In the first days of August 1860, as Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Thousand traversed the island of Sicily in a bid to see the South take its place in a united, national and liberal Italy, a bloody revolt erupted in the small town of Bronte. As Lucy Riall describes it evocatively: “to cries of ‘Viva l’Italia’, ‘Death to the rats’, and ‘Death, annihilation, let’s set fire to everything!’ the crowd began ferociously to attack public and private property”. By 3 August, they were indulging in murder of the most brutal kind: a notary had his liver cut out and allegedly eaten. Seventeen people in all were killed amid wild violence. But on 6 August, Nino Bixio, Garibaldi’s lieutenant, reached Bronte. Within days he rapidly and sternly restored order, publicly executing five townsmen, including the radical lawyer Nicolò Lombardo, putative chief of the uprising.
By the dreadful standards of our own times, the death toll was meagre. But the events of Bronte lasted in history and memory to become a symbol for rival readings of the Italian Risorgimento and of the lights and shadows of the relationship between the Italian state and its subjects. In the recent troubled celebrations of the nation’s 150th anniversary, Lombardo, Bixio and the Brontesi were again to the fore, “proving” different theses about the past, present and future of Sicily.
It is therefore good to have a sober account by the leading English- language historian of the Risorgimento of Bronte’s myths and realities. As Riall relates, part of the story is environmental. Bronte is set on the slopes of Mount Etna and for centuries its population has lived under the unpredictable threat of damage and destruction from the volcano. Simultaneously they have utilised a volcanic bounty that brought fertility to at least some of the local land. Wayward nature had its spiritual effect on Brontesi confirmed by wayward administration from Catania or Palermo or Naples (or Rome or London).
Riall promises a micro-history, although the book is five-eighths over before she reaches the events of 1860. Then we discover that Bixio, in his peremptory repression, misconstrued everything; the revolt was neither class war nor ideological dispute but rather part of a longstanding and continuing “battle between two internal factions for jobs, property and influence”. Yet, perhaps a little disappointingly, the Brontesi rarely stand at the front of the stage in Riall’s account for long. One reason is that the context in which local people lived was further complicated in 1799 when the grateful monarchy of the Two Sicilies made a gift of the Duchy of Bronte, possessed of wide estate in the commune, to Admiral Horatio Nelson, his heirs and successors. By the 1830s, through a female line, the estate moved into the hands of the Hood-Bridport family, and Riall recounts their story through to the Seventh Duke of Bronte, a wealthy investment banker with Swiss citizenship who sold the last of the family interest in Bronte in 1969. Riall has been able to read the family papers and their estate’s account books, and, thus informed, provides much useful detail on successive dukes’ hopes and fears.
Despite this wealth of micro-historical sources, Riall nevertheless spends more than half her pages on macro-histories: Sicilian, Southern Italian, Italian, British and British imperial. Contrary to the assumption that a village that had to wait until the 20th century to have a road linking it to anywhere else must be “timeless” and immobile, Bronte, we learn, possessed numerous connections with the great world. It is not, however, a happy story in which grand contacts fostered knowledge, enlightenment, deep comprehension and fruitful collaboration. Rather, by the First World War, “neither time nor geographical proximity brought greater intimacy or understanding” between Brontesi and the Bridports. “Instead of producing assimilation, contact strengthened the power of cultural stereotypes to keep the two communities distant from each other,” Riall argues. Nor did matters change thereafter. Therefore, even today, spokespersons for Bronte drag British (and “Italian”) imperialism into a mix when they, like so many other “losers” under neoliberal hegemony, despairingly seek solace for their present powerlessness in historical victimhood.
Under the Volcano: Revolution in a Sicilian Town
By Lucy Riall
Oxford University Press, 296pp, £35.00
Published 24 January 2013