Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Article
Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero
Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero
Lucy Riall
Yale University Press, 2008
482 pp., 30.00

Buy Now
Garibaldi: Citizen of the World: A Biography
Garibaldi: Citizen of the World: A Biography
Alfonso Scirocco
Princeton University Press, 2007
456 pp., 49.95

Buy Now

Eugenio F. Biagini


Garibaldi Strikes Back

A champion of national self-determination and worldwide democracy.

In his day Garibaldi was compared to George Washington, who stood up to stronger enemies and conquered them. In many respects, he was closer to his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, who, unlike Washington, was not a member of the gentry but a man sprung "from the people," an advocate of the oppressed, and one who fought for his country's national unity. In 1860, Garibaldi briefly ruled Italy's southern half, which he had single-handedly liberated from a sort of police-state a few months before, and led it to join the northern constitutional monarchy established by Cavour and Victor Emmanuel: with this merger a new nation state was born (though the differences between North and South were to plague the new country for the next 150 years). Unlike Lincoln or Washington, however, Garibaldi was primarily neither a statesman nor a soldier in the ordinary sense of the word but rather a self-made champion of national self-determination and worldwide democracy. Here we have a paradox: he spent most of his life fighting to liberate his country from foreign and domestic despots (including the pope), and, as a consequence became and has remained to this day—despite Benedict XVI's latter-day "Counter-Reformation"—one of modern Italy's few national heroes. Yet his "nationalism" was unusual in that one of its leading features was "cosmopolitanism," as the French utopian socialist Louis Blanc put it.

Perhaps cosmopolitanism ran in his veins, given that he was born a subject of Napoleon's multinational Empire before his native city reverted to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1814 (eventually Cavour was to cede it again to France in 1860, in exchange for Napoleon III's endorsement of Piedmont's annexation of Central Italy). He hailed from a family which had recently moved to Nice from Genoa. The latter was a hotbed of republican and democratic feeling and the home of Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), who, with Garibaldi and Cavour, was to become one of the three main architects of Italy as a united nation. Scholars and journalists have often commented on the apparent oddity that the three leading champions of the emerging Italian movement all came from the far northwest corner of the peninsula, a peripheral region hardly renowned for its contribution to Italian culture or even language. Yet there are obvious reasons why early 19th-century Piedmont-Sardinia should prove a fertile seedbed for effective patriotism. In 1796-1814, this area had been deeply affected by the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic experience. Then from 1814-59 it constituted the only Italian state that combined effective independence with a strong military tradition. Striving to imitate Prussian policies and mores, for centuries its warlike rulers (the House Savoy) had pursued an expansionist strategy, eventually incorporating the territories of the old Republic of Genoa, which provided it with a substantial coastline and major ports. Geographically located at the crossroads of western and central Europe, Piedmont-Sardinia could not escape being involved in the cultural ferment first of Jacobinism and then, from 1814, Romanticism and liberalism.

Thus when young Garibaldi became involved in politics, his views took shape against the background of the radical Enlightenment, modified rather than fully replaced by a Romantic awareness of nations as the harbingers of universal values. It seemed to him that a true Italian patriot must also be a champion of what we now call the globalization of democratic nationalism. Indeed he first established his reputation in Latin America in the 1830s, when, as a refugee from a failed republican rising in Genoa, he and his brigade of red-shirted Italian exiles fought for the independence of fledgling republics on the Plata River. Forty years later, at the end of his career, his internationalism remained as vigorous and idealistic as ever, as shown by his last two campaigns. In 1870-1, after the fall of Napoleon III, he fought for the French Republic against what he saw as German imperialism: it was a magnanimous gesture, given that for years the French had frustrated his dream of making Rome the capital of Italy, and had crushed his volunteers in battle twice, first in 1849 and then in 1867. A few years later, in 1876, he championed the cause of the Bulgarian rebels against the Ottomans (he was one of the few Europeans to echo Gladstone's campaign to end the "atrocities" in the Balkans). By then "the General" was an invalid and a national icon, but there was a feeling abroad that, as suggested by the subtitle of one of the books reviewed here, he deserved to be regarded as a "citizen of the world."

