The Last of the Bandits

I much admired, and have often thought of, two pictures of Horace Verney's, which I saw in the Exposition des Tableaux, of I forget what year, at Paris; in truth to nature, in conception and character, they leave nothing to desire. They were painted at Rome; and represent, one, the attack of brigands,—and the other, the death and confession of the captain of the gang after their falling into the hands of the dragoons.

Much has been written, too, on the subject of these outcasts of society; but no description of their manner of life and habits can compare with Washington Irving's "Painter's Story," or rather Charles de Chatillon's own adventures, when carried off from Lucien Bonaparte's villa at Frescati, in mistake for that prince.

The times are grown degenerate; brigandage is no longer a profession; bandits, like the Mohicans, are become extinct, and from Terracina to Forli, travellers have now-a-days no chance of meeting with a Paolo Ucelli, a Fiesole Ogagna, a De Cesaris, or a Barbone. I remember traversing that tract at a period when I expected every moment to see some of these freebooters in their picturesque costume peep from behind every projecting rock. Civilization and morality have stifled all sentiment;—the Neapolitan frontier is become a Salvator Rosa without its figures.

When I landed at Cività Vecchia from the steamer, I inquired of the landlord of the inn whether the redoubtable Barbone was still an inmate of the fortress; and, on his answering in the affirmative, obtained an order to visit the place. Under the escort of one of the Pope's carabiniers, behold me then in the shadow of that colossal edifice!

It was built by Michael Angelo, and, like all his works, whether in architecture, statuary, or painting, is stamped with the grandeur of his genius. Its stupendous bastions, its ponderous gateway, seem built for eternity. Every stone is a rock such as Briareus and his earth-born brothers might have hurled against Jupiter, in that Titanic war described with such sublime obscurity by Hesiod.

The gendarme was, as is common to all the tribe of cicerones, talkative—not respecting the building, for he had never heard of the great architect, but concerning its then inhabitants. He would, if I had listened to him, have recounted the particulars of Signor Barbone's exploits during the seventeen years that he ravaged like a pestilence the Pontifical states. But I expected to obtain information from the fountain-head, and checked his loquacity.

Our hero had, twice before his present captivity, made terms with the Papal government. Once he was placed with Marocco and Garbarone, two worthy confreres, in the seminary of Terracina; and, just as the priests began to consider him an example of contrition and penitence, bore off the youths into the mountains, where this wolf of the fold barbarously murdered all those whose fathers would not, or could not, pay the exorbitant ransom demanded.

One only of the prisoners escaped the proscription, and the circumstance is a curious one. They were bound two and two, and after great privations and fatigues,—for they were dragged into fastnesses almost inaccessible,—an order was given for their execution. One had already fallen by the stiletto, when his companion invoked Sant' Antonio, the patron saint of brigands, and that name saved him. It is a hint worth knowing. Should any future Barbone arise, remember to call upon Saint Anthony!

Barbone afterwards became keeper of the château of St. Angelo, the great prison at Rome; but quickly relapsed into his old practices, the last of which exceeded in ferocity the rest.

Not far from Forli, an Englishman of distinction, whose name I will not mention, was stopped on his way to Rome. They plundered the father, and carried off the daughter. On reaching his destination he put a price on Barbone's head; but one morning a box arrived, which, instead of his, contained that of the daughter!

The revolting recollection of this ruffian's cruelty made me pause as I stood in the portal and thought of that of the Inferno, for which it would have been no bad model; and thought, too, of the giants who guarded it, whose arms, as they wildly brandished them, looked in the distance like the vans of windmills (the original, by the by, of Cervantes'). They would have been in excellent keeping with the place. For a moment, I say, I hesitated about entering; but curiosity got the better of terror, and I resolved to visit the Bagno, a name which in the month of August it well merited.

In the court-yard were walking several of the brigands who belonged to their monarch's train,—his satellites; but I did not stop to address them. I desired my conductor to show me to the head-quarters of the general, in the interior of the prison.

