Contessa Maria della Torre

The Contessa Maria della Torre was not one to sit quietly at home while great events were changing the world around her.

In 1854, London was the refuge for Italian revolutionaries, especially those suffering from a lack of money. Among them was the Contessa, who seems to have been a rather dramatic young lady, as well as a very beautiful one. It was there that she met General Garibaldi, the famous hero of the Italian Risorgimento. Although she was married, she and her husband seem to have been estranged. At any rate, he could not compare to the heroic Garibaldi, even if the general was more than 20 years her senior. She became one of Garibaldi’s mistresses (not a unique position), wrote him passionate letters, and accompanied him to Italy for the Second War of Italian Independence.

She threw herself into her role with enthusiasm, and served as an officer  of Garibaldi’s Guides in Sicily in 1860. To take part in the campaign, she dressed in men’s clothes. In this she was not unique. There were a number of women among the volunteers, dressed as men and some even serving in combat.

Some of the women may have chosen their costumes to make themselves inconspicuous. Not Maria, who arrayed herself in decidedly flamboyant fashion. A British volunteer described her as wearing a white braided hussar’s tunic, trousers, boots with spurs, and a plumed Spanish hat. At her belt was a sword that clanked alarmingly as she strode about the camp. She was attended by three or four Calabrians, dressed like stage brigands, to serve as her bodyguard.

Francis Hare, an Englishman who had grown up in Italy, joined Garibaldi’s forces at the Battle of Volturnus in 1860. He described the Contessa in a letter to his brother:

“She was foolhardy brave. When a shell exploded by her, instead of falling on the ground like the soldiers, she would stand looking at it, and making a cigarette all the time.

“The hospital was a building surrounding a large courtyard, and in the centre of the court was a table where the amputations took place. By the side of the surgeon who operated stood the Contessa della Torre, who held the arms and legs while they were being cut off, and when they were severed, chucked them away to join others on a heap close by. There were so many, that she had a heap of arms on one side of her and a heap of legs on the other. The soldiers, animated by her example, often sang the Garibaldian hymn while their limbs were being taken off, though they fainted away afterwards.”

After the war, her life appears to have been less heroic. She retired to Milan and married again, this time to a wealthy banker, but he eventually abandoned her.

Left on her own, she is said to have turned to less than honest pursuits. According to Hare, she was patroness, secretary and treasurer of a charity called the Society for the Conversion of the Negroes of Central Africa. With the English Clergy List in hand, she wrote numerous appeals for donations, and was at least sometimes successful in obtaining funds. These were applied to the support of the patroness rather than the charity.

That seems the wrong ending for her story. A woman of such flamboyant courage shouldn’t dwindle into a petty con artist. I prefer to think of her standing with calm insouciance as the shells burst around her.


Sorting the limbs

How odd that she put all the arms in one pile and all the legs in another. Do you think she just wanted to gain some modicum of control over an obviously out-of-control situation?

Anyway, great post; I enjoyed it very much.

Glad you enjoyed it. It was a

Glad you enjoyed it.
It was a bizarre scene, wasn't it?


I loved this post, Lillian.

I'm curious about her mental state. Was she truly brave or was she slightly... off? I just cannot imagine a sane person not flinching or cowering as bombs dropped around them. But then, as I think about the scenes you described, I have to wonder whether the only way to come out of that whole was to completely detach herself, emotionally, from what was happening around her. Amazing and heartbreaking at the same time. Great post.

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