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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 love with him and the Nottingham Forest Football Club dressed its team in the red shirts he had made famous. The British of the period, whose education consisted largely of Latin and Greek, saw him as a classical hero. Punch magazine saluted him as “the noblest Roman of them all,” while a lord mayor of London compared him to the Spartan King Leonidas. Garibaldi had a disastrous effect on poets, who wrote some of their worst verses in his honor. After he had planted a tree in Tennyson’s garden on the Isle of Wight, the British poet laureate was moved to write:

Or watch the waving pine which here

The warrior of Caprera set

A name that earth will not forget

Till earth has roll’d her latest year—1

In his lifetime Garibaldi made many enemies, especially French Catholics, who were not amused that he called one of his donkeys “Pio Nono” (after Pope Pius IX) and another “the Immaculate Conception.” Yet after his death, while the adoration continued, the hostility subsided. It was as if the phrase “never speaking ill of Garibaldi,” from an obscure play by Edoardo Ferravilla, had become an enforceable command. Politicians from Benito Mussolini to Bettino Craxi have claimed him as their political ancestor: the Duce insisted that he and his blackshirts were the descendants of Garibaldi and his redshirts. In view of the halo that has settled over Garibaldi, it is odd that Alfonso Scirocco, an elderly, distinguished, and prolific historian, should in his new book feel the need to polish it up.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was born in 1807 in Nice, a town which historically belonged to the Duchy of Savoy though it was then under French occupation. From 1824 he worked as a merchant seaman before joining the Piedmontese-Sardinian navy in 1833. Almost simultaneously, he also joined Mazzini’s Young Italy, a secret society aiming to overthrow the several existing Italian regimes and replace them with a united, independent, and republican state.2 The following year he deserted the navy to join an uprising in Genoa, which, like almost all Mazzini’s plots, was a fiasco. Although Garibaldi escaped, he was sentenced to death in absentia and forced to flee, first to Marseille and then to South America. He did not return to Italy for fourteen years.

In exile across the Atlantic Garibaldi became a Freemason and preached the message of Young Italy to the Italian immigrant community. To earn a living, he sailed up and down the coast, attempting to sell pasta. But he was not very good at this or any other commercial activity: while he was trying to herd a thousand oxen to Montevideo, four hundred of them drowned in the River Negro. Yet in South America he discovered a vocation to fight “for the ideal of freedom and independence.” As a result, he spent several years battling for the secessionists of Rio Grande do Sul, who wanted independence from Brazil, followed by several more in the service of Uruguay in its wars against Argentina. He fought numerous skirmishes on land and at sea, winning a few more than he lost and suffering such vicissitudes as imprisonment, torture, and capsized boats. From the gauchos of the pampas he acquired his riding skills as well as his poncho and red shirt, the uniform his followers in Italy loved and his opponents derided as vulgar and clownish.

In his biography Professor Scirocco gives a detailed and useful account of Garibaldi’s South American years. Yet he accepts without question his subject’s own estimate of the struggles he engaged in on behalf of oppressed peoples. The politics of the continent are complicated, and it is not always easy to discern who were the oppressors and who the oppressed. The figure of the foreigner taking part in other people’s wars is seldom an appealing one, and it may not have been obvious to everyone why a man determined to unite Italy seemed as determined to disunite Brazil. Garibaldi may have been a patriot and a freedom fighter, but equally accurate descriptions for this period, during which he preyed on the other side’s merchant shipping, would be bandit, corsair, and buccaneer.

In 1839, while his ship was anchored off the Brazilian coast, Garibaldi saw a young woman through his telescope and was so captivated that he went ashore to find her. He instantly fell in love with the vivacious Anita, who reciprocated his passion strongly enough to abandon her husband, a local cobbler, and attach herself to Garibaldi, with whom in due course she had four children. In 1848 they sailed to Europe, in different ships and to different destinies: Anita to martyrdom, Giuseppe to immortality.

