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The case of Franca Viola: Debating Gender, Nation and Modernity in 1960s Italy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2016

Department of History, University of Southampton, Avenue Campus, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BF;


Seventeen-year-old Sicilian Franca Viola was abducted and raped in 1965, with the intention of forcing her into marriage. She came to prominence in 1966 as the first Sicilian woman to refuse a so-called reparatory marriage – which would have legally absolved her rapist of his crime – resulting in his prosecution in a high profile trial in December 1966. Through an examination of the media coverage, and by making use of history of the emotions, this article examines the trial as a crucial moment for post-war Italy, when gender, sexuality and marriage were being redefined in a rapidly changing society. Different emotional styles could be connected to debates about national identity and regional character, as well as to broader anxieties about ‘modernity’ and ‘backwardness’.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 F. Paolo Ferrara, ‘Irrompono sparando per rapire una ragazza’, Giornale di Sicilia, 27 Dec. 1966, 1.

2 F. P. Ferrara, ‘Alcamo - arrestati quattro rapitori della minorenne’, Giornale di Sicilia, 3 Jan. 1966, 1.

3 On honour and Sicilian society, see Schneider, Jane and Schneider, Peter, Culture and Political Economy in Western Sicily (New York: Academic Press: 1976), 86102Google Scholar and Chapman, Charlotte Gower, Milocca: Sicilian Village (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), 3841Google Scholar. On honour and Mediterranean society see: Peristiany, J. G., ed., Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966)Google Scholar; Schneider, Jane, ‘Of Vigilance and Virgins: Honor, Shame and Access to Resources in Mediterranean Societies’, Ethnology, 10, 1 (1971), 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Gilmore, David, ed., Honour, Shame and the Unity of Mediterranean (Washington DC: American Anthropological Association, 1987)Google Scholar.

4 Willson, Perry, Women in Twentieth Century Italy (London: Palgrave, 2009), 163Google Scholar.

5 Both Rudolph Bell and Linda Reeder discuss how the honour system in Sicily was challenged by migration and social change from the late nineteenth century onwards. See Reeder, Linda, Widows in White: Migration and the Transformation of rural Sicily (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2003), 6873CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Bell, Rudolph, Honor, Fate, Family and Village: Demographic and Cultural Change in Rural Italy since 1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 9092Google Scholar.

6 Schneider and Schneider, Festival of the Poor, 211.

7 In one report, a young Sicilian woman was abducted while walking in public. The couple, who were apparently in love, returned to her family several days later. The case was dropped after kidnapper and kidnapped swore their love and intention to marry in front of a magistrate. ‘A lieto fine il ratto della vigilia di Natale. Rapita e rapitore si sono giurati “eterno amore”’, Giornale della Sicilia, 28 Dec. 1965, 4.

8 On the custom of elopement in Sicily, see Gower Chapman, Milocca, 94–5. A further example is described in the unpublished memoir of Giovanni Cosa, ‘Camillo in Trincea’, Taranto, 1939, Archivio Nazionale Diaristico, MP/96.

9 In the film Girl with a Pistol (Mario Monicelli, 1968), the character Assunta was abducted while walking to the pharmacy with her mother and cousin. Her boyfriend was unsympathetic afterwards, telling her that she had brought it on herself by going out in public. While the film was intended as a comic exaggeration of the honour code, it nevertheless illustrates this mindset.

10 See Bevilacqua, Piero, Breve storia dell’Italia meridionale dall’ottocento a oggi (Rome: Donzelli, 1993), 4044Google Scholar and Blok, Anton, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860–1960: A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 94102Google Scholar.

11 Similar reports were published across Italy on 28 December: ‘In nove per rapire una ragazza siciliana’, Corriere della Sera, 10 (Milan); f.d. (sic), ‘Una diciottenne rapita dall’Alcamo dall’ex-fidanzato con sette complici’, Il Mattino, 11 (Naples); ‘Una ragazza e il fratellino rapita da otto giovanastri’, Il Resto del Carlino, 2 (Bologna); ‘Ragazza e fratellino rapiti da otto giovani’, La Stampa, 12 (Turin).

