was released on 8 March 1894.

On 17 April in Florence two comrades from La Spezia (Crispa and Foce) were stopped by the police and found in possession of a fair number of anarchist pamphlets intended as stock for a social(ist) library in La Spezia. The two La Spezia anarchists were locked up in the Murate prison. Among the pamphlets seized were 150 copies of Francesco Saverio Merlino’s Da anarchia (On Anarchy) and, as luck would have it, Merlino was locked up in the Murate prison in Florence at the time. Merlino’s “U-turn on elections” can be ascribed to this time in prison. Also among the impounded pamphlets were some stamped with the label Teresa Ballerini, communist-anarchist. Police therefore headed for Teresa’s home, only for her to turn them away on the basis that they had no search warrant.

The matter was resolved in the usual manner: her home was cordoned off and after reinforcements were summoned from headquarters, the police forced their way in and were able to establish that Fabbrini was in touch with a number of anarchists [Genunzio Bentini, Giuseppe Manetti, Giulio Grandi, Ersilia Cavedagni (Bologna), Emanuele Canepa (?), Enricio Girola (Milan), Paolo Schicchi (in prison), Pietro Gori (Milan and Lugano), Francesco Pezzi and Luisa Minguzzi (Florence)] and they proceeded to arrest Arturo Chellini, Vittorio Caiani and Teresa, leaving only Olimpio at home with the child. After the other two were released, Teresa was removed once again to the S. Verdiana women’s prison, to await trial for insulting behaviour and association. At the end of 80 days on remand, she received a two month sentence.

That summer the Ballerini home in the Via Boccaccio was also regularly visited by the anarchist Temistocle Monticelli and that September he too was arrested and jailed, in Murate prison.

Again at around this time, in Florence, she met Luigi Fabbri who was to write of her: “Her courtesy and affable manner won this comrade my instant sympathy.” On 7 October 1894, less than a month after Monticelli was arrested, Teresa was off to the Murate prison to bring food to her 4 or 5 year old son who was being “boarded” there: she was arrested and recommended for a domicilio coatto (assigned residence) order. She was given an 18 month sentence. After 6 months’ imprisonment in S. Verdiana and the Domenicani prison in Livorno, she was dispatched to assigned residence in Orbetello, a malaria hotspot in those days. Released on licence after 4 months on account of her son’s having no one to look after him, given that Olimpio had been jailed for distributing pamphlets opposing domicilio coatto, she was kept under special surveillance, involving, among other things night-time raids by the “rozzers”. On 18 November 1895 she was arrested in the Piazza San Lorenzo for being in the company of a known anarchist. A further month in jail followed, before she was given a sentence, overturned on appeal and after 32 days served in S. Verdiana prison.

The special surveillance order expired on 5 April 1896 and she wasted little time before resuming her activity: she had a short article published in the Messina-based L’Avvenire Sociale “Lay flowers at the farmhouses”) and a more substantial piece (“Do not Vote!”) in the one-off publication Primo Marzo in Macerata: “Even should a Merlino pop up in our midst to sow confusion […] we shall not follow his lead.”

On 5 August 1897 she was arrested in Pisa together with railwayman Lucio Gordino from Ravenna, after they were reported by a priest. She was held for a number of days. She collected money for the press – “solidarity and best wishes to those who have fought and are fighting to tell the truth” – and as 1897 drew to an end she was off to Ancona, most likely for a meeting with the publishers of L’Agitazione. Another article of hers “Class Hatred”) appeared in Palermo’s Il Nuovo Verbo: “In the bourgeoisie there is neither heart, nor public order, nor science: but only a fierce hatred.”

On 22 June 1898 she was arrested again and held for five days. On 3 August royal guards and carabinieri burst into her home during the night: she was rearrested and then released on 21 August. In order to escape from his harassment, Olimpio and Teresa, thanks in part to a widespread network of confederates, quit Italy for Nice in France. But on 8 August 1900 she had scarcely disembarked from the train bringing her back from a trip to Paris to visit the World Exposition (she had earlier been to Rome in 1896-1897 as part of a broad interest in culture) than, as part of the crackdown that followed Gaetano Bresci’s successful attempt [on the life of King Umberto of Italy] she was arrested yet again, as were Olimpio and a certain Poggiali. Teresa was then expelled from French territory and, between imprisonment and transfers, arrived in Geneva on 21 September. Olimpio somehow made his way back to Italy. Teresa managed to shift for herself in Geneva and fell in love with the type-setter Jean Octave Pellegrino.

And so Teresa’s emotional life intersected with free love, so much so that Olimpio had to write to her through the anarchist press: “Let me state that I have no reproach to offer you; thereby recognising the natural manifestation of mutual affections conceived by two human beings, who find happiness in their fused sentiments […] My love and regard for you have never been extinguished; and indeed, because of them, I wish you happiness.”

From 1897 at least Teresa is described as suffering with her nerves, a condition credited to the harassment she had undergone. From Geneva she resumed her contributions to the libertarian press. On 18 March 1902 she excused herself from the ball held to mark the anniversary of the Paris Commune and let the occasion pass without entertainment. On 12 June she attended a talk on the history of revolutionary thought given by Emile Janvion and Louise Michel; about 100 people attended. On 14 June she attended another talk – on the Commune – given by Michel. In the wake of the general strike in Geneva in October 1902, she was expelled from the canton, moving first to Clarens and thence to Lausanne, still living with Octave. Shortly after that, she died at 3.00 a.m. on 22 July 1903. About five years earlier, at about that hour, the cops had broken down her door.

The anarchist press remembered her as “jovial and light-hearted […] and above all, open-minded, but she was not spared the criticisms of malicious tongues […] she was generous and rebellious and trampled over every prejudice.”

A few of her writings were collected by Olimpio into a pamphlet and published as Dalla schiavitú alla libertá (From Slavery to Liberty), the title perhaps borrowed from articles written by a female anarchist from Ancona signing herself la schiava (the slave woman), articles complaining of the sometimes yawning gulf between theory and deeds within the libertarian movement, not least when it came to the role and influence of female comrades: “Woman is given the simple task of doing the laundry, making up the bed and making the meals, tending the children, if married, or, if younger, being serenaded by or waiting by the window for their sweetheart. Women are not made overly welcome in the midst of men when the talk turns to politics […] like them, you are entitled to go to meetings, attend talks, read books and newspapers … if these things are refused you, complain to other comrades, hold them up to ridicule for their begrudgery and small-mindedness […] Forwards, fellow slaves!”

From: A Rivista Anarchica, No 374, (Milan) October 2012. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.