Giovanni Passannante

Giovanni Passannante
Born (1849-02-19)19 February 1849
Basilicata Salvia di Lucania, Basilicata
Died 14 February 1910(1910-02-14) (aged 60)
Montelupo Fiorentino, Tuscany
Nationality Italian
Occupation Cook
Criminal penalty Life imprisonment
Criminal status Dead
Conviction(s) Attempted murder of Umberto I of Italy

Giovanni Passannante (Italian pronunciation: [dʒoˈvanni ˈpassanˈnantɛ]; February 19, 1849 – February 14, 1910) was an Italian Republican who attempted to assassinate king Umberto I of Italy, the first attempt against Savoy monarchy since its origins.[1] 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.


Early life

Born in Salvia di Lucania (Basilicata), from Pasquale and Maria Fiore, he was the younger of ten children, four of whom died in early age. Grew up in a poor family, he was forced to work since a child as a laborer and a guardian of flocks and was able to attend school only for a short time. Later, Passannante moved to Vietri and after to Potenza working as a scullion in an osteria.

He met a captain of the royal army who, noticing the boy's interest for studies, brought Passannante along with him in Salerno and gave him an annuity to allow a higher schooling. Passannante spent his free time reading the Bible and Giuseppe Mazzini's writings, which brought him closer to republican ideas.

Passannante became involved in Mazzinian circles and began to have his first troubles with the law. In a night of May 1870, he was discovered and arrested by police guardians of public safety while posting revolutionary proclamations against monarchies and popes, as well as celebrating the Universal Republic, Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. After two months in jail, he returned in his hometown, then in Potenza working as a cook. In 1872, he returned in Salerno, continuing his job. In June 1878, Passannante moved to Naples, where he lived from day to day changing various employers.

Attempted murder

Passannante attacking the king

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.

On November 17, 1878 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", he approached his carriage, faking a supplication; suddenly, he pulled out a knife and attacked him yelling: «Long live Orsini! Long live the Universal Republic!».[2]

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!».[3] 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!».[4]


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 18 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.[5] 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).[6] 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!».[7] 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.[8] 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 3, 1879.

Sentence and death

Trial of Passannante

During the trial, held on March 6 and 7 1879, Passannante stated that he had acted alone. He claimed that the ideas of Risorgimento had been betrayed and that the government was indifferent to the impact on already poor people of increases in the flour tax. Passannante was sentenced to death on March 29, 1879, although capital punishment was expected only in instances of actual regicide. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

He was imprisoned in Portoferraio on the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, in a small and dark cell below sea level, with no toilet facilities and in complete isolation. His mental condition deteriorated in these harsh conditions of solitary confinement and reportedly he was brutally tortured. He fell ill with scurvy, became infested with taenia solium and lost body hair. His skin became discolored and his eyes were affected by the lack of light. According to later testimony he came to eat his own feces.[9] Seamen sailing near his prison heard Passannante’s screams.

In 1899, the parliamentarian Agostino Bertani and the journalist Anna Maria Mozzoni reported Passannante’s maltreatment, causing a scandal. After an examination of the prisoner by Professors Serafino Biffi and Augusto Tamburini, who found him in very poor condition, the anarchist was transferred to the asylum of Montelupo Fiorentino. The physicians there were unable to reverse his mental and physical deterioration. Passannante died in Montelupo Fiorentino, at the age of 60.

Post mortem

After his death, his corpse was beheaded, and his head and brain became subject of the study of criminologists, under the theories of anthropologist Cesare Lombroso. In 1935, his brain and skull, preserved in formaldehyde, were sent to the Criminal Museum in Rome, where they were displayed for over 70 years.

The permanence of the remains at the Museum ranked as one of Italy’s more macabre showcases,[10] causing protests and parliamentary questions. In 1998, the then Italian Minister of Justice, Oliviero Diliberto, authored a decree allowing for the displacement of his remains to Savoia di Lucania, but it wasn't acted on until 2007. Passannante's skull and brain remained in the museum, in a neon-lit display case.

On the night of May 10, 2007, the remains of Passannante were taken to Savoia di Lucania and buried secretly, with the presence only of Rosina Ricciardi, major of the town; an undersecretary of Vito De Filippo, governor of Basilicata; and a journalist of "La Nuova Del Sud". Some say it was recommended by monarchists because they didn't want him to receive any publicity. On June 2 of that year there was a mass in memory of the deceased, in the mother church of the town.



  1. Giuseppe Galzerano, Giovanni Passannante, Galzerano Editore, Casalvelino Scalo, 2004, p.567-568
  2. Galzerano, p.396
  3. George Boardman Taylor, Italy and the Italians, America Baptist publication society, 1898, p.88
  4. Galzerano, p.396
  5. Galzerano, p.270
  6. Domenico Bulferetti, Giovanni Pascoli. L'uomo, il maestro, il poeta, Milano, Libreria Editrice Milanese, 1914, p. 57.
  7. Indro Montanelli, Storia d'Italia, Volume 33, Rizzoli, 1977, p.211
  8. Galzerano, p.120
  9. Galzerano, 642
  10. Peter Kiefer (12 May 2007). "Anarchist's Head Is Finally Buried, but Outcry Arises Over Timing". Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  11. Luca Rossi (14 July 2011). "Passannante, and the story of an unusual anarchist. Sergio Colabona's debut". Retrieved 10 March 2012.


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