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The Gleaner, Carlo Pisacane & the Failed Revolution

This bronze sculpture of The Gleaner of Sapri by G. Ricco was set on the rocks near Sapri in June, 1994.

It has been a while since I've looked at poetry in school books in the English-speaking world. They used to contain patriotic ditties—some based on real eventsmeant to inspire love of country in young minds, especially if copious amounts were learned by rote! (My own memory still holds bits of the galloping dactyls of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, and an English friend tells me that his own haunting hooves are from The Charge of the Light Brigade.)

An Italian version of that is La spigolatrice di Sapri [The Gleaner of Sapri] by Luigi Mercantini. It is one of the most noted poems from the Risorgimento, the movement to unify Italy in the 19th century. (The poet, Mercantini, also wrote the text to the Hymn of Garibaldi, one of the best known of all Italian patriotic songs of that period.)

The Gleaner of Sapri was written in 1858. It is written in the first person, a woman working in the fields in Sapri (120 miles south of Naples in the Gulf of Policastro). She sights the approach and landing of a ship bearing Carlo Pisacane and 300 men who set out from Genoa in the summer of 1857 to liberate the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples. The invasion was a disaster but was at least a precursor in spirit to Garibaldi's successful invasion three years later. Besides the poem, there are other reminders of the event. Many Italian cities have streets named for Carlo Pisacane, and the town of Sapri has a festival each year and has not only a statue of Pisacane but even a sculpture of the Gleaner, herself, perched on the rocks and looking out to sea (photo, above).

In the poem, the narrator follows the landing of Pisacane's band at Sapri and their passage into the local hills where they are overwhelmed by a superior force. The verses of the short poem are broken up by the refrain, "Eran trecento, eran giovani e forti, e sono morti!" ["They were three hundred, they were young and strong, and they are dead!"] It is the most cited line from the poem and has become proverbial—that is, if you say "Eran trecento...", any Italian will be able to finish the line for you.

In his English translation (contained in the Supplement of the Poets and Poetry of Europe, published in 1866), Longfellow says of the poem, "The following striking and simple poem...has reference to the ill-fated expedition of Carlo Pisacane, on the shores of the kingdom of Naples in the summer of 1857, in which, says, dall'Ongaro, 'he fell with his followers like Leonidas with his three hundred.' " (Dall'Onagro was a 19th-century Italian poet. Leonidas was the Spartan hero who with a scant 300 men held off the hordes of Persia at Thermopylae in 480 BC). Longfellow's translation of The Gleaner of Sapri starts:

"They were three hundred, they were young and strong,
    And they are dead!
One morning as I went to glean the grain,
I saw a bark in middle of the main;
It was a bark came steaming to the shore,
And hoisted for its flag the tricolor.
At Ponza's isle it stopped beneath the lea,
It stayed a while and then put out to sea,
Put out to sea, and came unto our strand,
Landed with arms, but not as foemen land..."

and concludes
"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!"

This monument is located in Rome
Pisacane, himself, was born in Naples in 1818. He attended the Nunziatella military academy and then served in an engineer battalion building railways in the kingdom of Naples. He was a totally political thinker and, depending on the source, is described as a liberal, socialist or even the first Italian anarchist. He was, like many of his generation, obsessed not just with unifying Italy but with the principles that would sustain the nation—liberal, classless, anti-authoritarian with freedom and justice for all. Amen. He was involved with the social and political unrest in Italy in 1848 and with setting up and defending the brief life of the Roman Republic in 1849. As a result of such activity, Pisacane was forced to flee into exile on various occasions to England, Switzerland and France.

