Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel: The First Democratic Journalist

Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel, the first democratic journalist, was sent to the gallows 213 years ago.

Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel
Unknown author / CC BY-SA

Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel, the first democratic journalist, was sent to the gallows 213 years ago.

In 1799, Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel was a Pasionaria of the short and glorious Parthenopean Republic — a legendary heroine and pioneer of modern journalism. With an enlightened eighteenth-century city as its backdrop, Naples was bustling with intellectuals. It was the European capital of culture and finance. But it was also the stage for a cruel injustice enforced against the woman who Benedetto Croce defined as “virile intelligence” — one not tearful like the women of the time who, despite being granted the opportunity for a higher education during that century, were reluctant to leave their domestic duties and plot the history of female independence.

Eleonora was Portuguese, born in Rome but a citizen of Naples to the point of sacrificing her own life. She occupied a place in the higher ranks of European democracy: in fact, freedom of thought in the field of journalism began to make its appearance in Italy thanks to her. It was on the premises of the splendid parlour in Palazzo dei Duchi Cassano, the place of reference for Neapolitan and European intellectual circles, that a political newspaper was founded in Naples.

A young magistrate named Vincenzo Cuoco, already well-known for his erudition (in addition to being Eleonora’s faithful friend and admirer), led her into treasuring the French example of Le Moniteur. The French general Championnet began to read the first article in Monitore napoletano, which would have been released on that rainy 14th, pronouncing the sacred words “liberty” and “equality,” proclaimed and sworn by the Neapolitan Republic as one and inseparable. The article spoke about French victory, about the Neapolitans who had welcomed the General. Amidst the emotions and applause of those present (magistrates, men of letters, legislators, poets, musicians), someone asked who wrote the article in question.

“And so came forth a timid woman, with blushing cheeks, as she lightly stepped towards Championnet who embraced her, visibly moved, and announced to the assembly: Allow me to introduce the editor-in-chief of Il Monitore!” 

Little did Eleonora know that in accepting the assignment, she signed her death sentence. From that moment onwards, she struggled so that the plebeian scum (termed Lazzari) be recognized with respect by the population.

Pimentel gave voice to patriotism for five months, discussing relations with the French Republic, the policies to be adopted for plebeians as they were wary of patriots since “they did not understand them” — therefore the second edition was published with a harangue in the Neapolitan dialect.  Through the pages of the newspaper, Eleonora intended to protect the oppressed from ferocious French repression. Improving men was up to the law. Eleonora addressed bitter tirades against the monarchs, although she previously was their faithful subject and friend, court poet and royal librarian to Queen Carolina.

The first cracks in the Republic were sensed when the French Army withdrew from Naples with the pretext of setting up its headquarters in Caserta.  Eleonora would write: “a people never defends itself well if not by himself and that an independent and free Italy is a useful ally.” Cardinal Ruffo had already arrived at the gates of Naples and Il Monitore stopped its activities.

Eleonora was arrested and incarcerated in the Vicaria prison; on August 17 she was sentenced to death.  She spent the final nights of her life rethinking about her past. Virgil’s lyrics went through her head: “Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit” (perhaps one day this will be worth remembering).

She refused to recite prayers with the priest immediately before her execution. She was lucid and proud in not succumbing to fear, in keeping her dignity intact. She was hung to death, despite rules allowed for people of nobility to have the privilege of being beheaded. Eleonora asked for some string so that she might gather up the hem of her black robe: she knew that she would be hanging from the ten-metre high gallows and left dangling without any undergarments.

The obscene complacency of the people was not only addressed at the Jacobean, but especially at the woman who dared challenge man in his uncontested intellectual dominion.

Translation by Vittoria Anna Farallo

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