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Sardinia: the legacy of the notorious shepherd-bandits of the mountains

The island of Sardinia, politically part of Italy but with a distinct language and culture, has a historical reputation for insurrection and lawlessness. Antonio Melechi explores the origins and legacy of the notorious shepherd-bandits of the mountains

Protesters demonstrate against a US military base at Santo Stefano in 2005
Published: May 18, 2020 at 5:52 pm
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In the early 1920s, DH Lawrence set out on a short tour of Sardinia, coming to Italy’s second-largest island to discover somewhere “outside the circuit of civilisation”. On arriving, it seemed to the author that he was in some “strange and wonderful” land. The Sards he encountered seemed equally wild and inscrutable, rousing in him an “uneasy sense of blood-familiarity”. Sardinia engendered a primal response – perhaps unconsciously reflecting its turbulent past.


Lying in the centre of the western Mediterranean, Sardinia is as close to Africa as it is to Italy. Control of the island passed from Carthage to Rome in ancient times, then to Pisa and Spain during the Middle Ages, before falling into the possession of the dukes of Savoy (in what’s now south-east France and north-west Italy) in the early 18th century. Too inaccessible to become a staging post for Grand Tourists on their rounds of classical Europe, Sardinia received its first British adventurers in the mid-19th century, when the island was described in travelogues such as John Tyndale’s Island of Sardinia (1849). What Tyndale discovered was a richly forested, mountainous island of 9,000 square miles, with “a want of roads and transport” and a largely rural and illiterate population of some 600,000.

As Tyndale traversed the length of the island on horseback, he was struck by the Sard language – Latinate but heavily influenced by Greek, Spanish and Catalan – and intrigued by the palimpsest of Christian and pagan traditions. Up in the mountains he faced the prospect of encountering fuoriusciti (bandits and outlaws); down in the valleys, malaria was rife. At every turn, poverty was a tinderbox to conflict. Villages were riven by vendettas. Highland shepherds and lowland farmers were in perpetual conflict. And while foreign investors were buying up large estates, speculating on the arrival of the railways, the dukes of Savoy were sending military attachments to deal with riots against laws demanding the enclosure and division of common lands.

Sardinia’s principal mountain ranges, particularly the Gennargentu massif in the central south, formed a natural blockade against its serial colonisers, and the uplands long remained immune to encroaching laws and strictures. This spirit of independence and communitarianism, rooted in the ancient tradition of transumanza – seasonal migratory shepherding – led the Romans to christen the region the Civitates Barbariae, a land of unpacifiable highlanders. In AD 594, Pope Gregory I observed that they lived “like irrational animals, ignorant of the truth of God and worshipping wood and stone”.

In towns of the mountainous central eastern region known as the Barbagia, overshadowed by the granite peaks of the Gennargentu, the legal edicts imposed by the Aragonese in the 14th century, and by the Savoyards at the beginning of the 18th, held little currency. Personal and communal rights were here dictated by rules of pastoral law known as the codice barbaricino. Besides covering the theft of livestock and resources from neighbouring towns and villages, the unwritten code specified the conditions under which individuals or groups could seek retribution. Insisting on proportionality in dealing with enemies, it maintained that a cattle thief could be avenged by cutting off his ear, and that a perjurer could be wounded with a single slash of the mouth. Its paramount shibboleth was ‘sangue chiama sangue’: blood calls for blood.

The paramount shibboleth of the pastoral law of Sardinia’s mountains was ‘sangue chiama sangue’: blood calls for blood

The contents of Sardinia’s first legal constitution, the Carta de Logu (1392), suggest that banditry had existed in the Barbagia and surrounding regions throughout the Middle Ages, but it was not until the arrival of the Spanish that the fur-clad shepherds known as Sardi peliti came into open conflict with their colonial masters. Making desperate attempts to curb the tide of outlawry, the Spanish banned beards and carnival masks – the enemy had to be seen at all times – and circulated lists of bandits, detailing the crimes of these ‘enemies of country and state’. The most dangerous could be killed with impunity, others arrested and traded for a bounty.

Savage nature

The Savoyards considered the mountain shepherds their racial inferiors. A report published in 1834, during protests against enclosure, placed the people of the rural Barbagia on the first rungs of human development, suggesting that their savage, feral nature rendered them incapable of living in civil society. The intransigent highlanders were similarly abused after Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed king of a unified Italy in 1861. Weeks after unification, Paolo Mantegazza, Italy’s most renowned physician, stood up in parliament and denounced the hill shepherds as the scourge of Sardinia.

