Tuesday, February 28, 2017

To kill the King


My father spotted it in the window of an antiques shop, somewhere in France, during a holiday. The Petit Journal of 22 May 1898, bearing news of the recent uprising in Milan and of the bloody repression that followed. He brought the old newspaper home and stuck it between the two panes of glass of a coffee table top. The table now lives in our eldest son's room.


They called them the ‘riots of the stomach’, because the people had taken to the streets to protest the rising cost of bread and other necessities. The government of the time, in the person of general Fiorenzo Bava-Beccaris – the butcher of the Sicilian peasants who had revolted earlier that decade – responded using rifles and artillery. The official toll records 88 dead and 450 injured, but is almost certainly conservative. Other accounts place the number of the dead closer to 300, including those killed when the army opened fire on a group of people waiting for food outside a soup kitchen.

But this isn't why the King was killed.

News of the uprising would have reached ordinary people in Italy, Europe and beyond in large part through periodicals such as the Petit Journal, therefore naturally the way they presented such events (largely sympathetic to the citizens, in this case) mattered a great deal. Incidentally, note the language used by the magazines: émuetes, equivalent to the Italian moti, is a classic 19th century word used to describe demonstrations and revolts. It literally means ‘movement’ (like in the English word ‘motion’). In those days, the people didn't protest. They ‘moved’.

The same people who were presented with the vivid pictorial representation of the ‘grave troubles’ in Milan would have been reached one month later by the news that, in recognition of his heroic use of cannons against unarmed civilians, general Bava-Beccaris was awarded by Umberto I with one of the neonate’s kingdom highest honours, the Great Cross of the Order of Savoy.

This is why the King was killed.


By 1898, Gaetano Bresci already lived in Paterson, New Jersey. He had migrated two years earlier, after a period of domestic exile on the island of Pantelleria for the crime of taking part in various demonstrations and being known to the police as an anarchist.

Born in 1869 near Prato, Tuscany, Bresci was a skilled textile worker, and as such enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in Paterson. He was able to buy a small cottage in West Hoboken in which to live with his companion, a young Irish immigrant by the name of Sophie Knieland, and their young daughter Maddalena.

The Italian community in Paterson numbered some ten thousand people, of which – according to chronicler Arrigo Petacco – a full quarter proudly identified as anarchists. The anarchists of Paterson printed their own Italian language newspaper and pamphlets, and met regularly at establishments such as West Hoboken’s Tivola and Zucca’s Saloon, where sometime fiery debates took place. At one such event – likely attended by Bresci – the prominent expatriate anarchist thinker Errico Malatesta was shot in the leg by a supporter of Giuseppe Ciancabilla, whom he had just debated on the subject of whether anarchists should organise in order to achieve common political objectives or should rather operate as a constellation of like-minded individuals.

Whatever their position on such fundamental questions, the anarchists of Paterson would have been united in their grief for the blood shed in Milan in the Spring of 1898, as well as in the outrage for the medal that glorified that massacre a few weeks later. The news travelled slowly, but no less surely, reaching migrant communities that often felt a greater involvement in the affairs of the country they left behind than those of the country in which they lived and worked. Biographers suggest that this was less the case for Bresci – who looked at American politics with interest – than for most of his compatriots. Yet on 17 May 1900, two years after the riots in Milan, he embarked on a ship heading to Le Havre, ostensibly so he could visit his family in Prato and discuss the parental inheritance, and without arising suspicions in Knieland or any of his friends that he might have different intentions.


Another painting, more famous than the first, by the very popular illustrator Achille Beltrame, shows the assassination of Umberto I in Monza, just outside Milan, on 27 July 1900. It is compositionally very similar to the one that 14 years later would depict the final moments in the life of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and of Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg. In both cases, the killers are shown from behind and appear in fact identical (and identically anonymous).

Such was, for many years, the fate of Gaetano Bresci, the ‘anarchist who came from America’ to kill the King: that of a person at the margin of the historical picture, often left unnamed, nearly always robbed of any agency other than aiming and firing his gun. Of his words at the trial, of the reasons he gave for his act, the history books made no mentions for decades, leaving pupils like my mother wondering why Umberto I had been killed that day of 1900 in Monza, if not by whom.

Yet Bresci had made his motivations very clear to his interrogators. Of the three shots he had fired, the first one – he said – was for those who had died in Milan, ‘the pallid and bleeding victims of general Bava-Beccaris, and of the power that gives medals to the killers and lead to the exploited.’ The second one was for his friends in Paterson forced into exile, ‘for the male and female workers that are driven from their homes by hunger and persecution. For all the anarchists who are imprisoned, exiled, left on a prison-island encircled by the sea’ (by which he meant Pantelleria). The third one was for the childhood he had been robbed of, his brief childhood in Prato, ‘constantly demeaned by relentless labour’.

Excuse the quality, but I captured this from Google Street View

There are books about Gaetano Bresci now, a monument erected by anarchists in Carrara (with the approval of the local council), and a street named after him in Prato – a meandering affair that turns rather poetically into ‘Via Ernesto Guevara’. That civic recognition seems fitting, and undoes in part the earlier attempts to erase him from history, as well as to end his life and cancel every trace of his very being. Sentenced to life in prison after a very brief trial in Milan (the death sentence having been abrogated in Italy in 1889), Bresci was found dead in his cell on the island of Santo Stefano at the age of 31, mere months into his sentence. The death was ruled a suicide, but in 1947 Sandro Pertini – a socialist partisan who had been imprisoned by Mussolini on the island and would later become President of the Republic – told the Italian Parliament that everyone in the prison knew he had been killed by three guards using the ‘Santo Stefano treatment’: they threw a blanket over his head and beat him for as long as it took.

The exact place of Bresci’s burial is unknown.

The old prison at Santo Stefano today

The story of Gaetano Bresci seems distant now, its historical circumstances alien to us. Why would you even kill a King, or a President? What good could it possibly do? Immediately after his arrest, Bresci proclaimed he had wanted to kill not a man, but a symbol, that is to say the symbol of an order. As for the immediate consequences, the persecution of his fellow anarchists briefly intensified – in search of a larger conspiracy for which no evidence was ever found – but the new King installed a government that departed from the authoritarian ones favoured by Umberto and his equally despotic Queen, Margherita. You wouldn’t call it a victory, but then Bresci’s gesture had no political value: it was merely a claim for dignity and justice.


ShareThis