Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli is the author of La Brigantessa (Inanna Publications, 2019), a novel based on true events in the aftermath of Italy’s 1861 Unification, a turbulent period known as “The Decade of Fire” (1860-1870), when scores of brigands rebelled against the harsh policies imposed by the new government, which in turn ordered the destruction of these outlaws and anyone harbouring them. Gabriella Falcone is a peasant girl who works for Don Simone, the parish priest. She is forced to flee her hamlet of Camini in Calabria in 1862 after stabbing Alfonso Fantin, a wealthy landowner who sexually assaulted her. Gabriella is catapulted into a world she has only ever heard about in nervous whispers, a world where right and wrong, justice and vengeance, take on new meanings, and where the boundaries between good and evil are blurred. Gabriella is drawn into the role of brigantessa and discovers that the convictions she once held dear no longer have a place in this wild, unlawful territory. The novel was awarded the IPPY Gold Medal for historical fiction, First Prize for Cover Design at the International Book Awards, and was shortlisted for several additional awards. Accenti Editor-at-large Liana Cusmano sat down with the author.
What inspired you to write La Brigantessa? What is it about the Italian South in the mid-nineteenth century that appeals to you?
I was born in Calabria, at the very southern tip of Italy. Years ago, my mother told me about an ancestor who had passed on stories of General Giuseppe Garibaldi. My imagination went wild, thinking that any one of my ancestors had encountered this charismatic leader in his quest to unify southern Italy and Sicily (formerly known as The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) with the rest of Italy.
I set about reading everything I could about the history. (I had purchased an extra suitcase for all the research books I had bought during a trip to Calabria). Garibaldi had passed through Calabria, creating patriotic fervour and inspiring young men to join his army of “Camice Rosse” or “Redshirts,” as they were called. On his march towards Rome, which had yet to be united to Italy, there was a skirmish in the dense Calabrian mountain range of Aspromonte, and Garibaldi was wounded. I was so fascinated with what I discovered, that I was inspired to write a novel based on true events in the aftermath of Italy’s 1861 unification, especially the rise and repression of brigandage. The events of that period still reverberate in various ways today.
My goal was to bring this period of southern Italian history to life, because it is a part of my history. I decided my novel would centre around the plight of a young peasant woman – Gabriella Falcone – who is forced into hiding for an alleged murder. Tonino, her betrothed, is unaware of her plight, and has joined Garibaldi in his mission. Gabriella falls under the protection of a notorious brigand chief who shows her a new world, where the boundary between good and evil is blurred. Throughout her journey, she struggles with the faith that has all but disappeared since her attack and her subsequent capture by brigands. Assuming the role of brigantessa (female brigand/bandit), she becomes entangled in a web of political, religious and cultural forces that converge in a climax of destruction and vengeance.
Researching and writing this novel allowed me to take a metaphorical journey to the land where I was born, and to use my discoveries to highlight a part of Italy’s history that is little known or understood. Naming Gabriella’s hamlet “Camini” was an indulgence I permitted myself, since Camini, Reggio Calabria, is where I was born. Although I was only three when my family immigrated to Canada, I have always felt a strong connection to my motherland and to my relatives in the south. In writing this novel, I wanted to honour the lives and sacrifices of my parents and ancestors, and the people of Camini and Calabria in particular.
Historical novels necessarily require research. What sources did you rely on to render your story realistic?
My degree in Italian language and literature enabled me to research primary sources, reference books, and period novels. I have included the extensive list of Italian and English books that I referenced at the end of the novel.
During a trip to Italy in 2010, I explored the area in and around the Aspromonte mountains of Calabria, where brigandage flourished and also where a historic battle took place. Giuseppe Garibaldi was injured in the Battle of Aspromonte (1862) while attempting to march north to liberate Rome from French protection and unite it with the rest of Italy. I stood by the tree against which Garibaldi was placed after being wounded. It stands within an iron enclosure, a plaque marking its historical significance.
From my extensive research, I was able to glean insights into the people and circumstances of the agrarian south in the years following unification. This was a troubled time, where peasants were rebelling against the harsh policies of the newly formed Piedmontese government. Unification had resulted in increased taxes, unilaterally imposed upon the country by a northern government that didn’t understand or care to understand the people, and the particular circumstances of the south. The Southerners believed that despite the challenges of living under the previous Bourbon regime, unification resulted in even worse conditions. Desperate in the face of increasing poverty, many rebelled and turned to the dangerous life of brigandage. They were forced to go into hiding in wild territory such as the Aspromonte mountain range, where the dense woodlands and caves provided refuge and safety.
The law pursued the brigands and anyone who harboured them. The brigands were organized in bands, and each band had a chief whose authority was unquestioned. Sometimes the band included the wife or lover of the chief or of one of the brigands, and these women – the brigantesse – participated in the nomadic and dangerous missions undertaken to survive.
