Patriots in the bourbon prisons. A collective transnational biography of the Risorgimento (1848-1870)


The research aims at investigating the experience of the revolutions of 1848 in a middle-term perspective, following the biographical paths of some Southern patriots and paying particular attention to their interpretations and re-elaborations of the 1848 experience, to the propagandistic use of the images of the revolution and the "black legend" of the Bourbon Kingdom that derived from it. In particular the researcher will have to focus on a group of 66 political activists incarcerated in Naples after the revolution of 1848. After spending almost ten years in the Neapolitan dungeons, they were pardoned and sent to perpetual exile in the United States in January 1859, in occasion of the prince Francesco of Bourbon’s wedding. Political authorities considered this group of prisoners ‘particularly dangerous’ for the social order: they included famous politicians such as Carlo Poerio, Luigi Settembrini, Giuseppe Pica, Sigismondo Castromediano and Silvio Spaventa, as well as illiterate men who had participated in the revolution and had been sentenced to life imprisonment or condemned to forced labour. These were some of the key figures of the 1848 revolutions in Southern Italy, classified in the police files as “heads and promoters” of the revolutions. While in prison they contributed to the construction of the black legend of Bourbon despotism and then to the international de-legitimization of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Their history is a fascinating, complicated and adventurous one. The ship carrying the prisoners to America was hijacked and docked in Ireland in March 1859, causing a massive mobilization of the British public opinion. These patriots were represented as heroes of liberty fighting against despotism. Charles Dickens planned to dedicate a novel to them and twelve thousands pounds were raised with a public subscription by the director of the British Museum and leading politicians. Thanks to the letters of Gladstone to Lord Aberdeen (1851) as well as Victor Hugo’s intervention from Jersey and to precise rhetorical and media strategies, these prisoners were already known to the European public opinion and had become the emblem of the Bourbon despotism in Europe. In summer 1855, Garibaldi and Agostino Bertani organized an attempt to release Settembrini and other prisoners with the collaboration of the British consuls in Naples and Turin and of Antonio Panizzi. An amnesty for political prisoners was requested by Britain and France at the Congress of Paris (1856). Some of them were supposed to be freed by Pisacane and to take part in his expeditions that ended dramatically in Sapri in July 1857. After their arrival in Britain, some of these patriots decided to remain there, while most of them chose to settle in Turin, participating in the following years in the wars of independence, in Garibaldi’s military campaigns or in the political events of the new Italian Kingdom. Often these patriots took advantage of the popularity achieved by their long imprisonment by publishing memoirs and autobiographies. On the one hand, the researcher will investigated the rationales, methods, languages and programs of the patriotic mobilization in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. On the other hand he/she will analyzed the Risorgimento in the South in a transnational perspective focusing on the circulation of political projects, strategies of struggle, images, interpretations and people across borders. The research has to explore some critical questions: how did the revolution of 1848, the subsequent trials and the treatment of prisoners influence the failure of the Bourbon dynasty in the international context? How can the political mobilization of 1848 be explained by and related to previous and subsequent political and patriotic experiences? How did activists deal with the defeat of the revolution, the imprisonment and the rethinking of their experiences?
Through an historical and anthropological analysis of different sources (private letters, archival documents, parliamentary debates, pamphlets) related to the experience of the Neapolitan prisons and to the Bourbon political repression, the researcher will have to identify the processes and main characteristics related to the construction of a ‘humanitarian narrative’ in a transnational dimension. In particular he/she will highlight the link between a narrative centered on human rights and emotions and instances of political reform. A peculiar attention will have to be devoted to the political and diplomatic implications of the humanitarian narrative and its role throughout the international public opinion. As the Neapolitan administration of justice and the prison conditions were not significantly different from those of other Italian and European states, however, since the publication of the letters of Gladstone denouncing the treatment of prisoners in the jail of Santo Stefano, the Neapolitan galleys became fundamental in the formation the "black legend" of the Bourbon despotism. The representation of the trials following the 1848 revolution and the dungeons’ experiences were used not only by the prisoners, but also by Italians and foreigners politicians with a clear political and propagandistic intent to defend liberal principles. The researcher will have to build a survey of the generational composition and the socio-economic backgrounds of the imprisoned patriots in order to establish the social and cultural composition of political activism during the Risorgimento and the connections between education, private lives, families of patriots and political action. The analysis of the biographical paths of the patriots will connect their mobilization during the 1848 revolution not only with the general social, economic and cultural changes of the preceding decades and with the previous uprisings of 1830s and 1840s, but also to their subsequent political and military commitments (14 out of 66 were listed in the Mille and a dozen was elected in the Piedmontese and subsequently Italian parliaments). The researcher will also focus on the political mobilization in the 1848 revolution, the areas of protests, the forms and symbols of political activity, the networks of conspiracy, the circulation of ideas. Moreover he/she will analyze the evolution of their political positions and projects and in particular their frequent, but not univocal, “conversion” to the idea of a unified Italy under the king of Savoy.
The researcher will highlight the complexity of the liberal front, but also, after the 1861, the difficulties of its adapting to the new order and in recognizing the problems of the South.
The researcher will discuss the elaboration and re-elaboration of the experiences of the revolutions and of the imprisonment in different periods, by means of sources produced during the confinement (ie. interrogations, trial records, requests for pardon, letters) or in the decades that followed. In particular he/she will analyze in detail a corpus of memoirs published by these patriots that is particularly interesting and rich in its genre.
In brief, by creating a prosopography of this group of political activists and focusing on the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of 1848 the researcher will be able not only to analyze the multiple dimensions and roles of the revolution, but also to resituate the ‘South’ as part of the culture and politics of the period in a transnational dimension, to restore its proper agency and to question the supposed peculiarities of the ‘South’ itself.

2015 - 2017

Elena Bacchin

Responsabile per il Dipartimento
Carlotta Sorba

Enrico Francia
Gian Luca Fruci (assegnista presso Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche, Geografiche e dell'Antichità)
Daniele Menozzi (Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa)