Mazzini takes the Garibaldi biscuit

June 23, 1995

In his lifetime Mazzini was the least known of the founders of united Italy; his achievements received far less praise than those of Garibaldi, the revolutionary, or of Cavour, the diplomat. He spent much of his adult life in poverty-stricken exile in London or else in hiding in Italy, and held office only briefly as one of the triumvirs of the ill-fated Roman Republic of 1849. For some, he was the apostle of the concept of Italy, but for many others, and not just the Austrian masters of Northern Italy, Mazzini was a reckless subversive. During the events of 1848-49, his one-time follower, the Abbe Vincenzo Gioberto, soon to be a conservative premier of Piedmont, denounced Mazzini as "a cowardly terrorist" a view reiterated in 1984 by the biographer of Cavour, Rosario Romeo. When Mazzini died in Pisa in 1872, in a now-united Italy, he was still on the run from the police.

Born in 1805 in Genoa, Mazzini's early longing for a united Italy turned him into a student activist. After being arrested in 1830, he spent three months in jail. Then, exiled in France, he helped found the pressure group Young Italy in July 1831. Thereafter, he devoted his life to proselytizing the idea of Italy among his organization's members in each of the eight Italian states and in the Papal States. Mazzini wrote thousands of letters, issued detailed instructions for guerrilla warfare against the Austrians and created a newspaper called Giovine Italia. He was regarded by several governments as one of the most dangerous men in Europe, dogged by police spies, his correspondence regularly opened. After a failed military coup in Piedmont in 1833, he was sentenced to death in his absence.

Exiled in Geneva, he told his mother that he had no personal ambition and had no interest in personal happiness. In 1836, expelled from Switzerland, he took refuge in England where he would largely remain, earning his living by writing articles for serious magazines such as John Stuart Mill's Westminster Review. He was appalled by the scale of social inequality but gradually came to admire British traditions of civic responsibility, tolerance, probity and local government. Anglophil, devoted to English literature, with a deep knowledge of the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Shelley and Byron, he made influential friends like Carlyle and Dickens. They were struck by his selflessness. He sacrificed comfort, family and wealth in his crusade for Italy. Every penny that he earned was spent either on his substantial postal expenses, running Young Italy which was started again in London or else trying to subsidize penurious Italian revolutionaries. He also founded and financed a free school for the children of Italian immigrants.

His dedication accounts for the opinions of many English commentators. For Walter Bagehot, he was "a perfect model of sagacity and moderation", for John Stuart Mill, "one of the men I most respect" and for Algernon Swinburne, "the most wonderfully and divinely unselfish man I ever knew". Nietzsche considered Mazzini "the man I venerate most". Within 50 years of his death, both Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George would speak admiringly of his inspiration for movements of national self-determination.

His tireless evangelising efforts gave the word Italy a European currency. With this in mind, the now disgraced Bettino Craxi expressed the view that Mazzini was "the Italian Arafat". Mussolini was happy to claim Mazzini as an inspiration for his own aggressive nationalist policies. That blot on Mazzini's posthumous reputation, along with the critical attitudes of Cavour, Gramsci and many others, culminating in Romeo, is what seems to have inspired Denis Mack Smith's generous biography.

The barely concealed contempt for Mussolini which ran through Mack Smith's celebrated biography of the Duce could reasonably be traced to outrage at the fascist besmirching of the high ideals of the Risorgimento. His six books on the period of unification, about half of his oeuvre, constitute a monument of judicious scholarship, fine prose and common sense. Like the others, Mazzini is suffused with the liberal idealism which inspired such predecessors as Trevelyan and Bolton King.

Accordingly, this elegantly proportioned biography reflects a certain kind of 19th-century admiration for an Italy that might have been, but almost certainly never was. Overcoming the fact that Mazzini himself was forced to destroy most of his papers while in clandestinity, Mack Smith, writing with his customary grace and clarity, has carefully reconstructed the torrential intellectual life of Mazzini. However, he is parsimonious with detail of Mazzini's personal life. Perhaps it has to be thus with saints but it is difficult not to suspect that another author might have made more of his relationship with, and long separation from, his lover Giuditta Sidoli.

Such concentration on the man of ideas not only obscures the human being but implicitly draws a discreet veil over the consequences of his ideas. Mack Smith makes a substantial defence of Mazzini's essential moderation, citing abundant evidence, most strikingly his appeal to Pius IX to head the Italian national movement because "with you at its head our struggle will take on a religious aspect and liberate us from many risks of reaction and civil war." However, so successful is he in portraying the saintly moderate that it is difficult to imagine why so many contemporaries and subsequent commentators reg-arded Mazzini as an irresponsible extremist. To trace, or to deny, the influences of ideas in other than the vaguest terms is notoriously difficult. Mazzini was inspirational as the evangelist of Italian nationhood and the frustration of hopes for unified Italy had calamitous consequences. Contrary to Mack Smith's admirable intentions, some readers will be left wondering if there was really no link at all between Mazzini the patriot and Mussolini the nationalist.

Paul Preston is professor of international history, London School of Economics.


Author - Denis Mack Smith
ISBN - 0 300 05884 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 302

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