Over the following decades, as the abolition of common lands resulted in the wholesale loss of grazing lands, enmities deepened. Nuoro, the island’s poorest area, was the worst affected, and in 1868 shepherds from across that region ransacked regional offices, destroying records of common land transferred to private ownership.

The production of Pecorino cheese rose sharply in this period, discovering new export markets, but the pastoral soon went from boom to bust, triggering a sharp rise in homicide, kidnapping and bandit activity across the highlands. In 1894, when the coastal town of Tortoli-Arbatax was attacked and looted in a bandit raid, the Italian government declared a state of emergency, sending military and police to lead a ‘caccia grossa’ – big game hunt – for bandits. Before the century was out, almost 200 fugitives had been killed by the military police in Sardinia, and some 70 carabinieri fell victim to violence during the war on banditry.

While troops went on the hunt for mountain bandits, the government commissioned the criminologist Alfredo Niceforo to study the native population. Having taken cranial measurements of hundreds of residents in the so-called ‘delinquent zone’, Niceforo and his caliper-wielding colleagues declared that region’s population to be an evolutionary throwback. In his 1897 report, Niceforo recommended a programme of ethnic cleansing, implying – a contemporary critic of colonialism suggested – that Sardinia’s shepherd bandits be tackled “with iron and with fire, condemned to death like the ‘inferior races’ of Africa and Australia”.

By the 1950s there was still no justice for the poor. ‘Su connutu’, remained their forlorn lament: back to the old ways

Mainland politicians failed to grasp that history, not heredity, explained the resurgence of banditry. As the Sardinian-born political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) later observed, the problem of law and order in his homeland was an inchoate class struggle: a conflict that was “mixed up with banditry, blackmail, burning forests, laming livestock, kidnapping women and children, with attacks on the municipality”. Age-old traditions of banditry had evolved into a “form of basic terrorism”, aimed at the growing nexus of state power, usury and foreign investment.

When the anthropologist Franco Cagnetta arrived in the town of Orgosolo in 1952, he saw scenes much the same as those witnessed a century earlier. The town was ring fenced with military police. Locals suspected of crime were subject to curfew and internment without legal recourse, and spies were paid to inform on the local population. There was, Cagnetta observed, still no justice for the poor in Orgosolo. ‘Su connutu’, remained their forlorn lament: back to the old ways.

Fearsome avengers

Many of Sardinia’s most famous and revered fallen bandits are today memorialised in their hometowns, remembered not only as victims of the mano pesante – the heavy hand of the state – but as fearsome avengers, friends of the poor and oppressed. Thanks in part to Eric Hobsbawm’s pioneering study Primitive Rebels (1959), these shepherd-bandits have been incorporated into a neglected fraternity of rebels and freedom fighters that includes the Andalusian bandolero, the Brazilian cangaço and the Southern Ukrainian Makhnovists. According to Hobsbawm, these “social bandits” were products of traditional societies absorbed into larger economies and systems of law. The relative isolation of Sardinia’s hillside towns and their fierce parochialism had helped make them Europe’s last outpost of social banditry.

The exact status of the social bandit was, however, not always clear. On the roadside approach to the hillside town of Oliena, for example, stands a four-metre-tall mural of Giovanni Corbeddu Salis (1844–98), a shepherd with a rifle and an Old-Testament beard. Probably the most famous of the 200 or so bandit leaders who were active in the Barbagia in the late 19th century, Corbeddu and his entourage occupied a mountain cave on the steep spurs of Mount Uddè, where the townsfolk would come to settle disputes. Though local folklore makes much of his reputation as an ‘honest bandit’, a peacemaker who was always ready to help the needy, Corbeddu was also a rifle-for-hire, paid to rob, wound or damage property.

Whatever the truth behind these and other bandit legends, it’s easy to see why the most impoverished towns would regard the shepherd-bandit as, above all, unu fizu de malasorte – a son of misfortune. As fugitive bandit Pasquale Tandeddu confided in a letter to Cagnetta, his homeland was under siege, his people divided. “I hate the life of the outlaw, but I would a hundred times sooner be dead than in the galleys,” he wrote. Months later, Tandeddu was shot and killed by unknown assailants – one more victim of a conflict that was almost as old as the hills.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sardinia’s political landscape underwent a dramatic transformation. The stirrings of nationalism could be felt in demonstrations in the island’s cities such as Cagliari and Sassari, giving birth to the battle cry of “continentals into the sea”. In provincial politics, socialist voices were also beginning to implore the landless peasantry to mobilise. These strands came together in the wake of the First World War, as ex-combatants from across the island formed a national association that in turn spawned the Sardinian Action Party, Italy’s first ethno-regionalist party, in 1921. The party’s message of ‘Sards First, then Italians’ became the rallying cry of peasants, miners and ex-soldiers, and in the regional elections held during its first year of existence, under the leadership of Emilio Lussu, it won a formidable 36% of the popular vote.

