The Insurgent

Garibaldi and his enemies.

by Tim Parks July 9, 2007

Suddenly you are looking in his eyes. Officially, they’re brown, but for you they’ll always be blue. He is speaking in a soft, seductive voice. Glory if you follow, eternal shame if you don’t. Rome or Death. In a moment, your destiny shifts. Incredibly, you have volunteered. You are given a red shirt, an obsolete rifle, a bayonet. You are taught to sing a hymn full of antique rhetoric recalling a magnificent past, foreseeing a triumphant future. You learn to march at night in any weather and over the most rugged terrain, to sleep on the bare ground, to forgo regular meals, to charge under fire at disciplined men in uniform. You learn to kill with your bayonet. You see your friends killed. You grow familiar with the shrieks of the wounded, the stench of corpses. If you turn tail in battle, you will be shot. Those are his orders. If you loot, you will be shot. You write enthusiastic letters home. You have discovered patriotism and comradeship. You have been welcomed by cheering crowds, kissed by admiring young women. Italy will be restored to greatness. From Sicily to the Alps, your country will be free. Then, with no warning, it’s over. A politician has not kept faith. An armistice has been signed. Your leader is furious. You hardly understand. Rome is still a dream. Your group disbanded, you receive nothing: no money, no respect, no help in finding work. But, years later, when he calls again, you go. You will follow him to your death.

Such was the experience of many thousands of Italians who volunteered to fight with the insurgent, adventurer, and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi in the series of uprisings, battles, and full-scale wars that finally, in 1861, brought about a unified and independent Italy. The long and mountainous peninsula had been broken up into a dozen and more states after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, in the fifth century. Through the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, these had at least been run by Italians, but, around the year 1500, French, Spanish, and, later, Austrian armies moved in to install client monarchs on Italian thrones and, in some cases, to annex territory directly.

Briefly united under Napoleon, the peninsula was divided again after his defeat, so that in 1816 there were actually eight separate “Italian” states. By far the largest and most depressingly backward of these was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which stretched from the furthest toe of the Italian boot north almost as far as Rome and was ruled by Bourbon kings originally imposed by Spain. In the northeast, the area from Venice to Milan was held by the Austrians, while to the west the only powerful Italian-run state, Piedmont, had its capital in Turin. In the center were four puny duchies.

But what really made the prospect of Italian unification problematic was a large area of land from Rome, on the Tyrrhenian Sea, across to the port of Ancona, on the Adriatic, and north as far as Bologna—the so-called Papal States. These territories were held and governed by the Pope, who was thus both a spiritual and a political ruler. Nationalist movements, of course, gain great impetus when they are allied to the religion of the people and able to insist on the divine right of their struggle. That could not happen in Italy. Any attempt to unite this most Catholic of countries would have to be achieved in opposition to Catholicism and to a Papacy whose territorial possessions were traditionally guaranteed by France, Austria, and Spain. This conflict between the interests of church and country vexed Italian public life through the Mussolini era and the Second World War. Even today, the Vatican is frequently accused of interference in the sovereignty of the Italian parliament.

By the eighteen-thirties, two very different forces had begun working to disturb the status quo and bring Italy together. On the one hand were the revolutionaries led by the tireless propagandist Giuseppe Mazzini, a Genoan who spent most of his life in exile in London. Fanatically republican and democratic, Mazzini set up a secret society, Young Italy, whose aim was to start popular insurrections all over the country, throw out existing political leaders, and set up a single, liberal progressive state. To join Young Italy meant accepting life as an outlaw and entering into direct conflict with the Catholic Church. It was the movement of a small, idealistic élite.

The Piedmontese monarchy, meanwhile, had begun to see the possibility of exploiting nascent Italian nationalism to unite the peninsula, or at least the area north of the Papal States, under its crown. This was self-aggrandizement in convenient and ambiguous alliance with patriotism.

Unfortunately, both projects were impractical. Every time Mazzini’s revolutionaries started an uprising, they were rounded up and executed, more often than not by the Piedmontese authorities. The great majority of Italians were not interested in rebellion. And though the Piedmontese army was always capable of taking on a few republican hotheads, it was no match for the huge and disciplined forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Milan, Venice, and the fertile northeastern plain remained unattainable.

More than anybody else, it was Giuseppe Garibaldi who eventually managed to get these two apparently irreconcilable forces, Piedmontese expansionism and progressive republicanism, to work together, however uneasily. And it was his capacity to inspire a quasi-religious fervor in his volunteers that allowed the unification movement, or the Risorgimento, as it became known, to overcome Catholic piety and loyalty to the Pope.

