Franziska Scanagatta

Franziska Scanagatta was a Lieutenant in the Austrian army, serving between 1797 and 1800. She was able to enlist after disguising herself as a boy and taking her brother’s place at the military school. She maintained her assumed identity throughout her military career, receiving promotions and medals along the way. Despite being forced to resign her position after the authorities were alerted to her gender, Franziska left the army with a military pension, and more importantly with the respect of her peers and superiors.

Early life

Franziska Scanagatta (sometimes recorded as Francesca Scanagatta) was born in Milan, Italy in 1776. She was described as “ugly and small”, and though the former was of little concern to the young girl, she worked hard to change the latter by exercising regularly. By adolescence, Franziska had built some serious strength into her wiry form, and she could certainly hold her own in a fight. She also took up the habit of shaving and was able to encourage a moustache to develop, giving her a more masculine appearance that better suited her character.

Franziska was schooled at a convent, alongside other girls of her age, and she threw herself into education with a passion. A good reader with a keen mind, she absorbed as much knowledge as she could from her lessons and often engaged in independent studies way from the classroom as well. The young woman is said to have remarked that her education and exercise made her feel “like a man”. She also expressed a strong desire to join the army one day – though of course, this path was not open to her by reason of gender.

Military education

While Franziska was determined to live the life of a man however she could, her brother Giacomo was keen to reject that same path for himself. The “effeminate” Italian was peaceful and reserved. Unlike his rough and ready sister, he found the idea of enlisting terrifying – and while Franziska could only dream of fighting for her country, Giacomo would be enlisted as soon as he came of age.

Fortunately for the young man, his sister had a plan. It was a bold one, and could land them both in serious trouble: yet if it worked, both would get to live the life they wanted. Franziska planned to go with her brother to the Theresianische Militärakademie, where she would sign up in his place.

In late June of 1794, the pair travelled to Austria’s capital together. Franziska’s appearance already tended towards the masculine, but Giacomo helped her complete the transformation with a clever disguise. The look would serve her well, allowing her to maintain the illusion for several years – even in the close company of friends and colleagues. It was certainly enough to fool the officers at the military school, as Franziska was accepted on July 1, 1794.

The school may have been fooled, but Giacomo and Franziska’s parents certainly weren’t! They expected their daughter to arrive back in Milan after escorting her brother to the school; instead, it was Giacomo who stepped off the train.

Immediately the Scanagattas’ father headed to Vienna himself, to meet with his daughter and bring her home. However, on meeting with her and hearing how keen she was to stay – and how much Giacomo wanted to be home – he relented and agreed to keep quiet. Grateful to her father and keen to make him proud, Franziska doubled her efforts in her studies, eventually graduating with honours in January 1797.

Austrian army

Cadet Scanagatta, fresh from military school, was assigned to Battalion 6 at Warasdin Grenz District. Her authoritative manner and sharp mind were used right from the start: Franziska’s first assignment was leading troops from Hungary to Kehl on the Rhine, to Troppau, Silesia and to Klagenfurt. She always maintained a careful distance to avoid detection, and had few close friends in the army – yet she was respected by her colleagues and feared by those under her.

Over the next two years, Franziska travelled extensively in her role and was able to visit nations all over the empire: something she had dreamed of doing since she was young. Keeping her secret was tough, but the young officer jumped on opportunities for new positions whenever they came up, making herself useful in a number of low-ranking commander posts.

In late 1798, Franziska’s ruse was almost discovered. Girlfriends of the young soldiers were more perceptive than their mates, and rumours began that the officer was not, in fact, a gentleman. At a gambling saloon in Sandomir, a bold young fellow took this claim to Scanagatta herself. She retorted that she was pleased to have been thought of by his lady – a rebuke that silenced any doubt, and left the young man feeling suitably embarrassed.

Scanagatta would also shut down any talk of her being too small and weak to fight. When a colleague tried to take this line, Franziska challenged him to a duel – wounding him in the process, and deterring anyone else from taking her on in a fight!

“Una verace risoluta virtù non trova impresa impossibile a lei”

“Real strength of mind finds nothing impossible”

Scanagatta’s motto got her through the tough marches, the intense battles and the difficult conditions faced by the Austrian army during their campaign to grow and protect their empire. However, there were some rocky patches. In 1799, during a march as part of the War of the Second Coalition, she was struck down with rheumatism and forced into two months’ rest.

On her recovery, she was assigned to Deutsch-Banater Grenz Regiment No.12. Under this regiment she led a successful attack on the French at Barbagelata, and for this and her other accomplishments she was promoted to Leutnant (Lieutenant), and decorated with medals.

Identity discovery and resignation

Franziska was lucky to have parents who kept her secret for her, and allowed her to serve in the army. This bought her several years on the front line, commanding troops and playing the part of a military man to great effect. However, it was Scanagatta’s assignment to the bloody and vicious siege of Genoa which forced her family to break their daughter’s trust. They feared for her life and wanted a way out, so that she might return.

For this reason, Franziska’s father contacted the authorities in Austria and told them that Lieutenant Scanagatta, the respected war hero, was indeed a female – just as the young man and his girlfriend had deduced two years prior. Her identity now in the open, Scanagatta composed her resignation and left military duty in 1800.

She did not leave in disgrace, however. Her commander Friedrich Heinrich von Gottesheim held a party in her honour, just as any retiring officer would enjoy, and she was treated as normal by the men who had come to know and respect her. She took with her all of her war medals, and although she was unable to wear them herself as a woman, she was permitted to pass them down to her future sons so that they might wear them in her honour.

On leaving the army in such unusual circumstances, no provision was made for future pay. However, Franziska Scanagatta’s story was told to Kaiser Franz II, and he was so impressed by the lady who made such sacrifices to her country, he ensured she received her full military pension from 1801.

Marriage and death

Even after she left the army, Franziska retained her masculine style and manner. However, she did eventually take on the role she had rejected as a youth, settling into marriage and family life. Franziska married Lieutenant Spini, a member of the Royal Guard, in 1804 and the pair went on to have four children and many grandchildren together. She lived a very long life, dying in 1865 at the ripe old age of 89.

Neither Franziska Scanagatta nor her brother Giacomo cared to be restricted by expected gender roles, and both supported the other in effectively swapping lives. Franziska’s choice to take her brother’s place at the military academy changed two lives. She got to live a man’s life serving her country, while her brother enjoyed a peaceful life away from the army. Franziska played a valuable role in the military and was well decorated for her efforts. Even after her true identity was discovered, she retained the respect she had earned among her military peers – and in the process, she changed perceptions of what a woman can and should be.

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