12 Guido Crainz, Storia del miracolo economico, 252; Perry Willson, Women in Twentieth Century Italy, 127. The legal repercussions of the case also receive a very brief treatment in Ernesto De Cristofaro, ‘Retorica forense e valori di comunità. Questioni di onore in alcuni processi siciliani’ in Migliorino, Francesco and Gravina, Giacomo Pace, eds., Cultura e tecnica forense tra dimensione siciliana e vocazione europea (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003), 371410: 406–7Google Scholar. In addition, Sicilian writer Beatrice Monroy recently published a short literary meditation on the case: Niente ci fu (Molfetta: La Meridiana, 2012).

13 Crainz, Guido, Storia del miracolo economico: Culture, identità, trasformazioni (Rome: Donzelli, 2005)Google Scholar and Ginsborg, Paul, A History of Contemporary Italy, 1943–1980 (London: Penguin, 1990), 210–53Google Scholar.

14 Barbara Rosenwein asserts that her concept of ‘emotional communities’ can be used not just to describe a group that shares both values and ways of expressing emotions but also to exclude or label other groups who do not fit: ‘Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions’ in Passions in Context I (1: 2010), 1–32, here 12–13. Here I use the term ‘emotional styles’ as coined by Benno Gammerl as a more flexible and fluid adaptation of ‘emotional communities’, a term perhaps better suited to modern and contemporary society: ‘Emotional Styles: Concepts and Challenges’, Rethinking History: Special Issue on Emotional Styles, 16,2 (2012), 161–75.

15 Seymour, Mark, ‘Emotional arenas: From provincial circus to national courtroom in late nineteenth-century Italy’, Rethinking History, 16,2 (2012), 177–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Ibid. 191.

17 For a historiographical overview of the ‘southern question’, see Davis, John, ‘Casting off the “Southern Problem”: Or the Peculiarities of the South Reconsidered’, in Schneider, Jane, ed., Italy's “Southern Question”: Orientalism in One Country (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 205–24Google Scholar.

18 Scarpellini, Emanuela, Material Nation: A Consumer's History of Modern Italy (Oxford, 2011), 127Google Scholar. On the Italian economic miracle in European context, see Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: Penguin, 2010), 324–5Google Scholar.

19 Scarpellini, Material Nation, 125–75; Crainz, Storia del miracolo economico.

20 Badino, Anna, Tutte a casa? Donne tra migrazione e lavoro nella Torino degli anni sessanta (Rome: Viella, 2008)Google Scholar. See also Tasca, Luisa, ‘The “average housewife” in post World War II Italy’, in The Journal of Women's History, 16,2 (2004), 92115CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Willson, Women in Twentieth Century Italy, 117–223.

21 Willson, Women in Twentieth Century Italy, 117; Ribero, Aida, Una questione di libertà: Il femminismo degli anni settanta (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1999)Google Scholar.

22 Baglioni, Guido, I giovani nella società industriale. Ricerca sociologica condotta in una zona dell’Italia del nord (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1962), 118Google Scholar.

23 On the decline in family size, see Ribero, Una questione di libertà, 73–4 and Willson, Women in Twentieth Century Italy, 125. On the divorce campaigns see Seymour, Mark, Debating Divorce in Italy: Marriage and the Making of Modern Italians, 1860–1974 (London: Palgrave, 2007)Google Scholar and Lussana, Fiamma, L’Italia del divorzio: La battaglia fra stato, chiesa e gente comune (Rome: Carocci, 2014)Google Scholar.

24 Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy, 219; Guido Crainz, Storia del miracolo economico, 108. See also: Gallo, Stefano, Senza attraversare le frontiere: Le migrazioni interne dall’Unità a oggi (Rome: Laterza, 2012)Google Scholar.

