Rocco Pugliese

Rocco Pugliese was a young militant of the Communist Party of Italy (see his portrait and photo), from the Italian region of Calabria. In 1930 he was assassinated by the fascist jailers in the penitentiary of Santo Stefano island, in Pontine archipelago, where he had been deported as a result of the fascist "special court" sentence in 1928.
Rocco was born on January 27
th 1903 in Palmi, in the province of Reggio Calabria, from Giuseppe Pugliese and Maria Polimeni, and since his earliest age he was a Socialist Party militant, being in 1921 amongst the founders of the Palmi cell of Communist Party of Italy, becoming then its secretary at the age of eighteen.
Rocco had a decisive revolutionary political training during his the required military service, performed in Turin, a working-class city, where the revolutionary movement was very strong and active. The military service period was a proper school for executive cadres, and the young man who came back to Palmi after being discharged was a mature and conscious Communist executive
(Pugliese, 2015).
In 1925, the year of the facts which led him to be a victim of the fascist murderers, Rocco was a student of accounting.

The premises for Palmi events
Palmi, a town of southern Italy, in the region Calabria, at that time had about 15,000 inhabitants (today counts 19,000), it was a red stronghold, center of an intense socialist and later communist political activity in a territory with large estates (mainly citrus and olive plantations) with a heavy exploitation of day labourers' manpower (Pugliese, 2015). The Palmi Socialist Party cell was established soon after the devastating earthquake of Messina and Reggio Calabria of December 28th 1908, which caused victims and damages in the town. One of the most significant battle of the revolutionary movement in Palmi was the winning one against the unreasonable rent imposed by Palmi municipality to the people who dwelled the hovels built for the homeless after the earthquake, and left in use for twenty years, until 1928. (Pugliese, 2015) It remained memorable the march in 1924, when five thousand anti-fascists paraded in order to protest against the murder by the fascists of the Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, reaching then the town cemetary to lay wreaths and flowers.
The strong anti-fascist presence in Palmi made it the target of violent assaults by fascist gangs, particularly numerous, since Palmi fighters fasces (the fascist party cell) was one of the first to be founded in the province of Reggio Calabria.
In the elections of 1924 the Communists were very close to have their candidate, lawyer Diomede Marvasi, elected, not reaching the quorum for a few votes; the party cell counted three hundred members, and one hundred and eighty were the members of the juvenile circle, being mainly peasants and labourers, besides professionals and students.
The strength of the anti-fascist movement in Palmi manifested itself in a continuous contrast to the expansion of the emerging regime, as when the fascist top dog Michele Bianchi was twice prevented from giving a speech in Palmi, causing a short circuit on the power grid and pushing him to give up the event for safety reasons.
(Pugliese, 2015)
In the days before May 1st, 1925, to prevent the celebration of Labor Day, several antifascist leaders were arrested on some pretext, while others managed to slip away. The reaction was a general strike, held on 2nd and 3rd May, with street demonstrations that had a so big attendance, that the authorities did not dare to counter them. The fascists were planning to disturb the protest with their bravados, but the Palmi anti-fascists preempted them devastating the local Fascist Party headquarters, destroying the offensive signs against the strikers and forcing the fascists to temporarily keep off the town. (Pugliese, 2015)

On August 15th a fascist gang coming from the neighbouring villages camped in the night at the door of the town with the goal to assault and set afire the houses of the left-wing parties' leaders of Palmi, but they were put to flight by a hundred of men, leaded by Rocco and Giuseppe Pugliese and Antonino Bongiorno.
The ground which caused the events of August 30
th, 1925 were the repeated humiliations suffered by the fascists in Palmi, all the more harsh since they endorsed an ideology based on arrogance and overman ideology, while in many other parts of Italy Fascist gangs dominated uncontested.

