Thematic Fact sheet: Rape trial

Thematic Fact sheet: Rape trial

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In La Giudice (The Judge), Paola Di Nicola takes inspiration from the famous rape trial held in Latina (Lazio) in 1978, to tell how women have been excluded from the courtroom, not only as judges but even as victims.

The 1978 trial, broadcast on television in the form of a documentary1, bears witness to the mentality that inspired “the evidently successful defence, followed in all Italian courts at the time, whereby the victim was herself morally culpable, because she was a prostitute or was consentingly complicit” (p. 63).

The incident

In 1978 Fiorella, a young woman aged 18, brought legal proceedings for rape against four 40-year-old men, including Rocco Vallone, whom she knew.

Fiorella said that she had been invited by Vallone to a villa in Nettuno to discuss a proposal for a secretarial job at a new company and was then kidnapped and raped for an entire afternoon by Vallone himself and three other men.

The defendants admitted the facts spontaneously when arrested, but denied everything when questioned subsequently. During the preliminary investigation, they claimed that intercourse took place after they had agreed to pay the girl 200,000 Italian lire.

The court sentenced Rocco Vallone, Cesare Novelli and Claudio Vagnoni to one year and eight months in prison, while Roberto Palumbo was sentenced to two years and four months. All four defendants were granted parole and were immediately released. Damages were set at 2 million Italian lire.

The trial

The trial in Latina was filmed by State television and shown by RAI on 26 April 1979. That evening Italian television broadcast the spectacle of a mind-set steeped in male chauvinism, capable of transforming the victim into instigator and thus accused.

Tina Lagostena Bassi

Tina Lagostena Bassi

In a 2007 interview, the civil party, Tina Lagostena Bassi, said: “I remember that people were upset, because no one imagined what really happened in the courtroom, where justice was just as violent towards women as the rapists. It was an act of violence … one just felt it, materially“.

Tina Lagostena Bassi’s defence revealed that age-old mentality of male violence and abuse, which allowed the court to permit “questions which were as morbid as they were irrelevant, a derogatory tone towards the victim, and attitudes perceived as jokingly complicit between the men involved in the trial, irrespective of their role, merely for being male” (p. 63).

For example: “There’s always been violence […] Don’t we men suffer it? Don’t we also suffer it from our wives? How do we not suffer it? To go out today I had to take two witnesses with me! The lawyers Mr Mazzucca and Mr Sarandrea, witnesses with whom I went to lunch; otherwise I couldn’t leave the house. Isn’t this violence? Yet my wife doesn’t hit me. Is it true that you are witnesses? So, Mr President, what do we want? What do you all want? Equal rights. You have begun to ape men. Do you wear judicial robes because you wanted to wear the trousers? You started by saying ‘Do we have equal rights, because at nine o’clock in the evening I have to stay at home, while my husband, my boyfriend, my cousin, my brother, my grandfather, my great-grandfather go out?’ You have put yourselves in this situation. And then, unfortunately, everyone reaps what they have sown. If this girl had been at home, if she had been kept indoors, nothing would have happened.”(Lawyer Giorgio Zeppieri).


Rape in the Italian Criminal Code

In Italy, the Rocco Code (promulgated in 1930) classified the crimes of rape and incest, respectively, as “crimes against public morality and decency” and “crimes against family morality”. Sexual violence, in other words, was not considered an offence against the person, but against general public morality, which did not recognise that women had any autonomy the sexual and relational sphere2.

The Code also contained a specific article (Article 544, which was repealed only in 1981) allowing a “shotgun wedding”3 whereby a man accused of rape, even of a minor, could wipe out the offence by marrying the victim.

It was only in 1996 (Law No 66,  Provisions against sexual violence4), after 19 years of parliamentary debate, that the rules against sexual violence were completely overhauled and the principle that rape is a crime against a person who is constrained in his/her sexual freedom, and not a crime against public morals, was affirmed.

Today, the crime of sexual violence is governed by Article 609-bis et seq. of the Criminal Code. The criminal provisions punish anyone who compels another person to perform or undergo sexual acts by means of violence or threats or by abuse of authority.


1 The documentary Rape Trial (Processo per stupro) was aired for the first time on 26 April 1979 and was seen by about 3 million viewers; as a result of requests for a repeat it was broadcast in prime time in October of the same year and was seen by 9 million viewers. It was then awarded the Prix Italia as the year’s best documentary. A copy is still kept in the archives of MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York.

2 As is evident from the pleadings in the rape trial, social decency denied female sexuality, considering as “good” young women who had no conception of their sex and sexuality and who remained “intact” until they married.

3 The double violence of the shotgun wedding was revealed for the first time in 1965 owing to the action of an 18-year-old Sicilian, Franca Viola. Franca, who was kidnapped in Alcamo, in the province of Trapani, rejected a shotgun wedding and denounced her kidnapper, Filippo Melodia, and his accomplices. The case shocked Italian, and especially Sicilian, public opinion: it was the first time that a “dishonoured” woman (one who was not a virgin) refused to follow the custom of the shotgun wedding. Despite intimidation and difficulties arising from the social environment, the trial of Filippo Melodia  and his 12 accomplices ended in December 1966 with a sentence of 11years’ imprisonment for him, five acquittals and lesser sentences for the others.

4 Law No 66 of 15 February 1996 Norme contro la violenza sessuale  (Provisions against sexual violence)


Processo per stupro, VHS Videocassette, s.l., s.n., 1979, IT\ICCU\LO1\0822812

La questione della violenza – Storia del femminismo in Italia (The question of violence – history of feminism in Italy): Interview with Tina Lagostena Bassi

Law No 66 of 15 February 1996 Norme contro la violenza sessuale (Provisions against sexual violence)

Articolo 609-bis Violenza sessuale (Sexual violence) in “Offences against the person”, Criminal Code, Book II, Title XII, update Al 7.12.2012.

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