One of the most colorful figures in modern European history, Garibaldi is the subject of any number of biographies. For those who know little about his life and times, Lucy Riall’s new book, “Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero” (Yale; $35), is not the place to start. Riall takes an iconoclastic line and assumes that the reader is entirely familiar with the icon she is targeting and the world that worshipped him. Those who would like to have the traditional picture before the dubious pleasures of seeing it deconstructed should read Denis Mack Smith’s bland but efficient “Garibaldi: A Great Life in Brief” (1956) or, if they have time on their hands, George Macaulay Trevelyan’s wonderful Garibaldi trilogy. Written in the first decade of the twentieth century, Trevelyan’s work remains in print, because, for all its pro-Garibaldi bias, it is still the best.

By any account, Garibaldi’s was an extraordinary life. Born in Nice in 1807, he was a sailor at sixteen and a sea captain at twenty-five. Thus far, he was simply following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps: trading, fighting off pirates in the eastern Mediterranean, developing a cosmopolitan outlook. But in 1833 Garibaldi joined Mazzini’s Young Italy. He soon became involved in a failed insurrection, was condemned to death in absentia by the Piedmontese judiciary, and fled to South America. Here he discovered a talent for guerrilla warfare, fighting first against the Brazilians for the breakaway republic of Rio Grande, then against the bullying Argentines for tiny Uruguay. He was wounded, jailed for a time, ran off with another man’s eighteen-year-old wife, Anita (whom he eventually married), formed a brigade of Italian exiles, and, in 1846, fought a remarkable defensive battle against far superior forces at San Antonio del Salto, on the River Uruguay. Refusing all payment, he claimed to fight only for justice and freedom.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Mazzini had begun to promote Garibaldi’s image, setting him up as the epitome of Italian patriotism and inviting him and his so-called “red shirts” to fight for a united and democratic Italian republic. After thirteen years of exile, Garibaldi hardly needed persuading and, in 1848, returned to Italy just as Europe was set alight by a series of liberal revolutions that began in Palermo and spread rapidly to Paris, Vienna, Naples, Turin, Milan, Florence, and Rome. At last, people seemed ready to fight. Sporting a poncho, flowing hair, and a gorgeous beard, Garibaldi joined Milanese revolutionaries who, in alliance with the Piedmontese army, were attempting to push the Austrians out of Lombardy. With a hastily collected group of volunteers, he won a skirmish or two around Lake Como before the Piedmontese army collapsed and he was forced to flee over the mountains to Switzerland.

Italy was in chaos. As Jonathan Keates recounts in his fine book “The Siege of Venice” (2005), the great wave of liberal and nationalist feeling that had prompted so many Italians to take up arms was everywhere undermined by competing agendas. Many of the rebel cities were spending more time arguing about an eventual form of government—federal or centralized, republican or monarchist—than preparing for the inevitable enemy counterattack. They seemed unable to agree on what sort of Italy they wanted or what sort was actually possible.

Desperate to get involved, Garibaldi headed for Tuscany, where he gathered a ragged brigade of irregulars and marched them aimlessly back and forth over the snowy heights of the Apennines before finally heading south to join Mazzini and other revolutionaries who had seized control of Rome. It was here that he first made his mark on European history. On April 30, 1849, his men turned back a far superior French Army that had been sent to recover the city for the Pope. From that moment on, as Mack Smith points out, Europe was prepared for the idea that Rome might one day be an Italian rather than a papal city.

But, once isolated and under siege, Rome could not hold out long. Again, Garibaldi made a crucial decision. While other revolutionary leaders slipped out of the city on false passports, he rejected passage on an American naval vessel, and led four thousand volunteers into the hills to continue the struggle, promising them, in one of his most famous speeches, nothing but “heat and thirst by day, cold and hunger by night . . . exhausting vigils, extreme marches, and fighting at every step.”

Pursued by Austrian and French forces, and accompanied by his pregnant wife, Anita, Garibaldi marched east and north across the Apennines in the hope of reaching revolutionaries who were still holding out, hundreds of miles away, in Venice. He travelled by night, taking the highest passes and following the most arduous paths. The men were constantly harassed by the enemy and hardly helped by the local population, and most of them deserted. Garibaldi disbanded the remaining group in neutral San Marino and headed on with a few faithful, only to lose Anita and her unborn baby to illness near the Adriatic coast. With barely time to bury her in a shallow grave, he retreated across the mountains to the Ligurian coast, where the Piedmontese authorities, nervous about French and Austrian reaction, forced him once more into exile. As much as anything, it was the combination of that one great victory against the French and then the odyssey back and forth across the mountains that raised Garibaldi’s reputation in many Italian minds to the status of myth.

