Antonietta de Pace

The uprising wind

Gisella Lombardi

With an extreme bout of courage, right as they were arresting her, Antonietta took two of Mazzini’s proclamations from her bosom, that were thankfully written on tissue paper, made them into a tiny ball and ate them, saying they were medicine.

If you ever complained about the connections to get to Apulia, imagine how hard it was to communicate and organise an uprising in 1848. And yet the instructions and messages travelled from London, where Mazzini lived, to Lecce. Some patriots were particularly apt at creating networks, one of them was Antonietta de Pace.

Antonietta was born on the 2nd of February 1818 in Gallipoli. Her family had a certain tendency for insubordination. Her maternal uncles had taken part in the Neapolitan Republic of 1799 and her paternal uncle was a canon, astronomer and Carbonaro. Her father was a rich banker, and it was his wish that she be well educated, as he hoped she would follow in his footsteps. For this reason, he and his brother took great interest in her education, particularly in teaching her law and economics. A very progressive view for the times, especially in the Kingdom of Naples where the Neapolitan Curia actively opposed itself to female education. Sadly, when she was only eight years old her father died under suspicious circumstances, probably poisoned by his secretary, who wanted his money. Robbed of their legacy and heritage the family scattered. The mother was confined to the Camerelle Villa and Antonietta and her three sisters were sent off to the Clarisse cloister in Gallipoli.

Antonietta manages to get out of the cloister only once her sister Rosa marries Epaminonda Valentino and they both move into Rosa’s new house. Epaminonda was a Neapolitan patriot, his mother had participated in the 1799 uprising, and he was responsible for the communication network between Naples and the Apulia region. Antonietta and Epaminonda had a lot of shared interests and a common goal: a united Italy. She quickly gains his trust, he shares his secrets with her and she starts to meet with the couriers that came from Lecce, Brindisi and Taranto. Antonietta is actively involved in the organisation of the 1848 Uprisings in Apulia and, in that same year, on the 15th of May she is fighting on the barricades dressed as a man in Toledo, Naples, by her brother-in-law’s side. Soon thereafter, Epaminonda and other Salentine patriots are arrested, and he dies in prison at only 38 years old.

After his death, Antonietta leaves Lecce and goes to Naples to live with Rosa and her nephews. But she doesn’t give up the fight. As soon as she gets back, she starts reconstructing Epaminondas network of patriots, she gets in touch with those who are free men, those in exile and those in prison. She becomes his heir. Among her contacts are also the English consul, and the Sardinian embassy that regularly sends her newspapers from the Savoy State. In 1849, she betters her strategy by founding the Female Society. The members of the Female Society were all aristocrats, upper and middle-class women who had relatives inside the Bourbon prisons. Taking advantage of all the prejudices against women, the fairer sex, feigning political ignorance and pretending to be grieving wives and desperate mothers, women became the link to the outside world, caring for the prisoners as well as carrying political messages in and out of the prisons. Antonietta herself used to visit the Procida prison, pretending to be one prisoner’s relative and supposedly to give her hand in marriage to another. be a relative of one guy and supposed to marry another prisoner. In this way she could get access to their laundry through which they used to exchange messages. Thanks to contacts on the boats on the route Marseille- Genoa- Naples she got the messages to Genoa, which then continued to Lugano and then to London where Mazzini resided. The Female Society was only the beginning, Antonietta founded and collaborated with many other patriotic organisations.

But the protection offered her by her sex and her supposed innocence wasn’t enough to save her from the dangers of her many subversive activities. She started moving often, as to not endanger Rosa, but also to escape from the police. For a time, she even hid in a cloister, pretending to be a chorister. In 1854 she made up a lie to be able to get out sometimes, she said she needed to take curative baths, while instead she visited Epaminondas sister, who was also part of the conspiracy. And it is in her home that Antonietta is arrested in 1855. With an extreme bout of courage, right as they were arresting her, Antonietta took two of Mazzini’s proclamations from her bosom, that were thankfully written on tissue paper, made them into a tiny ball and ate them, saying they were medicine. She spent the following 15 days in a cell so small she couldn’t even lie down and was constantly questioned in the middle of the night. Most of the evidence against her were the letters they found in her cloister cell, which suspiciously looked like they were coded. Indeed, they totally were, but the police couldn’t decipher them. As the letters were insufficient, they tried to coerce her into confessing. She was moved to the S. Maria a d Agnone prison, where she stayed for 18 months. During this time, she never faltered nor was the police able to find more evidence. In the end, the jury vote was split: half for her death and the other half for her acquittal. As it was custom, she was set free. The trial gathered a lot of attention for various reasons: the accused was an upper-class woman, they asked for the death penalty for political reasons, and it had the attention of the English, French, and Savoy ambassadors. Once she was acquitted, she was posed under the tutelage of a cousin and strictly surveilled by the police. This did not hinder her from reprising her political activities and she founded the Mazzinian Political Committee reviving her contacts with Genoa.

An insolent even in matters of the heart, in 1858 she meets Beniamino Marciano, a young liberal priest. The two fall madly in love and Beniamino renounces his votes to dedicate himself to political activity by her side. Together, they worked to sustain The Mille endeavour. In 1859, Antonietta got tired of living with her cousin and relocated in secret. From then on, to avoid the police, she used the double entrances of churches. Entering through one door and exiting from another, allowed her to move across the city. When Garibaldi triumphantly enters Naples on the 6th of September 1860, there are 28 officials with him and two women. One of them is Antonietta dressed in the colours of the Italian flag. She is granted a pension for her efforts and assigned the management of the Gesù hospital. But Antonietta doesn’t think that it’s time to rest yet, Rome is still missing. She founds the Women for Rome Capital City Committee. She gets arrested again, this time by the papal police, and she is saved only because – as always – she is quick to destroy the evidence on her person and the Savoy government protests her imprisonment. When Rome is finally conquered in 1870, Antonietta and Beniamino dedicate themselves to education. She has always been acutely aware of the problem that poverty and poor education pose, especially for the farmers in her homeland. For her the Risorgimento was not only a way to unite Italy but a moment of change toward a better world. Education had to play a fundamental role in this change.

It is on a sweet note that her story ends: on the 3rd of April 1893, she is in bed with bronchitis when she suddenly craves champagne. She drinks two glasses with gusto. Her last words are in response to Beniamino’s question: “Do you love me?”, she answered: “Do you even have to ask?”. She dies the next morning, she was 76 years old

[1] L. Guidi, A. Russo, M. Varriale, “Il Risorgimento invisibile. Patriote del Mezzogiorno d’Italia”, Comune di Napoli Edizioni (2011)

[2]  SLo Giudice Sergi, Lina, “Donne d’italia tra risorgimento e resistenza : dizionario, salotti e rivoluzione”, Lepisma (2012)

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