Which aspects of your narrative were the most difficult to portray?
In employing six recurring point-of-view shifts throughout the novel, my challenge was to ensure that each of the six main characters was succinctly individual in personality and voice, and credible via their words and actions.
They are representative of key figures in post-unification Italy: the peasant girl from the south and the young man who has asked for her hand, the parish priest who employed her and her father, the wealthy landowner from the north, the brigand chief, and the colonel in charge of the forces of brigandage repression.
I conducted research into these archetypal figures from a variety of sources. First of all, I relied on my experience and knowledge of people from the south of Italy. I am very familiar with the language, customs, beliefs, and personalities of the people in my village and in my predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Sudbury, Ontario, once we immigrated.
Second, I researched the events and persons involved in Italy’s post-unification era: Garibaldi and the politics of unification, the cultural traditions, the role of women, the food, the superstitions, the role of the Church, the hardships suffered by the agrarian population in the south, and the subsequent rise and repression of brigandage. As I read, a clear picture formed in my mind as to the key themes and personalities involved. In building each of my six characters, I aligned their physical traits and personalities, dialogue and actions with symbols that reflected the time, place, and events I was illuminating, with the intent to bring unity and authenticity to my story.
Third, I read excellent books about character development. Elizabeth George’s Write Away, Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters, and A Passion For Narrative by Jack Hodgins – to name a very, very few – illuminated the ways of understanding the psychology of characters and creating complex, believable characters.
How different or similar is southern Italian culture today compared to that period?
Southern Italy has a rich cultural history, but as in the past, it is a region that is often misunderstood and dismissed. The South has had a long history of being conquered by invaders and exploited. Some prejudice against its residents and its regions continues, although perhaps the people are not as vilified as they were in the period of post-unification. The Mezzogiorno, as the south is known, continues to suffer economic challenges and the lack of advancement that the more industrial cities enjoy.
This past summer I went on a fabulous tour of Calabria and discovered a great deal more about southern Italian contributions to art, literature, history, language (the first peoples to be called itali were Calabrians), food, and agriculture. Not everyone knows that Italy’s south was given the name Magna Grecia –Greater Greece. There are towns and villages that have retained their Greek or Albanian heritage from past colonizations. Festivals celebrating the cultural heritage of different towns abound throughout the region.
One such festival is La Notte dei Briganti (The Night of the Brigands). The aim of this outdoor festival is to reflect upon and highlight the historical phenomenon of brigandage via dramatic re-enactments of the life and times of the southern peasants during this turbulent era.
History is usually told by the victor and victors are rarely peasants like Gabriella, Tonino, and Don Simone. What was your approach in writing a novel set during Italy’s Decade of Fire, when the abused and disadvantaged rose up against the ruling classes?
I wanted to illuminate the injustices towards the peasants in 19th-century Italy, and specifically those in the southern region of Calabria, where I was born. Many people aren’t aware of the history during this time period, and how Unification adversely impacted the south. My approach was to invent six characters who were representative of the different social classes, and depict their situations, struggles, or roles. Each character has a voice in my novel; the plot unfolds with six recurring points of view. These characters are all on a journey, and their paths intersect at different points, creating conflict and drama.
The history of post-unification Italy is currently being examined under a new and more critical lens, exposing the harsh measures taken by the government of the time to repress and exterminate the brigands rebelling against unification. In writing La Brigantessa I wanted to show that the line between good and evil was blurred in this era, and that the forces of the law, which were supposed to do good, were ruthless and merciless in their repression of the brigands, who were not all criminals, as the government made them out to be. This vilification of their own people has influenced attitudes about the south and Southerners that has diminished over the last century and a half, but negative and superior attitudes still linger in some individuals and groups, as have been displayed, for example, by the “anti-southern Italian stance” of the Lega Nord, a right-wing political party that stereotyped “southern Italians as welfare abusers, criminals, and detrimental to Northern society.” Now rebranded as Lega, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party is directing its ire against asylum seekers and migrants.
La Brigantessa has received several awards, including top prize at the 2019 International Book Awards. How important is it for you to be recognized in this way?
It is very gratifying to win a literary award, or even to have your book on a longlist or shortlist. Getting a gold medal for historical fiction in the international 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and being a finalist for the Canadian Authors Fred Kerner Book Award and for the Miramichi Reader’s “The Very Best!” Book Awards was thrilling, validating my writing and all the efforts I have made over the years to invest in myself as a writer. Winning best cover design in the 2019 International Book Awards was fabulous, and credit for that must go to Val Fullard, Creative Director at Inanna Publications. Currently, La Brigantessa is shortlisted for the Northern Lit Awards, and I am very happy that it was selected, as this honour brings more exposure to my book, which is something that every author appreciates.
Liana Cusmano is Accenti Editor-at-large.