Who says that conservative historians have to be old, hoary-headed men unable to produce anything innovative? A young Italian scholar named Massimo Viglione is proving the contrary with his two latest books, Rivolte dimenticate (Forgotten Revolts) and Le Insorgenze—Rivoluzione e controrivoluzione in Italia, 1792-1815 (Uprisings-Revolution and Counterrevolution in Italy). Viglione is a Catholic researcher in the University of Cassino’s Department of Modern History, specializing in the French Revolution and its profound impact on the Italian peninsula between the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
His two books do not come out of the blue: They are an expansion of his first work on the subject. The Italian Vendee, published in 1995. Since then, Viglione has collected an impressive number of documents to describe one of the least known yet most dramatic periods in Italian history, following the invasion of the French revolutionary armies in Italy, bent on “liberating” the “oppressed” Italian masses at gunpoint.
The publication of Viglione’s books is one of an increasing number of events which celebrate the tens of thousands of victims of this “liberation.” events in opposition to the 15 billion lire of public money spent to extol a handful of Italian “martyrs of freedom” who supported the French invaders and their ideas. The confrontation between the two sides reached its peak in early 1999, when the San Carlo Opera House in Naples opened its season with Eleonora, an opera starring Vanessa Redgrave as the main female protagonist of the 1799 French-backed revolution in Naples against the Bourbons. The premiere, attended by then-Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema and a number of political and cultural celebrities, was marred by a flood of protest leaflets and shouts of “Jacobin assassins.” The short-lived revolution celebrated in the opera temporarily overthrew the Bourbon king of Naples and established the so-called Repubblica Partenopea; it was subsequently put down by the counterrevolutionary forces of Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, aided by Lord Nelson-but not before 80,000 citizens of Naples were slaughtered. Cardinal Ruffo’s victory remains one of the most significant events in the series of popular uprisings against the French invaders and their Italian accomplices.
Viglione points out that anti-French revolts broke out spontaneously and concurrently throughout the Italian peninsula, from Savoy to Calabria, from Puglia to Tyrol and Tuscany. For 18 years, at least 300,000 Italians from all walks of life rose up in arms, and more than 100,000, including women and children, were slaughtered in massacres which vie with those that quelled the counterrevolution in Vendee. (The only major difference is that the Italians managed to chase the invaders out.) The French also robbed Italy of countless masterpieces of art, including the world-famous Venetian Horses of Saint Mark, and robbed and abused rich and poor alike. Even hospitals, churches, and charities were systematically looted in the name of “liberté, egalité, fratemité.”
“To what extent can [the patriotic Italian] insurgents be described as ‘brigands’ or ‘criminals’ and the Italian Jacobins as ‘patriots,’ when the latter were serving under the French revolutionary banner, helping the Napoleonic forces to kill, plunder, and desecrate?” Viglione wonders. “This is one of the main issues addressed in my books. We must bear in mind that ordinary people died by the tens of thousands in order to defend their traditions, religion, legitimate rulers and monarchs, and ultimately their families and assets.” Even the French General Thiebault, in his memoirs, describes his arrival in Naples this way:
Naples was nothing but an immense field of massacres, arsons, fear and death . . . Not even one Neapolitan survived on our way in. Never have I seen so many dying at the same time. I would have never imagined that in such a short time so many people could have been exterminated: I do not dare to calculate their number.
This was the result of the general’s own orders. Most of the dead were lazzari, Neapolitan peasants, whose only fault was remaining loyal to their Church and king.
“These exceptionally far-reaching events were willfully and carefully removed from our official national history, our mainstream literature, and even our textbooks at school,” Viglione argues. “When, at times, they are dealt with, an anti-insurgent bias is the general norm. But despite this, the whole issue is increasingly surfacing more or less in the right terms, thus defying the ‘politically correct.'”
To date, Viglione’s books have been reviewed in many important national and regional papers (including La Stampa, Il Giornale, Il Sole 24 Ore, Avvenire, Secolo d’ltalia, and il Roma) and have been the subject of a television debate. Moreover, Viglione has held numerous conferences and talks in a number of Italian cities, including one at the Senate in Rome. After a conference in Milan, the newspaper Il Giornale published a full page report, with an impressive map of Italy pinpointing some hundred flash points of the uprisings. Not surprisingly, many of the anti-revolutionary revolts were led by priests and religious laymen, since the Catholic faith was also under attack.
True to her radical past, Vanessa Redgrave, who was unfamiliar with the events of 1799 in Naples until she was offered the part in the opera, told the International Herald Tribune that she blamed the British educational system for continuing to pass over the “extremely reactionary role of Nelson in the whole business of the Bourbons.” The politically correct view holds that the man responsible for the merciless repression of the Neapolitan Jacobins was Cardinal Ruffo, who, after successfully leading a popular counterrevolution from the southernmost tip of Calabria, restored the Bourbons to power in Naples.
Contemporary historians disagree. They contend that Cardinal Ruffo pledged to save the lives of those revolutionaries who had surrendered, but Lord Nelson disavowed the prelate’s pledge and hanged them all. Apparently, Nelson acted upon the direct order of King Ferdinand of Bourbon, a close ally of the British Crown who had fled to Palermo with part of his fleet before the advance of Napoleon’s troops. The king (or rather, the queen, according to Viglione) ordered Nelson to treat Naples as he would any rebellious Irish town. He strictly adhered to the Bourbons’ will, demonstrating a monarchist zeal probably greater than the monarch would have showed himself