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December 4, 2021

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Briefing - Marco Sciarra, Gentleman Bandit

The Auruncian Mountains, an range encompassing some hundreds of square miles roughly between Rome and Naples, had from Medieval times until quite recently had considerable notoriety for rural banditry. Mentioning the two largest towns in the region, one eighteenth century traveler charged, “I hear that a large part of the population of Fondi and Itri are thieves, highway robbers, and have assisted in robberies and assassinations,” while another traveler implied that murder was a daily occurrence. Of course, rural banditry was a common feature in much of the world in earlier times. One has but to think of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which Valentine encounters a gang of bandits with amusing results, not to mention Dick Turpin, the famed English highwayman who seems to feature prominently in numerous romance novels. Now, bandits usually are just that, brigands out to make a fast buck. But sometimes they are “bandit heroes,” men resisting oppressive rulers, such as England’s legendary Robin Hood. Such a one was Marco Sciarra, who attained such fame that he features notably in Stendhal's 1839 short novel L'abbesse de Castro.

From about 1583 through the mid-1590s, Sciarra, “a most daring robber, and captain of a numerous troop of banditti,” made his headquarters near Itri, a well fortified town perched on a mountain top on the Appian War, slightly more than half way between Rome and Naples. At the head of a band that at times numbered as many as 1,500 men, including 600 on horseback, Sciarra dominated the bandit business across the waist of Italy, from sea to sea, between the Volturno River and the Papal States, an area in which he was reputedly “practically monarch . . . and more powerful there than His Holiness the Pope or His Majesty of Spain,” not even fearing to raid to the gates of Rome itself. So serious were Sciarra’s depredations that in 1591 the Spanish Crown – which ruled Naples – authorized a nobleman, Carlo Spinelli, to raise an army of 4,000 men in order to hunt the bandit down. For a time it looked like Spinelli might run Sciarra down. But Sciarra defeated a portion of Spinelli’s column, and then fled into the Papal States. Spinelli declared “victory,” and disbanded his army. But Sciarra was soon back in business at the old stand. Sciarra had the most style of any of the brigands.

In April of 1592, the great poet Torquato Tasso was journeying with a small party from Naples to Rome. On the 26th Tasso and his party had reached Mola di Gaeta, a small town on the coast, about eight miles south of Itri. There they stopped, because, as Tasso wrote on the 28th,

We are here at Mola, detained by the dread of Marco di Sciarra, who is in the neighborhood with a great number of ruffians. Yesterday, we are told, they killed many persons of the country; others they took prisoners . . . . ”

The following day, Tasso added,

The other night, this whole country resounded with cries, with the screams of women, when the bandits assaulted Castellone. I wished to go forward, and stain with blood the sword that you gave me, but I was restrained by my companions.

Sciarra, 48 at the time, soon learned that Tasso was at Mola di Gaeta, afraid to proceed further for fear of being robbed. The bandit chieftain immediately placed himself and his men at Tasso’s service, escorting the poet and his two companions through the mountains and across the Pontine Marshes to the border of the Papa States; esthetically inclined bandits protecting the great artist from their less sensitive co-criminals. After this incident, both poet and bandit each resumed his profession. Tasso, of course, went on to become one of Italy’s greatest poets, while Sciarra remained a very busy bandit.

During 1592 alone, aside from his adventure with Tasso, Sciarra and his merry men plundered and destroyed the town of Gioia dei Marsi, in the Abruzzi, raided Torre dei Feboni, looted the Church of the Holy Sacrament in Foggia, sacked the Church of the Annunciation in Nora, and raided Lucera. He wasn’t always so successful, of course; that same year, just a few days before his encounter with Tasso, on the night of April 23-24, he tried to sack Cerreto Laziale; a few miles north of the Pontine Marshes. Tradition has it that as his men were sneaking up on the town under cover of darkness, they startled a cat, which began howling, thus alerting the defenders. Still, we’re talking about five successful raids out of six tries – a rate of “operations” equivalent to one major raid every two months, not to mention casual highway robberies.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish Crown and the Pope both authorized military action against Sciarra, Perhaps it was because he was tired of playing cat-and-mouse with Papal and Neapolitan troops, or perhaps because the hectic pace of his depredations was tiring, in 1594 Sciarra decided to enlist as a mercenary in Venetian service, and was shortly, commanding his merry men in the Ushok War, against pirates in Dalmatia.

Interestingly, the folks whom Sciarra formerly “terrorized” today make a tidy profit off his memory. He is usually numbered among the “illustrious citizens” of Itri, while the people of Monte Padula, in the Abruzzi, stage an historical re-enactment of a raid by his men on the night of August 19-20, and those of Cerreto Laziale annually celebrate April 24th with a special liturgy, procession, and fireworks, to commemorate their delivery from his depredations, all, of course, in the interests of historical commemoration, not to mention tourist dollars.

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