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.

The following twelve months were the most dramatic and tumultuous of his life. Between May 1859 and January 1860 he had a child with one woman (a peasant), proposed unsuccessfully to a second (a baroness), fell in love with a third (a countess), and married a fourth (the teenage daughter of a marquis), whom he discarded soon after the wedding on discovering that she was pregnant with someone else’s child.

Angry and humiliated after the last episode, Garibaldi reacted like the man in P.G. Wodehouse who has “just been given the bird by the girl and is thinking of looking in at the Rocky Mountains and bumping off a few bears.” He went to Sicily, where an uprising had begun, in order to bump off the Bourbons. Donning his red shirt and poncho, and stealing two ships from Genoa, he and his “Thousand” volunteers steamed to Sicily and landed at Marsala. There they were extremely lucky: while the Neapolitan garrison had just marched off to Trapani, the ships protecting the town had just sailed off to the south; later, when one of the enemy vessels returned, it delayed firing at the garibaldini for fear of hitting two British ships in the port.

Garibaldi was also fortunate with his Neapolitan opponents, who were very old, very timid, and very incompetent generals. Still, he fought a bold and spectacular campaign, winning battle after battle against superior forces and in five months conquering a large Mediterranean kingdom with an eight-hundred-year-old history. After demonstrating his administrative skills as dictator of Sicily and ruler of Naples, Garibaldi handed the territories over to Victor Emmanuel, who had done little personally to win his new kingdom of Italy, while he sailed for Caprera with a sack of seed corn and a few packets of coffee.

Nothing else in Garibaldi’s life could compare with this remarkable adventure. Although tempted by an offer to fight for the Union in the American Civil War, he refused it when told he would not be made commander in chief or given the power to abolish slavery. In Italy he became obsessed by the need to complete unification by conquering Venice from the Austrians and taking Rome from the Pope. Italy is full of plaques on houses announcing that from this or that balcony Garibaldi made speeches proclaiming his destiny: “Rome or Death.”

In 1862 he reinvaded Calabria from Sicily in an attempt to march on Rome but was foiled by the new Italian army, wounded in the foot at Aspromonte, and briefly imprisoned. In 1866 he again fought for Victor Emmanuel for the “liberation” of Venice and as usual performed better than the regular army, which was defeated by a smaller Austrian force at Custoza, just as the new Italian navy was beaten by a smaller Austrian fleet at Lissa. The following year he invaded the Papal States and was surprised to find that its population did not want to be liberated and even welcomed a French force sent to chase him away. His withdrawal after defeat at the Battle of Mentana demonstrated that there was in fact an alternative to “Rome or Death.”

Garibaldi was not allowed to take part in the conquest of Rome in 1870, but in the autumn of that year he went, quixotically, to fight for France against Prussia. Later, in an effort to combat malaria, he started a campaign to divert the Tiber away from Rome, another quixotic venture. He died in 1882, depressed and pessimistic. “It was a very different Italy which I spent my life dreaming of,” he wrote shortly before, “not the impoverished and humiliated country which we now see ruled by the dregs of the nation.”

Alfonso Scirocco has written an old-fashioned biography with a strong narrative, vivid battle scenes, and confident characterization. Unfortunately, these and other virtues are undermined by some careless writing, lazy editing, faulty translating, a worthless index, and an absence of references. In one bewildering paragraph Scirocco tells us that on September 19, 1860, Garibaldi “left Naples to rush to Palermo” and was able to return to the battlefield at Volturno near Capua (north of Naples) that same afternoon. Apparently it did not occur to writer, Italian editor, English translator, American editor, and whatever proofreaders and indexers were employed that Garibaldi could only have accomplished this with an airplane.3

Scirocco’s portrait of Garibaldi, “an idealist without ideologies,” is attractive and fair. Yet in spirit and viewpoint it might have been written at any time over the last 120 years. Garibaldi was a heroic figure, even if he was often wrong, and he does not need hero-worshipers to keep him on his pedestal. The Battle of Volturno, his biographer claims, “proved that he was not only a skilled guerrilla leader, but also a great general.” It did not prove anything of the sort. Volturno was not a battle comparable to Blenheim or Austerlitz but a defensive action in which Garibaldi lost more men than his opponents. He may have been the best soldier of modern Italy, but the competition is not strong. According to the calculations of a previous biographer, he fought fifty-three battles in his career, winning thirty-four, losing fifteen, and drawing four.

Scirocco recognizes that Garibaldi was important for what he stood for and what he achieved in an age in which few people in the peninsula cared about Italy or knew what it was —if it was indeed anything beyond Metternich’s famous “geographical expression.” At the time of Garibaldi’s invasion, some Sicilians thought that L’Italia—or rather La Talia—was Victor Emmanuel’s queen.

Yet Scirocco’s view of the Risorgimento is as conventional and nationalist as his portrait of Garibaldi. An Italy of small states, he claims, could not have kept pace with the economic and technological transformations taking place in northern Europe in the 1830s. One flaw in this argument is illustrated by the fact that Belgium, the most industrialized country on the continent, was smaller than several Italian states and had just made itself smaller by separating from the Netherlands.