Depressed by defeat and the loss of his wife, Garibaldi crossed the Atlantic to New York, found work in a candle factory on Staten Island, then captained a merchant ship on a voyage to China and Australia, before returning to Italy, in 1854. When his brother died, he used a small legacy to buy himself part of the tiny and barely habitable island of Caprera, off Sardinia. This choice of home reinforced the sense of both his open-air virility and his determinedly independent spirit.

Garibaldi had now broken with Mazzini. The failures of ’48 had suggested that any move toward unification must have a clear and practical project for running the country after the status quo had been overthrown. Given the strength of the Church and other conservative forces in Italy, a democratic republic was not feasible. So a group of ex-revolutionaries formed the National Society to promote a united Italy under the Piedmontese throne. Garibaldi, though staunchly republican, was one of the first signatories. Progressive political ideas, he decided, would have to wait until after unification. In the meantime, he placed his reputation and his military skill at the service of the Piedmontese king, Victor Emmanuel II, enlisting volunteers to fight beside regular forces whenever the opportunity arose. In the late eighteen-fifties, idealistic would-be fighters, most of them young, educated middle-class men, began to flock into Piedmont in the thousands.

It was an ambiguous situation. Victor Emmanuel and his Prime Minister, Camillo Cavour, were eager to have the support of Italian nationalists and to give the rest of Europe the impression that Risorgimento fever was unstoppable. On the other hand, they made sure that these men were not well armed, would not be decisive in battle, and would have no say in the running of Italy after unification. When, in 1859, a war was provoked in which Piedmont and France were lined up against Austria, Garibaldi was kept clear of the main battlefront, on the Lombard plain, and sent north to the lakes and mountains. There he won a series of impressive but minor victories before the French brought a sudden halt to the proceedings by making a separate treaty with the enemy. Piedmont did gain Lombardy and managed to annex the four small central-Italian duchies, but for the moment the unification process was stalled, leaving Garibaldi and other nationalists disappointed and angry.

All the same, Garibaldi’s personal charisma had been amply confirmed. “When Garibaldi passed through a village,” one local commissioner wrote, “you would not have said he was a general but the head of a new religion followed by a crowd of fanatics. The women, no less enthusiastic than the men, brought their babies to Garibaldi that he should bless and even baptize them. . . . Garibaldi would speak with that beautiful voice of his. . . . ‘Come! He who stays at home is a coward. I promise you weariness, hardship and battles. But we will conquer or die.’ They were not joyful words, but when they were heard the enthusiasm rose to its highest. It was delirium.” According to the British military attaché George Cadogan, “He could make his followers go anywhere and do anything.”

Back once again on Caprera, Garibaldi led a life that was a bizarre mixture of extreme frugality, severe rheumatism, celebrity, cigars, political conspiracy, and romantic complications. Although he had three surviving children by Anita, and a new baby by his maid in Caprera, he was in intimate correspondence with six women simultaneously, including the eighteen-year old Giuseppina Raimondi, whom he married on January 24, 1860, and renounced the same day, when he discovered that she was some months pregnant by one of his own officials. To add to his discomfort, he heard that his home town of Nice was to be handed over to the French in return for their participation in the war against Austria. Furious, Garibaldi got himself elected to the parliament in Turin, which he addressed in the most aggressive terms, but to no avail. So he was in an evil mood when, in April, he was invited to go and support a small uprising in Sicily. “Everything crushes and humiliates me,” he wrote in a letter on April 25th. “I have only one remaining desire: To Die for Italy; and this destiny, these dangers I will risk earlier than I expected.”

Garibaldi set sail for Sicily with a thousand volunteers on May 6th. “Italy and Victor Emmanuel!” was their battle cry. It was the turning point. In an astonishing series of engagements against the forces of the Bourbon King Francis II, Garibaldi consolidated a position in the northwest of the island, captured the city of Palermo, crossed the Strait of Messina to Reggio Calabria, pushed three hundred and fifty miles north to take Naples, then the largest town in Italy, and, finally, on September 30th, commanded an army of twenty-four thousand volunteers in a complex defensive battle against the regrouped and ever superior Neapolitan army south of the River Volturno. Despite defending a vulnerable front of more than twelve miles, he won.

