“The brigand Gasbarrone (or Gasperone) is the best known of the bandits who tramped the countryside of southern Lazio in the first half of the nineteenth century,” wrote the scholar Elio Lodolini in 1951.
“He saw prostrated at his feet princes and lords, rich brokers who exploited the poor Christs. He is the one who has taken revenge against the humiliations of the powerful. He humiliated the rich and defended the poor. He then took away from the rich and gave to the poor “: it is Antonio Gasbarrone di Sonnino, passed to legend as the Italian “Robin Hood”.
Born in Sonnino from a humble family on 12 December 1793, at 15 he lost both his parents, left an orphan with his brothers to govern a herd of cows, in this mountain territory on the border between the Kingdom of Naples and the State of the Church.
An unexpected episode, a love story, ended in tragedy, and turned Antonio into an outlaw, beginning his famous career.
In 1814 he killed the brother of the woman he wanted to marry after being rejected by her family because his brother Gennaro had already escaped to the mountains and became a brigand. Antonio’s was a destiny marked by nothing left but to follow in the footsteps of those who had preceded him, as often happened in those parts on the edge of a borderland.
Unlike his brother, however, he managed to put himself in charge of a band that controlled the heights of Monti Lepini and Monti Ausoni and became guilty of heinous crimes against the powerful, between 1821 and 1824, attracting international attention.
Among the memorable undertakings of Gasbarrone was the abduction of 34 girls who were in the convent of Monte Commodo: the young girls, whose parents could pay the highest ransom, were taken away by force in full daylight.
They kept the girls hidden for ten days in the mountains but, for a happy exception to the normal treatment by bandits, the girls were treated with all possible regard in that sad situation: this episode fueled the fame of “gentleman brigand“.
Despite this, unfortunately for him, it was a woman who was the tool that the authorities used to destroy his gang and take him into custody. The Roman police enticed the woman with whom he had a relationship with a reward of six thousand scudi and the brigand, lowering his guard, fell into the trap.
He remained in prison for most of his life, until 1870 when with the Unification of Italy he was finally freed.
However, the detention did not prevent the myth of Gasbarrone from growing and spreading. Rather, during the first decades of imprisonment, he aroused inexhaustible curiosity, so much so that numerous letters were addressed to him at the Bagni di Civitavecchia where he was imprisoned.
Soon his prison became a destination for so many people that the local French consul, the famous Stendhal, on 29 January 1840 wrote angrily to his friend: “Out of a hundred foreigners who come here, fifty want to see the famous brigand Gasperone, and four or five M. de Stendhal “.
So, the fame of Gasbarrone had crossed the borders of Italy, much to be the subject of other famous quotes. Besides Stendhal, also Alessandro Dumas quotes him in the Count of Montecristo.
In general, most of that literature of Northern Europe dealt with satisfying the fantasies of a bourgeois public attracted by the adventurous and fictional echoes that the “romantic” Italian brigands were able to arouse.
It is a lasting myth that arose around Gasbarrone, that made him one of the best-known bandits in history. A myth that he himself developed and helped to feed from the cell where he was imprisoned, writing memoires to be sold as souvenirs.
Also, with his fellow prisoners, he would stage assaults and kidnappings in front of the fascinated eyes of tourists who went to visit. And those kidnapped did not fail to pay a reward as a sign of gratitude for the thrill of having been the protagonists who escaped an authentic danger: therefore, he was even a “brigand actor“, an interpreter of himself.
Rejected, however, from his town of origin, he led the last years of his life being portrayed while “doing the sock” – telling of his deeds outside the taverns of the Roman district of Trastevere, until he was sent to spend his last days in a kind of hospice in northern Italy. He died in Abbiategrasso in 1882, at the age of 89.
His history and the spirit of brigandage in the history of the populations of central Italy can be explored in the Museum of the Borderlands, where the story is told with emotion through installations of contemporary art.