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Francesco Crispi
by Vincenzo Salerno

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A aged Francesco Crispi.Infamous Francesco Crispi was one of those opportunistic politicians who did as much as anybody to harm the social fabric and reputation of a newly-united Italy. It was Crispi who encouraged the Germans (during a visit with Bismarck) to initiate a war against France and Austria which would have led to Italy gaining territory as a result of a massive multi-nation conflict. It was Crispi who waged Italy's economically disastrous ten-year trade war with France. It was Crispi who made late nineteenth-century Italy a police state (if it wasn't already). It was Crispi who mishandled Italy's foreign policy in eastern Africa, leading to the European nation's humiliating defeat at the hands of superior Ethiopian forces at Adwa in 1896. Despite this debacle, it was Crispi whose blind expansionism became a cornerstone of subsequent Italian foreign policy for decades - at least until Fascist Italy had her wings clipped by the Allies in 1943. But perhaps his worst legacy, which haunts Italian politics to this day, was the practice of hatefully smearing (defaming) opposition members of parliament. Can anything good be said about Francesco Crispi?

He was born in Ribera in 1819 to a family having "Albanian-Sicilian" roots, baptised in the Byzantine "eastern" rite. He studied law, which he practiced for a few years at Naples. As a young man he participated, though not as a leader (as is often claimed), in the failed riots of 1848, and subsequently fled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In 1853, following several years as a "radical" journalist, he was expelled from the Piedmont region (ruled by the House of Savoy) after having supported the so-called "Mazzini Conspiracy" advocating overthrow of the monarchy. He then lived abroad until Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily in 1860. The next year he represented a Sicilian district in the Italian national parliament. Though previously a republican, Crispi wrote to Mazzini in 1864 that, "the monarchy unites us, the republic would divide us." Clearly, Crispi saw the way the Italian winds were blowing, and they were caressing the aspirations of the House of Savoy. By now, Crispi's democratic and republican tendencies were gone with the wind.

When he wasn't blowing in the wind, he was slinging mud. The "Lobbia Affair" was Crispi's effort to defame parliamentarians who opposed him by accusing them of corruption. He was nominated president of the chamber of deputies in 1876. A year later he served briefly as interior minister in the Depretis government.

The overtures toward Germany, partly to diminish French influence in the Mediterranean and Africa, were privately disparaged by Bismarck. Far from merely encouraging the formation of a militarily advantageous "Triple Alliance," Crispi actually suggested that, presumably with Italian support, Germany invade France and Austria, dividing the territorial spoils with Italy. So outraged was Bismarck by Crispi's outlandish suggestions during his visit to Germany in 1877, it was all the chancellor could do not to expel the Italian.

Bismarck need not have worried. An allegation of intent to commit bigamy soon forced Crispi's resignation.

This is more interesting than it may seem. Well into the 1940s, Italian historians sought to defend Crispi from these allegations. He had, in fact contracted a second marriage (on Malta in 1853) while a woman he previously wed was still alive; the second union was thereby invalid as there had been no civil or ecclesiastical annulment of the first marriage. Favourable jurists argued that by the time of his third marriage, when Crispi's first wife was dead and the second marriage was effectively null and void legally, there could be no actual bigamy. This position was restated by several "historians." (Nobody ever accused Italy's revisionist historians of lacking in creativity.)

Crispi returned to succeed Depretis as prime minister in 1887. He immediately instituted self-destructive trade tariffs with France and a ridiculous colonialist policy in Ethiopia, which in 1889 included falsification (intentional mistranslating by the Italians) of the Wechale Treaty, supposedly making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate when, in fact, the Ethiopians had agreed to nothing of the kind. Such trickery was the only thing available to Crispi; Italy negotiated from a position of weakness. The Ethiopians had already attacked a number of Italian outposts and forts, such as those at Saati and Dogali (where they killed 500 Italian troops). Crispi's "Ethiopian lesson" was yet to come. For now, his real problems were back home in Italy. In 1891, following some unpopular tax increases and ratification of a series of laws curtailing personal freedom, and increasing ill-feeling over the trade war with France, he was replaced by Giovanni Giolitti.

Late in 1893, with protests by the Fasci Siciliani (collectives of farmers and sulphur miners) and other rebellions brewing, Crispi was appointed for a second term as prime minister. The revolts were ruthlessly suppressed by Crispi, the "old revolutionary" of 1848. Participants in the strikes and protests were sentenced, and in some cases summarily executed, without trials. There followed a new series of Crispi-sponsored laws severely limiting freedom of the press and free association (meetings), making Italy a de facto police state. Whatever his supposed political origins, by the 1890s Crispi was strongly opposed to Italy's liberals.

In 1896, with Italian troops routed by Ethiopian forces at Adwa, Crispi was forced to resign as prime minister, though he continued to serve in parliament. The significance of this defeat, the first of a European "power" by an African army, was extremely damaging to Italy's prestige. Beyond purely political and economic issues, it gave the Italian army a deserved reputation for incompetence that lasted through both World Wars. The authoritarian Francesco Crispi died in Naples in 1901. In him and his repressive policies some historians have seen a precursor to Mussolini's Fascism, which assumed control of the government in 1922.

About the Author: Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies for Best of Sicily and hard-copy publications.

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© 2007 Vincenzo Salerno