Any hope of independence was dashed by the rise of Fascism. While Lussu and other radical socialists remained vigorously opposed to any alliance with Mussolini’s imperial and anti-democratic mission, the conservative wing of the Sardinian Action Party was lured into an alliance, having been given assurances that autonomy would be forthcoming. In the meantime, Mussolini’s de facto dictatorship created an ever more centralised state machinery, and sent its most vocal political opponents, Lussu included, into internal exile.

Crime and politics intertwined

After the fall of Fascism, the separatist movement re-emerged in the form of the Lega Sarda, but with no prospect of independence being delivered by ballot box – and no sign of “the economic and social renaissance of the island” promised by the mainland’s regional developers – crime, banditry and radical politics became increasingly intertwined.

In 1967, during this period of ferment, the Milanese publisher and so-called ‘agitprop millionaire’ Giangiacomo Feltrinelli made his first visit to Sardinia. An enthusiastic supporter of Castro and a generous friend to other insurgents in the developing world, Feltrinelli was on political reconnaissance. Could the island’s beleaguered separatist movement be fused with the extra-parliamentary left? Might the ragged banditry of the mountain ous Barbagia form a guerrilla vanguard, staging a coup d’état to finally wrestle Sardinia from its mainland masters?

After Fascism fell, with no prospect of independence, crime, banditry and radical politics became increasingly intertwined

Feltrinelli sensed that a spontaneous uprising was already underway. In the northern foothills of the Gennargentu, the radical publisher joined with shepherds and youth groups to protest against the proposed construction of a Nato military complex on the grazing lands of Pratobello, near Orgosolo, also lending his support to local opposition to the creation of a national park that would take custodianship of the land away from hunters and shepherds.

Buoyed by the success of the Pratobello opposition, Feltrinelli then held a series of clandestine meetings with fugitive bandit Graziano Mesina. A native of Orgosolo who had kidnapped several wealthy industrialists and recently escaped from prison, Mesina seemed to Feltrinelli to be the best candidate to lead Sardinia’s ‘pre-proletariat’ towards the bright new dawn of independence.

Feltrinelli’s plans to bankroll the transformation of Sardinia into the ‘Cuba of the Mediterranean’ came to nothing. Mesina was re-arrested in March 1968, and in 1972 Feltrinelli was killed by a bomb that he and other members of the left-wing paramilitary Gruppi d'Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups) were attempting to detonate on the mainland. Yet the island remained a hotbed of revolutionary leftism, and from 1978 the newly formed Barbagia Rossa terrorist group began an incendiary campaign, staging attacks on military and police installations. Over the following decade, the kidnapping of landowners and industrialists, ransomed for huge amounts, became the one economic windfall to uniquely benefit the post-peasant towns of the Barbagia.

Sardinian separatism staged an electoral comeback in the early 1980s, when the Action Party made unexpected inroads in regional elections. However, the renaissance was short-lived: over the coming decades, the separatist movement became increasingly factionalised, with a dozen or so different pro-independence parties typically sharing around 20% of the vote in regional elections. Demands for true territorial autonomy were dealt a further blow when Italy’s ruling Christian Democrats began to partially support demands for statutory reform and self-determination in the 1990s.

The splintering of the independence movement led many nationalists to abandon the rhetoric of sovereignty and self-rule in favour of a cultural nationalism focused on questions of language and identity. As well as succeeding in prompting offi-cial recognition of the Sards as “the largest linguistic minority in Europe”, the so-called ‘neo-Sardists’ have in recent years revitalised grassroots interest and investment in the pastoral folklore and pre-Christian history that had beguiled Lawrence and other British travellers.

Su connutu’ – back to the old ways – is today no longer the cry of the dispossessed: it is the celebration of a long history with deep roots.

Antonio Melechi is honorary research fellow at the University of York


This article was first published in the Issue 22 edition of BBC World Histories Magazine


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