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Radical Translations

Cesare Paribelli


  1. Discorso di Stefano della Boetie, della schiavitù volontaria, o il Contrà uno translation translator


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Cesare Paribelli (Sondrio 1763-Milan 1847) was a political activist, translator, military and administrative officer active between Naples, Paris and Milan.

In 1781 as a Swiss subject he decided to enlist in the Swiss corps at the service of the King of Naples. Later he was transferred to Sicily where he started to be an active member of the Freemason lodge under the lead of the reformer prince Caramanico. It was in this environment that Paribelli read works such as Mably’s Des droits et dévoirs du citoyen or he praised the coming of the French revolution as was described on the pages of the French newspapers.

In 1793 Paribelli was arrested under the accusation of being an active member of the plot against the Bourbon crown started in the Neapolitan lodges under the lead of Carlo Lauberg. Paribelli was guilty not only of active sedition against the Bourbon king organizing Jacobin clubs in the city of Naples but also for his contacts with French military officers to plot a military expedition of the Toulon French fleet against the Southern coasts of Italy. While Lauberg succeeded to leave Naples before being arrested, Paribelli remained in the prisons of Messina and Naples from 1793 until the arrival of the French army led by General Championnet in January 1799.

The long captivity did not weaken the democratic commitment of Paribelli, whose release was demanded by the Cisalpine Ambassador in Naples. During his captivity Paribelli translated the sixteenth-century work by Étienne de la Boétie, close friend of Montaigne, Discours sur la servitude volontaire. Paribelli realised the first Italian translation with the clear aim of showing the need for popular activism to overthrow tyranny. It is not by chance that this translation was proposed in the period of the creation of several Italian democratic republics following the arrival of the French troops in the Italian peninsula. Paribelli hoped that La Boétie’s argument against the sleepiness of people under despotic regimes would stir the Neapolitan public to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy. The translation was published in the first months of 1799 when Paribelli was already a member of the Provisionary government Council under the lead of Lauberg. The intensive political agenda of the Neapolitan republic prevented Paribelli from adding his personal notes to the translation as he had promised to do to the publisher.

In April 1799 Paribelli left Naples to reach Paris to plead for the diplomatic acknowledgement of the Neapolitan Republic by the French Directory. During his travel to France he stopped in Genoa where he composed in French Adresse des patriotes italiens aux législateurs et aux Directeurs de la République Française. This text was composed with the former secretary of the Neapolitan republic Marc-Antoine Jullien and constituted one of the first expression of a call for a formation of a unified, independent and democratic Italian republic. Once in Paris Paribelli continued his work of lobbying for the Italian cause and he hoped that General Bonaparte would support it. He published a poem (Il ritorno di Bonaparte, The return of Bonaparte) which praised the unexpected return of Bonaparte from Egypt as a providential event to promote the Italian cause.

Paribelli maintained his active defence of Italian interests working in the French commission to help political refugees from the former Italian republics. After the French victory at Marengo, Paribelli failed to gain the support of the First Consul who did not trust him due to his attachment to the idea of a united and independent Italian republic. After a brief diplomatic mission to Bern, Paribelli started a career in second-rank administrative positions that led him to follow the French army in Italy and abroad. His career within the Napoleonic administrative did not bring to a complete dismissal of his previous radical and democratic militant years. In 1804 the Minister of the Interior of the Italian Republic informed Paribelli that a box of his books coming from Paris was put under seize for “its immoral content”. These books included the novel Justine by De Sade and other erotic novels. Under the Restoration Paribelli remained active in the Carbonari society and maintained his numerous contacts in the ranks of the former officers of the Napoleonic army. Paribelli held his democratic and radical conditions until his death: in his will he refused to leave anything to one of his nephews unless he decided to leave the Jesuit order.


Paolo Conte, Cesare Paribelli: Un giacobino d’Italia (1763-1847), Milano, Guerini, 2013.

Nicola Panichi, Estienne de La Boétie. Plutarchus redivivus?: La Boétie e i suoi interpreti, seguito da Discorso di Stefano della Boétie Della schiavitù volontaria, o il Contra uno, tradotto nell’italiano idioma da Cesare Paribelli, Napoli, Vivarium, 1999.