Saint of Nationalism


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

Giuseppe Mazzini
Giuseppe Mazzini; drawing by David Levine

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…

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