The events of the Varia
On August 27
th 1925 the religious celebrations of the Virgin of the Letter began in the town, with the traditional festivity of the Varia, a great votive chariot symbolizing the Assumption, dragged in procession by 200-300 faithfuls (the "mbuttaturi'") in the streets of the town, with the accompaniment of the band (since 2013 the feast, together with three other similar Italian celebrations, is inscribed in UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, see link). In 1925 the fascists imposed that during the festivity the Frigento band, one out of two involved in the feast, played their anthem "Giovinezza" (meaning "youth"), and the (fascist) president of the celebration commitee, supported this abuse.
The fascists wanted then to impose their anthem was played also during the procession, instead of the traditional march composed by Rosario Jonata, and the Palmi people rebelled to this overbearingness, requiring the restitution of the contributions payed and boycotting the transport of the Varia, considering also that the bearers by tradition belonged to the five corporations: carters, sailors, butchers, artisans and farmers, who mainly were Communist and Socialist.
Actually just five sailors and five carters offered themselves for the transport of the chariot, and the procession, turned into a fascist political parade, was boycotted even by the priests: indeed just one of them took part in the procession.
The fascist gangs' provocations went on and the tension reached its maximum at midnight of August 30
th, while the town population watched the fireworks: the fascists burst into the De Rosa café, whose tables were as usual crowded by Communists and Socialists, insulting them and starting to sing once more "Giovinezza". Rocco Pugliese summoned to stop provocation, beginning to sing the Communist anthem “Bandiera Rossa" (Red Flag), but he was assaulted with a stick by a fascist and reacted throwing a chair. During the brawl some gunshots were fired, and two fascists were wounded: Rocco Gerocarni, that died the following day, and Rosario Privitera, besides to two passers-by (see the news on the Communist Party's newspaper "l'Unità" of September 2nd 1925 and the fictional version of the official Press Agency Stefani, drawn by the Turin newspaper "La Stampa" of September 1st 1925).
According to the author Leonida Repaci (see below) who was a witness of the events, the actual target of the shots was he himself, who was scratched by two bullets, while the third one killed Gerocarni. The shots were fired from the terrace of Sambiase family, facing the café, by the same fascists, who by mistake shot their companion Gerocarni. The motive of the ambush should be included in the framework of the sudden rise of violence by the hard-liner wing of fascism, leaded by the fascist beaters' boss Farinacci, in order to break the deadlock in which Mussolini had fallen after Matteotti's murder and the consequent reactions by the antifascists. The target of Palmi assault was anyway a town with steady antifascist principles, who was therefore punished for its refuse to submit to fascist hooligan's violence.
The reaction of the recent fascist regimen was very tough: the police officier Francesco Cavalieri arrested many antifascists of the region, accusing them of organizing a subversive conspiracy; the same Cavalieri later admitted, during the trial, that the arrests were due to political reasons instead to the homicide (see the news on "l'Unità" of September 8
th 1925).
Farinacci sent a telegram spurring them to the revenge and the September 15
th the fascist gangs devastated the circle "Unione e Progresso" and the house of the communist laborer Managò, who was later arrested by the police. The fascists also assaulted the house of Leonida Repaci's brother where they stole objects and money, and tried to burst into the Palmi jail, in order to lynch the antifascists arrested for the Varia events.
The journalist Giuseppe Dato, correspondent of the newspaper "Gazzetta di Messina e delle Calabrie", even being a fascist too, was assaulted and thrown in a basin full of water, because he had criticized in a correspondence the fascist gangs' violences.
In the following days the fascists impeached, as a matter of fact, the access to everybody they didn't agree, including the prisoners' lawyers (see "l'Unità" of September 15
th 1925).

