Garibaldi’s Gift

Take down the Michelin guide to Italy and look at the maps of the towns. Start with the As (Alassio, Alessandria, Ancona, Aosta), go on to the Bs (Bari, Barletta, Belluno, Bergamo), and carry on to V, the last letter to have proper towns in Italy (Venezia, Vercelli, Verona, Viterbo). All these towns— and the many others between A and V —have something in common: they have at least one space—a via, a viale, a ponte, a corso, or a piazza—named in honor of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Many also have statues of the great man, either on a horse, impassively directing his volunteer troops, or standing with a lion at his feet, in case people need reminding of his leonine qualities of strength and courage.

Genoa has at least five sites in honor of Garibaldi, including a vast equestrian bronze in front of the Opera. It also has a Via Garibaldi (a street of Renaissance palaces), a Piazza Garibaldi (a yard where motorcycles are sold), a Vico Garibaldi (a gloomy cul-de-sac), and a Galleria Garibaldi (not an art gallery in this case but a tunnel for cars).

Garibaldi belonged to what one Romantic critic called “the generation of giants.” He was one of the “titans” who created Italy between 1848 and 1870, the hero of heroes in what the poet Giosuè Carducci, Italy’s first Nobel laureate, called “the epic of the infinitely great.” Other titans, such as Victor Emmanuel, Italy’s first king, and Camillo Cavour, Italy’s first prime minister, are commemorated as well. Giuseppe Mazzini, Italy’s revolutionary ideologue, also has a galleria named after him in Genoa, not a tunnel but an arcade of designer clothing shops, an unkind memorial to an impecunious ascetic who dressed in black, lived in exile, and whose chief indulgence was cheap Swiss cigars.

Most of the titans, however, have been diminished by research and reflection. We feel uneasy about Mazzini, who conspired safely if thriftily in London while sending his followers on futile and fatal adventures to Italy. We know that Cavour, once hailed by the historian G.M. Trevelyan as the wisest and most beneficent European statesman of the century, was in fact devious, opportunistic, and lucky. As for Victor Emmanuel, whose statues still dominate so many Italian piazzas, few people now deny that he was an uncouth and undistinguished figure, an incompetent general, and an embarrassing meddler in diplomacy.

Among the titans only Garibaldi remains an authentic Italian hero, an idealist and a visionary but an achiever too, a valiant soldier and an honorable man who could never be corrupted. His “superb head,” according to Giuseppe Guerzoni, his friend and biographer, made him look at different moments like Jesus, a lion, and Jove on Olympus.

Hailed as “the Hero of Two Worlds” for his exploits in South America and in Europe, Garibaldi must have become the most famous person on the planet. In England he was adored by vast crowds. Several women (including two duchesses) fell in …

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