On 8 March 2014, a 66-year-old Sicilian woman was awarded the title of Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. He bestowed the highest honour of the Italian Republic upon Franca Viola in a public ceremony to mark International Women’s Da, honouring her role in a legal case that had shocked the nation almost 50 years earlier in 1966. The case of Viola’s abduction and rape was a watershed in improving the status of women in Italian society largely due to the example set by Viola and her family. As part of my research on the changing customs of marriage in post-war Italy, I have explored the extensive media coverage of this well-known case, paying particular attention to what its coverage reveals about changing understandings of gender, sexuality and emotions, as well as national and regional identities.
In December 1965, seventeen-year-old Franca Viola was abducted and raped by her ex-boyfriend Filippo Melodia. The abduction of young women with the intention of forcing them into marriage was a somewhat tolerated practice in Sicily and southern Italy occurring occasionally up to the 1960s. Such cases were often difficult to distinguish from consensual elopements, and Viola’s kidnappers intended to exploit this ambiguity between love and violence. They also had the law on their side: under the Italian legal code the crime of rape could be absolved if the woman accepted a so-called ‘reparatory marriage’ with her attacker. However, Franca Viola’s case appeared different from the start. While abductions generally happened when women were out in public spaces, Viola was abducted from her home despite fierce opposition from her mother and brother in what was quite clearly a violent crime rather than an elopement. Further, while the couples in most abduction cases returned home after a couple of days with the promise of a marriage that both the woman and her family would now agree upon, Viola’s family immediately involved the police in her case and she was only freed by a dramatic police raid after a week in captivity. What ultimately marked Viola’s case out as different, however, was her decision to refuse the ‘reparatory marriage’ that Melodia offered, resulting in his prosecution. In 1966 she was the first Sicilian woman ever to officially and publically refuse such a marriage, soundly rejecting the traditional notion that she was ‘dishonoured’ by her kidnap and rape, and had to repair her shame through marriage. In her decision, Viola was firmly supported by her family, who also broke with Sicilian tradition by favouring their daughter’s happiness over family ‘honour’.
Melodia’s trial, held in December 1966 in the Sicilian town of Trapani, captured the nation’s attention. In the previous decade, the post-war ‘economic miracle’ saw Italian society undergo rapid and intense social and cultural change, which also saw shifting attitudes toward gender and sexuality. Thanks to booming economies of the northern industrial cities, Italy had made the transition from a largely agricultural society, where poverty was a real issue in many rural areas, to an urban industrial nation where economic growth was in line with the post-war Western European boom. Development was still uneven, however, and the Viola case highlighted the degradations that women still suffered in rural southern society.
The idea that Sicily and the south was ‘backward’ and out of step with post-war Italian society was a notion that was already present in the Italian media as well as in cinema and literature. The Viola case tapped into these concerns about regional difference and national identity, while also providing the modernizing nation with the ideal feminist icon: a modest rural woman with traditional values who, supported by her family, made her case with quiet dignity. The older notion of honour as connected with female chastity was almost universally rejected in the Viola case, and the trial focused instead on competing definitions of love and family. Melodia’s defence attempted to paint a picture of an intense and tragic romance cultivated almost solely through longing glances, and thwarted by Viola’s despotic father. This notion of love focused on the man’s passion and idealized the woman who might look but did not speak. It continued to hold currency in Sicilian society because young rural women still rarely appeared in public and had little opportunity to mix with unmarried men. Franca Viola herself countered this with her famous declaration: ‘I will marry the man I love’. In this she aligned herself with the apparently more modern notion of a marriage based on choice, equality, companionship and respect.
Both the state prosecution and the media supported her definition of love, with journalists repeatedly referring to the fact that Viola was ‘following her feelings’ in rejecting the ‘reparatory marriage’. The focus on emotions did, however, draw attention away from the sexual violence at the centre of the case. Melodia’s crime was still framed primarily in terms of an offence against the honour of Viola and her family, even while the notion that she was dishonoured was almost universally rejected. The idea of rape as a violent crime against the person, rather than an offense to society or the family, was still only beginning to take shape in Italian law. Journalists did, however, ridicule Melodia’s interpretation of events. The prosperous self-confident Italy of the 1960s seemed keen to distance itself from styles of masculinity that were associated both with the past, and with the rural south. Neapolitan journalist Renato Filizzola, for example, expressed his hope that other young men would be discouraged from ‘this “romantic” path, whose sentimental trappings were, to quote the penal code: persistent sexual violence, kidnap, breaking and entering into the home, physical violence (…)’ (Il Mattino, 20 December 1966). Melodia was ultimately sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Although the legal clause regarding ‘reparatory marriage’ was only repealed in 1981, Franca Viola’s case represented an important moment in modern Italian gender politics. Her famous ‘no’ represented a crucial step in the redefinition of marriage as a decision based on love, equality and respect rather than shame and coercion, and in the recognition of sexual and gender violence in Italian society. Although Franca Viola refused all interviews and public appearances after 1966 until last year, the enigmatic woman at the centre of this case nevertheless had a profound impact on contemporary Italian society. In a society where gender violence is still perceived as an acute national problem, with recent feminist campaigns in particular addressing the ongoing issue of femicide, the Italian state’s official recognition of Franca Viola’s role in combating gender and sexual violence offers an important signal of potential change.
Niamh Cullen is an Irish Research Council CARA Marie Curie fellow at University College Dublin. She is currently researching histories of courtship and love in post-war Italy and is also broadly interested in gender, emotions and the body in contemporary European and Mediterranean history. Niamh tweets from @niamhanncullen
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