25 Alasia, Franco and Montaldi, Danilo, eds., Milano, Corea: Inquiry into the Immigrants of the Economic Miracle (Milan, Feltrinelli: 1960), 45Google Scholar. Foot, John, Milan Since the Miracle: City, Culture, Identity (Oxford, Berg, 2001), 3759Google Scholar.

26 Fofi, Goffredo, L’Immigrazione meridionale a Torino (Milan, 1974), 299Google Scholar.

27 On structural inequalities between north and south and the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, see Ginsborg, Contemporary Italy, 229–39.

28 Fofi, L’Immigrazione meridionale, 253.

29 Ibid. 228.

30 Ibid. 253–5. Another study found southern migrants to Turin more tolerant of honour crime than the Piedmontese but without the regional breakdown. See Gambetta, Valeria Pizzini, ‘Becoming visible: Did the emancipation of women reach the Sicilian mafia?’, in Bull, Anna Cento and Giorgio, Adalgisa, Speaking out and Silencing. Culture, Society and Politics in Italy in the 1970s (Oxford: Legenda, 2003) 201–11; 203Google Scholar.

31 Levi, Carlo, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Turin: Einaudi, 1945)Google Scholar; De Martino, Ernesto, Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico (Turin: Einaudi, 1958)Google Scholar and Sud e magia (Turin: Einaudi, 1959); Scotellaro, Rocco, L’Uva puttanella, Contadini del Sud (Rome: Laterza, 1964)Google Scholar.

32 See Forgacs, David, Italy's Margins: Social Exclusion and Nation Formation since 1861 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 167–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Banfield, Edward C., The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Glencoe: The Free Press, 1958Google Scholar.

34 On post-unification debates about the south, see Moe, Nelson, The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 224–50Google Scholar.

35 See Aida Ribero, Una questione di libertà, 72–5.

36 Ibid. 74–5.

37 Giuseppe Grazzini, ‘Sepolta viva: aveva osato entrare in un bar’, Epoca, 12 Apr. 1964.

38 Inchiesta a Palermo (Turin: Einaudi, 1956).

39 Dolci, Danilo, To Feed the Hungry (London: Mac Gibbon and Kee, 1959)Google Scholar.

40 Harrison, Lieta, Le svergognate (Rome: Edizioni di Novissima, 1963)Google Scholar.

41 On Fellini's appreciation of Harrison's study, see Salvatore Ferlita, ‘Il tempo delle svergognate’, La Repubblica, 28 May 2010.

42 Harrison, Lieta, The Wantons: A Searing Study of the Humiliation of Women in Modern Sicily (London: Ortolan, 1966)Google Scholar.

43 Arpino, Giovanni, Un delitto d’onore (Milan: Mondadori, 1960)Google Scholar; Divorzio all’Italiana (1961).

44 Fofi, Goffered, Capire con il cinema (Feltrinelli: Milan, 1977), 68Google Scholar. Another negative appraisal included: g.f. (Guido Fink), ‘Sedotta e abbandonata’ in Cinema Nuovo, Feb/March 1964, 127–8. Leonardo Autera's review in contrast was much more positive: ‘Sedotta e abbandonata’ in Bianco e Nero, Feb. 1964, 50–3.

45 Voices raised against honour crime within Sicily were frequent in both Giornale di Sicilia and L’Ora, with Leonardo Sciascia and Robert Ciuni the most vocal. See Roberto Ciuni, ‘L’altra Sicilia che non applaude’, Giornale di Sicilia, 24 Dec. 1965, 2 and Leonardo Sciasca, ‘Perché non possiamo dirci cristiani’, L’Ora, 3/4 Jan. 1966, 3.

46 La cittadinanza di Alcamo solidale con Franca Viola’, L’Unità, 16 Dec. 1966, 5; Giorgio Frasca Polara, ‘La forza di dire no’, L’Unità, 18 Dec. 1966, 13.