In 1853 an uprising against Austrian rule in Milan failed; Giuseppe Mazzini, the philosopher of the Risorgimento, then proposed an expedition to stir up a  revolt in the kingdom of Naples to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and help bring about a united Italy. It took a few years for the idea to ripen, but in 1857 Pisacane volunteered to lead the expedition. That was probably not a good choice. Unlike Garibaldi, Pisacane was not born to lead men into battle. He was born to think and write about politics; indeed, he wrote extensively about the Italian wars of 1848 and 1849 as well as about the ideal forms of just government for a new Italy. He was an intellectual in the role of a soldier and not prepared for that role. At least warrior Garibaldi, three years later, sailed out of Genoa with 1,000 men, many of them veterans of earlier campaigns; they were ready to fight and win battles, pretty much of a prerequisite if you are going to win a war. Temperamentally, Pisacane was more like his predecessor in Neapolitan revolutions, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, another intellectual who thought if you explained the justice of your cause to the people, they would rally to you.

Pisacane and 22 like-minded revolutionaries set out as paying passengers (!) from Genoa on the steamer, Cagliari, on June 25, 1857. Once at sea, they hijacked the ship and Pisacane explained his mission to the passengers and crew and invited volunteers to join him. It is not clear if there were any takers. Off the island of Ponza, 50 miles NW of the Bay of Naples, the ship feigned distress and was allowed to land. Ponza was the site of a Bourbon prison that held a number of political prisoners. Pisacane and his men took over the prison, emptied the armory and liberated and enlisted over 300 prisoners, about one-third of whom had had military experience.

They landed at Sapri where Pisacane had anticipated that his arrival would spark spontaneous anti-Bourbon uprisings throughout the kingdom. They were met in Sapri, however, by apathy and suspicion. Pisacane's plan was to head through the Cilento hills towards Padula and turn north and into the Campanian plain to Naples, by which time he apparently thought his ranks would have swollen to an irresistible force. At Padula, they were forced to retreat back to the town of Sanza where Pisacane was killed, most likely by locals convinced by authorities that Pisacane and his men were marauding bandits. (Some sources say that Pisacane, in the face of certain defeat, turned his pistol on himself.) His men then met the main body of about 1200 Bourbon militia and were defeated. The landing at Sapri had sparked no outbreaks of sympathy from the populace much less been a signal to pockets of organized anti-Bourbon resistance that Pisacane had been expecting.

The aftermath: In spite of what the poem says, the 300 did not all go down fighting. Some of them did, yes, but some escaped the battle. Many of them were recaptured and put on trial together with those accused of having either joined or assisted the invaders. All in all, the Bourbon rulers put over 450 people on trial for insurrection. The trial was in early 1858 in Salerno and was widely covered in European papers of the day with speculation that it might turn out to be a repetition of the Bourbon blood-bath in the wake of the failed Neapolitan Republic in 1799. That did not transpire. Seven of the accused were sentenced to death (of those, 3 sentences were commuted to life in prison); 56 were released; 9 were sentenced to life; others were sentenced to varying periods in prison. (All of those imprisoned were freed shortly thereafter by Garibaldi.)

Roberts [source, below] reminds us of historian G.M.Trevelyan's view that Pisacane's expedition was to the Italian Risorgimento as Harper's Ferry was to the American Civil War. The reasoning is that both John Brown and Carlo Pisacane led failed attempts to spark wider conflagrations in the name of grander causes. Both episodes, simply because they failed, thus had the potential to underscore the futility of violence and strengthen the hand of moderates. That is intriguing, but it is hard to think of cases where that has really happened. It did not happen in the United States or Italy; war quickly overtook moderation in both cases. There is, however, a comparison of rhetoric. Given the chance to speak to the crowd assembled to watch him hang for treason and insurrection, John Brown said:

...if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice...I submit; so let it be done!...

Pisacane never stood trial, but one of his group was Giovanni Nicotera, sentenced to death (commuted by king Ferdinand to life in prison). When Nicotera was offered the chance to voice his gratitude in the tribunal by proclaiming, "Long live the king!" he said, "We don't fear prison or death...shouting 'Long live the king!' is like shouting 'Death to Liberty!' "

Finally, I really did find the following quote after (!) everything above was finished. That is too spooky for me not to include it. It is from volume V, book 1 of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (published in 1862):

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.


A fine English-language source on Pisacane is Carlo Pisacane's La Rivoluzione
by Richard Mann Roberts. Pub. Matador. Leicester UK,

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