These are some of the most famous female brigands of Italy. By coincidence, they were all born on the same year, and their criminal activities took place during and after the complete mayhem that was the Unification of Italy.
The first four photos are of Michelina Di Cesare (1841–1868), the next three are of Maria Oliverio (1841–1879), and the last two of Filomena Pennacchio (1841–1915), on the left, along with her two friends and accomplices Giuseppina Vitale and Maria Giovanna Tito.
In Italy, like in Spain, female bandits were uncommon but not unheard of, especially in such tumultuous times. These three women had very different reasons to become outlaws: Michelina was basically driven by poverty, Maria hacked her own sister to pieces with an axe because she “slandered” her (it’s pretty fucked up if you ask me, but that’s Honour™ for ya: talk shit, get brutally murdered), and Filomena got tired of getting beaten by her husband and stabbed him to death with a pin. So rather than stick around and get caught (or starve), they all chose a brigand’s life.
There’s a lot of complicated context here re: the political situation, but post-Unification brigandage in Italy is a whole field of history in itself, so I won’t get into it. Let’s just say that all three of them operated (more or less) against the new regime, being vaguely pro-Bourbon, and leave it at that. Though I should note that, much like Royalist highwaymen during the English Civil War or pretty much anyone during the Mexican Revolution, people often became robbers first and found a political justification later, especially if there was a faction willing to offer them support in exchange for doing some dirty work or another.
Behind the camera / posing for the camera
But I want to talk about the photographs themselves. These aren’t candid shots, they are photo-shoots, and I am endlessly fascinated by bandit portraits. It’s a whole genre, these portraits, there were tons of them taken in the late 19th and early 20th century, from South America to the Mediterranean and from Eastern Europe to China, wherever bandits thrived and photographers were around. (And I suppose with North American gunslingers too, but y’all already know about those, right?) The bandits stand in front of the camera and pose, rarely with a frown, often with a smile, always with a gun and just brimming with pride.
And I always wonder, what’s the story behind the picture? How did the photographer meet the bandit in the first place, and how did he feel directing a dangerous outlaw? (”Stand over there, head a bit to the right, hold the rifle higher, now hold still please.”) Was he scared? Excited? How did they come to an agreement? Who had to convince whom? And for that matter, who directed whom? Portraits are traditionally credited to the photographer, but any photographer worth his salt will tell you that it’s really a collaboration, and that they can’t possibly take what their subject won’t give.
So sometimes the whole thing was the photographer’s idea, perhaps backed by a newspaper or other publication. It would be too generous to call it “photojournalism”, it was mostly sensationalist tabloids looking for a quick buck. Other times the bandits went and hired a photographer entirely of their own initiative, to construct their public image by themselves and/or to keep the photos as a private memento. There are accounts of bandits basically kidnapping a photographer and marching him through the wilderness to their hideout, where he is treated like an honoured guest – and also forced to take their portraits, or else. Common props (other than guns) are bandoliers, knives, and various trophies. Sometimes they even take an action pose, pretending to be mid-fight, or hiding for an ambush. Sometimes it’s important to shoot on location and depict them in their element, commanding their realm (a very common moniker for bandits is “King of the Mountains”). The possibilities are endless.
And there’s just something so inherently boastful and defiant, to cheerfully pose for a portrait with a smile and a gun and a price on your head.
As for the photo-shoots of these Italian brigantesse, we know the story of two of them. The first one, of Michelina Di Cesare, was shot very professionally in a studio in Rome. Her photos circulated a lot in the press, and were used as propaganda for her, and her gang, and indirectly the Bourbon loyalists (who may have paid for them). That’s probably why she isn’t wearing her normal clothes, but a traditional peasant costume: she’s dressed up as a folk heroine. Sometimes bandits just had to be media-savvy.
The second one, of Maria Oliverio, was unusually taken after her capture (during which she was injured in the arm). It’s unclear whose idea it was, but she was sentenced to death and then pardoned by the king, her sentence commuted to life in prison. As for the third one, of Filomena Pennacchio and friends, we don’t know how it came to be but it’s pretty ironic, considering that Filomena eventually surrendered and collaborated, leading to the arrest of those same friends she posed with. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and eventually did 8.
Maria Oliverio’s post-capture photos (the second set) are remarkable. It’s hard to imagine that they were taken without the consent and supervision of the authorities, so I find it extremely strange that they are actual portraits, the kind which glorifies the bandit, rather than the standard gory post-mortem photographs which police so gleefully distributed after they killed (or executed) bandits. These aimed instead to demystify and ridicule and straight up defile the body, turn the person to a thing, strip the bandit from agency, dignity, sometimes even clothes. (Michelina Di Cesare, who was killed in battle, got that treatment too.) But that’s also a whole field of research in itself (just look up bibliographies for “the criminal corpse”, it’s… quite depressing, really), so I won’t get to it either. Perhaps Oliverio’s captors were vaguely pro-Bourbon too, and that accounts for the strangely flattering photo-shoot, who knows.