The case for Rosalia Montmasson in a historical novel
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]dependent.com.mt
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