On reaching Spain, Garibaldi discovered that revolutions were breaking out all over Europe. An uprising in Milan had led to an Austrian withdrawal from most of Lombardy, and he rushed to fight for the nationalist cause in the foothills of the Alps. Although the local population refused to join his force of irregular troops, he remained convinced, as always, of the righteousness of his cause: the Austrians and the Neapolitan king, later joined by the Pope, were oppressors who must be overthrown so that Italy could fulfill her destiny.

Garibaldi’s campaign around Lake Maggiore was not a great success, though he performed better than the Piedmontese-Sardinian army, the chief adversary of the Austrians. The following spring in Rome, which Pius IX had fled and where Mazzini had established a republic, he defeated both the Neapolitan army and an overconfident French force sent by Paris to restore papal power. But in the summer at the Battle of the Villa Corsini in Rome, the French were victorious. Garibaldi’s eternal instincts—“Never retreat” and “When in doubt, charge with the bayonet”—on this occasion failed him.

The Roman Republic, attacked by French, Austrian, and Neapolitan armies, was doomed. So were the other 1848 revolutions in Italy. Yet Garibaldi’s actions in Rome—like Daniele Manin’s defense of Venice— inspired people to try again later. Garibaldi’s departure from the city illustrated his dramatic sense of occasion: he knew how to transform defeat into propaganda. While others gave up or slipped out of Rome with a British passport, he vowed to continue the struggle in the hills of central Italy. Sitting astride his horse in St. Peter’s Square, he had his proto-Churchillian moment, offering the army nothing but hunger, thirst, heat, cold, battles, and forced marches—and all without pay. Some 4,700 men accepted the offer and marched with him that evening out of the Porta San Giovanni. Many later deserted and many others died (including Anita, who had insisted on accompanying him, even though she was pregnant), but Garibaldi eluded his pursuers. A few months later he crossed the Atlantic and reached Staten Island.

In exile he resumed his trade as a merchant sailor, but without enthusiasm or much success. He sailed from Peru to China with a cargo of guano only to find that the Cantonese did not want to buy it. Despairing at the plight of Italy, “its servitude and the passivity of its sons,” he found some solace by buying half of Caprera, a stony and treeless island off Sardinia. There he lived privately and frugally with his children, dictating letters before dawn and tending the farm in the daylight. He did not drink wine but, like Mazzini, seemed to exist on coffee and cigars; his chief relaxation was to play the piano and sing arias from his favorite operas. Nationalist propaganda liked to link him with Verdi (who, with Mazzini and Garibaldi, made a trio of incorruptible Risorgimento heroes, all bearded and all called Giuseppe), but he preferred to sing the works of Bellini, the Sicilian composer who had died at the age of thirty-three shortly after writing I Puritani.

Although often regarded as politically naive, Garibaldi was astute enough to see that the cause of Italian unity had more chance of success if it were led by Victor Emmanuel, the Piedmontese-Sardinian king, than by Mazzini and his conspirators. In 1859, when the Piedmontese managed to provoke Austria into declaring war, he distinguished himself in a guerrilla campaign in the Alpine foothills. Later, after Lombardy had been conquered by Franco-Piedmontese armies, the Turin government gave him command of its forces in Romagna but removed him after he urged an invasion of the Papal States.

  1. 1

    This is not the feeblest verse about him by an English poet. Swinburne, Mere-dith, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote even more ghastly lines. A homier, happier homage appears in The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic Edwardian children’s book. Along the walls of the Mole’s burrow are “brackets carrying plaster statuary—Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel, and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy.”

  2. 2

    After the fall of Napoleon, Italy consisted of eight states: the Duchies of Parma, Modena, and Lucca, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples), the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia (then part of the Hapsburg Empire), the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The latter, with its capital at Turin, consisted chiefly of Piedmont, Genoa, and Savoy. It was ruled by the dukes of Savoy, who in 1720 acquired the title king of Sardinia (an island they neglected) and became kings of Italy in 1861.

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