May 18, 2021

Italian poet-anarchist Sante Notarnicola thought he was Robin Hood

By Alan Howe, The Australian
April 3, 2021

Sante Notarnicola. Anarchist, poet. Born Taranto, Italy, December 15, 1938; died Bologna, Italy, March 22, aged 82.

Sante Notarnicola is dead. Maybe not such a bad thing. Notarnicola couldn’t decide if he was an anarchist or a communist, and seems to have spent his life suspended between both while imagining himself to be a poet.

On meeting the apparently charismatic Pietro Cavallero — charming perhaps, but an unskilled, resentful no-hoper — in the 1960s he formed a gang called the Cavallero band. Not musicians, just keystone communists, but their mission was deadly.

As self-styled, hard-left anarchists it appears they assumed a licence to kill whoever they thought must die as they sought to reshape their country. This would include strangers whose only crime was to walk the streets while the gang drove from bank heist to bank heist.

Their hero was Gaetano Bresci, who shot dead Italy’s King Umberto in 1900. Lucky for Bresci, the king had abolished the death penalty not long before, although within the year Bresci was found hanged in jail, and perhaps assisted in that.

Notarnicola was born in 1938 in Taranto, on the southern coast of Italy. It appears he was abandoned by his family, or he abandoned them, and as a youngster spent time in an institution before moving, at 13, to Turin. He sometimes sold flowers or worked as a porter.

These were fractious times for Italy: the fascist leader Benito Mussolini had been executed, and the monarchy abandoned to make way for Italy’s unique brand of democracy with its mercurial coalitions, volatile governments and continuing political violence.

Notarnicola fell in with revolutionaries and anarchists. Italy back then had plenty of both. In 1963 he joined the Cavallero band along with Adriano Rovoletto, Donato Lopez and Danilo Crepaldi. They referred to themselves as working class, only work was not on the agenda. It may have been that the original plan was to steal money from banks and redistribute it, Robin Hood-style, to those they considered in need. Cavallaro would later say they wanted to see social justice.

Eventually they robbed 18 banks, sometimes several in a day. But during a robbery on January 16, 1967, at Cirie, 23km north of Turin, they shot and killed Giuseppe Gajottino, a doctor. The stakes had been raised. And so had the police determination to arrest them before they killed again.

Another robbery was planned in Milan on September 25 that year. Four of the gang attacked Milan’s Banco di Napoli, Italy’s oldest and previously the country’s central bank. The police arrived and both parties fired guns. The gang took off in a stolen Fiat 1100, the Ford Anglia of getaway cars. Chased by police, the gang exchanged gunfire and four bystanders were killed. One of the robbers was nabbed that day, the others the following week. Their trial lasted 21 days and they were sentenced to life in jail.

In jail, Notarnicola demanded rights for prisoners including writing paper and more books and, of course, he tried to escape by digging a tunnel with others, but it was discovered. He studied while incarcerated, had a book published, and wrote poetry, some of which he sent to lauded Italian author Primo Levi, who described them as “some beautiful, others heartbreaking”. One was called Guard Post:

The younger guardian

has taken his place

in front of my cell.

“Behind that wall” — he

pointed out — “the sea is very blue”.

To make me die a little,

the younger guardian

told me this.

Notarnicola’s small band of anarchists prefigured better organised and better funded criminals — most notably Italy’s vicious Red Brigades, who claimed dozens of lives as they kidnapped and murdered their way to failure over two decades. Most infamously, in 1978, the Brigades grabbed former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro as he was being driven across Rome, killing his five bodyguards.

They held Moro for two months, having him write letters to get the government to accede to the terrorists’ demands. An early ultimatum was that Notarnicola be freed. Pope Paul VI was a friend of Moro and offered himself in exchange. He wrote to the terrorists: “On my knees I beg you, free Aldo Moro, simply without conditions, not so much because of my humble and well-meaning intercession, but because he shares with you the common dignity of a brother in humanity.”

The Italian government refused to negotiate. Moro was shot dead, his body dumped in the boot of a Renault near the Tiber River.

Notarnicola was paroled in the late 1990s and then freed in 2000. He moved to Bologna, where he ran a bar.

Songs, books and at least one film have been made about his gang’s exploits, often feting their crimes and aims. But it is hard to see Notarnicola and his mates as other than ill-educated opportunists with dark hearts and no real ambition for a people they claimed needed them.

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