Revolutionary Italy: The Masterwork

Confessions of an Italian

by Ippolito Nievo, translated from the Italian by Fredericka Randall, with an introduction by Lucy Riall
Penguin Classics, 884 pp., $25.00 (paper)
Musei Civici, Milan
Ippolito Nievo, circa 1860

It would be hard to think of a novel, certainly such a long and unfailingly lively novel, that has more instances of psychosomatic malaise, more accounts of attempted suicide, than Ippolito Nievo’s Risorgimento classic Confessions of an Italian (originally published in 1867 and only this year available unabridged in English). To understand the place of those illnesses and moments of desperation in the overall arc of this 860-page masterpiece is to get close to the spirit that drove the campaign for the unification of Italy. Behind it all lies the intuition that for the modern individual there can be no free and fulfilled personal life until there is a free and self-governing nation in which to live. Personal happiness is profoundly conditioned by the social and political surroundings.

The novel was published posthumously. Born to wealthy parents in Padua in 1831, the same year that patriot Giuseppe Mazzini established his revolutionary independence movement Young Italy, Nievo was among the legendary Mille, the thousand Red Shirts, who in 1860 set sail from Genoa with Giuseppe Garibaldi to “liberate” Sicily from the Bourbon king of Naples. Having survived the initial battles that led, against all odds, to the capture of Palermo, he was appointed administrator of the campaign’s finances and remained in the Sicilian capital while the fighting moved on to the mainland. But the following March, with most of the country already effectively unified after Garibaldi’s now much larger army in the south had linked up with Piedmontese troops descending from the north, Nievo was obliged to take his account books to Turin to defend himself and his comrades from charges of corruption. Crossing from Palermo to Naples, his ship sunk in bad weather and was lost without a trace. No body or relic was ever recovered.

Confessions of an Italian had been written at extraordinary speed during a period of intense fervor and frustration in 1858. Nievo was twenty-seven. The dramatic uprisings of the previous decade, against Austrian rule in northern Italy and papal rule in Rome, had all collapsed very quickly and the reinstated status quo was more determined than ever to resist the patriotic tide. Further attempts at revolution during the 1850s were easily and brutally crushed.

As an adolescent, Nievo had been on the margin of events in his hometown of Mantua in 1848 and Florence in 1849, then more actively involved in an uprising in Livorno, again in 1849. Like many patriots he was repeatedly forced to leave town and university to avoid trouble with the authorities, a situation that reinforced rather than weakened Risorgimento sentiment as liberals from all over Italy met and got to know one another and the country. “It’s because of these wanderings of mine that I have been putting together my own particular idea of a homeland,” Nievo wrote.

Having finally graduated with a…

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