At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Francesca Scanagatta - soldier

Woman pretended to be a man to join Austrian army


Francesca Scanagatta convinced the Austrian authorities she was a man
Francesca Scanagatta convinced the
Austrian authorities she was a man
Francesca Scanagatta, an Italian woman who served in the Imperial Austrian army for seven years while pretending to be a man, was born on this day in 1776 in Milan.

Scanagatta – sometimes known as Franziska – was a small and apparently rather plain girl, who was brought up in Milan while the city was under Austrian rule. She admired the Austrian soldiers to the extent of wishing she could join the army, yet knew that as a girl she would not be allowed to.

Even so, it did not stop her dreaming and throughout her childhood and teenage years she worked on becoming physically stronger through exercise while reading as much literature as she could about the army.

By contrast, her brother Giacomo hated the idea of joining up. He was rather effeminate in nature and the very thought of becoming a soldier filled him with dread.  Yet his father wanted him to serve and arranged for him to attend a military school in Vienna.

Giacomo confided his fears in Francesca and she suddenly realised she had an opportunity to fulfil her dreams by signing up in his place.

So, in June 1794, dressed as a man, the 17-year-old travelled with Giacomo to Austria and joined the Theresianische Militärakademie – the Theresian Military Academy – in his place as an external student.

When he learned what had happened, Francesca's father made plans to go to Vienna to bring her home, but she was so passionate about fulfilling her ambition that eventually he backed down and allowed her to stay at the academy.

A battlefield scene from around the time Scanagatta  was recruited by the Austrian army fighting France
A battlefield scene from around the time Scanagatta
was recruited by the Austrian army fighting France
Maintaining the pretence of being a man, she gained excellent grades and graduated as an ensign in January 1797.

She narrowly missed being drawn into a combat role later the same year, leading a reinforcement troop from Hungary to join her battalion on the Rhine preparing to repel the advancing armies of Napoleon in the later stages of the French Revolutionary Wars.  Napoleon’s earlier victories worried the Austrian commanders, however, and a peace treaty was agreed before Francesca’s men saw any action.

In February 1799, as hostilities broke out again, she marched with her company to join the so-called War of the Second Coalition against the French, only to be denied the chance to fight again, this time after suffering a severe attack of rheumatism, which confined her to two months of recuperation before she could rejoin the battalion.

In the meantime, she was transferred to a regiment based at Pancsova in an area now part of northern Serbia, with whom she marched to Italy to reinforce the Austrian lines.  She showed herself to be tough and resilient in testing conditions.

Rumours that she was not who she said she was were sometimes openly discussed among her colleagues but when another soldier teased her for being small, scarcely disguising what he was thinking, she challenged him to a duel and won, although she contented herself with merely wounding her opponent.

A scene from the Battle of Marengo, a significant victory for the French in the War of the Second Coalition
A scene from the Battle of Marengo, a significant victory
for the French in the War of the Second Coalition
Fully recovered from her illness, in December 1799 she led an attack on the French trenches at Barbagelata, a strategic village above the Val d’Aveto in Liguria, in the province of Genoa.

This was the last straw as far as her worried family were concerned.  When she returned home to visit during the early weeks of 1800, they tried desperately to persuade her to leave the army.

Instead, promoted to lieutenant in March of that year, Francesca returned to the Siege of Genoa, at which her father took the decision, despite knowing the fury his actions would provoke, of informing the Austrian authorities that the ‘man’ they had just made a lieutenant was, in fact, his daughter.

She was obliged to resign on the very day Genoa fell, on June 4, 1800. Nonetheless, her commander, Friedrich Heinrich von Gottesheim, held a party in her honour, out of respect for her bravery and outstanding conduct.

Back in Milan, she maintained close contact with the army and began a courtship with Lieutenant Spini, of the Italian Presidential (later Royal) Guard, whom she married in January, 1804.

They had four children, two boys and two girls. When the boys were old enough, they were allowed to wear the medals their mother was not permitted to wear.

She died in 1865 aged 89. Her portrait hangs in the Theresian Academy in Wiener Neustadt, 60km (37 miles) south of Vienna.

Travel tip:

The hamlet of Barbagelata, 1,115 metres above sea level some 48km (30 miles) north-east of Genoa, is officially listed as having 35 buildings and a population of just 17 people, with only seven over the age of 15.

Three Mozart operas were staged for the first time at Milan's Teatro Regio Ducale
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Travel tip:

Milan was in the possession of Austria from 1707 to 1797, the period of the Hapsburgs, and again after the end of Napoleon’s rule from 1815 to 1859, when the Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Solferino and Milan became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.   During the first period of Austrian rule, Milan became a centre of lyric opera. In the 1770s, Mozart unveiled three operas at the Teatro Regio Ducale - Ascanio in AlbaMitridate, re di Ponto, and Lucio Silla. Later, after Teatro Regio Ducale burned down, Teatro alla Scala became the foremost opera theatre in the world, with its premières of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi.

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