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San Leo: Famous People

Felice Orsini

Many scholars and biographers have tried to shed light on this mysterious adventurer, very famous in the Enlightenment area.

Felice Orsini

Felice Orsini was born in Meldola (Forlì) on 10 December 1819. His father, Andrea Orsini, was already a member of the Carboneria, a revolutionary group, and had been an army officer with Napoleon during the Russian campaign.
He was scarcely nine when his father was evicted and lost everything. He was placed in the custody of his uncle, Orso, a rich merchant from Imola, who gave the child a strict but proper education.
Felice Orsini had nevertheless a turbulent life and, according to the prosecutors in his trial, he was born a conspirator and a revolutionary. He fled Ancona and joined the French Army who, he thought, would come to Italy to free the Emilia-Romagna area from the domination of the Papal States’.  Later, for a very short time, he entered a Jesuit Monastery determined to take the vows, but he quit that lifestyle shortly afterwards.

He later entered the law school in Bologna, specializing in law and philosophy and graduating in 1843. In Bologna, he became an ardent liberal and joined secret liberal associations.

In 1844, a close friend of his, Eusebio Barbetti, was arrested, searched and found with a revolutionary plan handwritten by Felice Orsini. Orsini’s house was thoroughly searched by fifteen police officers: he was arrested alongside with his father, implicated in revolutionary plots and condemned to life imprisonment. In the prison of San Giovanni in Monte, in Bologna, Orsini officially began his troubled and adventurous life as a prisoner. From Bologna he was moved to Pesaro, then Urbino and, on the 1st of June, he was cuffed and escorted by 24 soldiers to the fortress of San Leo, together with his father and other local patriots. This is how Orsini describes his arrival in town: «San Leo’s fortress […] towers the valley from a high, triangular rocky peak […], it is destined to jail murderers and political prisoners […] After a very careful search, the commander in charge […] sent us all to a small, secret cell called “Spicco”[…]with a straw mattress and a woollen blanket […]. The air is pure, clean here, but it is terribly cold and the drinkable water, which comes from a tank, is disgusting. The cells are creepy, small, with one metre thick walls and very few and tiny windows […]. It seems like time has stopped […]”
In September 1844, an escape attempt of all the prisoners held in San Leo was foiled. They were supposed to escape on Sunday, thanks to a couple of bribed jailers, when most of the troops were in the city centre, but something went wrong. Patriots from Romagna “Were eager to help us escape: they even managed to send us in everything we needed” he write. The escape was just the first step to a true revolution in the entire Romagna area.
Orsini’s trial took place in Rome where the new pope, Pius IX, set him free. In the following years he distinguished himself in Ancona and Ascoli, where he was appointed Civil and Military Commissioner in charge of restoring order and fighting brigands. He was nevertheless more and more implicated in the plotting of revolutionary actions with Mazzini and other patriots. His extremely revolutionary ideas even led to a rupture with Mazzini and Orsini went as far as trying to offer his support to the most important Statesman of the time, Cavour, who never really replied to his offer.
From that moment on, his prison experiences became more and more interesting and adventurous: he was imprisoned in Italy and Europe, From Modena to Wien, but he always managed to escape. On March, 10 1855 he broke away from the prison he was kept in, in Modena, by sliding down from a window, 29 metres above the ground, heading back to France. Once there he campaigned for a French intervention in Italy against the Papal States. He exhorted Napoleon III to take up the cause of the Italian people but the emperor seemed dumb to his requests and he became convinced that Napoleon III was the only responsible for the failed revolutions in Italian states between 1848 and 1849.
He therefore plotted his assassination. On January, 14 1858, Orsini and his accomplices threw three bombs at the imperial carriage on its way to the Opera theatre. The bombs they used, later called “Orsini Bombs”, killed 8 people and wounded 156, though the emperor was unhurt.
Orsini was sentenced to death and went calmly to the guillotine on 13 March 1858. He died as a hero, his last words in a letter sent to Napoleon III: “Remember that so long as Italy is not independent, the peace of Europe and Your Majesty is but an empty dream. Do not turn down the request of a patriot sentenced to death. Set my country free, and the blessings of twenty-five million people will follow you everywhere and forever”.

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    San Leo lies in Rimini's hinterland, in southern Emilia Romagna, on the border of Tuscany, Le Marche Region and the Republic of San Marino.
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