The "trial"
The dead of Gerocarni was attributed to the communists as a preconception and preliminary investigation was conducted in an extremely partial way: many witnesses who had given depositions for the prosecution, retracted, reporting they had been threatened by the fascists. In the same year, in October, two of the witnesses killed themselves, and one of them left a message explaining his suicide was due to the remorse for wrongly accusing Leonida Repaci, Giuseppe Pugliese and Giuseppe Marazzita, but the court did not consider this.
On December 5
th the Attorney general by the Court of Appeal of Catanzaro asked to commit thirty-one persons to trial for complicity in premeditated homicide and missed premeditated homicide. The prosecution section of the Court of Appeal of Catanzaro on March 29th 1926 committed 15 persons to trial by the Court of Assizes of Palmi, while the others were acquitted with the formula of "not guilty" or on the grounds of insufficient evidence, like in the case of Leonida Repaci (see "l'Unità" of April 3rd 1926).
The trial began by the Court of Assizes of Nicastro, where it was remitted for legitimate suspicion. With an abuse that anticipated the future management of justice by the part of the fascist regimen, the defence attorneys appointed by the defendants, Gullo, Lo Sardo and Riboldi, were arrested and sent to the confinement; the trial was then remitted since the Attorney general asked to commit four witnesses to trial because they retracted their accusatory depositions.
In the same year 1926, following the attack of the fifteen-years-old Anteo Zamboni, who tried to kill Mussolini, with the emergency laws of November 26
th 1926 the special court for the defence of the State was established. The name of "court" was absolutely unjustified, inasmuch as it was not constituted by judges, but rather by militants of the fascist party, and in particular by consuls of the MVSN (National Security Voluntary Militia).
On March 12
th 1928 the Court of Cassation declared with a sentence that the process had to be assigned to the special court, where the November 27th of the same year the trial began. The fifteen antifascist defendants, who had spent more than three years in preventive imprisonment, were charged of "homicide, attempted murder, actions aimed to stir a civil war up, insurrection against the State".
Between the defendants there was Rocco Pugliese, who had before the court a not at all submissive behaviour, coherently with his intransigence in the antifascist struggle; the Public Prosecutor Isgrò asked for him the life imprisonment and for other eight defendants the term of imprisonment proposed was of 30 years, while the "lighter" sentence asked was of 12 years, and for just one defendant the acquittal on the grounds of insufficient evidence was asked. Death penalty had been abolished in Italy in 1889 (de facto since 1877) and was restored by the fascist regime in 1930.
On December 5
th 1928, just eight days after the beginning of the trial, the court (President Antonino Tringali Casanuova, rapporteur Presti), issued Sentence No 145, that inflicted very tough convictions: the heaviest, of 24 years and 7 months, was received just by Rocco Pugliese, while Natale Borghese and Vincenzo Pugliese were sentenced to 10 years and 8 months, Giuseppe Florio and Gregorio Grasso to 10 years and 7 months, Giuseppe and Antonio Bongiorno to 8 years and 7 months. This latter was tried again by the special court in 1935, for organization and participation to the Communist Party, and was sentenced to 12 years more.
The others six antifascists were acquitted, between them Francesco Carbone, Antonio Sambiase, Giuseppe Pugliese, Pasquale Carella and Giuseppe de Salvo, besides the Socialist lawyer Giuseppe Marazzita, which years after was elected in the Senate of the Republic, which anyway was repeatedy imprisoned in the remaining years of the fascist dictature.
It must also remember that Fortunato, Rocco's elder brother, born on May 7
th, 1891, cabman by trade, married with eight children, was arrested on November 30th, 1926 for demonstrating solidarity with Rocco, and was assigned to confinement in Lampedusa and then to Ustica island. Despite the death of a daughter and although he was suffering of exuding trachoma that made him nearly blind, he was kept in detention and released only in March 1929.

The Repaci affair
Another antifascist of Palmi involved in the events of the Varia was Leonida Rèpaci (1898-1985), writer and later on also painter, who conceived the Viareggio Literary Prize and was a lawyer too. According to Francesco Spezzano, senator of the Communist Party in the post-war period, was the real target, with Rocco Pugliese, of the punitive expedition of the fascist gang.
Repaci was emprisoned but, as previously mentioned, was then acquitted during the preliminary investigation and wasn't submitted to the special Court. His acquittal, like that of other defendant, was attributed to interventions of men of position, in the case of Repaci to that of Arnaldo Mussolini, brother of the "duce", besides the counsel for the defence constituted by big shots of the regimen. In any case Repaci benefitted of numerous witnessings of personages well agreed to the fascist regimen. His elder brother Gaetano was moreover Mussolini's family physician.
Anyway Repaci, after some more than a month after his acquittal, resigned from the Communist Party with a letter, published by the Party's newspaper "l'Unità" on May 6
th 1926, in which he claimed his political position was marginal and sideward to that of the Party and announced his own return to privacy.
L'Unità answered the letter of Repaci in a very polemic way, with an unisigned article, although attribuited to Antonio Gramsci, which compared Repaci's calling himself out to the suffering of the communist political prisoners who didn't renounce their own political choices.
The controversy continued also in 1944, after the liberation of Rome, between "l'Unità" and the reactionary newspaper "Il Tempo", on which Repaci defended himself attacking those who accused him of having been acquitted by intervention of the regimen, but then he let the controversy drop, when "l'Unità" published a letter of Antonino and Giuseppe Bongiorno reporting many facts that confirmed the interventions in his favour made by big shots of the regimen.
While Rèpaci was in jail wrote "In fondo al pozzo" (meaning "The bottom of the well"), a novel with many autobiographic references, even to the Varia events of 1925.

