BANDIT LANDS 11 – The Little Angel

Horace Vernet (French, 1789-1863). ‘Italian Brigands Surprised by Papal Troops,’ 1831. oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum (37.54): Acquired by William T. Walters, 1876.

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Angelo Duca was born in the town of San Gregoria Magno in the province of Salerno around 1734. His parents were probably tenant farmers and he received no education, though was considered a leader among his schoolmates. By hard work and application Duca was able by the age of twenty to make enough to buy a small block of land on which he built himself a house. This was a considerable accomplishment and the young man looked set for a prosperous and rewarding life.

But the local landholder, Francesco Carraciolo, possessor of several titles including Duke, took offence at the young shepherd’s small plot of land within his otherwise lordly domain and began amusing himself by trespassing upon the property, much to the futile irritation of the struggling owner. This situation had been in place for some time when Duca’s young nephew inadvertently strayed across the boundary into the duke’s land and was set upon by one of the duke’s gamekeepers. Angelo was outraged and confronted the gamekeeper, demanding the return of the boy’s jacket, which, in accordance with the practice of the time, the duke’s man had retained until a forfeit was paid. There was an argument, escalating into gunplay, firstly by the gamekeeper and then by Angelo who shot and killed one of the duke’s horses. This unfortunate act sealed Angelo’s fate.

He attempted to approach the duke’s administrator with an undertaking to pay compensation for the horse and increase the workdays he was obliged to provide to the duke’s estate each year, as well as the tithe he was required to provide at harvest time. His representations were rejected and the duke had an injunction brought against Angelo that involved the forfeit of his house and land. Angelo attempted to gain the intercession of a more fair-minded relative of the duke, but this only made matters worse and Angelo now had only one option left. He must ‘go in to the hills’ and become a bandit. As Benedetto Croce, the first historian to seriously study Duca’s case put it: ‘public opinion was not wrong in considering him unjustly persecuted’.

Duca joined the band of Tommaso Freda, a violent brigand, learning the tricks of the trade. When Freda was executed by his own men for the price on his head, Duca probably became the leader, perhaps having his nickname of ‘little angel’ bestowed at this time. Unlike Freda though, Angiolillo  insisted on strict discipline among his men and was transparently honest in dividing the shares of captured booty, taking only the same as his men, an almost unheard-of equality among brigands. Operating mainly in the mountainous north of Basilicata in southern Italy and surrounding regions, ‘the little angel’ was reputed never to have killed without justification and, in legend at least, murdered no one at all. His main method of obtaining funds was said to be by extorting it from those able to pay, usually through polite threatening letters. 

His legendry includes a tale of how he robbed a bishop on his way to Naples. Angiolillo  asked the cleric how much money he had and was told that the man possessed a thousand gold coins. The bandit then asked how long the bishop would be in Naples and was told that he would be there for one month. Saying that he would only need half that amount to accommodate himself for that period of time, Angiolillo  relieved him of five hundred gold coins saying he was happy to take only that amount and wished him well for the remainder of his journey.

In one story Angiolillo  relieves a wealthy Benedictine abbot of half his store, dividing the booty between his own band, poor peasants and providing the dowry for a young girl. As a woman who could not secure a dowry at this time and place was usually condemned to a life of prostitution, this is an especially significant outlaw hero action and one with which Angiolillo  is frequently credited in his folklore. He is also said to have established his own court, taking the role of the magistrate to settle local disputes, nearly always favouring the poor. He righted wrongs against discriminated priests and forced farmers and administrators to reduce the price of corn so that the poor might be fed. 

On another occasion he invaded the banquet of the Duke of Ascoli, relieving the nobles of gold and food which, according to his ballad:

Then he went down, and for the ladies and the poor,

He had a dinner of good things prepared,

And said: ‘If the lords are feasting,

So too must poverty feast!’.

In another Angiolillo legend the great bandit comes across a poor man being dragged to gaol because he cannot pay back the money he owes the usurer. Angiolillo first releases the man, then confronts the usurer, inflicting a moralistic speech upon him and then burning his records and taking all his money. This he, of course, distributes among the poor. These and many other Robin Hood-like actions, real or not, earned Duca the traditional honoured brigand title of ‘King of the Countryside’.

Angiolillo ’s afterlife was further polished by his numerous victories against the forces sent to hunt him down, most notably at Calitri where he and eleven men roundly thrashed a force of thirty-seven soldiers. These escapades and his increasingly flamboyant style, which included having glittering uniforms made for his men and himself, all contributed to the growth and spread of his fame and by all accounts he was treated as near-royalty by the people of the region and provided the essential sympathy and support required to keep all outlaws at large.

In common with many other outlaw heroes of myth and history, Angiolillo  was deeply religious. This also caused him to believe that he was magically or divinely protected from danger and harm.  He supposedly wore a magic ring that warded off bullets, a useful protection commemorated in at least one folktale. Another of his legends emphasises the universal skill of the noble robber to fool his enemies by disguise.

One of the most commonly-told oral traditions of Duca, told both to feet-on-the-ground historians Croce in the late nineteenth century and, eighty years later, to researcher Paul Angiolillo  (no relation to Duca), focuses the outlaw’s legend. Once, seated inconspicuously in a tavern the outlaw overheard a full regiment of soldiers boasting how they would defeat the notorious brigand. He was so enraged that he revealed himself and challenged the soldiers to capture him. Recovering from their astonishment, the soldiers rushed him. The outlaw grabbed a length of hard-dried codfish and laid about them as they came, forcing them all to run away.

Angiolillo’s end came in 1784 and conformed to the pattern of the outlaw hero. Betrayed by a member of his gang, he was finally run to ground in the Capuchin monastery of Muro Lucano. Wounded himself, and with another wounded accomplice, Angiolillo was trapped in the monastery tower and burned out by the soldiers. His companion was taken but told the soldiers that his leader was dead, a ruse they initially believed. 

But then Angiolillo made a dramatic reappearance, falling to the ground from a great height and injuring himself as he landed. In the confusion and in his disguise, he was able to walk through the line of soldiers and take shelter in an aqueduct. Alas, a young boy saw him and alerted the troops. At this point, according to legend, Angiolillo’s magic ring had fallen off, thus explaining his capture. 

The outlaws were taken to Salerno and held awaiting trial. So popular was Angiolillo that many volunteered to defend him in court. But the King decreed that the dangerously popular outlaw was to be hanged without the formality of a trial, an action that would later be strongly criticised by the Sardinian ambassador in a report to his government on the administration of the Kingdom of Naples just two years later. Angiolillo’s body was drawn and quartered, the various grisly parts being publicly displayed in those parts of the country where his depredations had been most frequent.

Angiolillo’s ballads further embellished the considerable legend of his life and a contemporary reported in the early 1790s that the Neapolitans ‘look upon him as a martyr, who perished as a victim of his love for the people.’ His songs were in oral tradition until at least the end of the nineteenth century and continued to circulate in street pamphlets during the early twentieth century. A number of writers, including Dumas, romanticised the real and attributed deeds of Angelo Duca, ‘the little angel’ who became ‘King of the Countryside’ in late eighteenth century southern Italy.

SOURCES:

Croce, B, Angiolillo (Angelo Duca): Capo di Banditi, Pierro, Naples, 1892.

Paul F. Angiolillo, A Criminal as Hero: Angelo Duca, Regents Press of Kansas, Lawrence, c1979.

Guiseppe Goran, Mémoires secrets at critiques des cours, des goveurnementsts, et des moeurs des princpaux états de l’Italie, Paris, 1793.

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