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Saint of Nationalism


by Denis Mack Smith
Yale University Press, 302 pp., $30.00

Giuseppe Mazzini has a street named after him in every Italian town. He ranks with Victor Emanuel II, Count Cavour the statesman, and Giuseppe Garibaldi the guerrilla leader as a founding father of united Italy. Yet he boasted neither exalted birth nor military skill; he held office for only a few months; and for most of his life he lived secretively in exile. His weapons were his personality, his plots, and his pen.

He was born in Genoa in 1805, nine years after the city, capital of an independent republic for centuries, had been conquered by revolutionary France. So he was ten when, after Napoleon’s defeat, the congress of Vienna claimed to restore the old order. It restored the monarchs Napoleon had deposed, but not the republics he had liquidated. The Italian peninsula was divided between eight absolute monarchies. Genoa was handed over to the kingdom of Sardinia, whose dynasty came from French-speaking Savoy and whose capital was Turin, in half-French Piedmont. The Genoese saw their new rulers as foreign, authoritarian, and obscurantist—engendering one of the bitterest of the many internal divisions that made the unification of Italy seem to most people utterly inconceivable right up to the time when, in 1859–1860, it suddenly came to pass.

Mazzini’s resentment was especially acute. Having shown himself to be a brilliant student of literature at the University in Genoa, he turned to revolutionary writing and conspiracy against the government in Turin. He was imprisoned, released for lack of evidence, and sent into exile in 1831—thereafter returning to Italy for only a few short, mostly clandestine visits during the remaining fortyone years of his life.

Within months of going into exile in France he had founded Young Italy, an organization advocating and working for the political unification of the peninsula. The particular emphasis that Mazzini gave to its program was something new. To him nations were divinely ordained moral entities based on popular consent. Each nation—at least each major civilized nation, and especially Italy—ought to have its own state; and only through such nation-states would social progress prove possible. Mazzini always insisted on combining thought and action, journalism and conspiracy. So the existence and aims of the movement were to be publicized while its plotting to start revolutions had to be secret. Young Italy inspired a relatively small number of Italians to engage in various activities aiming at revolution or assassination. According to Mazzini, such activities would sanctify the national cause by supplying martyrs to it, and, sooner or later, the nation would be sufficiently stirred to rise up and unify itself. A rather larger number of Italians, without being persuaded of the wisdom of conspiracy, were convinced by Mazzini’s example and writings to adopt unification as their ultimate goal.

Young Italy, though never large, became a source of inspiration for patriots and a bugbear to established states, especially to Austria, which ruled Lombardy and Venetia and whose army was, in effect, the guarantor of the Restoration settlement throughout Italy. Mazzini’s activities so alarmed the various governments of the peninsula that he had to leave France for Switzerland and then Switzerland for London, which from 1837 became his base.

He continued to write articles, to create societies and to devise plots. These he organized through a vast correspondence, much of it in invisible ink. As one conspiracy after another designed to bring about a revolution claimed its toll without rousing the Italian people to action, many of his early disciples rejected his methods. The revolutions that occurred in 1848–1849 in every Italian state owed less to national feeling and the scheming of Mazzini than to regional discontent, trouble in Paris and Vienna, and initial encouragement to the revolutionaries from a “liberal pope,” Pius IX. But they gave Mazzini his only opportunity to exercise political power, as a “triumvir” of the Roman Republic. The Austrian government soon recovered itself, the revolutionaries were defeated, and repression became more intense. Though Mazzini was now famous throughout the world, after the collapse of the revolutions his renewed conspiracies seemed to many patriots even more futile than before.

Then in 1859 Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont, having won the support of Napoleon III of France, provoked Austria to war, defeated it, and so set off an extraordinary sequence of events that left Italy, except for Venetia and Rome, unified under Victor Emanuel by the end of 1860. This outcome was made possible by the romantic expedition to Sicily of “The Thousand,” the rebel force commanded by Garibaldi, many of whom were followers of Mazzini. The expedition would never have succeeded if Mazzini had not first engineered a mini-revolution in Sicily, which helped to persuade Garibaldi to take command. The rebels’ success in driving out the far larger army of the Bourbon kings from both Sicily and Naples seemed at last to vindicate Mazzini’s belief in the possibility of tiny forces toppling the old regimes with the aid of popular support. He wrote:

We have constantly acted as the spur: we worked, fought, and bled for Italy, the Cavour cabinet constantly opposing, then reaping the results as soon as won or unavoidable.

