On May 5, 1898, workers organized a strike to protest against the government of Antonio Starrabba di Rudinì, holding it responsible for the general increase of prices and for the famine that was affecting the country. The first blood was shed that day at Pavia, when the son of the mayor of Milan was killed while attempting to halt the troops marching against the crowd. The city garrison was commanded by General Fiorenzo Bava-Beccaris, a veteran of the wars of independence that had unified Italy.
After a protest in Milan the following day, Antonio di Rudinì's government declared a state of siege in the city. Infantry, cavalry and artillery were brought into the city and General Bava-Beccaris ordered his troops to fire on demonstrators and demolish the barricades that had been erected. There were a series of clashes throughout the city between soldiers and protestors armed only with stones and clubs. On May 9, 1898, the troops used artillery to breach the walls of a monastery outside Porta Monforte, but they found inside only a group of beggars who were there to receive assistance from the friars.
According to the government, there were 118 dead and 450 wounded. The opposition claimed 400 dead and more than 2,000 injured people.
King Umberto I praised the general and awarded him the medal of the Great Cross of the Order of Savoy (Grande Ufficiale dell'Ordine Militare die Savoia) later the same year, saying that "You have rendered a great service to the King and to the Country". The decoration exacerbated the Italian population's indignation. On the other hand, Antonio di Rudinì was forced to resign in July 1898.
On 29 July 1900, at Monza, Umberto I was assassinated by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who claimed he had gone directly from America to avenge the victims of the repression, and the offense given by the decoration awarded to General Bava-Beccaris. The general himself lived for a further 26 years, dying at 93.
The artist Quinto Cenni prepared a series of 34 eyewitness paintings showing various scenes of the disturbances in the city and of the actions taken to suppress them. These generally favored the government version of events, showing soldiers behaving with restraint under provocation and being welcomed by ordinary citizens.
- page 91 BBC Hisory Magazine, October 2013
- Quinto Cenni, plates 423-491 "Esercito Italiano Dell' Ottocento", Rivista Militare 1896.
- Massacres of 1898 (Italian)