Garibaldi was born in 1807, on July 4—an auspicious day for a future national liberator. His father was a captain in the merchant marine and owned, at least in part, a ship. After resisting paternal pressure to direct him toward one of the standard professions for aspiring lower middle-class men (the law or medicine), Giuseppe followed in his father's footsteps and trained to become a skipper. However, from the start he felt, as he was later to put it, "a propensity to a life of adventure" such as even sailing was unlikely to satisfy. His formal education was purely naval, and Garibaldi was largely self-taught in all the areas in which he was later to establish his reputation, including politics and warfare. Nice then being on the linguistic border between Italian and French, he acquired complete command of both languages, but developed a political and cultural commitment to Italian (whose classics he studied and learned by heart). Although never a literary man, let alone a scholar, he went on to become fluent in Portuguese and Spanish and learned some English and German as well. Last but not least, in between conquering a kingdom and fighting for doomed republics, he managed to produce both a number of (mediocre) historical and political novels and an autobiography.

After decades of comparative historiographical neglect, the second centenary of his birth was marked by the publication of two biographies, both inspired by admiration for the democrat in a red shirt. Alfonso Scirocco is a veteran Italian historian, a defender of the Risorgimento against the politically inspired revisionism which has plagued Italian historiography for years (with often pathetic attempts to rehabilitate the pre-Unification states, whether Papal, Bourbon, or Habsburg). Here he does not engage with the recent historiographical debate, for his aim is to present the Anglophone public with an accessible introduction to his fascinating subject. He does so with elegance and brio, illustrating a life which was full of color and adventure, with more material for a Hollywood script than the lives of any of the heroes recently celebrated by blockbusters, including William Wallace or Leonidas. In fact, unlike the leader of the Spartan "Three Hundred," Garibaldi led his "Thousand" not to self-immolation in a hopeless bloodbath but to victory against a standing army comprising some 100,000 well-equipped regular soldiers—a feat still unmatched in the military history of Western civilization.

Lucy Riall, a leading English scholar in the field, has produced what must be regarded as the most original scholarly biography of the Italian hero. Her work centers on the notion of charismatic leadership and the manufacturing of charisma. She draws on Max Weber, George Mosse, and the historiography of popular liberalism in late-Victorian Britain in order to develop her method and interpretive paradigm, but in her approach to Italian nationalism she follows Alberto Mario Banti's revisionist program. Like Banti, she stresses the importance of family honor and sexual metaphors in spreading awareness of Italy's predicament among the younger generations, and the close correlation between patriotic politics and a religious vision of political duty. Parting company with the old stereotype of the Risorgimento as a "passive revolution," she stresses Garibaldi's genuine popularity and the extent to which the movement culminating with national unification in 1860 was a mass phenomenon.

Garibaldi was conscious of the importance of creating and cultivating his own public persona. What turned out to be an enormously successful propaganda operation was started not by Garibaldi himself but by that other secular saint of the Italian Risorgimento, Giuseppe Mazzini, then eager not only to invent role models for Italian youth but also to counteract foreign stereotypes of the Italian national character as effeminate, unwarlike, and weak. The gaucho values adopted by Garibaldi in his Latin American incarnation suited Mazzini's needs perfectly. Furthermore, in his romantic struggle against the Argentine dictator Rosas, Garibaldi championed all the other Mazzinian values—"Liberty, Equality, Independence, Unity, Humanity"—to such an extent that his actions there amounted to a sort of morality tale in which the ideals of Young Italy (Mazzini's republican organization) were acted out before a world audience. Journalists and soon novelists also adopted him as their hero, a saintly warrior whose sword was ever at the service of the oppressed worldwide, while the illustrated press started to popularize his bearded, long-haired, poncho-clad features.

