Skip to main content

Michele Pezza: Italian Bandit and Hero

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Battles With France

Better known as Fra Diavolo, “Brother Devil,” Michele Pezza had a fiery temper. He led a force of resisters to the French occupation of Italy in the late 18th century and had a famous seafood dish named after him.

Fra Diavolo leads his guerrillas into combat.

Fra Diavolo leads his guerrillas into combat.

Fra Diavolo's Early Life

He was born in the city of Itri in the Kingdom of Naples in 1771. His family seems to have been comfortable financially because young Michele learned to read and write, not accomplishments found among the lower orders.

A tradition in Itri had youngsters parade on the Sunday after Easter to honour St. Francis of Paola, the patron of sick children. The kids were dressed as monks and Michele joined in the fun, but he was badly behaved. The story goes that an onlooker, seeing Michele kicking up a fuss, called him “Fra Diavolo.” The name stuck.

After school, Pezza got a job carrying mail between Naples and Terracina. He made the 150-mile round trip twice a week and received a handsome salary for doing so. The job also gave him an intimate knowledge of the area that would come in handy later in life.

Convicted of Manslaughter

On his mail rounds, Pezza met a young woman who appealed to him greatly, but there was a problem. She had another admirer. Awkward. Also, the other boyfriend didn't like the idea of competition, so he and a friend decided to ambush Pezza and persuade him, through violence, to back off. They picked the wrong victim.

A fight ensued and Pezza killed both his attackers. Arrest, trial, and conviction for manslaughter swiftly followed. He escaped a murder conviction and probable early end to his life by arguing successfully that he was acting in self defence. Still, people can't go around killing folk without some consequences, so Pezza was sentenced to serve in the Neapolitan army.

Michele Pezza.

Michele Pezza.

Conflict With France

France's revolutionary government was in a belligerent mood in the early 1790s and was spoiling for a fight wherever it could find one. In 1796, an unknown French general named Napoleon Bonaparte swept across northern Italy. (Italy was not the unified country we know today, but a series of principalities).

Napoleon got as far as the Papal States, which stretched halfway down the peninsular where it brushed up against the Kingdom of Naples. Ferdinand IV launched an ill-advised attack on Napoleon's forces and briefly had some success. Pezza, by now a sergeant, took part in the attack, which faltered. Cold and wet, many Neapolitan soldiers deserted in the face of Napoleon's onslaught.

Among those who left the battlefields to fight another day was Pezza, who hid out in the hills near Itri. The advancing French, along with Polish units, took Itri, slaughtered some of the people who resisted them, committed rape, and plundered the city. To further humiliate the people of Itri, the French held a victory ball.

Michele Pezza's Guerrillas

Seeing his hometown thus defiled, Pezza began to gather around him irregulars who would harry the French from hideouts in the hills. Young men, angered by the atrocities carried out by the French and Polish soldiers, rushed to join Pezza, by now better known as Fra Diavolo.

Guerrilla attacks were met with reprisals. When two French soldiers were killed in January 1799, the invader's response was another round of barbarity that left 60 people dead, including Michele Pezza's father.

That did not deter Fra Diavolo, his “band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty” (executedtoday.com).

Help arrived when a rag-tag army of peasants, nobles, women, children, and even priests was assembled by the royals in exile on Sicily. Ill-trained, the so-called Sanfedismo “Holy Faith” was organized by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo with a force of 17,000. Fighting in rugged terrain and sometimes using suicidal attacks, the Sanfedismo dealt some heavy blows to the French.

Pezza and his followers joined Ruffo's insurgency. The fight got dirty with extra-judicial killings, torture, and all the most miserable aspects of war on display. In June 1799, Naples was liberated and by September the French had been driven out of the Kingdom of Naples as well as Rome. But the conflict was not over.

Saint Anthony gives holy protection to the Sanfedisti under the leadership of Cardinal Ruffo

Saint Anthony gives holy protection to the Sanfedisti under the leadership of Cardinal Ruffo

The End of Fra Diavolo

The little-known general of early incursions into Italy became Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France. In 1806, he decided to plop his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, onto the throne of Naples. That required the deployment of tens of thousands of troops. The Neapolitan army of about 13,000 was greatly outnumbered and, within weeks, Naples fell to the French.

Michele Pezza was recalled to duty and resurrected his old irregular force to conduct raids on French outposts. The fighting was barbaric with villagers being massacred and a take-no-prisoners approach used by both sides. For a couple of months, Pezza's guerrillas caused all sorts of trouble for the French, so they offered a reward amounting to several million dollars in today's money to anyone who killed or captured him.

The bounty proved tempting, and Fra Diavolo was betrayed and captured on November 1, 1806. Ten days later, he was swinging from the end of a hangman's rope having been convicted of banditry. His last words are said to have been “It pains me that I am condemned as a bandit and not a soldier.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The man in charge of the unit that arrested Fra Diavolo was Major Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo, the father of the French novelist Victor Hugo.
  • Fra Diavolo's exploits have become part of many artistic works, such as the 1833 opera Fra Diavolo by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber. He appears in several Italian films and even got a Laurel and Hardy treatment.
  • Seafood Fra Diavolo is a famous Italian dish using hot pepper flakes to emulate Michele Pezza fiery nature.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor