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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Nov. 2002
Everything is related to Naples
Number 19 in this series. Link to all items here.
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
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".