November 17th, 1878 – Long live the Universal Republic!


Giovanni Passannante was an Italian anarchist who attempted to assassinate king Umberto I of Italy on November 17th, 1878, the first attempt against Savoy monarchy since its origins. Originally condemned to death, his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. The conditions of his imprisonment drove him insane and have been denounced as inhumane.

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After the death of his father Victor Emmanuel II, Umberto I prepared a tour in the major cities of Italy to show himself as the new sovereign. He was accompanied by his wife Margherita and the prime minister Benedetto Cairoli. The royal cortege planned to visit Naples, although there was a heated argument in the city council about the high cost that would be incurred on its reception.

When Umberto I and his court were parading in Naples. Passannante was among the crowd, waiting for the right moment to act. While the king was on “Largo della Carriera Grande”, the anarchist approached his carriage, faking a supplication; suddenly, he pulled out a knife and attacked him yelling: “Long live Orsini! Long live the Universal Republic!”


Giovanni Passannante (February 19th, 1849 – February 14th, 1910)

Umberto I managed to deflect the weapon, receiving a slight wound on his arm. Queen Margherita threw a bouquet of flowers in his face and shouted: “Cairoli, save the king!” Cairoli took him by his hair but the prime minister was wounded in his leg. Passannante was hit in the head with a saber by Stefano De Giovannini, captain of the cuirassiers, and was arrested. He tried to kill the king with a knife of 8 centimeters that he traded for his jacket. The weapon was wrapped in a red rag on which was written: “Death to the King! Long live the Universal Republic! Long live Orsini!”

The attempted regicide shocked the entire nation, and the government feared an anarchist conspiracy. Passannante’s action brought disorders in many cities, with a total of several dead, wounded, and arrested. On November 18th of the same year, in Florence, a group of anarchists threw a bomb into a crowd that was celebrating the king’s survival. Two men and one girl were killed, and over ten people were injured. Another bomb exploded in Pisa with no casualties, and in Pesaro a barrack was assaulted.

Some republicans such as Alberto Mario condemned his action. The poet Giovanni Pascoli, during a socialist reunion in Bologna, gave a public reading of his Ode to Passannante of which there is no trace anymore because Pascoli destroyed it immediately after his reading. Only the last verse is known, of which this paraphrase has been handed down: “Con la berretta d’un cuoco faremo una bandiera” (With the cook’s cap, we’ll make a flag). After the arrest of some anarchists who protested against Passannante’s detention, Pascoli and group of internationalists protested against the verdict, and the poet shouted: “If these are evil-doers, then long life to evil-doers!” Pascoli and the internationalists were arrested.

Some newspapers directed baseless charges against Passannante: Verona’s L’Arena and Milan’s Corriere della Sera portrayed him as a brigand who had killed a woman in the past, while in a lithograph published in Turin it was reported that his father was a camorrista. A few days after the attempted murder, Cairoli’s government was strongly accused of inability to maintain public order, and, after a rejected motion of confidence presented by the minister Guido Baccelli, Cairoli resigned.

Passannante’s family was jailed; only his brother was able to escape. Giovanni Parrella, mayor of Salvia di Lucania, went to Naples to apologize and ask for a pardon from Umberto I. In a sign of forgiveness, on order of the monarch’s counselors, Passannante’s hometown was forced to change its name to Savoia di Lucania, by a royal decree on July 3rd, 1879.

During the trial, held on March 6th and 7th 1879, Passannante, who acted alone, claimed that the ideas of Risorgimento were betrayed, the government didn’t care about people, who became poorer because of the growing flour tax. Passannante was sentenced to death on March 29th, 1879, although capital punishment was expected only in case of regicide, but his penalty was commuted to life imprisonment.

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The anarchist was imprisoned in Portoferraio on the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, in a small and dark cell below sea level, with no toilets and in complete isolation for years. Day after day, his mental conditions became critical, as he couldn’t talk to anyone and was brutally tortured. He fell ill with scurvy, struck by the taenia solium, lost body hair, his skin discolored, his eyelids reversed on the eyes and, according to some witnesses, he came to eat his own feces. Every night seamen who passed near his prison could hear Passannante’s screams of pain.

In 1899, the parliamentarian Agostino Bertani and the journalist Anna Maria Mozzoni denounced the maltreatment, which caused a big scandal. After the examination of the professors Serafino Biffi and Augusto Tamburini, which found him reduced to little more than a jelly, the anarchist was conducted to the asylum of Montelupo Fiorentino but the physicians were unable to recover him from his mental and physical issues. Passannante died in Montelupo Fiorentino, at the age of 60.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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