The murder
Rocco Pugliese was secluded on January 19th, 1929 in Santo Stefano penitentiary (see my webpage on it) which was used by the fascist regimen in order to deport the more dangerous opposers, with the purpose of bending their will with the hardest conditions of detainment. The political prisoners sentenced by the special court were afflicted by a particularly hard treatment, with the isolation from the common prisoners, in order to avoid that their charisma could have grip on them. They were also submitted to a more stringent surveillance, urged to the jailers with a notice fixed to their cell's doors, warning: "dangerous prisoner to be carefully guarded".
In Santo Stefano Rocco maintained his fierce behaviour ("an exemple of resistance and pride", according to Vico Faggi), and refused to submit himself to the fascist jail machine, that made him pay dearly, at first with continuous vexations and tortures, and finally with the dead, which occurred on October 17
th 1930.
According to the official version Pugliese commited suicide hanging himself, while another version, poorly credible, maintains he died suffocated while two jailers tried to force-feed him with a probe, while he was tied in restraints at his bed. The force-feeding would have been decided as a result of a supposed hunger strike of Rocco.
In reality several affordable sources maintain that Pugliese was strangled or hit to death by the jailers: according to Francesco Spezzano "after having thrown a blanket on his head (...) they beated him to death" and moreover "his desperate screams were heard for long by his companions of imprisonment (...) that, locked in the other cells, couldn't do anything to help him" and then "the emotion for the barbarous murder was enormous between the prisoners who made a collection to send a wreath to his funeral".
The above described treatment was called by the guards the "Sant'Antonio", with a term derived from the Naples mafia slang: it consisted in bursting unexpectedly in the cell, covering the victim with a blanket, and then hitting him hardly with kicks, punchs, cudgels or with the heavy cell's keys. The blanket was used in order to allow the aggressors not to be recognized, to suffocate the screams of the victims and impeach them to react, and also for not leaving traces on the body of the target of the beating, that could testify about the aggression. According to the Ligurian anarchist Giuseppe Mariani, once imprisoned in Santo Stefano, in the penitentiary during the beatings the blanket was not used, since the guards, being certain of their impunity, didn't think they need any precaution.
According to Mariani the "Santantonio" against Rocco was performed by guard corporal Barbara and by sickroom warden Giacobbo, by command of head guard Luigi Porta, in the utmost indifference of penitentiary's manager Russo, who was there.
The communist Giovanni Pianezza, cellmate of Rocco, obtained the permission to keep watch beside the corpse in the mortuary, declaring to be his cousin. In a moment of inattention of the guards succeeded to to raise the sheet that covered the body and saw the face was leaden, like for a death for asphyxia. Taken by surprise by the guards, he was threatened to die in the same way of Rocco, if he had spoken, and then he was immediately transferred.

