One of the main characters in my book The Dew of Heaven is Lieutenant Vito Modugno, an Italian officer born in Bitonto (Ba) in 1870, who then graduated from the Turin Military Academy and was then sent to Africa, surviving the battle of Adowa in 1896.
Vito then volunteered to depart for China with the Italian contingent sent to free the Diplomatic Legations fighting the Boxers. Some Italian sailors already present in China had fought alongside the soldiers of other nations but the Italian warships, delayed at Singapore, anchored at Taku, close to Tianjin, on the day of the liberation of the Legations by a multinational contingent lead by the British General Gesalee.
Modugno was demobilized and sent back to Italy at the end of 1901. He did his way back with several crates of Chinese antiques and silk fabrics which he then sold with a large profit. Shortly before his departure, in March 1900, he had married Cenzina di Cagno, who in the meantime had delivered a daughter, Maria. While he was away she was diagnosed with syphilis, a disease which at that time was incurable.
After Vito’s return, one morning, his wife shot herself using his revolver and leaving a farewell letter under the cushion of her bed. In the letter she was writing of her remorse about something she had done in the past.
Vito was arrested a few days later on suspicion of having organized her murder. The trial was staged two years later in Perugia and was a nationwide case, splitting Italian public opinion in half. Socialists saw in Vito Modugno a warmonger, a violent imperialist and a wife-killer. The conservative side saw in him a war hero, a decorated empire builder, a true gentleman. Even Luigi Barzini of Corriere della Sera was called to court as a witness, having met Vito in Beijing. His case was debated in Parliament.
Vito Modugno was finally acquitted by the accusation of having staged the suicide of his wife and, after his release, he disappeared from history. But was he guilty or innocent? And what happened to him afterward? Some people said that he had returned to China but the mystery had never been solved, until the publication of my book.