Places and exploits of the bandit Castrin: material results, events perception and memory building

the text concerns the life of the bandit from Trentino Abramo Zeni (1912-1986), captured by Nazis in 1944. A first aim is to connect the biographical reconstruction of his life with the archaeological deposit discovered in the cave where he used to live after going into hiding. A second aim is to understand, thanks to the interviewed people, the mechanisms of memory-building concerning those events. The most important result is a methodological one: archaeology, as well as historical sources, is able to reconstruct even the story of a single person. Lastly, very interesting are the different kinds of memory: the outlaw “Robin Hood”, the rebel bandit and the “noble bandit”.

cette contribution concerne la vie du bandit trentin Abramo Zeni (1912-986), capturé par le Nazis en1944. Un premier objectif est celui de connecter la reconstruction biographique de sa vie avec le dépôt stratigraphique retrouvé dans la grotte dans la quelle il se réfugia lorsqu’il été fugitif. Un deuxième objectif est celui de déceler, à travers les personnes interviewées, les mécanismes d’élaboration de la mémoire relative à ces mêmes épisodes. Le résultat le plus important se trouve au niveau méthodologique: l’archéologie, de paire que les sources historiques, est capable de reconstruire également les événements liés à une seule personne. En plus, sont aussi très intéressantes les différentes types de mémoires : le bandit “Robin Hood”, le bandit révolté et le “bon bandit”.

1. Introduction
Fig.1. Southern Trentino and some of the places frequented by Abramo Zeni

The exploits of the bandit Abramo Zeni, perhaps even because he never killed anyone, have had so strong a kind of Romantic appeal on a large number of people, that the figure of “el Castrin” inspired a local band song, was taken as an example of social riot by a group of Anarchists and can finally be seen amongst the characters of a painting. The continuous allusions to a refuge, emerging from a number of accounts, gave me the motivation for a first survey to the Bus del Castrin, a cave located above the village of Sarche (fig.1); in this place it was possible for me to examine what remained of the bandit refuge. This is the starting point of the idea of an cross-disciplinary research in which all the different sources of information can be inserted. The problems concerning studies similar to this has been recently discussed by Marco Milanese (Milanese 2005), which lingered over the relationship between archaeology and oral sources.
As for the relationship between events and memory, some school of thoughts of cultural anthropology show how memory is not necessarily (or closely) related to the fact in itself and, as a “cultural construction”, it is formed in totally different ways depending on the social status of the individual or of the group (Fabietti, Matera 1999).
But is it possible to start a cross-disciplinary study concerning a single individual? And with which meanings and developments?
The famous work by Carlo Ginzburg, “The Cheese and the Worms”, talks about the miller Menocchio, who lived in Friuli (Italy) in sec. XVI; as in the present case, it concerns a single person, equally peculiar and not representative of broader segments of population (Ginzburg 1976). In other works, Ginzburg takes issues with both Fernand Bruaudel and the structural-functionalist French historiography, which see, with strongly negative connotations, the microhistory as “evenemential history” that cannot be reconnected to the inner structure of society. In Ginzburg’s opinion, on the contrary, we have to think about society as “…the result of the interaction between numerous individual strategies; an interweaving which only a close observation allows to reconstruct” (Ginzburg 1994).
On the archaeological horizon, even Ian Hodder polemized with Braudel, reckoning that the latest has given too much importance to structures at the expenses of single events (Hodder 1987).
On the contrary, Hodder underlines that archaeology has to stress the importance of both the facts, the individual and the social action (Agency; Hodder 2000).

2. Tasks and methods.

A first task of this work is to connect the historical-biographical reconstruction of Abramo Zeni (1912-1986) with the archaeological deposit found in the cave in which the bandit set his refuge during his absconding. With this aim I used three lines of research: the examination of the newspapers of the period, the interview to direct witnesses to the life of the bandit and an inspection in the cave.
A second task is to understand, in the interviewed people, the mechanisms of memory elaboration, which led to completely different results depending on the social status of the interviewed.

3. The interviews to the newspaper “L’Adige” and “L’Alto Adige”.

On June 27th 73 Abramo Zeni went back to his village after 29 years of imprisonment and, as it is noticeable from the newspapers’ titles, he was welcomed back as a poor emigrant returning from a long trip. Here is presented an extract from the interviewed which was published on the newspaper “L’Adige” (July, 18th, 1973; fig.2).

