Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Other Side of My Story

Today I want you to meet Carlo Pisacane, Duke of San Giovanni, Italian patriot, one of the first socialist thinkers and writers, and my ancestor.

Frequent readers of this blog have heard me go on rhapsodically about my Sicilian heritage and brag that, while I am not the coal miner’s daughter, I am the coal miner’s granddaughter. You have also met my grandfather on my mother’s side—Gennaro Pisacane, grower of a fig tree in New Jersey and guardian angel of my early childhood. Shortly before he died, he told me that there was a statue of his grandfather in Rome. I pictured something that looked like Caesar in a toga.

Carlo, who was either Gennaro’s grandfather or great-grandfather, was something akin to an Italian Patrick Henry, a patriot famous within the country, but unknown outside of it. A poem about him, La Spigolatrice di Sapri by Luigi Mercantini was translated as The Gleaner of Sapri by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem is written as a first person account by a woman who saw a boat carrying revolutionaries coming to free her people.

Carlo Pisacane was born in Naples of an impoverished noble family, words that equally apply to Gennaro. Carlo attended The Nunziatella military academy and served in the Neapolitan army. He became imbued with the ideas and ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini and devoted the rest of his short life to bringing to a unified Italy a liberal, classless, anti-authoritarian society with freedom and justice for all.

After a brief stay in England and France, where he served in the French army in Algeria, he returned to Italy to take part in the 1848 revolution and the ephemeral Roman Republic. Mazzini proposed an expedition aimed at overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy in the Kingdom of Naples. Pisacane, a son of that part of the peninsula, volunteered to lead the expedition. Their thought was that even a small invading force would inspire an insurrection among the oppressed and impoverished underclass. On the 25th of June 1857, the Cagliari sailed from Genoa carrying Pisacane and twenty-two other, like-minded revolutionaries. En route to the south, they stopped at the island of Ponza the Bay of Naples and freed 300 political prisoners who joined them.

Unlike Garibaldi who came a few years later, Pisacane was more of writer and thinker than a military leader. He and his men landed at Sapri on the Bay of Policastro, 120 miles south of Naples. The uprising he had hoped for did not take place. In the Cilento hills near the town of Padula, they were overwhelmed. Some say Carlo was stabbed by locals who mistook him for a gypsy out to steal their food. Others say that, in the face of being taken by the Bourbon Militia, he turned his pistol on himself. He was not quite 39 years old.

He had by then published three books, all about freedom and the greater social good. My favorite quote from him: “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.”

Here are the last lines of the poem as translated by Longfellow:

"They were three hundred and they would not fly,
They seemed three thousand, and they wished to die,
But wished to die with weapons in their hand....
... they were three hundred, they were young and strong,

And they are dead!"

“Victory, when it is in accord with progress, merits the applause of the people; but a heroic defeat merits their tender compassion. The one is magnificent, the other sublime... John Brown is greater than Washington, and Pisacane is greater than Garibaldi.” Volume V, book 1 of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (published in 1862):

Annamaria Alfieri

1 comment:

  1. Pat, this is impressive! You have given your readers a trip over there! You are in good company, also, as the future Queen of England, Kate Middleton , is also from a family of coal-miners! tjs