One of the figures that stands out among the southern Italian brigands is Michele Pezza from Itri, known as “fra’ Diavolo” (brother Devil).
As a young boy, Michele worked in the shop of Mauro Eleuterio, a saddle maker, a rough and violent master. Clouts and tellings-off were the norm, until one day Michele picked up a pointed knife and stabbed Mauro in the stomach finishing him off,
This was how the brigand’s career began, first of all running into hiding and then, to get off a prison sentence, he enrolled in the Bourbon army. His courage and ability as a fighter were soon rewarded and he was made colonel. With three thousand men under his command, he fought in the service of King Ferdinand and Queen Carolina Ruffo in the reconquest of the Reign of Naples; he defeated the French time and time again in a series of ambushes, thus earning his nickname “Fra’ Diavolo” (Brother Devil)
His notoriety reached Paris and in 1806 Napoleon was forced to intervene with a reproachful letter addressed to his brother Joseph, who, in the meantime, had been appointed King of Naples.
Fra’ Diavolo’s destiny was marked. In order to escape from the ferocious hunt mounted by the French, he fled to the Lattari Mountains. He reached the Castle of Lettere and from thence on to Agerola. There, he came across his friend, Giuseppe Mansi, who had fought with him in the Bourbonic army and who, in the meantime, had become the head of a local band of brigands. Giuseppe, very kindly, offered him his own home in Furore as a hiding place, leaving him in his wife’s care – they soon became lovers. Michele remained hidden there for a few months but soon the ‘dolce vita’ was over. Fra’ Diavolo climbed up the Lattari Mountains once more. He stayed, ‘hunted like a boar’, for a few weeks in the Chiancolelle woods above Tramonti, helped and fed by the shepherds. He eventually reached Eboli where he tried to sail for Sicily but his attempt failed. He was captured with his friend, Vito, in the countryside near Olevano sul Tusciano by General Joseph Leopold Hugo, father of Victor. Detained in the Arechi castle in Salerno, he was later transferred to Naples. The French tried to convince him to enrol in their army as Colonel of the Gendarmerie. But the proud rebel, remaining coherent and faithful to his principles, refused point blank. After trial, at only thirty five years of age, on 11th November 1806, he was hung in Piazza Mercato in Naples. Many tears were shed especially by the women who greatly appreciated his prowess as ‘lover of the mountain’.
A devil of a brigand who couldn’t be caught A devil of an irrestible lover.
From “Furore – the painted town” by R. Ferraioli