The socialist leader Sandro Pertini, who was president of the Italian Republic from 1978 to 1985, was secluded in Santo Stefano from 1929 to 1930, and many years later, in 1947, once elected deputy of the Constituent Assembly, reminded in a speech before the assembly that "Rocco Pugliese was dispatched in the prison of Santo Stefano when I was there, in restraints".
The speech of Pertini was a reply to the answer given by the Minister of Justice Giuseppe Grassi to a question he made about the thrashing made by the jailers of some prisoners of Poggioreale jail in Naples, followed by the death of one of them.
Pertini was very clear: "... I speak for personal experience (...). In jail, Honourable Minister, it happens this: a prisoner is struck; in consequence of the blows the prisoner dies, and then everybody worries, and not only the jailers who stroke the prisoner worry, but also the director, the doctor, the chaplain and all the prison crew do it. And then they make this: they lay the prisoner bare, they hang him to the window's grating and they let him be found hanging this way. The doctor comes and he draws up a medical report of suicide. This was the end of Bresci. Bresci has been struck to death, then they hung the corpse to the window's grating of his cell at Santo Stefano, where I have been a year and half".
Pertini referred to the death of Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist from Prato, near Florence, sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of the king Umberto I (see my webpage about him), but died in 1901, after few months from his transfer to Santo Stefano.
Moreover Pertini, in a testimony reported in a book edited by Vico Faggi, relates: "One night I was awaken by a choked cry «mummy, mummy!». The day after somebody spread the rumour that Rocco Pugliese hanged himself; but the suicide was nothing more than an act. Pugliese had been killed by the jailers."
In the same work is reminded that the murder of political prisoners in the fascist jails wasn't un uncommon case, how testified by the cases of Gastone Sozzi in Perugia jail and Romolo Tranquilli, the brother of the writer Ignazio Silone, in Procida jail. The 1929 January 1
st clandestine edition of l'Unità reported the names of Communist prisoner dead or anyway sick in the fascist jails.
Rocco's death was immediately perceived as a murder and the news came to the anti-Fascist circles in Italy and in exile. The French Communist Party's newspaper "L'Humanité" published on December 21
st, 1930 an article by Gabriel Péri, who was later a Communist member of parliament, entitled: "Comment périrent à San Stefano les communistes Castellano et Pugliesi" ("How the Communist militants Castellano and Pugliesi died in Santo Stefano") (Pugliese, 2015), which denounced the death of two Communist prisoners, Castellano and Rocco Pugliese, (erroneously referred to as "Pugliesi"), and the serious health condition of the communist militant Emmanuelli and of Sandro Pertini, ill with tuberculosis. The article attributed the death of Rocco to a reprisal by the guards for refusing their sexual advances, shouting instead aloud to fight them off. Later Rocco would have been harassed by providing him uneatable food, which he refused, triggering segregation and fasting at the "enclosure bed", with subsequent death.
Péri's article and the spread of the news by the exiled antifascists embarassed the fascist regime, and Mussolini established a farcical board of enquiry on prisoners' condition in jails, which predictably gave no results, except for a temporary alleviation of the brutish prison treatment.
Rocco's family knew of his death almost by chance and the corpse was never given back.
(Cordova, 1965) The police headquarters in Reggio Calabria gave instructions to prevent a public funeral in Palmi, providing for a night-time transport of the corpse to the cemetery, but actually Rocco's body never arrived in Palmi and it was probably already destroyed in Santo Stefano (Pugliese, 2015), as probably happened to Gaetano Bresci's corpse.

A theatrical work and five books
The theatrical company Teatridelsud of Palmi staged a play called "L’Arrobbafumu" a work by Francesco Suriano, interpreted by Peppino Mazzotta, taken by a book by the same author, taking a hint from the events of Palmi to tell about the Calabria and its delays of development.
The Calabrian writer Domenico Gangemi published in 2004 a novel freely inspired from the events of the Varia of 1925 entitled "'25 nero", published by Pellegrini Editore. Besides Natale Pace, a moderate representative and deputy mayor of Palmi, in his essay "Il debito" ("The Debt"), published in 2006 by Laruffa Editore, tells Rocco's vicissitude from the point of view of Leonida Repaci, who was a close friend with the author.
In 2015 the publisher Annales of Rome edited "Rocco Pugliese: un Comunista di Calabria" a nice book by Lorenzo Pugliese, a relative of Rocco, which reports with passion and involvement the outcome of a 18 years research, performed by the author through archives, journals, libraries and witnesses' stories. This book entirely fulfils Sandro Pertini's wish, expressed to a Rocco's niece, so that the sacrifice of this young man from Palmi was never forgotten.
In 2017, the journalist Pier Vittorio Buffa issued the book "Non volevo morire così" ("I didn't want to die like this"), published by Nutrimenti of Rome, which tells the stories of Santo Stefano prisoners and Ventotene confinees, collected largely from their dossiers kept in the archives, including those of Santo Stefano. A chapter is dedicated to Rocco Pugliese.
On April 25
th, 2018 the city of Palmi placed a plaque in the place where the native home of Rocco Pugliese stood:
For everlasting memory, here stood the native home of
Rocco Pugliese 1903-1930
A Palmese Communist who with other young antifascists established the cell of the Communist Party of Italy in Palmi.
Innocent and Condemned by the Special Court for the "facts of the Varia" of 30
th August, 1925 killed by the Fascist brutality in Santo Stefano Penitentiary.
"One night I was awaken by a choked cry «mummy, mummy!». The day after somebody spread the rumour that Rocco Pugliese hanged himself; but the suicide was nothing more than an act. Pugliese had been killed by the jailers."
Sandro Pertini.
April 25
th, 2018.

