William Hauptman notes a discrepancy between the legend and the reality surrounding brigands:
“The iconography of brigandage enjoyed great popularity during the Romantic age, due largely to the mythic imagery propagated by highly successful novels, plays, and operas. Because the brigand seemed at odds with his society, he quickly became recognized as yet another type of the rebellious Romantic hero, an endless wanderer who lived off the land, a vagabond oppressed by insensitive governments and forced into a life of crime in order to survive. His exploits were eagerly described with the same intensity and reverence usually accorded to more worthy heroes. In fact, for a brief time, the brigands were even officially recognized as national heroes because of their aid in ridding Italy of the French forces; in 1814 Pope Pius VII declared a general amnesty against their crimes as a gesture of reconciliation. In no small measure, the Italian brigand utilized and even promoted this legendary status; one of the most feared brigand leaders, Antonio Gasbaroni, employed a secretary to record his adventures which became known throughout Europe….
In truth the myth of the brigand as a hero forced into the condition of robbery, a victim of an unfeeling society, was wholly undeserved. The Italian brigand was brutal, ruthless, and without any moral conviction. His main goal ws no more than immediate gain at the expense of his victims whom he chose indiscriminately; the end result was usually the victim’s death, although on rare occasions the brigand simply amused himself through the special talents of the victim. In general, the brigand was a cowardly figure who always traveled with his company of men and assumed no explicit political position other than that which might benefit him for the moment. The extensive literature on brigandage in Italy indicates that a common factor in all brigand activity was a perverse delight in trifling with the emotions of the victims, much to the amusement of the entire camp.”
William Hauptman, “Gleyre, Vernet, and the Revenge of Les Brigands Romains,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 68, no. 1 (January 1981): 17.
Similar Subjects by Other Artists
Charles Gleyre, The Roman Brigands, 1831 (Louvre, Paris)