Riall agrees with Scirocco and argues that Garibaldi acted his role because he was of the stuff from which heroes are made, but she also stresses that he understood the wider media significance of war and the celebrity which he acquired in fighting it. Indeed, far from being the gullible guerrilla leader of contemporary anti-revolutionary propaganda, he was a shrewd impresario of his own mythology. He worked at it consistently over the years. Riall studies "his speeches, his memoirs, his novels and poetry, his clothes, his appearance and the photographs of it, his actions on the battlefield, his behaviour in parliament, his lifestyle on Caprera" to show that "[his] celebrity was the result of a political and rhetorical strategy" which was both sophisticated and highly appropriate to the spirit of the age.

Soon he started to make use of his fame quite independently of Mazzini, to the latter's chagrin. Thus when the red-shirts and their general returned from exile to fight in the 1848 revolutions in Italy, they were operating within a clearly defined set of literary and cultural parameters, which were promptly adopted and widely broadcast by the media of the day. Hero worship reached a climax with the defense of the 1849 Roman Republic—Italy's first democratic experiment, proclaimed after the pope, Pius IX, fled his capital to seek the protection of the counter-revolutionary powers. Garibaldi soon emerged as the Republic's most valiant general, who rolled back foreign invasion and defeated, successively, the armies sent against democratic Rome by Naples, Spain, and France. Eventually the Republic succumbed to a second, larger French force. Yet, as much as Mazzini and his parliament, Garibaldi and his volunteers had shown that there was the potential for a new Italy, a nation in the making which could be resolute on the battlefield, restrained in revolution, magnanimous in victory, and dignified in defeat. It was a public relations triumph in the midst of a military disaster. But the "democratic initiative"—the idea that a revolution could liberate the country—had clearly missed its best opportunity.

In the following years Garibaldi revised his public persona in order to appeal to a wider and politically moderate public. His hair and beard neatly trimmed, his clothes less sensational if not altogether conventional, he left his guerrilla image behind to become a more gentlemanly figure, a man with whom the party of moderate liberals—in power in Piedmont-Sardinia—could do business. He embodied the national alliance between aristocratic and democratic liberalism and the rejection of what was now dismissed as Mazzinian "sectarianism." By 1859 he was ready to don the uniform of a general of the Piedmontese army, although he led a corps of volunteers who operated as an independent command, according to traditional Gardibaldian tactics.

Meanwhile, in his intermittent retirement to his island farm of Caprera, Garibaldi could both indulge in his sexual adventures with a number of women (he always had plenty of admirers) and further fashion his public persona while keeping the media at a safe distance, from which they could celebrate his achievements without investigating his flaws and human weaknesses. This latter-day Cincinnatus, a farmer-warrior and the embodiment of republican virtue, was now ready for what was to be the 'finest hour' of Risorgimento democrats. In 1860 he led a thousand volunteers—including both battle-hardened veterans and new recruits—against the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the strongest remaining bastion of unreconstructed and uncompromising absolute monarchy, which ruthlessly persecuted political critics and drove them into exile or prison.

The triumph of this "mission impossible," Riall observes, definitively established the Garibaldi myth at the very time when the development of the popular press and the cheap availability of both prints and photographs "meant that mass communication was now possible in practical terms, via a range of print media which offered different kinds of information in a variety of forms to cater to the diverse tastes of the reading (and, in the case of visual prints, non-reading) public." The publication of Garibaldi's memoirs—an immediate success—further encouraged this process, as he sought "to offer through his own experiences a vision of the nation-at-arms which is also a democratic community."

By the time he passed away, in 1882, his name was almost a synonym for the nation he had contributed to make. All over the country thankful municipalities would name streets and squares after him and erect monuments to celebrate his memory. Yet his last years were characterized by physical infirmity, with arthritis severely restricting his movements, and political disappointment. The new Italy turned out to be increasingly conservative in its social policies, with an antidemocratic constitutional settlement exacerbated by frequent heavy-handed interferences of the king in the working of parliamentary government. Garibaldi died just in time to be spared what might have been his ultimate frustration: the spectacle of Italian governments, led by former Garibaldians, adopting expansionist policies and actually sending troops to establish a colonial empire in Africa. It was as if the Roman Republic had fallen again.

Eugenio F. Biagini is on the history faculty at the University of Cambridge. With C. A. Bayly, he is the editor of Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalization of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1920, just published by Oxford University Press.

Most ReadMost Shared