Fra Diavolo

From Academic Kids

Fra Diavolo (lit. Brother Devil; April 7, 1771November 11, 1806), is the popular name given to Michele Pezza, a famous Italian brigand leader who resisted the French occupation of Naples and is remembered in folk legends and in the novels of the French writer Alexandre Dumas as a popular guerilla leader. Popular superstition invested him with the character of both a monk and a demon, giving rise to his nickname, though it seems that at one time he may have actually been a monk.

He was born of low parentage at Itri. Little is known with certainty of his early life, though he apparently was known for committing murders and robberies. When the Kingdom of Naples was overrun by the French and the Parthenopaean Republic established in 1799, Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, acting on behalf of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV, who had fled to Sicily, undertook the reconquest of the country. For this purpose he raised bands of peasants, prisoners, bandits and other lazzaroni (the lowest class of the people) under the name of Sanfedisti or bande della Santa Fede ( bands of the Holy Faith ). Ruffo pardoned Pezza for murders and made him a leader of one of these bands. Fra Diavolo waged untiring war against the French troops, cutting off isolated detachments and murdering stragglers and couriers. Owing to his unrivalled knowledge of the country, he was successful in disrupting enemy communications, but failed to prevent the capture of Naples by the French in January 1799.

Pezza, like his fellow-bandit warriors under Ruffo, styled himself the faithful servant and subject of Ferdinand, wore a military uniform and held military rank, and was even created duke of Cassano. Despite this, Pezza became known for committing many atrocities. On one occasion he threw some of his prisoners, men, women and children, over a precipice, and on another he had a party of seventy shot. His excesses while at Albano were such that the Neapolitan general Naselli had him arrested and imprisoned in the castle of St Angelo, but he was liberated soon after. When Joseph Bonaparte was made king of Naples, tribunals were established to control banditry, and a price was put on Fra Diavolo's head.

After spreading terror through Calabria while raising an army to return and expel the French, he crossed over to Sicily, where he engaged in further attacks on the French. He returned to the mainland at the head of 200 convicts, and committed further excesses in the Terra di Lavoro. But French troops were on the alert to capture him and he had to take refuge in the woods of Lenola. For two months he evaded his pursuers, but at length, hungry and ill, he went in disguise to the village of Baronissi, where he was recognized and arrested, tried by an extraordinary tribunal, condemned to death and hanged in the public marketplace.

Auber's opera, Fra Diavolo, is founded on traditions associated with the legend, but has very little historical accuracy. Laurel and Hardy starred as "Stanlio" and "Ollio" in the 1933 feature film Fra Diavalo (sometimes titled as The Devil's Brother) based on Auber's opera.

Fra Diavolo is also the name given to a spicy sauce for pasta or seafood. Most versions are tomato-based and use chili peppers for spice, but the term is also used for sauces that include no tomato, or that use cayenne or other forms of pepper. Authors of cook books often assert that the dish was named for Michele Pezza, but documentation is lacking. The devil had been portrayed disguised as a monk long before Pezza was born (see The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Marlowe for an example), so this point must remain doubtful.

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