But in fact Mazzini gave only grudging approval to unification as it actually happened, even after Venetia had been incorporated in 1866 and Rome in 1870. He had wanted Italy to be made from below, for it to be socialist and republican (in his particular senses of those words) and to be reconciled with the papacy. Unification under a king, achieved mainly through war and diplomacy, with the conservative half-Italian governing class of Piedmont taking over control of the whole peninsula and the Vatican totally estranged—this was not the outcome he had worked for. “I had hoped,” he said, “to evoke the soul of Italy and instead find merely her inanimate corpse.”

He died in Italy in 1872, still in hiding from the police. The new regime had refused to accord him any honors or give him any credit for unification. The Church condemned him. If he was deemed too dangerous by the right, he was considered too mild and conciliatory by the left. There were exceptions: Francesco Crispi, who had worked for him and later became prime minister of Italy, declared him to be “the most eminent thinker of the century” and a greater man than either Cavour or Garibaldi, adding for good measure that historians would refer to the nineteenth century as “the century of Mazzini.” But it is only in the twentieth century, and especially since the Second World War, that he has become widely accepted in his own country as a major contributor to unification. His claim to that relatively modest title, moreover, remains controversial.

Outside Italy, especially between the 1870s and the 1930s, Mazzini had a much higher reputation. Nietszche called him “the man I venerate most.” Woodrow Wilson placed him on a level with Lincoln and Gladstone as a prophet of liberalism and tried to embody his ideals of national self-determination in the Treaty of Versailles. Lloyd George, British prime minister and another architect of the Versailles settlement, wrote soon afterward:

I doubt whether any man of his generation exercised so profound an influence on the destinies of Europe as did Mazzini. The map of Europe as we see it today is the map of Joseph Mazzini…. He taught us not merely the rights of a nation; he taught the rights of other nations…. He is the father of the idea of the League of Nations.

He was especially popular in Britain, where he inspired two notable biographies by Bolton King (1902) and Gwilym Griffith (1932).

Denis Mack Smith’s new biography easily surpasses its predecessors in any language. This is not surprising, since Mack Smith is one of the finest living writers of historical biographies and the most distinguished living historian of the Risorgimento. He has already published studies of Victor Emanuel, Cavour, and Garibaldi, as well as of Mussolini. All are based on prodigious research and scrupulous scholarship and are written in prose that is at once economical, precise, and vivid.

To write a biography of Mazzini poses special problems. One major difficulty is that a high proportion of his vast correspondence was destroyed. He burned all the letters he received, and those that he wrote were usually burned by their recipients as compromising if not incriminating. Still, the collected edition of his letters and writings runs to over a hundred volumes. It is also inherently difficult to assess the influence of an exiled thinker, writer, and agitator on developments so vast and complex as the Risorgimento and unification of Italy. Further, a biographer of Mazzini has to grapple with the paradox that, while he is truly significant only for his impact on Italy, most of his adult life was spent in London.

Mack Smith writes splendidly about his life in England. It was in Londonthat Mazzini’s personality flourished and worked its full charm. It did not hurt that he was, in his austere way, an exceptionally attractive and benign-looking man. He used false names and spurious addresses, and for a few years his letters were opened on the orders of a Tory home secretary. But he was in no danger from the English police, who would sometimes even give him protection. He was quickly taken on to write about literature and politics in prestigious journals such as the West-minster Review, edited by John Stuart Mill. He got to know the Carlyles, frequently visiting them in Chelsea. With their aid he became a public figure in England after protesting that his letters were being opened, a revelation that caused such an outburst of indignation that the practice had to be abandoned altogether.

Carlyle made some of the most extravagant assessments of Mazzini: “a more beautiful person I never beheld,” “the most pious living man I now know,” “full of sensibilities, of melodies, of clear intelligence and noble virtues,” “by nature a lyrical poet,” “a man of true genius.” But other literary giants were almost equally impressed, among them Mill, Dickens, Trollope, Ruskin, Bagehot, Jowett, and George Eliot. He had the special magnetism of a person who manifestly lives for an ideal. He could have been comfortably off, but he took cheap lodgings and starved himself, giving his money away, mostly to further the Italian cause. One of his chief concerns was to raise funds to sustain a free school for Italian children in London, work which brought him close to the main currents of Victorian philanthropy. Nearly all his English admirers, even Radicals, questioned the practicability of Italian unification until it actually came to pass, but his utter commitment to the cause, his eloquence in support of it and his saintly self-sacrifice in working for it compelled them to take it seriously and to view it with respect.

Late in his life, the young Algernon Swinburne worshiped Mazzini both as “a born king and chief and leader” and as “the most wonderfully and divinely unselfish man I ever knew.” The situation in England had not only enabled him to cultivate these personal qualities, it had also ensured that they were widely publicized. His utter devotion to his cause earned him a reputation, reminiscent of Gandhi’s and Mandela’s, inspiring other Italians to similar sacrifices. In this sense his personality mattered as much to the national movement as his plots and his pen.

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