At this point, the temptation was to head for Rome and destroy the temporal power of the Papacy for good. But the Piedmontese army had marched down from the north across the Papal States, declaring, with sublime hypocrisy, that this was the only way to protect Rome and the Pope from the “revolutionaries.” The road to the Eternal City barred, Garibaldi chose to hand over all his territorial gains to the Piedmontese king, thus uniting Italy from north to south. Asking only a small pension in return, he withdrew to Caprera, where he went on to have three more illegitimate children with the governess of the first.

The surrender of the south, won by insurrection, to the north, captured by the Piedmontese army, was no doubt the moment of greatest tension among the heterogeneous forces that had been fighting to unite Italy. And Garibaldi was the man in the middle, with the power to decide between unity and civil war. The captains and advisers he had gathered around him in his many campaigns were republican by conviction and eager to capitalize on their victories. Garibaldi himself was reluctant to renounce the glory of taking Rome. He had introduced many liberal reforms in his brief dictatorship of the south and must have understood that they would be revoked under Victor Emmanuel. Both Mack Smith and Riall consider his unconditional surrender of all conquered territories a crushing political defeat, equal almost to the previous military successes. And yet the decision to hand over the south was inherent in the policy that Garibaldi had years earlier adopted, of supporting Italian unity under the Piedmontese crown. Nor was there any way to insure the enforcement of any liberal concessions extracted from the king as conditions for the handover. “If one must concede it is better to do so with good grace,” he wrote to Mazzini.

It wasn’t the end of his career. In 1861, he wore a red shirt, a white cloak, and a Spanish sombrero to complain to parliament about the government’s disgraceful treatment of his volunteers, who had not been integrated into the national army. In 1864, he visited London and found half a million people lining the streets to cheer him. By now he was the most popular man in Europe. “Many of us [can] never forget the marvelous effect produced upon all minds” by Garibaldi, William Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, declared.

In 1866, Garibaldi fought in another war to gain Venice and the Veneto from the Austrians and, in 1870, joined French republicans to fight in their war against Prussia. During the next decade, he led a campaign to protect Rome (now at last in Italian hands) from malaria by diverting the filthy Tiber away from the city center, completed a long memoir and three novels, and proclaimed the need for the emancipation of women, free education for all, independence of mind, the end of the Papacy, the end of war, the abolition of the death penalty, universal suffrage, a united democratic Europe, and various other unacceptable ideas. Before he died, in 1882, he ordered that his body be cremated on the beach in Caprera with “plenty of wood for the pyre.” Cremation, which the Church regarded with abhorrence, was illegal, and these last wishes were not respected.

Such a full and intense life could not but be accompanied by rumor, adulation, denigration, and an endless stream of publications: press articles, pamphlets, hagiographies, attempts to appropriate Garibaldi’s celebrity to this or that cause, to turn his adventures into myth and money. Nor could the interest end with his death. Many major Italian movements, Fascism and Communism included, claimed Garibaldi as their forebear, while the Italian state has always sought to present him, somewhat sanitized, as the essence of Italian patriotism.

Historians, meanwhile, have had to look hard to find something to criticize. Trevelyan concedes that he could be hotheaded and rash and perhaps was not politically astute. Mack Smith thought that his contempt for all organized religion was naïve, his temperament unstable, his clothes clownish, his belief in himself absurd. In 2005, Daniel Pick’s “Rome or Death” had words of censure for the hero’s treatment of his illegitimate daughter Anita. But the over-all verdict has invariably been favorable. “Garibaldi is like no one else,” Georges Sand avowed in 1859. A century later, A. J. P. Taylor declared, “Garibaldi is the only wholly admirable figure in modern history.”

In this sense, Lucy Riall’s book is a major departure. Riall, a professor at the University of London, sets out to show that the man’s reputation was actually the result of a “sophisticated propaganda exercise,” which began with Mazzini’s need to create a Risorgimento hero and was continued by Garibaldi himself, who became an able and determined manipulator of his own image. Rather than concentrating on his life and exploits, she examines the literature and the illustrations of the time to see which elements were adopted to popularize the hero and how this presentation was altered to suit different political developments and different audiences. To her, for example, the curious detail that Garibaldi enthusiasts often saw his brown eyes as blue suggests how published images of Garibaldi had supplanted the reality in people’s minds.