Rocco Pugliese nowadays
In spite of his seclusion, murder and concealment of his corpse, though more than eighty years went by from his death and maybe noone of those who knew Rocco is still alive, that 27 years old young man from Calabria is still living in memory, his sacrifice still arouses gratitude and his brutal murder still inspires horror and indignation.

Thanks Stefania Marino and Lorenzo and Giuseppe Pugliese for the precious information

- ALFASSIO GRIMALDI Ugoberto (1970) Il re "buono". Feltrinelli, Milano. P. 468-470,
- AJELLO Nello (2003) Il confino. Ecco le vacanze che offriva il duce. La Repubblica, September 13
th 2003, p. 39.
- BUFFA Pier Vittorio (2017) No volevo morire così. Nutrimenti, Roma. P. 87-94.
- CORDOVA Ferdinando
(1965) Il processo Gerocarni. Historica, 16 (18): P. 196-212.
- CORDOVA Ferdinando (1977) Alle origini del PCI in Calabria - 1918-1926. Bulzoni, Roma.
- CORDOVA Ferdinando (1994) Un originale documento sui fatti di Palmi dell'estate del 1925, Historica, XLVII-4, P. 157-167.

- DA PASSANO Mario Il «delitto di Regina Cœli» (link)
- DAL PONT Adriano (1975) I lager di Mussolini. La Pietra, Milano.
- DAL PONT Adriano, LEONETTI Alfonso, MAIELLO Pasquale, ZOCCHI Lino (1962) Aula 4: tutti i processi del Tribunale speciale fascista. ANPPIA, Roma.
- FAGGI Vico (edited by) (1970) Sandro Pertini: sei condanne due evasioni. Mondadori, Milano.
- GALZERANO Giuseppe (1988) Gaetano Bresci: la vita, l' attentato, il processo e la morte del regicida anarchico. Galzerano editore - Atti e memorie del popolo - Casalvelino Scalo (Salerno). tel. and fax: +39.0974.62028 e-mail:
- GANGEMI Domenico (2004) '25 nero. Luigi Pellegrini Editore, Cosenza.
- GHINI Celso, DAL PONT Adriano (1971) Antifascisti al confino 1926-1943. Editori Riuniti, Roma.
- LISA Athos (1973) Memorie. In carcere con Gramsci. Feltrinelli, Milano.
- MARIANI Giuseppe (1954) Nel mondo degli ergastoli, S.n., Torino..
- PACE Natale (2006) Il debito. Leonida Repaci nella storia. Laruffa Editore, Reggio Calabria.
- PERTINI Sandro (1947) in "Atti dell’Assemblea Costituente. Discussioni", IX, 19 novembre 1947, 2179-2180.
- PUGLIESE Amelia (s.a.) Viaggio nella casa di correzione penale di Santo Stefano.
- PUGLIESE Lorenzo (2015) Rocco Pugliese: un Comunista di Calabria). Annales, Roma.
- SPEZZANO Francesco (1968) La lotta politica in Calabria: (1861-1925). Lacaita, Manduria.
- SPEZZANO Francesco (1975) Fascismo e antifascismo in Calabria. Lacaita, Manduria.
- SPEZZANO Francesco (1984) Item "Pugliese, Rocco" in "Enciclopedia dell’antifascismo e della Resistenza". La Pietra-Walk Over, Milano. IV: p. 813-814.
- SPRIANO Paolo (1969) Storia del Partito Comunista Italiano. Einaudi, Torino.

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Pe last updated: April 16th, 2021