Augusto Masetti (1888–1966)

Anti-militarist, Augusto Masetti

Here is a short biography of Gusto Masetti who opposed colonial European encroachment in Africa (Libya) by shooting a commanding officer, and accidently a fellow soldier in the ranks. Rather than sentence Masetti to death, military court appointed psychiatrists declared him to be 'unbalanced' and 'irreducibly unfit for regular social coexistence and permanently dangerous to himself and others'. Subsequently, civil authorities applied various other psychiatric labels for which he was also incarcerated. He himself, at the time of the first offence, proclaimed, 'long live anarchy'.

Submitted by westartfromhere on February 10, 2024

Birthplace: Bolognese Hall
Date of birth: April 12 1888
Place of death: Imola

Augusto Masetti was born in Sala Bolognese on 12 April 1888 to Cesare, a bricklayer, and Giacinta Montanari. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to San Giovanni in Persicelo, where Augusto, after finishing Second Grade, began working as a bricklayer, an activity that he replaced with shoemaking in the winter, when building work stopped, in order to help the family, which was only sustained by the earnings of his father, a day labourer. A member of the trade union, he never appears among those reported by the police during unrest. In March 1908, he went to France to work and returned to Italy in November, having begun his military service. However, as his older brother Gaetano was already in the army, he was given a year's service and thus began his military service, in Ravenna, in November 1909. Discharged on 2 September 1910, he returned to his village where he resumed his work as a bricklayer. At the beginning of April 1911, having become unemployed, he went to France and worked as a labourer in Livet, near Grenoble. He returned to Italy in August 1911, and on 26 September he was called up for military service and assigned to the 7th Company of the 35th Infantry Regiment, selected to be part of the expeditionary corps for the African war. At dawn on 30 October, in the Cialdini barracks in Bologna, the regiment was ready for departure, lined up in the large courtyard. Suddenly, a rifle shot goes off, wounding Colonel Stroppa.

The shooter was Masetti, as some witnesses later said, shouting 'long live anarchy'. The carabinieri who first handcuffed him, declared that he did not cease to declare himself an anarchist, that he knew he would be shot, but that he would die happy because 'his idea will never die'. Until then Masetti was not well known among anarchists. Armando Borghi writes: 'I cannot say whether "Gusto" ever declared himself an anarchist before he attacked the colonel. He worked with us and we considered him a sympathiser' (Borghi, see bibliography). Locked up in solitary confinement, the first interrogations began for Masetti to which he responded in monosyllables, alternating states of calm with states of great agitation. With the transfer to Venice, where the military court of justice is located, the trial against the shooter begins. Masetti does not answer questions, and if he does it is always in an inconclusive manner; the idea that he is mentally ill begins to creep in among the judges, and that resolution would also be useful to defuse the climate of tension that is growing around the 'Masetti case'.

The anarchist weekly 'L'Agitatore' immediately made Masetti the symbol of the anti-militarist battle and in the piazzas the first demonstrations in favour of the accused began. Thus, in the midst of uncertainty, it was preferred to pass Masetti from military justice to 'medical' justice, taking advantage of an initial diagnosis by the doctor called to examine him who, after investigating the defendant's private life, declared that a 'neuropathic inheritance' was evident in him from his mother's side and that although he was 'endowed with upright feelings in normal relations in life, he was in all probability becoming impulsive under the action of cerebral stimulants such as alcohol and mood swings' (Medical Report, 5 November 1911). On 17 November 1911, Masetti, whose defence was taken over by G. Bentini, was transferred to the criminal asylum in Reggio Emilia; the military trial was suspended pending the expert opinion of the psychiatrists to whom, in fact, the trial was delegated. The two doctors in charge worked on the report for about two and a half months, well over the thirty days set, and in the end Masetti's life is rigorously described in 155 typewritten folders where his feelings appear and where his psyche and body is meticulously analysed and measured in search of its proper place within the categories of psychiatry.

