The case for Ros­alia Mont­mas­son in a his­tor­i­cal novel

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE -

The launch of Maria At­tana­sio’s book La Ragazza di Mar­siglia at San An­ton Palace in the pres­ence of the Pres­i­dent of Malta and the am­bas­sador of Italy to Malta and his wife which took place a cou­ple of weeks ago was very well at­tended. Among the au­di­ence were Mal­tese writ­ers Ge­orge Per­esso who con­tin­ues to give us plea­sure with his writ­ings and knowl­edge of mu­sic on Cam­pus FM and his cousin his­to­rian Gior­gio Per­esso who’s chef d’oeu­vre is a sub­stan­tial book about two Ital­ian anti-fas­cist refugees in Malta: Giuseppe Donati and Um­berto Colosso. Also present was Paolo Gambi the Ital­ian writer and jour­nal­ist who is a fre­quent visi­tor to Malta and is work­ing on two books about our is­land. He has writ­ten over 20 books and sold 100,000 to date.

*** There were two speak­ers that evening: Dr Si­mon Mer­cieca, the his­to­rian and se­nior lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Malta and the author her­self, Maria At­tana­sio who is a writer, a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and much more.

The pro­tag­o­nist of the book is Ros­alia Mont­mas­son who lived in Malta and whose hus­band the lawyer Francesco Crispi (who ar­rived in Malta on the Oronte on 26 March 1853) spent a very ac­tive 21 months on the is­land and was to be­come prime min­is­ter of Italy but died dis­graced.


In his speech Dr Mer­cieca told us that Maria At­tana­sio, the author is not very sym­pa­thetic to­wards Francesco Crispi and rightly so. “She thinks that his his­tor­i­cal per­sona was built on what to­day, we could call fake news. She is here specif­i­cally speak­ing about the breakup of his mar­riage to Ros­alia Mont­mas­son. Once the cou­ple sep­a­rated, the way politi­cians and the pow­er­ful in Italy looked on Ros­alia changed. De­spite the fact that she is a great fig­ure in the his­tory of the uni­fi­ca­tion of Italy, Mont­mas­son ended up be­ing re­jected dur­ing her life­time.”

Dr Mer­cieca pointed out that Ros­alia Mont­mas­son, was the only woman who par­tic­i­pated in Garibaldi’s Ex­pe­di­tion of the Thou­sand. It was on 6 May 1860 that Garibaldi and the Thou­sand set sail for Si­cily. Af­ter the vic­tory Garibaldi ap­pointed Crispi as his Sec­re­tary of State on 17 May, a week or so later.

*** Ros­alia was a staunch sup­porter of Mazz­ini’s cause. Nev­er­the­less, 19th cen­tury lib­eral Italy still thought it ex­pe­di­ent to re­ject her de­spite her Mazz­inian ideals and Repub­li­can prin­ci­ples. “These po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions ren­dered Ros­alia Mont­mas­son more vul­ner­a­ble,” Dr Mer­cieca told his au­di­ence. The fact that she was a Repub­li­can, and as a woman re­jected by Francesco Crispi, she be­came an easy tar­get. “His­to­ri­ans of the Risorg­i­mento did the rest. They ig­nored her com­pletely and when they started to re­ha­bil­i­tate her his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, they did not re­fer to her as moglie of Francesco Crispi whose le­git­i­mate wife she was but re­ferred to her as his com­pan­ion.” The dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing a wife and a com­pan­ion was ex­tremely im­por­tant in 19th cen­tury Italy. Ros­alia had no prob­lem to be­ing iden­ti­fied as Francesco Crispi’s com­pan­ion. She went to live with him, de­spite the fact that they were not yet mar­ried at that point, Dr Mer­cieca ex­plained. “It was a coura­geous de­ci­sion.”


Ros­alia was born in Savoy and in her youth had worked as a laun­dry-woman in Mar­seilles. It is from this hum­ble be­gin­ning that this book gets its ti­tle. “What is of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to Mal­tese his­tory is that she ended up ex­iled in Malta with Crispi. Af­ter the failed 1848 rev­o­lu­tion in Italy, Mazz­ini’s sup­port­ers were be­ing per­se­cuted. Crispi sought refuge in the North but the Savoy monar­chy forced him to leave Mi­lan. He could not go South where Mazz­ini­ans were wanted men. There­fore, Crispi and Ros­alia Mont­mas­son headed for Malta.” Dr Mer­cieca ex­plained that it was their con­nec­tion with Malta that brought him in con­tact with Maria At­tana­sio. Dr Mer­cieca had writ­ten a pa­per, which is on the in­ter­net, about Francesco Crispi. Maria At­tana­sio came across it and called him. “I want to tell you how im­por­tant the doc­u­ments you have pub­lished on the mar­riage of Francesco Crispi and Ros­alia Mont­mas­son are for the his­tory of Italy. They prove what a po­lit­i­cal lier Francesco Crispi was.” She told Dr Mer­cieca how his­to­ri­ans had treated Ros­alia badly but thanks to his re­search he had proven that their his­tor­i­cal ar­gu­ments are all based on a false premise.


