Fra Diavolo Brigand of Itri
Itri was the birthplace of the legendary bandit, Michele Pezza, born 10 April 1771, who became better known as Fra Diavolo. Stories recount that he suffered a serious illness at the age of 5. Fortunately he survived the infection. It was a custom in Itri, for such children to take part in a procession held on the Feast of San Francesco di Paola to show the family’s gratitude for their child’s recovery from ill health. The children were dressed in miniature habits of the Franciscan monks. His mother expressed a wish for him to enter the clergy.
Thus Michele was given the nickname of Fra Michele Arcangelo. However even at this tender age Michele was said to have been something of a tearaway. Therefore his teacher transformed his nickname to that of Fra Diavolo, meaning Brother Devil.
As he grew up he was sent to work for a saddler, but in a violent dispute he killed his employer. The saddler’s family sought revenge and succeeded in ambushing Pezza. In the ensuing fight and with a furious temper Pezza managed to kill both of his opponents. He then fled to the local hills to avoid capture and took up the life of a bandit. He became a notorious brigand, who knew the local terrain like nobody else.
He led a ruthless gang of bandits who preyed upon unsuspecting travelers journeying along the lonely mountain pass between Fondi and Itri. Here he had a stronghold at the fort of Sant’Andrea. He and his men also reeked havoc in the local countryside, terrorising local villagers with blood curdling attacks.
In 1798 he was pardonned for the two murders by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, who at that time was a chief advisor to the Bourbon King Ferdinand IV of Naples. He was recruited to fight against the French during the time of Napoleon’s Invasion of Italy and became associated with the political revolutions in the South of Italy. The French captured the city of Naples and proclaimed it to be the Parthenopean Republic in the January of 1799. King Frederick and his wife Maria Carolina had fled to Sicily.
Cardinal Ruffo and Fra Diavolo made their way to Calabria to organise a counter-revolution, finding new volunteers and support for the fight against the French. They succeeded in recapturing Naples in June 1799. Fra Diavolo went on to lead many merciless reprisals against those who had been collaborators with the French. He was arrested for ransacking the town of Albano Laziale. However he was pardonned by the King who awarded him with the rank of Colonel, the title of Duke of Cassero, an estate and a generous pension. In July 1799 he married Fortunata Rachele Di Franco and they had two sons. They settled and made their home near Itri.
In 1806 French troops recaptured Naples and Napoleon’s brother Joseph was declared King of Naples and Sicily. With a price upon his head, Fra Diavolo was betrayed and finally captured by the French. He was hanged in the public marketplace of Napleson the 11 November 1806, at the age of 35.
Alexander Dumas wrote about Fra Diavolo in several of his novels. In 1830 Daniel Francois Auber wrote an operetta which was loosely based on this story.
During the 1930’s it was made into a comic film entitled The Devil’s Brother starring the comic pair of actors Laurel and Hardy.
In Itri there is a museum dedicated to the brigands that once plagued this area. It is called the Museo del Brigantaggio.