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A short history of Bronte

The Debates and Reconstructions of the Facts


L. Sciascia, G. Verga, The process to Bixio, Paintings and drawings, Sculpture Symposium, Film by F. Vancini

Benedetto Radice

Benedetto RadiceThe detailed reconstruction of the bloody episodes happened in Bronte in August of 1860 was done by the brontese historian Benedetto Radice, still a child when these things were happening, in his two books "Historical memories of Bronte" and "Nino Bixio in Bronte", (this last one republished in 1963 by the publisher Salvatore Sciascia, with a preface by Leonardo Sciascia, ).

The same publisher Salvatore Sciascia, in 1985, published "The process of Bronte", that integrally recovers the acts of the first summary trial.

Leonardo Sciascia talks about a "skeleton in the wardrobe" of which everyone knew the existence, but about which no one was talking about and that Benedetto Radice, through a meticulous and careful study of the historical sources, finds out and reveals, pushed by the love of "natio loco" (native land), but also from the wish to return dignity and justice to the liberal lawyer Lombardo, that Bixio had very hastily got shot as chief of the riot.

The professor Radice, drawing inspiration from personal memories, from testimonies of actors and witnesses, from original documents and transcribed with admirable diligence, with a colorful and detailed narration, puts a new light on the "Facts", reintegrating those painful events in the right proportions , sine ira, without attenuation, but also without exaggerating, with serene objectivity.

«Of these facts, the Root wrote, I will narrate what was impressed in my boyish mind: I was five and a half years old, how much I could gather from the mouths of the survivors of every party, who were actors and witnesses, and how much I have deduced from the reading of the trial of the guilty, which took place in Catania in August 1863».

«On the true facts of Bronte during the summer 1860, had a strong impact the testimony of the Garibaldian literature and the accomplice silence of a historio­graphy all wrapped around the myth of Garibaldi, of the thousand, of the freedom for the Sicilian people: until a scholar of Bronte, professor Benedetto Radice did publish in the Historic Archive for Oriental Sicily (year VII, installment I. 1910) a monograph titled Nino Bixio a Bronte; and already, to give the remote reasons for the riot, had published (1906, Historic Sicilian Archive), the essay “Bronte in the 1920 revolution.

The integral edition of the «Nino Bixio to Bronte»
Benedict's Radice monograph
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And everybody knew about the injustice and the ferocity of the repression, but it was like having a skeleton in the cupboard; everybody knew about it but nobody wanted to talk about it: for prudence, for utmost discretion as the dirty clothes, if not washed in the family, may never be washed at all.»

(Leonardo Sciascia, Nino Bixio a Bronte, 1963)

Leonardo Sciascia

«That bloodbath for a piece of lava»

Leonardo SciasciaThe hunger for land, for this arid and black ground that with inexpressible patience and hard labor the men can change into gardens, here has generated bloody riots as that which, in August 1860, was blindly repressed by Nino Bixio at Biancavilla, Randazzo, Cesaro’, Bronte; and in Bronte with particular rigor as the hunger for land of the peasants applied also to the feud that the Bourbon king had given in1799 to the admiral Nelson, the famous dukedom of Bronte, the parceling out of which happened only recently, as this estate, besides the Bourbon king, had been usurped also in1491 by the Pope, and for centuries Bronte’s citizens had to fight for the rights of their Council over the feud, judicially and with tragic riots.

In Bronte the word “communist” indicates the party, the popular faction that appealed for and demanded the restitu­tion to the Council of the usurped land and its parceling out in opposition to the “ducal” party, in which the well-off class, supporting the great usurpation represented by the duchy were hiding their own small misdeeds.

It is a very interesting municipal story and for the facts of August 1860 gets a case of conscience of the Italian state, of the nation; it says what the Risorgimento had not been, not realized ideas, hopes painfully frustrated for which we still feel pain and frustation.

The divided stony ground of the original duchy, (only few hundred hectares remains to the hard heir of Nelson), is now neglected as any­where in Sicily. To the same peasant coming back to Bronte from the north of Italy, from Germany or Belgium, to spend here his holidays, shall appear absurd and incredible that people of his condition, if not relatives, had been able to kill or to be killed for a piece of stony ground.

“We want the “sciarelle!”, (small piece of lava ground), the shout of the drowned riot, is far and unreal, almost ridiculous, the feud looks now like a deserted lunar landscape. But it is strange to find oneself suddenly in the midst of it, facing the Castle of Maniace, surrounded by tall trees, wrapped in sound of water. And the trees and the water seem to evoke fog and you can have the illusion to stand on a piece of En­glish country side.

As anywhere man carries the image of his own country; and the English administrators of the duchy, even without reali­zing it, recreated here the ambience of their own faraway land. Entering the castle, which is actually the ancient Abbey of Saint Maria of Maniace, the sug­gestion gets deeper.