47 See ‘Introvabile la ragazza rapita da otto giovanastri’, Corriere della Sera, 2 Jan. 1966, 10.

48 See Mauro de Mauro, ‘Franca Viola: È stato così’, l’Ora, 12/13 Dec. 1966, 3 and Ettore Serio, ‘La difesa ha solo un tasto: ratto d’amore alla siciliana’, 17 Dec. 1966, 1 and 20.

49 ‘Non lo sposerò mai’Famiglia Cristiana, 1 Jan. 1967, 9.

50 ‘Lui’, L’Ora, 26/27 Nov. 1966, 2.

51 Gower Chapman, Milocca, 30–49.

52 The memoirs of Sicilian Maria Lamonica, ‘In un piccolo centro di provincia’ and Calabrian Saverio Forgione, ‘. . .Il mio nome è Saverio’ demonstrate the real power of the idea of a love cultivated through glances: Archivio Diaristico Nazionale, MP/03 and MP/T2.

53 Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan, 900–1200 CE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bloch, Howard, Medieval Misogyny and the Making of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

54 ‘La difesa ha solo un tasto: ratto d’amore alla siciliana’, 17 Dec. 1966, 1 and 20.

55 ‘Il Mafioso è Viola’, Giornale di Sicilia, 16 Dec. 1966, 16.

56 Ettore Serio, “Gli gridai: Se mio padre non ti denuncia lo faro io”, Giornale di Sicilia, 12 Dec. 1966, 1.

57 G. Impellizzeri, ‘Franca Viola non sposerà l’individuo che l’ha rapita’, Giornale di Sicilia, 5 Jan. 1966, 9.

58 Quoted in f.d., ‘Chiesti centoquaranta anni per i rapitori di Franca Viola’, La Nazione, 15 Dec. 1966, 7.

59 Emilia Granzotti, ‘La “legge del cuore”’, Il Resto del Carlino, 19 Dec. 1966, 13; Ferrente Azzali, ‘Una sentenza riformatrice’, Il Resto del Carlino, 18 Dec. 1966, 13.

60 ‘“Difendiamo una nuova Sicilia”’, Giornale di Sicilia, 14 Dec. 1966, 1.

61 Quoted in Moe, View from Vesuvius, 59 and 92.

62 Silvano Villani, ‘La difesa chiede attenuanti per i rapitori di Franca Viola’, Corriere della Sera, 17 Dec. 1966, 7.

63 Ferrante Azzali, ‘La Sfida di Franca Viola’, Il Resto del Carlino, 16 Dec. 1966, 13.

64 Ferrante Azzali, ‘Una sentenza riformatrice’, Il Resto del Carlino, 18 Dec. 1966, 15.

65 See Dickie, John, Darkest Italy: The Nation and Stereotypes of the Mezzogiorno (London, Palgrave, 1990)Google Scholar and Moe, The View from Vesuvius.

66 Piero Magi, ‘Uccidere all’antica’, La Nazione, 5 Jan. 1966, 3.

67 Jemolo, A. C., ‘Non è sbagliato soltanto la legge che rispetta il “delitto d’onore”’, La Stampa, 31 Dec. 1966, 7Google Scholar.

68 In 1854 French journalist Alfred Maury described Turin as ‘modern’ while Salerno belonged to ‘ancient times’. Quoted in Moe, View from Vesuvius, 38.

69 ‘Sotto accusa l’articolo 587: Contrastanti opinion dei palermitani’, Giornale di Sicilia, 9 Jan. 1966, 7.

70 See, for example, Ettore Serio, ‘Difendiamo una nuova Sicilia’, Giornale di Sicilia, 14 Dec., 1 and ‘Franca Viola difende il no’, Giornale di Sicilia, 8 Dec. 1966, 1.