Fig.2 On the right Abramo (Gino Zeni), welcomed back by the Major and his fellows countrymen when he was released from jail; on the left, Zeni with a friend in the village bar (“L’Adige, July, the 18th, 1973).

“I practically never knew my parents; since I was a child I was a resident guest in the Nursing Home in Cavedine, and then I started working as a shoemaker. On March 1939 I was called up; I was assigned to the Yugoslav front, but I deserted. It was then that my life of torment started; I had to steal in order to survive, but I gave what was more to my fellows countrymen which were poorer than me. I was then arrested and, after one year of jail, called up again. Once again I deserted (1941). Together with some fellows, on February, the 9th, 1944, I went to the village of Pergolese to “settle the scores” with Noè Frioli, a person with which I had made some robbery, but which I suspected to have made the stolen goods disappear from my refuge. We had weapons with us; we stopped in front of his house, and I called him out loud. Frioli let himself down a window which was in the back, then entered the cowshed and went out of it with a fork in his hands. I shot him in his left leg, but he succeeded in hitting me in the forehead and in the eye with an axe. I recovered consciousness in the hospital of Arco, where I was arrested by the Germans; I tried to speak in my defence by confessing that my desertion had political origins (I was with the partisans) and they sentenced me to 24 years of jail, to which they added all the condemns for minor offences (thefts).

4. The interviews to the witnesses.

Between the year 2004 and 2009, together with Ivan Montagni, I made about fifteen interviews to different people in order to reconstruct the main events in the biography of Abramo Zeni.

4.1 The boy from Sarche

First of all, our source told us about a big leather theft in the shoe factory of Sarche, for which everyone blamed the bandit. The informant led then us in the nearby of the so-called “Bus del Castrin”, a cave located over the village of Sarche; he told us that, as a child, he used to pass next to this place when putting the goats out to pasture, he feared that place and tried to walk quicker when getting there in that, sometimes, it was possible to feel the presence of someone and, in some cases, to see a gun barrel popping out from the inside.

4.2 The girl from Sarche

The informant remembers well the Castrin lover, called “La Spongina”, which was said to sleep with the bandit in the “refuge” and could be sometimes seen walking through the village streets.
During the winter she used to wear a fur, and this was the only fur which both the informant and all the villagers of Sarche had ever seen.

4.3 The other interviews

From the other interviews it emerges how the Castrin was not actively wanted, both because he stroke terror into people (even into the police), and for the “social connotation” of his actions which gained him the respect of people (a consistent number of informants confirm the food gift made to the poor families).
Equally interesting are the accounts of some people who were robbed by him, amongst which there are a peasant from Pergolese, a shopkeeper from Cavedine and the son of a miller from Calavino.
Besides being seen as tolerable happenings, these facts are now just funny anecdotes to be told, part of a role playing game in which the players were on one hand the rural bourgeoisie, and on the other the outsiders (bandits, shepherds); at these figures we now look with a sense of nostalgia thinking about those past times in which lives where free from social constrictions.
The Castrin thus becomes a kind o “noble bandit” (vaguely resembling the “noble savage” myth, which was equally free from the restrictions of civilization), which in the end never killed anyone and, overall, never put in serious danger the existing social equilibrium.
On the contrary, different is the point of view on this story of both the rock band La Guerrigliera and the group of Anarchists; both the text of the song Abramo ( and the article on the Anarchist periodical Adesso (Adesso 2002), underline the courageous choice to rebel against a system which forces its son to fight in war.
More generally, the interview show a basis of collective memory, which can be recognized clearly in the sentence (which was repeated to me a lot of times, even by informants very different in age and social status): “The Castrin was a person which took [things] where there were enough and put them where there weren’t"

5. The Bus del Castrin: area, structures and objects

The Bus del Castrin is a narrow cleft in the rocks of Monte Casale, and it runs all across the rock face until its base, where the river Sarca flows (fig. 3). It is possible to reach it both from the top and from the bottom of the mountain, by climbing for various metres up the rock which from the street below leads to a narrow crack. The survey on the cave, which took place on May, the 11th, 2009 in accord with the Soprintendenza dei Beni Librari ed Archeologici di Trento, allowed me to discover the remains of two hearths and a lot of objects which suggest a structure’s collapse.

Fig.3 The gorge made by the river Sarca and the Bus del Castrin. Inset above: one of the two entrances, which is located above the street.

