It took six years before they caught her and her gang. Although her life ended with a blow to the back of the head, her tale did not.
In the middle of the woods, hidden in the mountains, is the myth of the Brigantesse. Untamed, outlawed, dangerous, and fascinating women. They were a perfect distraction from the civil war prevailing in the lands where they lived. Their exploits, the photographs that portrayed them dressed as men, holding rifles, grim-looking, often taken and staged by those who had captured them, sold newspapers, bewitching and horrifying the public. So was it a political motivation that drove them to the mountains? Heroines of the Bourbon kingdom, longing for another king? Not really. Unlike the Brigands, almost none had been forced to flee to the woods for political ideals. They had no compulsory levies, imposed by the new State, to refuse, nor were they promised land to farm that was never handed over. The new political situation changed nothing to the overall state of misery in which these women lived, apart from the fact that when Piedmontese or Brigands –it changed little from their point of view – visited the villages their lives and virtues were in danger. So why did they head for the woods? How did they end up being marginalised by society? Some simply for being criminals, others out of desperation, many more due to being associated with a brigand, out of love, kidnapping, or even simple acquaintance. In an attempt to suppress the phenomenon of brigandage, the authorities targeted all those with whom they came into contact – forced contacts, often, on behalf of the Brigands themselves. Wives and lovers were imprisoned in the hope of inducing them to surrender. Peasant women who had given them a piece of bread were put on trial.
Michelina di Cesare is considered iconic among the Brigantesses. Photographs of her dressed in traditional clothing while posing boldly with her rifle were very popular at the time, and she influenced the iconography of the brigandesses, who are often portrayed in poses and clothes similar to hers. Michelina was born on 28 October 1841 in Caspoli. Destitute from an early age, she had to make do to survive with petty theft in the fields. For a short time, her life seemed to take a turn for the better: she married a respectable farmer, but it didn’t last long. Her husband died and she, unclear how, met Francesco Guerra, a former sergeant in the Bourbon army who, having refused to join the Savoy army, became a Brigand. We do not know much about their relationship, whether there was love or whether it was merely a matter of convenience; what we do know is that Michelina plays a fundamental role in the leadership of Guerra’s gang: it is in fact her strategy of attack and guerrilla warfare that allowed them to escape being captured over the years. An example of her stratagem is the raid on Galluccio, in which the Brigands disguised themselves as Carabinieri in order to go on undisturbed. It took six years before they caught her and her gang. Although her life ended with a blow to the back of the head, her tale did not. In fact, as a warning, her body is stripped and dragged behind a cart. Her humiliation was intended to culminate in the photo taken of her naked and battered, instead that photo only proved her legacy.
A very different fate, however, is that of Maria Oliviero, known as Ciccilla. Being the fourth of six children, she was born in Casole Bruzio on 30 August 1841 into a family of humble origins. It was through her elder sister Teresa that she met her future husband: Pietro Monaco, a former Bourbon soldier, coalman and sister’s lover. It was not a happy marriage. Not only was Pietro Teresa’s lover, but encouraged by her, he often beat his wife for alleged infidelities, so often that the neighbours had to intervene to save the poor woman. Perhaps Maria was unaware of their affair, or pretended not to know. Pietro, after serving for a time under Garibaldi and disappointed by his broken promises, decided to go into hiding and join the Brigands when he was called up again by the Savoys. The authorities then decided to imprison his wife and lover to convince him to surrender. Maria could no longer ignore the situation, which was made clear to everyone by this arrest. Once freed, Teresa flees to Munich and raises doubts in his mind about whether Maria had given herself up to all the guards. When Maria finally reaches him, he shoots at her, but barely misses. Terrified, she runs away and takes refuge in Teresa’s house. That very night she takes an axe and kills her sister with 48 blows and then flees into the woods and returns to Pietro, her only remaining home. How the two resolved the matter is unknown, but from then on, Maria becomes Ciccilla, a Brigandess, active and involved in murders and kidnappings. There are conflicting rumours about her: some depict her as bloodthirsty while others see her as a speck of humanity among so many ferocious beasts. Pietro Monaco is killed by two traitors; Ciccilla, who is sleeping next to him, is also wounded in the gunfight. Having taken the trouble to set his body on fire, to prevent it from being exposed and used as a warning, she takes command and goes into hiding with what remains of the gang. They resist for 47 days. Captured, Ciccilla is tried and sentenced to death, which is then commuted to hard labour for life. From here on, nothing more is known. There is no record of her death or imprisonment.
Brigantesse were women who veered off the track, took on masculine characteristics through their clothing, the use of weapons and violence, and for this reason struck a strong chord in the public eye. And while they were glorified by Bourbon propaganda, they were also demonised by the Savoy. As much as it was customary to expose the body or more often the severed head of Brigands as a warning, the violence used on Michelina’s body and the desire to portray her bare-breasted in photographs is peculiar. I think the temptation to talk about them as rebels, as women who took their own destiny into their own hands, can be quite powerful. Especially if you look at it through a modern lens. The stories of Michelina and Maria are just two examples, albeit very different from each other, and yet they are united by extreme poverty, the oppressed condition of women and their dependence on a husband for survival. This was so fundamental that a woman from Volturino, the morning after being raped by a Brigand, learning that he had been captured and was to be executed shortly, ran to stop the execution just long enough for the priest to marry them. For it was better to be a Brigand’s widow than a dishonoured woman. In most of the stories that have reached us, women have little or no choice, tied in knots with the men in their lives, they suffered from their decisions. Some were literally sold to Brigands. All this was exacerbated by the policy of repression of Brigandage that severely punished the slightest contact: it was enough to have been promised to a man who later became a Brigand to be targeted. Let us therefore not be misled by the myth, but look at the stories of these women for what they are. By doing so, we will perhaps feel more sympathy than admiration, even for those who were outright criminals.
 Guerri, Giordano Bruno, “Il Bosco nel Cuore”, Mondadori (2011)