71 Serio, ‘Difendiamo una nuova Sicilia’.

72 ‘Mia figlia Franca non sposerà mai l’uomo che l’ha rapita e disonorata’, La Stampa, 17 Dec. 1966, 9. See also Guido Guidi, ‘Chiesti 23 anni per il giovane che rapì e violentò la ragazza: la sentenza’, La Stampa, 16 Dec. 1966, 16.

73 The mafia charge was repeated across the press: ‘Una ragazza si rifiuta di sposare il mafioso che la rapì e la sedusse’, Il Resto del Carlino, 9 Dec. 1966, 10; ‘P. M. all’attacco al processo Viola’, L’Unità, 15 Dec. 1966, 5 (Melodia was referred to as ‘il giovane “boss”’); ‘Hanno parlato dall’Ora, Corrao e Fileccia – paura dei testi mafia e il coraggio di Bernardo Viola: questi temi degli avvocati di parte civile’, Giornale di Sicilia, 14 Dec. 1966, 1 and 16.

74 Pietro Zullino, ‘Sfidiamo la mafia per questa ragazza’, Epoca, 27 Feb. 1966.

75 F. D., ‘I genitori di Franca Viola trattarono col rapitore della figlia’, Corriere della Sera, 12 Dec. 1966, 13; ‘Respinta la richiesta di una perizia fisica sulla diciottenne che fu rapita e violentata’, La Stampa, 13 Dec. 1966, 5.

76 Renato Filizzoli, ‘La ragazza dagli occhi bassi’, Il Mattino, 20 Dec. 1966, 1.

77 Silvano Villani, ‘La difesa chiede attenuanti per i rapitori di Franca Viola’, Corriere della Sera, 17 Dec. 1966, 7.

78 This was also noted in Beatrice Monroy: Niente ci fu (Molfetta: La Meridiana, 2012).

79 ‘La cittadinanza di Alcamo solidale con Franca Viola’, L’Unità, 16 Dec. 1966, 5.

80 ‘Napolitano premia donna di Alcamo che rifiutò nozze riparatrici’, La Repubblica, 8 Mar. 2014: available at (last visited 1 Mar. 2015).

81 ‘Undici anni al rapitore di Alcamo’, 18 Dec. 1966, 1.

82 Franca Viola was reported to have said to the police on their capture of Filippo Melodia, ‘don't shoot, he is already my husband’. Quoted in Ettore Serio, ‘Il mafioso è Viola padre che non acconsente alle nozze’, Giornale di Sicilia, 16 Dec. 1966, 1.

83 In both histories of the Italian feminist movement and theoretical analyses of its concerns, Viola is not mentioned: see Ribero, Aida, Una questione di libertà and Graziella Parati and Rebecca West, Italian Feminist Theory and Practice (Madison: Farley Dickinson University Press, 2002)Google Scholar. Honour is listed as one of the many forms of oppression against women in the 1970 manifesto of the Roman feminist group, Rivolta femminile. See Bono, Paola and Kemp, Sandra, eds., Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 38Google Scholar. Otherwise Italian feminism does not seem to engage with the legacy of Viola, honour crime or reparatory marriage.

84 On the links between Italian and international feminism, see Bracke, Maud Anne, ‘Our bodies, ourselves: The transnational connections of 1970s Italian and Roman feminism’, Journal of Contemporary History, 50: 3 (2015), 560–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On feminist groups in Naples, see ‘Introduction: Coming from the South’, in Bono and Kemps, eds., Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader, 5.

85 For example, at an UDI conference on the need for law reform regarding adultery, honour crime was discussed in the context of the need for broader reform of family law, specifically regarding adultery and divorce (12 Dec. 1961. UDI archive: busta 2, fascicolo 22). Again, a seminar held by UDI in 1965 on family law reform mentions honour crime as a secondary concern to the law on separation and women and work (UDI archive: busta 3, fascicolo 26), while an open letter to parliament on the proposed large-scale reform of family law, in which honour crime was included in discussions, did not mention it as a priority (UDI archive: busta 5, fascicolo 74).