In the court yard there is a cross of lava stone, only shaped differently to ours, studded, in memory of Nelson; In the church are buried the English feud administrators and their families; and for who knows something about the facts of 1860 would notice the name Thovez; as Wil­liam and Frank Thovez were the administrators during that time.

They, as their predecessors and successors in the administration of the feud, were able to recreate an English landscape around the castle, while the Sicilian reality was able to change them into Sicilians of the worse kind: mean, cunning, tortuous, very able to play both sides.

Here, where the Greek Giorgio Maniace defeated in 1040 the Saracens, on the feud exactly called Saracina, Orazio Nelson and Nino Bixio’ s glory falls down in blood and injustice: Nelson accepted this land as payment for treason and a massacre, Bixio became an apostle of terror instead of justice.

(Drawn from works 1971-1983 edited by Claude Ambrosie Bompiani’ s classics.)

Giovanni Verga


Besides Giuseppe Cesare Abba, also a great narrator of the level of Giovanni Verga, who, at the epoch of the facts, was 20 years old, dedicated to the dramatic rural riot of Bronte his short story, "Libertà" (Freedom).

Freedom paid very dearly, tragic epilogue of the secular vassalage grown in the Nelson' shadow, in the rich Dukedom from 1799 settled in the castle.

"Libertà" is the most significant example of a short story that the Verga wrote inspiring himself to the fight between opposite classes and to the perennial violence of their relationship. In the various parts of the tale he makes correspond a historical moment and a diverse point of view.

The initial part will have Saturday, August 4, as the date in which the riot against the "galantuomini" (gentlemen) explodes in all his violence and savagery. The point of view of the common men is highlighted here in a raising of enthusiasm and violence. Everything appears right and possible, be it the longing for economic and social equality, be it the thirst for revenge towards the wealthy dominant class.

In the central part the short story describes the facts of Sunday August 5; it is strengthened the vision of the freedom as equitable distri­bution of the land and from it gleams an utilitarian and individualistic vision of the facts.

The third part is divided in a three year period, from the arrival of the Garibaldians to the emission of the sentence of the appeal court to­wards the rebels. Here Verga makes prevail the middle class point of view:. "Freedom" only means violence and disturbance against an esta­blished order.

The events run slowly, in a raising of indifference,  while the defendants fall into the fatalism of who is not able to explain the reasons of its defeat.

Of the bloody riot remains so only the pain of the accused, while  life goes on as before. Everything remains the same, everything was use­less, "in the air go only the rags".

  Libertà (la novella di Verga)

The process to Bixio

To remember and re-write the tragic facts of 1860, Bronte celebrated, after over a century, from the 17 to 19 October 1985, in the hall of the Capizzi College, a convention-process  against Nino Bixio.

To the convention participated scholars, jurists, intellectuals, men of study, historians of remarkable value.

Between the others participated the historians Emilia Morelli, Giuseppe Giarrizzo, Salvatore Candido, the lawyers Armando Radice, Guido Ziccone, Sebastiano Aleo and Cesare Zaccone.

The court, which judged Bixio for the facts of 1860, chaired by Giuseppe Alessi, was composed by Antonio La Pergola, Ettore Gallo, Vittorio Frosini and Martino Nicosia.

The lawyer Sebastiano Aleo, together to his younger friend Armando Radice, supported the charge, (for the defense were chosen Guido Ziccone and Cesare Zaccone) revealing themselves once more as two intransigent assertors of the fundamental rules of the right and democratic state.

The outcome was an absolution for Bixio and also for the rebels.

The circumstances took all the blame giving reason to all of them: the lawyer Lombardo, the murderers, and Bixio who sent to death witout distinction the one and the others not to be held up in the Garibaldian triumphal march towards Italy's Unification.

In memory of Bixio's victims, the 10 of october 1985, the Council got a monu­ment, erected in San Vito square below the steps leading to the Church. The sculpture is mde by the brontese Dome­nico Girbino.

With a lot of emphasis, the two plates affixed on the monument say: "Ad perpe­tuam rei memoriam that in the August 1860 of brontese citizens gave the life in holocaust The Town Council October 10th, 1985".

The convention-process acts, together with a severe reconstruction of the facts of Bronte, "The trial to Bixio" was published in 1991 by the publisher Giuseppe Maimone in the book cared by Salvatore Scalia.

A careful analysis of the facts of Bronte and other important and unpublished documents (letters and proclamations of Bixio and Garibaldi, decrees, political and military correspondences, acts of the process, etc.) were reported by the brontese Antonio Radice in his book "Risorgimento perduto" (De Martinis &C., Catania 1995).