I found there a great many cells or holes, not unresembling dog-kennels, arched and formed in the massive walls; and, among the rest, the den of the Cacus. He was lying at full length on the floor, which might be eight or ten feet in length; and behind him, almost hid in shade, was crouching another brigand, leaning on his elbows, and stooping low. He was taking his siesta. This bandit was, I afterwards found, Barbone's prime-minister. They were inseparable—the tiger and his jackal, or rather, perhaps, wolf.

Barbone raised himself on one arm at my approach, and eyed me with all the hauteur of a prince. He was dressed like the rest, in the usual uniform,—cap, jacket, and coarse trowsers. He by no means corresponded in appearance with one of Horace Verney's brigands. He was a man of a middle height, corpulent in his person, with a countenance that showed no trace of crime: his features were handsome and regular; and his hair, long, black, and curly, hung over his shoulders. He certainly set all Lavater's theories at defiance. As to his head, I leave that to the phrenologists.

He seemed little inclined to enter into conversation; and, fettered as he was, I should have felt as little disposed to trust myself in his den as in that of a bloodhound. However, perceiving that I did not go away, and stood at the entrance, he at last had the courtesy to come forth. I, too, was inclined to address him civilly, with the hope of knowing something of his history and character; so I said to him,

"You are the famous Barbone, of whom I have heard so much, and long wished to see?"

"Gasparoni, a servirlo," said he.

The reply made me smile, for I doubted not he would have served me, if set at liberty, in his own peculiar way.

"You smile," said he; "perhaps you are come to mock me?" He folded his arms, and looked at me sternly.

"I had no such intention," I replied. "You call yourself Gasparoni. I thought your name had been Barbone?"

"So they styled me," he answered, "from the long beard which I formerly wore."

"Pray may I ask you how you happened to be taken?" I observed inquiringly.

"Preso!" said he contemptuously; "I was never taken. Not all the troops in the Pontifical states could have taken me. None but eagles could have reached our resorts. There we wanted for nothing, besiege us as they might. The peasants were our friends, and brought us plenty of provisions. We annihilated party after party that they sent against us, till the soldiers would fight no longer. Many of them entered our band, which at one time consisted of nearly one hundred. But I got tired of that savage life. In the summer months it was well enough; but to brave the winter among the mountains,—to sleep on the snows with nothing but our mantles to shelter us,—to be deprived of our wives and children,—not to be able to dispose of our booty without great risk, so that even money was often of no use to us! I could point out where many a napoleon and doppia d'oro is buried. And yet," said he after a pause, "that life, with all its privations and miseries, is preferable to confinement in a prison. Oh! you cannot fancy what the want of liberty is to us mountaineers!—to rot in a dungeon,—not to have the free use of our limbs!" Here he clanked his chains.

After this harangue, which he delivered with great volubility, he folded his arms again, à la Napoleon, and a gloom came over him. He seemed to be lost in thought.

"You have said," I observed, "that you were never taken. How then came you here?"

"Here!" he said with emphasis; "I was trepanned—betrayed! The Pope broke his faith; my confessor, his sacred word. I was promised pardon,—full pardon for myself and my brave brothers. We were betrayed—sold; and yet we live in hopes that the holy father will redeem his promise."

"Yes," thought I; "if he had done you justice, you would not be here."

"Your name," I said flatteringly, "is well known in Europe. You are the Napoleon of bandits, and worthy of being classed with De Cesaris."

"De Cesaris," said he contemptuously, "era un miserabile! He took a poor painter for a prince. Ha! ha! Gasparoni would not have made such a blunder." Here he laughed again with a consciousness of superiority. "The fool, too," said he, "to allow the artist to paint his portrait!—it was like a man's putting his name on a stiletto, and leaving it as evidence against himself."

"Perhaps," said I, "like him, you have no objection to the world's knowing something of your story. Charles de Chatillon has immortalized him; he is become an historical character."

"I have no such ambition," said he. "It matters little what the world thinks of me; but you shall have my history, if you have any curiosity to know it."

