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Luigi Lacchè, Monica Stronati (Eds.), Questione criminale e identità nazionale in Italia tra Otto e Novecento

Questione criminale e identità nazionale in Italia tra Otto e Novecento
Franco Capozzi
p. 140-143
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Luigi Lacchè, Monica Stronati (Eds.), Questione criminale e identità nazionale in Italia tra Otto e Novecento, Macerata, Edizioni Università di Macerata, 2014, 290 p., ISBN: 978-88-6056-417-7

Texte intégral

1On 17 march 1861, Vittorio Emanuele II was proclaimed, “by the grace of God and will of the nation”, first King of Italy. A month later, however, the rebel Carmine Donatelli “Crocco” seized and occupied (with his private army, made up of former Bourbon soldiers and armed peasants) the town of Melfi, where he was greeted as a liberator by the local population. Immediately after the unification, therefore, the Kingdom of Italy was plunged into a state of emergency, as public order and the stability of the new nation were threatened by brigandage and “dangerous classes”. As Luigi Lacchè and Monica Stronati note, in no other European country has the “criminal question” played such an important role in the construction of national identity as in Italy. The aim of the volume, which originates from a conference held at the University of Marcerata in 2011, is to shed light on how “real” or “imagined” criminality shaped intellectuals’ (in particular jurists’) discursive practices and crime policies in the nineteenth century, contributing to the creation of images and stereotypes that would long influence the public debate and play a central role in the state-building process and the formation of an Italian national identity. The volume is made up of 11 chapters (4 of which had already been published in books or journals) that tackle this topic from a variety of angles and perspectives, although some of the essays are clearly more consistent with its aim.

2The first criminal organization that attracted the attention of the new ruling class was the Camorra. A report sent to the Ministry of the Interior in 1861 highlighted that the Camorra controlled all Naples’ principal markets and imposed illicit taxation through intimidation and violence. Cesare Lombroso contributed to spreading the fame of the Camorra with his famous work The Criminal Man, in which he linked this phenomenon to the anthropological and political backwardness of southern Italians. Marcella Marmo debunks the view that the Camorra was a “sad legacy” of the Bourbon government, showing how its rise was directly linked to the events leading to the Italian unification.

3Francesco Benigno also maintains that the origins of Mafia and Camorra were closely intertwined with the process of Italian state-building. After the unification, and inspired by the burgeoning literature on the “dangerous classes, the authorities deliberately constructed the myth that mafiosi and camorristi were members of secret criminal organizations that threatened the survival of the new state. Prefects and police used this alleged rise of Mafia and Camorra as a tool to justify the criminalization and repression of any form of political opposition.

4Central in the cultural construction of Italian identity was the phenomenon of brigandage. The many peasant uprisings that broke out in the south after the unification were a threat to the credibility of the Kingdom of Italy in Europe, since they called into question the idea that the new state was born from the will of the Italian people. Under the pressure of the European public opinion, the Italian ruling class adopted the strategy of downgrading the status of southern rebels from political opponents to “brigands”. Monica Stronati shows that the criminalization of peasants was grounded on negative stereotypes of Southern Italians that circulated in the travel literature of the time. By turning a “social question” into a “criminal question” the state provided a rationale for the systematic persecution and elimination of political adversaries in the South. The infamous 1863 Pica law authorized special measures to contrast brigandage, such as death penalty for whoever rebelled against the authorities or helped brigands.

5Camorristi, mafiosi and brigands were not the only enemies that the new state had to face. Giorgia Alessi charts how the Italian judiciary dealt with anarchists in the decades following the unification. A common strategy at the time was to not prosecute anarchists for the offence of threat to the king and the government, but rather for that of criminal association. By downgrading anarchists from political to common criminals, the judiciary prevented the latter from being tried by a Court of Assizes, which would give them public visibility and lengthen the time for reaching a verdict. One of the most influential commentators on the issue of anarchism was Cesare Lombroso, who published in 1894 the pamphlet Gli anarchici. The attitude of the Lombrosian school towards anarchists was rather ambiguous. While Lombroso pathologized anarchists claiming that they were marked by mental and physical stigmata, he also stressed that they were less atavistic, violent and immoral than most criminals. Lombroso opposed harsh punishment for anarchists because it would turn them into martyrs and heroes for the people. Lombroso’s collaborator Enrico Ferri contributed to the stigmatization of anarchists by depicting them as violent, disorganized and nihilist, as opposed to the peaceful, well organized and progressive socialists.