Interesting the letters and the correspondences of the English consul, John Goodwin, addressed to Garibaldi and to Crispi, Minister Of The Interior, with pres­sing invitations to protect the agricultural-patrimonial interests of the Nelson (in one of the letters to Crispi, Goodwin shows the lawyer Nicola Lombardo as an instigator of the crimes and he asks "to arrest, judge and condemn by the com­petent authority the author of such wave of murders").

In the three photos: the Court of the "Bixio Process": Vittorio Frosini, Antonio La Pergola, Giuseppe Alessi, Ettore Gallo, Martino Nicosia and Pino Firrarello, mayor of Bronte at that time; the monument erected by the Municipality of Bronte in Piazza San Vito (place of the shooting) in memory of the five Bronte people executed after the summary process ordered by Bixio.

The Court conclusions

The commission thinks that:

1. The responsibility for the slaughter, the violence, the devasta­tions and the fires that happened in Bronte from the 2 to 5 August 1860 is complicated and includes several components that concur, in many ways, to determine the savage explosion of violence. First of all the political deafness and the selfishness of the ruling class that obstinately denied a needy population op­pressed by old injustices, the few reforms emanated by Garibaldi. Add to this the rage repressed for a long time and the peasants despair elated by the interference of real criminals esca­ped from jails and attracted from neighboring disorders and turbulence of the populations. It concurred also, the indifference and the underestimation of the provincial authorities to whom the
same Lombardo had, in good time, informed of the dangerous tension in the town.

2. The death sentence 9th August 1860 of the Mixed War Com­mission, that condemned the lawyer Lombardo and the other four Bronte’s citizens, (executed the following 10th by shooting), is clearly unjust. To such decision the said Commission had arrived though a unilateral and specious valuation of the proof on the merit side and, on the trial side, accepting several and se­rious violations that ignored or damaged fundamental defense rights. as:
a) Nomination of a sole counsel for the defense for all accused, expressed by only one of them and retained by the Commission even when had to find incompatibility between two accused indi­viduals.
b) The non-objection to the fact.
c) The concession of an absolutely risible term for the prepa­ra­tion of the defenses (1 hour)
d) The refusal in the preliminary acts, reiterated during the hearing, to assume the witness indicated by the defense.
e) To have judged and got shot a notoriously known mentally han­dicapped person, without any verification on his mental com­petence.

3. The responsibility of the historic grave injustice falls exclusi­vely on the special judges who passed the sentence. There isn’t any, not even circumstantial, element from which could be dedu­ced that Nino Bixio had influenced the Commission, judging organ which had not been constituted by Bixio as it had been established by the provincial Governors on the basis of a dicta­torial decree, and that directed the great part of the committal proceedings and debate while Bixio was away from Bronte.

4. Bixio’s hostility towards the accused, and some of his verbal intemperance , should be ascribed to the malicious information given by the municipal authorities who had been overturned by the riot, besides the distinctive and temperamental intolerance of his personality, excited by the worry for public order behind the Garibaldi-s expedition and by the fear that this present charge would deprive him of his participation to the imminent landing on the continent.
This Commission, however, even excluding the Nino Bixio joint responsibility in the shooting of the rebels of Bronte, cannot get out of being censured for grave imprudence, in relation of the matters in examination of his behavior as an occupation troops General, and of excessive or unjustified hardness of his conduct towards the condemned.

5. If the Commission judges, even without having received any pressure, could have been conditioned by Bixio’s attitude, or, sharing his worry for the public order intended to give the popu­lations an example of rigor which would work also as a deterrent, are psychological situations that, unfortunately can happen du­ring war time but are not justifiable in the humanity’s ethic con­science.

Paintings and drawings of Italian masters

Pietro Annigoni

"Libertà", di Alberto Gianquinto,1988

Alberto Gianquinto

To remember the tragic facts of 1860, in 1988, in the ancient granaries of the Nelson Castle, took place an extraordinary show of "paintings and drawings of Italian masters based on the Verga's short story and on oppression".
The show, on iniziative by the brontese artist Nunzio Sciavarrello, was realized by the Insti­tute for Culture and art of Catania with the participation of very many Italian artists.
Among others, sent their works Pietro Anni­goni, Remo Brindisi, Agenore Fabbri, Pericle Fazzini, Renato Guttuso, Emilio Greco, San­te Monachesi, Domenico Spinosa, Orfeo Tamburi, Ernesto Treccani....

Libertà, di Orfeo Tamburi
Orfeo Tamburi

"Libertà, di Ernesto Treccani, 1988
Ernesto Treccani

Agenore Fabbri

"Libertà", di Saro Mirabella, 1988

Saro Mirabella

Domenico Spinosa

San Vito, di Nunzio Sciavarrello
Nunzio Sciavarrello

Libertà, di Emilio Greco
Emilio Greco



International Sculpture Symposium

In 1990, also organized by Nunzio Sciavarrello, took place, in the gardens of the Nelson Castle, an International Sculpture Symposium for the creation of an open air museum.

