Rosalia took part in the political meetings Francesco held in his flat; at first, she sewed in a corner and later began to discuss things with the others. Gradually, a political faith based on freedom and equality was emerging in her.
Summer is coming to an end. We are slowly going back to our usual lives. Our jobs await, the school year is beginning. But before we slide once again into the monotony of our routine let’s stop for a moment and go back to Sicily. A popular holiday destination, a dreamy island, filled with cultural and natural beauties, from beaches to volcanoes. And while we comfort ourselves with the memory of a lazy summer day, let’s take a step back in time, precisely 161 and 4 months ago, not to go on vacation this time but to go on an adventure.
It’s May, the heat hasn’t yet arrived, but the trees are in bloom, and ready to leave for Sicily are 1089 proverbial men. Garibaldi leads them. On the night between the 5th and 6th of May they quietly set sail from Quarto, and go down in history as the turning point in the process of Italy’s unification. It is a story we have heard a hundred times, and yet there is a part that is not told because it is not remembered. If one were to flip through Alessandro Pavia’s album of the Mille (Thousand), one would make an unexpected discovery at n° 38. The person depicted in that photo is a woman, the only woman to have embarked that night from Quarto: Rosalia or Rose Montmasson.
Rosalia was born in Saint-Jorioz, the fourth of five children in a family of peasants. Strengthened by her ability to write, count, iron and sew, she decided to leave in search of her own fortune. With a few possessions and a document allowing her to marry without her father’s consent, she went to Turin where she found work as a laundress and ironing lady. It is in Turin that she meets Francesco Crispi. In comparison to how little is known about Rosalia and having to dig into history to picture her, Francesco’s Wikipedia page is very long. Born in Sicily, Crispi was one of the organisers of both the Sicilian Revolution of 1848 as well as the Expedition of the Thousand, and was also Prime Minister four times. It was Crispi who introduced Rosalia to politics. At the time, he was a rebellious exile and she was an independent young woman. They fell in love and soon moved in together. Francesco could not find work and so, Rosalia supported them both while he began to take an interest in the idea of Italy described by Mazzini: united and republican. Therefore, Rosalia took part in the political meetings Francesco held in his flat; at first, she sewed in a corner and later began to discuss things with the others. Gradually, a political faith based on freedom and equality was emerging in her.
Following Mazzini’s conspiracy in Turin, Francesco Crispi was first arrested and then forced to leave the country for Malta. Rosalia followed him and being as resourceful as ever, even in Malta she was their support system. Despite his reticence, anti-clerical and failed past relationships, when Francesco was once again expelled, she demanded to marry him. Time was short, a few days before Francesco left the island she managed to organise all the paperwork and on 27th of December the two got married. They moved to Paris and it was perhaps here that Rosalia began to become increasingly involved in political activities and conspiracies. She certainly took an active part when they both joined Mazzini in London. Rosalia would work as an ironing lady, thus home deliveries gave her the perfect cover to deliver messages throughout the city. Not only that, by changing her name and identity she carried out missions for Mazzini throughout Europe, delivering messages and possibly weapons, while avoiding police ambushes. The fight for a united Italy was no longer just about the man she loved but equally her fight, too.
She joined Garibaldi on the day he announced his departure for Sicily. Francesco did not want her to leave, but thanks to a private audience with Garibaldi she convinced him to let her set sail. After all, she had organised the expedition herself. Rosalia did not just wear the red shirt, she stood out. When she was not holding a rifle, she devoted herself to caring for the wounded. During the battle of Calatafimi, heedless of the danger, she went straight up to the enemy’s front to rescue wounded soldiers. Giacomo Oddo, her comrade, remembers her as a proud Savoyard, unselfish and full of courage, quick-witted and outspoken, born to pursue freedom and independence. Francesco Crispi was Garibaldi’s minister of finance and internal affairs in what was at the time an insurgent Palermo. While he was preparing to write the decree for the distribution of land, he also endorsed the bloody repressions in Bronte. It is perhaps at this moment when the political interests of Francesco and Rosalia began to diverge. Rosalia was to remain a convinced republican throughout her life, seeing no difference in class or gender, and continuing to work for a better world. Mazzini, while speaking of her, declared that “she is not one of the moderates” and claimed she had a certain political naivety. Less “naive” is most certainly Francesco Crispi who became a monarchical and elitist politician who was often involved in scandals, such as the one surrounding the end of their marriage.
After the expedition to Sicily, Rosalia followed Francesco first to Turin and then to Florence as his wife; she oversaw maintaining contact with the Republican political allies, while her husband became increasingly distant. The political differences between the two spouses grew ever stronger, and was aggravated by his unfaithfulness that led to two illegitimate children. Despite everything, Rosalia had no intention of leaving her husband’s house. This was until Francesco fell in love with Lina Barbagallo, a noble lady from Lecce with whom he organised a private wedding. Consequently, Rosalia was thrown out of the family home on the day of their 21st wedding anniversary, with the promise of a small pension and was banned from using the Crispi surname. This event did not go unnoticed, and the newspapers headlined “The Minister of Internal Affairs is a bigamist!”. A trial for bigamy was opened and, thanks to his political power, Francesco Crispi won by removing some documents concerning his marriage to Rose and having their marriage declared null and void by the judge, a friend of his.
Faced with such humiliation, the wreckage of 21 years of marriage and many years of previous partnership – years in which they had shared poverty, hardship, but also hope for a better world – one is left almost incredulous to discover that Rose did not attempt to sue him but merely testified. Such a pugnacious woman faced her martyrdom in silence, knowing that her husband was a powerful lawyer and there was no point in fighting a legal battle. Where were her friends, her comrades, Garibaldi himself, if not silent and complicit on the side of her ex-husband? Were they afraid that such a scandal would bring down the left wing? Even Queen Margherita had to bow down and accept Crispi’s new wife. And therefore, Rosalia Montmasson disappeared, not only from the public eye but history too. Erased by the man she had loved for a lifetime, who had her removed from all writings about her life. When he was forced to mention her, he minimised their affair, reducing it to a youthful passion. Such a woman does not suit his political image.
Not much is known about Rose Montmasson’s last years, she probably continued to engage in her political struggles, facing difficulties as she always did with her head held high. She died on 10th of November 1904 and asked to be buried with her red shirt, the medal of the Thousand and the diamond cross given to her by her comrades in arms. Faithful to the end, we are left with her memory and her example that was snatched from historical oblivion, which makes the story of Italy a little more ours.
 Attanasio, Maria “La ragazza di Marsiglia”, Sellerio editore Palermo 2018