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The Untold Story Behind Sardinian Banditry

The Untold Story Behind Sardinian Banditry

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Sardinian banditry is a phenomenon associated with the island of Sardinia located in the Mediterranean. Part of Italy today, this island is generally believed to have taken its name from the Latin word Sardinia. However, the name pre-dates the Romans, as it was already known to the Phoenicians, according to an artifact called the Nora Stele. Incidentally, the Greeks called Sardinia Ichnussa, which is derived from the word Ichnos (meaning ‘human footprint’) - due to the island’s shape. Sardinian banditry is said to go all the way back to Roman times, though records of this phenomenon are more abundant in the last few centuries.

A 20th Century Sardinian banditto.

A 20th Century Sardinian banditto. (La Nuova Sardegna/Terra Sarda Tours)

Sardinian Shepherds

Sardinian banditry is shaped by two aspects: the pastoral structure of the island’s economy and Sardinia’s history of being an ‘inside colony’. The first of these may be seen in the island’s mountainous interior. These parts of the island are traditionally inhabited by shepherd communities, where the men spent much of their time with their herds away from their homes. Sheep-rustling was apparently a common practice amongst the poor shepherds, though only sheep from neighboring villages would be stolen. However, in the middle of the 20th century, sheep-rustling began to be replaced by kidnapping, as this was a more lucrative activity.

Sheep near Lula, Province of Nuoro, Sardinia, Italy.

Sheep near Lula, Province of Nuoro, Sardinia, Italy. (Rafael Brix/CC BY SA 3.0)

Apart from these actions, the inhabitants of this area would also deal with disagreements and disputes in their own way, as they had developed their own laws and traditions over time. One of these, for example, is the vendetta, which is still common today. These vendettas can be brutal and last for years. It is reported, for instance, that during the early 20th century, a feud over inheritance lasted 14 years, and nearly wiped out two whole families.

Distrust in the State

One reason the local laws and traditions survived is the distrust that these shepherds had for the State. For them, the central government was often perceived as distant, incomprehensible, tyrannical, and bureaucratic. This, perhaps, led to the second aspect of Sardinian banditry –the island as an ‘inside colony’.

It is recoded that during the Unification of Italy, the central government exploited the natural resources of Sardinia, in particular its forests. Along with the deforestation, new mining laws were introduced, and a new tax system was imposed. This could be seen as a form of colonization, and, naturally, there would be those who resisted it. Banditry was one expression of resistance, and therefore, the bandits of Sardinia are a product of the struggle against the imposition of ‘foreign’ rule.

Italian Brigands (‘banditi’) Surprised by Papal Troops (1831) by Horace Vernet.

Italian Brigands (‘banditi’) Surprised by Papal Troops (1831) by Horace Vernet. (Public Domain)

A Bandit Capital

Despite efforts by central authorities to clear Sardinia of its bandits, this group remains part of the population even today. Sardinia’s notoriety as an island infested by bandits continues. Orgosolo, in the region of Barbagia, for instance, holds the title of the ‘bandit capital of Sardinia’. Incidentally, Barbagia is said to be a corruption of ‘Barbaria’, the name given by the ancient Romans to the area - as its inhabitants were known to have been fierce warriors.

Looking at Nuoro, the main urban center in Barbagia, from a distance.

Looking at Nuoro, the main urban center in Barbagia, from a distance. (Max.oppo/CC BY SA 3.0)

Nevertheless, there has been a softening of this image in recent decades. Since the late 1960s, the population of Orgosolo began to paint the walls of their buildings with murals. To date, there are about 120 of these paintings in the city.

Whilst some of these murals depict scenes of everyday rural life, others reflect the bandit tradition of the Sardinians. The murals also incite resistance by recounting a range of global social injustices, including the Vietnam War and the extermination of Native Americans by European settlers.

Mural by Francisco del Casino against the Vietnam War.

Mural by Francisco del Casino against the Vietnam War. (heatheronhertravels/ CC BY 2.0)

Top image: “Il brigante tradito” (The Betrayed Brigand) by Horace Vernet. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

References, 2016. Where is Sardinia?. [Online]
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FonteSarda, 2016. Prehistory in Sardinia Archaeology and historical signs. [Online]
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Fornari, P., 2016. Dodging Bandits in Sardinia. [Online]
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Independent, 2011. Traveller's guide to Sardinia. [Online]
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Offeddu, C., 2014. Sardinian History – The glorious nineteenth century. [Online]
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White, C. & Davies, W., 2016. Street art Sardinia: the myth and magic of Orgosolo's murals. [Online]
Available at:, 2016. The Murals of Orgosolo. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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