As Riall pushes her hypothesis to the limit, Garibaldi emerges as a rather sinister figure, for whom absolutely everything was an opportunity for spin. His gaucho clothes, his high rhetorical manner, his refusal of payment for fighting, his habit of withdrawing from public view for long periods, even his “skill in producing displays of prodigious courage” (risking his life, she means), were all calculated P.R. ploys. His humble life style was “deliberate and staged,” and his remote island retreat served to hide “less attractive aspects of his private life and personality”; to wit, that he was a “lascivious older man.” Riall eventually asks, “How special was Garibaldi?” That, she says, “is an especially tricky question to answer.” But, basically, the answer is not at all. “We no longer believe in ‘Great Men,’ ” she reminds us.

Much is at stake here. Men killed and went to their deaths for an ideal of national unity that came to be personified in Garibaldi. Present-day Italy was born from their blood. Are we to think of those men as victims of a clever propaganda campaign? Do we think the same about those who are killing and dying for national causes today, or about the founders of our own national communities?

Having deployed a vocabulary that constantly suggests falsification, Riall makes no attempt to establish “the truth” about Garibaldi. To do so, she tells us on the last page of her overlong book, would be “to miss completely the point about his life,” which was one where “image and reality were effectively indistinguishable.” Why insist, then, on the notion that the man was inauthentic, as if he would rather have been wearing a dinner jacket in downtown Turin than a poncho on lonely Caprera? And is there really no distinction to be made between obviously mendacious propaganda campaigns, such as the papal pamphlets telling stories of Garibaldi atrocities, and the letters home from Garibaldi’s volunteers in Sicily, all bubbling with idealism and excitement, of which Riall ungenerously remarks, “The epistolary evidence suggests a general consensus to construct . . . an exemplary Risorgimento narrative.” Why not compare, at least in passing, the cult that grew up around Garibaldi with, say, that which later supported Mussolini, where the gap between rhetoric and reality was all too evident?

Riall is at her best when she looks at Garibaldi’s career after unification. Unlike most historians, she takes his later activities and ideas seriously and is convincing about his long-term influence on Italian politics. But on the whole her book is bound to be dull, because she is averse to examining what actually happened. She offers not one close account of the many battles when Garibaldi’s decisions did affect the course of history. She has nothing to say about the passions that moved him. She is deeply suspicious of any expression of collective excitement, seemingly embarrassed by accounts of his magnetic eyes and his seductive voice. Everything must be deprived of its intensity and unmasked as self-serving or shown to be appropriated from second-rate fiction or popular illustrations, as if there weren’t always a constant back-and-forth between invented narrative and the lives that people create for themselves.

When you survey the current international situation, and the fanaticism, brutality, and sheer ugliness of some forms of insurgency, you can guess why Riall feels as she does. We must be skeptical, she seems to be saying, of heroism and its apparatus, for these are tools in the hands of those who seek, with callous disregard for human life, to manipulate our collective destiny. All the same, it might have been timely to dwell on the merits of an insurgent who did not use torture, suicide attacks, or indiscriminate killing, who did not want to enslave people to a creed or a regime, whose image, however carefully cultivated, encouraged people to believe in the possibility of independent thought and action, and who, having achieved power by conquest, handed over all his gains, as promised, without any desire for personal advancement.

Riall dismisses Garibaldi’s memoirs as “undeniably badly written.” Well, I deny it. They are exciting and give a powerful sense of the confusion surrounding political and military events during the Risorgimento. “A tree is judged by the quality of the fruit it bears, and individuals are judged by the benefits they can bestow on their fellow human beings,” Garibaldi remarks at one point. “Being born, existing, eating and drinking, and dying—insects do all this as well. In times like those in 1860 in southern Italy men are truly alive and their lives are in the service of others. This is the real life of the soul!”

One imagines the young men and women who sit in Professor Riall’s classes at the University of London. One wonders if she finishes her lectures as she does the chapters of this book, with a section headed “Conclusion,” in which she wearily repeats what was said in the previous pages, in case you weren’t paying attention. Perhaps, in the busy city outside the window, there is a call to arms, there are people urging us to take up a struggle. Perhaps a young man’s head lifts. He wants to be involved in the world. Should he answer the call? Should he submit to the enchantment of the embattled community? Is the struggle ugly? Is it beautiful? Is it worth a life? These questions are not resolved by deciding that all communication is propaganda.