Laurel & Hardy,
(shrimp & otherwise)
It is not as easy to find information on Fra Diavolo as one might think. He was a bandit, a brigand —anything from Robin Hood to Al Capone, depending on the source of your information— active in the Bourbon defeat of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799.
First, however, there is much more information available on something called Shrimp Fra Diavolo. I found a recipe that serves 6. I should use 36-40 medium-size shrimp. If I can't find peeled raw shrimp, I can substitute peeled cooked shrimp. I may try it. Then, again, I may not.
Also, a bit higher, but not much, on my Fra Diavolo list is the 3-act opera of that name by the French composer, Daniel François Auber (1782-1871). It was composed in 1830. It turns out that Auber also composed an opera entitled Masaniello, who was a Neapolitan revolutionary from the 1600s. (You have probably never heard that one, either, but if you want to read about Masaniello, click here.)
And very high on my list is
the great 1933 Laurel and Hardy film, The Devil's
Brother— or—Fra Diavolo. I suppose that was my first
encounter with Southern Italian brigandage, although I
didn't appreciate that fact at the time. (My second
encounter was getting mugged in the back streets of
Naples, but that is a story for another time.)
The real Fra Diavolo (image, left)
was born Michele Pezza in the late 1770s in Itri, not far
from Gaeta about 60 miles north of Naples. In 1797 he fled
his town to avoid prosecution for having murdered his
employer in a squabble. He took up the life of the bandit.
He was then one of the first to answer King Ferdinand's
call for aid from such outlaws to help retake the kingdom
of Naples from the revolutionary government of the
Neapolitan Republic, which had successfully sent the
Bourbon monarchy packing to Sicily in 1799. He went to
Sicily where he was well received by the King and Queen.
He was made a Captain in the Bourbon army and returned
north where he landed his force of 400 men near Gaeta. He
spent the next 6 months harassing the Republican forces
and the French troops supporting them. He and his men
conducted themselves with such savagery that Cardinal Ruffo, the leader of the
royalist Army of the Holy Faith, forbade them from
entering centers of large population for fear of the
butchery that might ensue.
Fra Diavolo —"Brother devil"— was so-called apparently because he had expressed a wish as a young man to enter the clergy and on a few occasions disguised himself as a monk. He was instrumental, with other brigands like himself, in the Bourbon reconquest of the Kingdom of Naples and helped pursue the retreating French forces back to Rome where that city, too, eventually fell with the collapse of the so-called "Roman Republic".
Five years of peace then
ensued between France and the Kingdom of Naples. Fra
Diavolo enjoyed the relaxing life of the ex-bandit
celebrity, now the newly declared Duke of Cassano and
loyal servant of his king. He would need the respite,
however, for in 1806 Napoleon Bonaparte brought his
considerable military prowess to bear on the Bourbons of
Naples. The French invaded the
kingdom and, once again, the Bourbons fled to
Sicily, protected by the British fleet. Queen Caroline's plan was
as clear as it was futile: retake the kingdom again, the
same way they had done before. Cardinal Ruffo was called
upon, again, to form another army. He would have no part
of it this time, saying that "a man is good for only
one such effort in a lifetime."
Fra Diavolo, however,
answered the call, as did numerous other ex-outlaws of the
day. It is moot whether they were motivated by money or by
loyalty to their king or by fear of eventually all being
conscripted into the French army and sent off to fight
Bonaparte's wars elsewhere in Europe. In any event,
Napoleon sent his brother, Joseph, to Naples as king. At
the top of the list of things to do was cleanse the
kingdom of brigandage. Joseph sent out Colonel Hugo (the
father of author, Victor Hugo) to hunt down the most
wanted bandit of them all, Fra Diavolo.
It was only a matter of
time, but in the autumn of 1806 Fra Diavolo, with a
strong force of 1500 men, but still outnumbered, went back
into the mountains to lead a short-lived and ferocious
game of hit-and-run warfare with the regular army. At the
end he was reduced to the tactic of every-man-for-himself,
telling his remaining men to meet him in Sicily, where
they would regroup. That was not to be. He was captured
alone and exhausted in a tavern in the village of
Baronissi, not far from Salerno. He was taken to Naples
and sentenced to death in spite of an appeal for clemency
brought on his behalf by his nemesis, Colonel Hugo.
The King, however, had his own orders from his brother-in-law, Napoleon. Fra Diavolo was executed by hanging in Piazza Mercato in Naples on November 11, 1806. He apparently went stoically to his death. He wore his Bourbon military uniform.There is no report that he asked for Shrimp Fra Diavolo as a last meal.