"The greatest," I replied.

"It is a short one," observed the bandit.

"I am the son of Rinalda, better known in the Roman annals than I am. She was cruelly injured. Deprived of her lover, Peronti, whom they made a priest, she took a hatred to all mankind—a just one, and taught me to revenge her wrongs on the whole human species; brought me up to brigandage as a profession,—and as good a one as any other, and as honourable! I went very early into the mountains, and joined a band of brave fellows, which, on the death of their captain, I was unanimously chosen to command. Chosen from my merit, I governed them by opinion. They knew that I was brave and prudent. I had many times an opportunity of showing that I had all the qualities that constitute a good general: had I commanded an army, like Napoleon, I should have been as invincible. Once we were besieged in the upper ranges of the Abruzzi by a company of Austrians, at the time those maledetti tyranni d'Italia had possession of Naples. We were enclosed on three sides by the troops, and on the other was a precipice of many hundred feet, that plunged, without a shelf or ledge of rock, into the plain. I was at that time detached with nine of my companions; but such was the nature of the crag on which we bivouacked,—so narrow the access to it, that only one person could mount the pass at a time. This our enemies knew, for they lost several men in making a reconnaissance. But our provisions failed us, and we were on the point of giving ourselves up, for fear of starvation, when I discovered an eagle's eyrie, and, to the wonder of our foes, contrived, by plundering it of hares and kids, to support nature for many days. At last the eaglets flew; and then our distress returned, and with it the thought of surrender.

"I recollected, however, that opposite to where a single sentinel had been posted there was a chasm—a fissure—a deep ravine, the top of which was covered with wood; and one dark night, leading my little band, I crawled on hands and knees without being perceived, and poniarded the vidette:—he fell without a groan! We then, after overcoming incredible dangers, reached the brink of the abyss. My troop eyed the gulph with terror. It was narrow; but at the bottom roared a mountain torrent, that from its immeasurable depth looked like a silver thread. I came provided with a rope, to which, when we dare not go down into the plain, we are in the habit of attaching a basket, which we lower to the peasants for provisions; to this rope I adjusted a heavy dagger, and hurled it across the chasm. By good fortune, it got entangled at the first throw among the brushwood, and stuck fast between two of the branches. Having drawn it tight, I fastened it to a tree on our side of the ravine. My companions watched me with anxiety, wondering what next I was about to do. I spoke not a word, but suspended myself over the abyss; and, hand over hand, reached the opposite bank in safety. All followed me, and with like success, save one, whose strength or courage failed him: he unhappily sunk into the boiling gulph, but he was dead long before he reached it; so that his sufferings were less than had he been taken by the Tedeschi. What a supper we made that night! and how soundly we slept! That night—that sleep repaid all our toils!

"Great was the astonishment of our foes when they found we had escaped their snares; and you may by that escape form some notion of the pleasures of a brigand's life.

"But this was not the only time we were near falling into the power of the soldiery. In all my seventeen years of service we were never betrayed but once. You know that one of the great trades in our mountains is that of Carbonari. The wood is of no value but to make charcoal, which principally goes into the markets of Rome and Naples. We always kept on good terms with these gentry. One night we were incautiously—contrary to our usual practice—drinking with them, without having placed a single sentinel, when we found ourselves attacked by an armed party,—not, however, before I heard their arms rattling in the branches; so that we had time to seize our muskets. They were much more numerous than ourselves, but they paid dear for their attack: I killed four with my own hand. I was wounded; but that is nothing—I am full of wounds: look here, and here, and here! The Carbonari fled; but we surprised them afterwards. Who can escape from those intent on revenge!—a time always comes, or soon or late. So with them. We retaliated—terribly retaliated; not a man escaped! Not that I lifted a hand against them,—none ever fell by Gasparoni but in action."