In a long and circumstantial report on 15 February 1912, the doctors issued the 'diagnosis-sentence', in which it was stated that Masetti had acted 'in a state of morbid fury' brought about by 'an acute passionate urge' manifested on a degenerate subject as demonstrated by his biological inheritance. The origin of his irresponsibility is hereditary and will never disappear so that he will always be considered to be 'in a state of abnormal susceptibility to unbalanced actions' and 'irreducibly unfit for regular social coexistence and permanently dangerous to himself and others'. On 11 March 1912, the commission of enquiry of the Military Court of Venice declared that there was no need to proceed against the defendant and indefinitely committed him to the cells of the judicial asylum in Reggio Emilia. On 3 February 1913, after the Reggio Emilia authorities had long said they feared unrest as a result of public demonstrations in several towns in his favour, Masetti was transferred to Montelupo, a small village a few kilometres away from Florence. In December of the same year, the director of the asylum described him as 'healthy' both physically and mentally and claimed that he could be transferred to a civil asylum.

In the same year, the 'pro-Masetti' mobilisations were resumed and the newspaper 'Rompete le file!' in particular took the lead. On 8 November 1913, a national 'pro-Masetti' Committee was established, of which M. Rygier was secretary and which received support from the Unione Sindacale Italiana. The legitimacy of Maretti's detention in a criminal asylum was questioned and it was decided to take legal action, with E. Musatti, against the 1912 order. The legal action and the strong public movement that accompanied it achieved initial success with Maretti's transfer to the asylum in Imola at the beginning of January 1914. Here Masetti resumes working as a shoemaker and is always very quiet. Suddenly, the order arrives to transfer him to the asylum in Padua, where Masetti remains for more than a year from 22 March 1914. When he was brought back to Imola on 13 April 1915, he is accompanied by a new medical report in which the diagnosis of 'psychic degeneration' was reconfirmed, thus ruling out a return to civil life. Masetti returned to the asylum. The ongoing war has caused Masetti's case to lose attention, and a long existence in internment looms for him. In Imola, he enjoys limited freedom, which also allows him to leave the asylum. On 24 August 1919, he thus obtains accommodation with the Imola family of Zeffirino Pirazzoni.

In the following years Maretti finds a partner, Concetta Pironi, with whom he has three children: Luisa, Cesare and Franco. He works as a bricklayer and like all the patients who live outside the asylum he receives a small subsidy. Police reports describe him as mild-mannered and quiet. However, strict control continued over him and in 1935, for having requested to be exempted from participating in regime rallies, he was arrested, imprisoned and sent into confinement in Thiesi. During this new transfer he showed signs of 'mental imbalance' and was admitted to the local psychiatric hospital, from which he was discharged on 15 January 1936. Returning to Imola in May 1940, he remained under special surveillance, so much so that he entered the list of the most dangerous anti-fascists in Imola handed over to the German command immediately after 8 September 1943. Arrested on 14 September, he spent ten days in the prisons of Bologna. After the death of his son Cesare, a partisan in the 36th Brigade Garibaldi, Maretti was again seized by 'paranoid psychosis' and hospitalized for two weeks in the mental hospital from which he left on 1 April 1945. After the war he continued his anti-militarist militancy. He died in Imola in early March 1966, in a car accident during one of his bicycle trips.

Sources: Central State Archives, Ministry of the Interior, Central Political Records, under name; State Archives of Bologna, Military Tribunal of Venice, f. Augusto Masetti (contains, among other things, the expert opinion on the state of mind of Augusto Masetti.); Historical archive of the FAI, Imola, Carte Masetti. Interview with Masetti relates the accidental shooting of the soldier in the ranks.

Bibliography: A. Borghi, Half a century of anarchy (1898-1945), Naples 1954, see index; B. Dalla Casa, A. Varni, F. Tarozzi, Military discipline and territory: the territorial military court of Bologna. First reflections on ongoing research, in Army and city from unification to the thirties, Perugia 1989, pp. 457-481.

Original source in Italian