Also this time the reference to the "facts of Bronte of 1860" was obvious, even in the words of the Senator Pino Firrarello, president of the organizing Committee, that opened the symposium works saying: «The theme treated by the artists is " Freedom", argument to which Bronte is bound since ancient events which should not be forgotten because history must serve to project the future to a better live

The works exposed between the pluricentenary plane and eucalyptus trees, are part of the open air museum of sculpture of the Nelson Castle.

Chronicle of a massacre that history books never told

A film by Florestano Vancini

Also the movies took a starting point from the facts of Bronte telling them in a film by Florestano Vancini of 1972, "Bronte-chronicle of a massacre that the history books didn't tell" (the film, in colors, lasting 109 minute, for obvious economic reasons, was filmed in a village of the ex Jugoslavia).

Under the Florestano Vancini direction participated Ilija Dzuvalekovski, Ivo Garrani, (who was playind the part of the lawyer Lombardo), Rudolf Kukié, Modrag Loncar, Mariano Rigillo. To the screenplay participated also Leonardo Sciascia. The film portrays the phases of the dramatic episode happened in Bronte, not much after the "l'impresa dei Mille" (the venture of the Thousand). 

The film, his people always exploited, wanted to show how Sicily remained always the same, with his privileges, his arrogant and lazybones nobility. Even if the work of Vancini, which did not get a large success of public, from its first projection aroused a very lively discussion. Participated, between others, Angelo Solmi, Alberto Moravia, Mino Argentieri, Giuseppe Galasso and Paolo Mieli.

The film had a diffusion of some sort in the schools, as didactic material, use­ful to a better comprehension of the Risorgimento. Recently has been restored by the National Film Library with the inedited part of 14 minutes of scenes shot by Vancini and not previously assembled.

A scene taken from the film of Vancini on the facts of Bronte in 1960.
Ivo Garrani, who plays the part of the lawyer Lombardo, the moderate who guided the riot and tried to conduct it bloodlessly, during an interview said that in the film there is an "autentic" Sicily, even if the shooting was done in Jugoslavia "con skilled Jugoslav actors and an excellent reconstruction of the town".


(Paolo Macry - "Corriere della Sera" of the 23rd January 2002)

1860 - The fight between Bourbon and liberals hydes the class conflicts that divided the community

Farmers against gentlemen

So the South condemned the Unity

In Summer of 1860, armed with pitchforks and tricolor, Bronte's farmers  move in to attack the  duchess Nelson, heir of that admiral Horatio to whom Ferdinando IV had granted the title for services rendered in the liquidation of the republic of the 1799.

Since decades, really, between the brontese people and the Nelson there has been a creeping war.

The farmers - but also a part of the local elite - want the division of the state property land. The dukes and all those who use - or better, usurp - that land, are against it. Until in 1860, because of the Garibaldi promises  and of the collapse of three state, the conflict explodes.

Mobilized by the antifeudal elite, to whom the situation shall quickly get out of hands, the brontese rebels massacre, besides the duchess(1), the hated notary and about ten «gentlemen». Few days later, Bixio troops, restored order; sentencing to death some rebels, between them a lawyer, their presumed leader. The others shall be processed and, four year later, condemned.

The episode unmasks a canonical reading of the Risorgimento that remains till now opaque, often apologetic and reticent.

If the facts of Bronte were mostly ignored, by this historiography, is because the show weakness of the unitary process and the deep incom­municability that, already in 1860, emerges between North and South. In Bronte the nation's language was absent and the fight between Bourbons and unitary - or between absolutists and liberals - was fading in front of bigger conflicts of factions that divide the community.

A picture that shows, already before banditry, the wounds of the class struggle, on which has insisted the historiography of Gramsci), but also -as reported by Paolo Pezzino - typical forms and motifs of a civil war. For their part, the liberators don't seem to understand very much.

The South of Italy, Bixio shall say to his wife, «is a country which should be destroyed, and send everybody in Africa to be civilized».
So much more in a Sicily marked by strong autonomies crossed by those armed gangs ready to become mafia, the Risorgimento appears as a fuse, strangely, risks breaking the social fabric exactly at the moment of the political unification.

To Bronte, it is difficult to give reports. The rebels, to defend legality. against usurpations, commit a ferocious massacre. The Garibaldians, to restore civil family life, organize summary executions. Liberation (or conquest) of the South is a puzzle of similar situations, that is still waiting to be thoroughly and properly analyzed. Out of rhetoric and simplified judgment....

(1) Paolo Macry here makes a mistake: Charlotte Nelson-Bridport was never object of any  atrocity; the "duchess" was in England at the time.

Translated by Sam Di BellaITALIAN VERSION

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