6Cesare Lombroso was also one of the expert witnesses called to testify in the trial of Salvatore Misdea, the Calabrian soldier who in 1884 killed seven and wounded thirteen fellow soldiers after being provoked about his southern origins. As Carlotta Latini points out, the case of Misdea is illustrative of how the Italian legal science of the time was addressing some crucial and unresolved issues concerning the criminal justice system, such as the abolition of death penalty for soldiers (Misdea would be executed a few months after his conviction), the role of the medical witness in the courtroom, the different treatment of defendants in civilian and military court proceedings. Furthermore, the crime committed by Misdea is revealing of the discomfort felt by many citizens forced to leave their employments to serve the Italian army, as well as of the “internal” racism that divided the new nation.

7Lombroso and his school were central in orienting the debate on the alleged racial differences between northern and southern Italians at the end of the Nineteenth century, as underlined by Paolo Marchetti. It was in particular the Sicilian criminal anthropologist Alfredo Niceforo that linked southern Italy’s higher crime rates to the racial characteristics of its inhabitants, who were thought to be biologically predisposed towards violent and criminal behaviour. According to Marchetti, Lombrosian criminal anthropology was a “political” science at the service of the new state, since the criminalization of certain groups of the population, such as southerners, offered on the one hand scientific legitimization to state repression and participated to the construction of a national identity on the other, defining models of “bad” and “good” Italian citizenship.

8The belief in the existence of two anthropologically different Italies, the civilized North and the backward South, led the Lombrosian school to oppose to the introduction of a unified criminal code, and to call for a “racial federalism”. For Niceforo the Italian state should have had two governments tailored to the different sensibilities and racial characteristics of its populations rather than a centralized structure: a liberal self-government in the North and a dictatorship in the South. Lombroso’s collaborator Scipio Sighele claimed that “patriotism” was “a big misconception” since Italians were profoundly different from each other and certainly not brothers. However, as Floriana Colao points out, regional cultural differences, the coexistence of different legal cultures and the brigand emergency in the South were real obstacles to the creation of a first Italian criminal code. These conditions brought about a state of “penal federalism” that lasted until 1889, when the Zanardelli code finally entered into force.

9The prison system played an important role in the Italian state-building and the creation of a national identity, according to Mary Gibson. The reorganization of prisons after the unification brought about new professional opportunities for the middle-class and contributed to the birth of the Italian school of criminal anthropology, since criminologists easily obtained the authorization to carry out research on inmates. The appalling living conditions of prisoners increased their resentment towards the new state, while their encounter with fellow inmates coming from different regions might have helped them to develop a sense of national consciousness.

10In conclusion, Questione criminale e identità nazionale tra Otto e Novecento is an interesting and informative book that retains its interest despite the fact that a few years have passed since its publication. While the volume is certainly not groundbreaking in its content or methodological approach, it succeeds in showing, from different perspectives, how closely the “criminal question” was intertwined with the construction of Italy’s national identity. The book also reveals how strong the cultural influence of the Lombrosian school of criminal anthropology was in nineteenth century Italy, which makes the volume particularly interesting for scholars interested in this topic.

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Franco Capozzi, « Luigi Lacchè, Monica Stronati (Eds.), Questione criminale e identità nazionale in Italia tra Otto e Novecento »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, vol. 25, n°2 | -1, 140-143.

Référence électronique

Franco Capozzi, « Luigi Lacchè, Monica Stronati (Eds.), Questione criminale e identità nazionale in Italia tra Otto e Novecento »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], vol. 25, n°2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Franco Capozzi

KU Leuven, History Department

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