As he said this, his stature seemed to grow; and it was clear that he thought himself a hero. He waited, expecting, no doubt, that I should express my admiration of his exploits; but I remembered the last, and said to him,

"You forget the daughter of the Englishman—her head——"

"Questo Inglese era un impertinente," replied he. "Why did he not send the ransom? He knew, or ought to have known, the laws of brigands; we could not have spared her life had we wished it. No; it would have been an act of injustice—of gross partiality."

Here some of the brigands, who had heard his words, came up, and by their gestures gave confirmation of their general's words.

"And who among the band," I inquired, "was the executioner; for, like Louis XI, I suppose you had your Tristan?"

He pointed to the back of the cave, and called Geronymo, the figure whom I had first observed. He came forward.

"Son quì!" said the man with a hoarse guttural voice, that might have been mistaken for the howl of a wolf.

I looked at him attentively, and not without a sense of horror and disgust. His long and bony, yet athletic form, might have served as a model for a gladiator, for the muscles protruded like one of Michael Angelo's anatomical figures: his cadaverous sallow countenance pale with crime,—his eyes deep sunk, and overhung by thick bushy eyebrows, and emitting a gloomy light as within caverns,—his thin and straight upper lip, with the lower underhung like that of a dog-fish, fitted him well for the bourreau of Signor Gasparoni.

"So you were the executioner of the Englishman's daughter, Geronymo, eh?" I inquired.

"Si, signor," said he, with a grin of satisfaction, that betrayed a pride of office, and a superiority over his fellows.

"Era molto bella!" observed one of the bandits behind me.

I looked over my shoulder. The wretch who spoke was a little corpulent man, and reminded me of one of Rubens' satyrs. There was a most revolting leer on his countenance, which suggested to my mind not her death,—which was a mercy,—but the miserable fate that preceded it. I remembered the story of the peasant girl in the Tales of a Traveller, and shuddered.

Turning round again to that iron-visaged wretch, Geronymo, I said to him,

"Have you no remorse, Geronymo, for all the murders you have committed?"

"Remorse!" he replied, as though he did not understand the meaning of the word: "ought not a good soldier to obey the word of command? Whenever the captain said 'Amazza!' amazzava."

"Avete amazzato molte?" I asked.

"Si, signor, moltissime," he replied, with the greatest nonchalance. His eye lighted up, as he spoke, with a gloomy joy.

I turned from him as from a basilisk, and almost thought I heard the death-rattle of one of his victims.

As I was about to leave the Bagno, I met a capuchin, their confessor. It was the same who had persuaded Gasparoni to deliver himself up to the Roman authorities. I took him aside, and entered into conversation with him. He was a man advanced in age, and of a physiognomy such as I have observed to be common to almost all ecclesiastics in Italy,—heavy, dull, and unmeaning. He told me that Gasparoni and most of his band were very religious, and went regularly to mass and confession. He added, that he had petitioned the holy father for their liberation, and that he had no doubt, if released, that they would now make good subjects.

"The Pope," I observed, "knows them too well by past experience to trust such wretches at large again."

What tales might not this man reveal! but I found he was disinclined to be communicative, and in a hurry to commence his duties. I wished him therefore a buon giorno.

When we have voluntarily shut ourselves up in a Bagno with its unhappy inmates, it seems as though the return to liberty was interdicted to us,—that we are the victims to some snare, and that the iron gates of the prison are actually closed on us for ever. But a moment's reflection dissipates the fearful illusion, and we abandon ourselves, as Lucretius describes those who behold a storm at a distance, to the pleasure derived from our own security; or as we do when leaning over the parapet of a precipice. But, at the same time, I rushed through the open doors like a captive on being delivered from his chains, and, having emerged from the gloomy gateway, breathed more freely, inhaled with a new delight the sea-breeze, and stood watching the sun sink slowly through the vaporous atmosphere till it had totally disappeared below the waters. Then I returned to my inn, reflecting that I had perhaps just seen the last of the bandits. And yet the scene I had witnessed left no impression behind it such as I had expected; it furnished no stores to feed the imagination or to awaken the enthusiasm of art. The poetry of banditism has perished in the citadel of Cività Vecchia.