5.1 The structures

The concentration of objects (fig. 4.3) covers a length of about 3,5 metres, and is constituted of small pieces of wooden beams, sheets of corrugated iron, bricks and broken glasses; these objects are usually used in roofing. At the northern extremity, the concentration ended against a great rock, where it was possible to see the presence of a hearth made of a great concentration of pieces of coal (fig. 4.1). A second hearth was found not very far from the first, between two big rocks and the rock wall (fig.4.2). A small adjoining space, from which pieces of wooden beams, wires and an open food tin come, was used as a garbage dump (fig.4.4).
Fig.4 The inside of the Bus del Castrin.

5.2 The objects

From the cave come several objects, of which I here present only a small sample.
The fragment of dish (fig.5.1) was lying amongst several others, and on its bottom is written the name of the factory: Zemanek & Cornell, Trieste. Surfing the net, the only information one can retrieve comes from Ebay, where there is still the track of a sale announcement, which is unfortunately expired, about two commercial letters of Zemanek & Cornell, dated 1924.
The pitar fragment (fig. 5.3) comes from one of the several potteries produced in the neighbourhood between sec. XVIII and XIX, which were used for household use. The use of such vases can vary, depending on the cases, from food conservation, to food cooking, to serve water or wine (Kezich, Eulisse, Mott 2002).
I showed the food tin (fig. 5.2) to two old local storekeepers, and they say they have dealt with such tins; the tins contained fish and were sold to people in funds already immediately before the Second World War. The lack of brands, inscriptions or other elements does not allow to set the characteristics of the steel knife (fig. 5.4).
Fig.5 The objects found in the Bus del Castrin.

I showed the leather piece (fig. 5.5) to an expert local shoemaker, which made me notice that the object, if cut with a knife or another sharp implement, can be interpreted as the waste material of a bigger piece of leather.
Moreover, from the refuge comes a small glass bottle which, in the opinion of the researchers of the Museo del Profumo in Milan, belongs to the production of the Maison Grenoville in Grenoble (fig. 5.6). This bottle is a standard one, which was produced in a continuative way between the Twenties and the Forties, and was used to contain perfumes, lotions and other cosmetic preparations.

6. Conclusions and considerations.

The first aim of the present work is to intersect the three lines of research and verify whether they support each other or, on the contrary, are in conflict one with the other.
The comparison between the lines led to find some common points where the sources overlapped, coinciding one with the other in different ways.
Think for example to the interview the bandit granted the journalist, in which he defined himself a partisan; this fact finds no equivalent in any of the accounts, nor in the historical horizon, and could have led him to consequences worse than being imprisoned.
In other cases, like for example for the leather piece and the shoemaking profession of Zeni, which was revealed by he himself to the newspaper, the different sources are perfectly complementary.
The plates, the French perfume bottle and the fish tin, which at that time must be considered as real status symbol, are maybe what remains now of the bandit stolen goods.
The French perfume bottle is perhaps a gift by Zeni for his lover (as it was maybe the fur described by the girl from Sarche, too). The hearths, the ruined refuge and the garbage dump indicate that the refuge itself was used as a “dwelling place”.
The most important result is therefore a methodological result; in fact, firstly, it becomes clear how both biography and archaeology can operate together in reconstructing a single person’s life, and secondly, we have confirmation that archaeology, and more in general the material culture study, can provide a lot of information which often other disciplines cannot provide.
The second aim, that is to analyse the mechanisms of the elaboration of memories, that are formed in totally different ways depending on the social status of the individual or of the group, is derived from the subjects analysed in the introduction, concerning the work by Carlo Ginzburg.
It can be noted that there is a level, which can defined “popular”, where the bandit is seen as a sort of Robin Hood, he who “took [things] where there were enough and put them where there weren’t”; this sentence was repeated to me from many informants different in age and social status, and its influence reached even the front page of the newspaper “L’Adige”. The memory-building made by both the rock band La Guerrigliera and the group of Anarchists has a political and social connotation instead, since they put the stress on the aspects of revolt against war and against the system. The figure of the “noble bandit” has its origin in the middle class, and was created by those who were victims of his robberies; they identified as “otherness” the image of the outlaw free from the social restrictions, to which they used to look with regret.

Acknowledgements: The Author would like to acknowledge Marina Chemotti for the English translation; Nadia Pisetta for the French translation; Franco Nicolis (Soprintendenza Beni Librari e Archeologici di Trento) for the archaeological data.


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