Dr Mer­cieca wrote that Crispi’s mar­riage to Ros­alia is recorded in the Flo­ri­ana Par­ish Regis­ters. “But once Crispi joined the monar­chy and re­pu­di­ated his Mazz­inian prin­ci­ples he also wanted to rid him­self of Ros­alia.The rea­sons were two. First Ros­alia Mont­mas- son re­mained Mazz­inian and faith­ful to her repub­li­can ideal to the end. Sec­ondly, Crispi now had an­other woman he wanted to marry. In fact he mar­ried her on the grounds that his mar­riage to Ros­alia was not le­gal. “At the time,” Dr Mer­cieca ex­plained, “Malta did not have civil mar­riage. But even in Italy prior to its uni­fi­ca­tion, mar­riages were within the Catholic church. Crispi’s ar­gu­ment was that even canon­i­cally his mar­riage to Ros­alia was in­valid. His­to­ri­ans and com­men­ta­tors con­tin­ued be­liev­ing this un­truth. At first Crispi’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent and even a num­ber of politi­cians who re­spected Ros­alia ac­cused him of bigamy and this brought down the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment. To re­con­sti­tute his po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, Crispi re­sorted to servile judges, pseudo-moral­ists and politi­cians to de­stroy Ros­alia Mont­mas­son.”


Maria At­tana­sio came across this char­ac­ter of Ros­alia Mont­mas­son by chance, while surf­ing the in­ter­net and un­til the pub­li­ca­tion of this his­tor­i­cal novel, Ros­alia was never given the im­por­tance she is due in the his­tory of the Ital­ian Risorg­i­mento. Ital­ian Unity was not only made by men but women too, were in­volved. Why was the voice of this woman si­lenced in his­tory, and why was the only woman who par­tic­i­pated in Garibaldi’s Mille Ex­pe­di­tion, ten­derly car­ing for the sick and wounded, not given im­por­tance in Ital­ian his­tory? It was in the course of try­ing to answer these ques­tions that the author came across Dr Mer­cieca’s pa­per on Francesco Crispi on the in­ter­net. In this pa­per Dr Mer­cieca dis­cusses Crispi’s mar­riage to Ros­alia in Flo­ri­ana and pub­lished an im­por­tant doc­u­ment the Sta­tus Libero of the cou­ple which at­tests that this was a law­fully con­tracted mar­riage. Francesco Crispi ar­gued that his mar­riage to Ros­alia was not valid claim­ing that it had not fol­lowed the cor­rect le­gal pro­ce­dure, when in fact it had. “Pro­ce­dures were scrupu­lously ad­hered to at the time by Curia of­fi­cials,” said Dr Mer­cieca. ***

He told the au­di­ence that now he re­alises that when Maria At­tana­sio phoned him af­ter com­ing across his pa­per on in­ter­net, she had sounded per­plexed be­cause she did not know how, he, as a his­to­rian, was go­ing to re­act to her ac­cu­sa­tion that his­to­ri­ans can ma­nip­u­late his­tory. “I have no prob­lem in agree­ing with her on this point though this was not a ques­tion of his­to­ri­ans ma­nip­u­lat­ing his­tory. Facts were ma­nip­u­lated by cor­rupt politi­cians and judges, and his­to­ri­ans never dared to ques­tion these facts. At­tana­sio has had the courage to do so.”

And so it came to pass that the author came to Malta and stayed with Dr Mer­cieca who hap­pens to live in Tarx­ien where Ros­alia and Francesco Crispi had lived for a while.

There is no space to write more but by the end of the evening I re­alised what an im­por­tant novel this is and what a ras­cal Francesco Crispi must have been. Ros­alia had landed on a bad penny.


But let me say a few words about the author, Maria At­tana­sio whose hus­band was also present. In her speech she was very pas­sion­ate about her work and es­pe­cially her novel which is very suc­cess­ful in Italy and is in its sec­ond print­ing. She said she burst into tears when she han­dled the doc­u­ment prov­ing that Crispi and Mont­mas­son had been legally mar­ried.

Among many other points she made, she said that Crispi and Mont­ma­son were mi­grants in Malta. Although Crispi was a lawyer he could not work here so Ros­alia be­came the bread­win­ner and worked as a laun­dry woman. She pointed out that sim­i­lar cases can be found amongst mi­grants com­ing to Europe. She spoke about the dis­cov­er­ies that are be­ing done in Europe about Mont­mas­son, in­clud­ing her ef­fi­gies which were dis­carded and only used for dec­o­ra­tive pur­poses.

Thanks to this novel, Ros­alia’s his­tor­i­cal fig­ure is be­ing re-eval­u­ated. Ac­cord­ing to the author Crispi sought to rec­on­cile him­self with her and or­dered a bust of Mont­mas­son from an artist from Cal­t­a­girone, the author’s home town.

As Dr Mer­cieca said Maria At­tana­sio’s novel has made his­tory. She has suc­ceeded in res­ur­rect­ing Ros­alia Mont­mas­son and plac­ing her on a plinth where she de­serves to be. He ap­pealed to the au­thor­i­ties to name one of the streets in Tarx­ien af­ter Ros­alia. “There are streets ded­i­cated to Crispi in Malta but none to Ros­alia Mont­mas­son,” he pointed out. Let us hope some­one is lis­ten­ing. [email protected]­de­pen­

H.E. The Ital­ian am­bas­sador to Malta Mario Sam­martino, the author Maria At­tana­sio, Ms Fed­er­ica Mo­dena the am­bas­sador’s wife and Ms Rosette Fenech

Dr Si­mon Mer­cieca and the author Maria At­tana­sio

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