Taking it for granted that unification was necessary, Scirocco also accepts the traditional, highly exaggerated view of nationalist valor, writing of “the heroism with which young men from every corner of the Italian peninsula demonstrated faith in Italy’s destiny.” But the young men did not come from the south or the islands or the countryside, as Garibaldi discovered when he marched around Tuscany, Sicily, and the Papal States without attracting volunteers. In fact, they were almost invariably northern, urban, middle-class, and educated. Nor were there very many of them willing to sacrifice their lives. More Italians were killed in a day’s fighting against the Ethiopians at Adowa in 1896 than in all the Risorgimento battles put together.

A generation ago Italy was a more self-confident nation than it is today. Although its politics were still stuck in their cold war groove—with a mainly Christian Democratic coalition in power and the Communists in opposition—terrorism had been contained and the economy seemed strong. In 1987 Italians were jubilant about the sorpasso—the moment when economically they overtook Britain—and predicted that soon they would overtake France. In fact, their economy stagnated—Britain’s soon outstripped it again—and recent figures from the EU suggest that in GDP per capita Italy has been overtaken by Spain.

A few years later the political system dissolved in a morass of corruption known as Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”), which broke down the traditional parties of the right and the center (the Communists had already been broken by the fall of the Berlin Wall). One of the beneficiaries of the crisis was the Northern League, which became the country’s fourth-largest party in the 1990s (and the third-largest in this year’s elections). Demanding autonomy, and sometimes independence, for the north, it blamed Italy’s troubles on unification. The Risorgimento, its leaders declared, had been a lamentable mistake. Garibaldi hadn’t united Italy, he had divided Africa, and his landing at Marsala was a disaster for everyone. Italy’s failure to function as a proper state, they railed, demonstrated that it was now time to disunite and, as a gesture, they proclaimed the republic of “Padania” along the northern bank of the river Po.

Doubts about unification are not new. Even at the time, Piedmontese statesmen were warning that it would be crazy to take over the south, that it would be like going to bed with a woman who had smallpox. Thirty years ago Paolo Rossi, a distinguished senator and social democrat, told me that Garibaldi had done Italy “a great disservice. If he had not invaded Sicily, we in the north would have the richest and most civilized state in Europe.” After a pause he added, “Of course to the south we would have a neighbor like Egypt.”

It is debatable whether some parts of the north benefited from unification. Was it in the interests of the Tuscans that their grand duchy, perhaps the most civilized European state in the eighteenth century (when it abolished the death penalty), should have been annexed by Piedmont? Might it not have been more just to restore the Republic of Venice, the longest-lived and most successful regime in post-Roman Italian history, at the end of the Austrian occupation? It was what the Venetian leader Daniel Manin was fighting for in early 1848. In today’s Europe, which contains such flourishing small states as Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands, they would have been both prosperous and politically workable.

Perhaps the fates of Tuscany and Venice—like those of Parma and Modena—did not much matter, because their inhabitants prospered anyway. But the fortunes of the south—Garibaldi’s gift to Italy—have been very different. Of the illegality of the Sicilian invasion there can be no question. Garibaldi made an unprovoked attack on a legitimate state with which his country was not at war. He conquered both halves of it, overthrew the government, and handed it over to Victor Emmanuel, a monarch from Piedmont who had no rights there whatever. The Piedmontese promptly annexed it, imposed their laws, and treated its people so contemptuously that they provoked a long guerrilla war in Naples and a ferocious revolt in Sicily.

The resulting fusion of the Bourbon kingdom with the rest of Italy has proved to be one of the least successful in modern European history, on a par with Britain’s union with Ireland, which lasted from 1801 to 1922. On several different levels, political, economic, and criminal, the two halves of the country have been corrupting each other for a century and a half.

Naples and Sicily had formed one of the oldest kingdoms in Europe, established by the Normans in 1061, its segments thereafter going through periods of disuniting and reuniting for the next eight hundred years. Naples became a capital in the thirteenth century and three hundred years later it was the largest city in Europe. In 1817 Stendhal described it as “a great capital city, like Paris…Naples, alone among Italian cities, has the true makings of a capital; the rest are nothing but glorified provincial towns, like Lyon.”

Naples still has the appearance of a capital, more so than Athens or Lisbon and perhaps even Madrid. Its political existence was destroyed by a guerrilla leader of genius, a world-famous hero, a romantic nationalist who incarnated the zeitgeist of the mid-nineteenth century. And the world applauded him. Without Garibaldi, Naples would now be the capital of a state at least as successful as Portugal or Greece—or Spain without Catalonia and the Basque provinces. Instead, while its region has the highest homicide rate in Europe, it has become the most violent city of Italy, the drug capital of Europe, the toxic waste dump of the West, and a world center of illegal arms trafficking. Even if Senator Rossi had been accurate with his Egyptian jibe, its health could hardly have been worse than it is now.

This Issue

June 26, 2008