The campaign to develop a super patriot

June 29, 2007

When the Italian soldier and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi - the bicentenary of whose birth falls this year - visited England in the spring of 1864, he was almost certainly the most famous man in the world.

Unprecedented crowds turned out to greet him. "London," recalled the liberal politician John Morley, "seldom beheld a spectacle more extraordinary or more moving, vast continuous multitudes blocking roadways, filling windows, lining every parapet and roof with eager gazers. For five hours Garibaldi passed on amid tumultuous waves of passionate curiosity, delight, enthusiasm."

The "hero of the two worlds", as he was commonly known, had audiences with some of the most distinguished politicians of the day, Palmerston, Gladstone and Russell included; he attended a special reception at the Crystal Palace in front of 30,000 admirers; and he was given the freedom of the City of London.

On his way to Covent Garden, he was mobbed by women "delirious with excitement". Celebratory songs and poems poured from the printing presses, Staffordshire figurines from the kilns (the Garibaldi biscuit had been in production for a couple of years already). And when, after his visit, Nottingham Forest football club was founded, it adopted a red strip in his honour, and the players became known as the "Garibaldi reds".

The central theme of Lucy Riall's innovative, superbly researched and highly readable study is how to account for this exceptional fame. Blending conventional biography with a detailed examination of the mechanisms by which a humble sailor from Nice with a flair for guerrilla warfare became an international celebrity (Siberian peasants in the 1860s spoke enthusiastically of "Gariboldov"), she shows, convincingly, how Garibaldi's early reputation was the product of a systematic media campaign waged in the mid-1840s by Italian republican patriots eager to secure a talismanic figure who could help galvanise the masses into action.

The tools of modern print capitalism - newspapers, popular biographies, engravings - were deployed to turn an obscure commander of irregular troops fighting for the liberal cause in Uruguay into a larger-than-life hero. By the time Garibaldi returned to Italy from South America in 1848 to lend his support to the revolutions that had broken out across the peninsula, he was already very famous.

In keeping with the most recent research on the Risorgimento, which has explored the cultural roots of Italian nationalism, Riall locates Garibaldi firmly in the context of romanticism, underlining how his persona and life story were constructed to fit in with contemporary literary ideas and narratives. This fabrication was perpetrated not only by the architects of the Garibaldi "myth" but increasingly by Garibaldi himself, who became acutely conscious of the extent to which his reputation depended on conforming to popular expectations of what an (Italian) democratic hero should be: exotic (hence the bizarre array of ponchos, capes and hats), fearless, magnanimous, sensitive (he wrote poems and novels), accessible to men (and women) of all social classes, stoical in the face of suffering, incorruptible - and disdainful of worldly goods. From the late 1850s his simple lifestyle on the little island of Caprera off the north-east coast of Sardinia, surrounded by bees and goats, was integral to his fame. Religion was problematic, requiring Garibaldi to become Janus-faced: fiercely anticlerical when it came to the middle classes, respectful of popular religiosity when in contact with the masses.

Of course Garibaldi's fame was not just the product of "manufacture" (though one of the most intriguing parts of Riall's book is her examination of how respectable authors shamelessly invented entire episodes in Garibaldi's life - his birth in a storm at sea, romantic love affairs, encounters with wild beasts). His skills as a military leader were both real and exceptional, as evidenced in his defence of the Roman Republic in 1849, the war against Austria in 1859 and the expedition of "The Thousand" to Sicily in 1860, which led in the space of just a few months to the conquest of the entire south of Italy and Italian unification. But as Riall shows, Garibaldi's fame was throughout his life regarded as a political commodity to be carefully nurtured, controlled and exploited by the forces of the Left as part of their campaign to promote their version of what a newly resurrected Italy should be in the face of their monarchist and clerical opponents.

The current tendency with Risorgimento scholarship is to argue that Italian patriots were more successful in spreading their idea of the nation to the general public in the 1840s and 1850s than has often been supposed. Riall tends to support this view, suggesting in three fascinating chapters devoted to Italy's annus mirabilis that the extraordinary reception accorded Garibaldi in Sicily in the summer of 1860 might indicate that the idea of "national belonging" had indeed penetrated quite deeply into the fabric of society.

Sicily, though, was probably not very representative: its exceptional volatility - fuelled by vicious class tensions in the countryside, passionate hostility to rule from Naples, cravings for autonomy (if not independence), and patterns of private violence - was the reason why the democrats had for more than a decade seen it as a potential springboard for revolution. In all likelihood the cheering for Garibaldi in the streets of Palermo in 1860 was the product not so much of truly "national" concerns as of other complex (and often conflicting) aspirations.

There is also the problem of what "nation" Garibaldi actually stood for.

One of the difficulties of the Risorgimento was that patriots were unable to resolve their differences over such fundamental issues as the monarchy, the Church, the role of Piedmont and federalism, and as a consequence "national sentiment" ended up, all too often, as a rather cloudy yearning for renewal and regeneration divorced from concrete reality.

Like most democrats, Garibaldi was uncertain as to what Italy he was endeavouring to create in 1860; and perhaps not surprisingly, he soon found that the newly created Kingdom of Italy did not match his dreams. It is one of the great ironies of Garibaldi's career, as Riall indicates in this excellent book, that the man who perhaps more than any other came to symbolise the unification settlement of 1860 also emerged as an enduring inspiration for those who wished to subvert the dispensation - whether from the Left or the Right.

Christopher Duggan is professor of modern Italian history, Reading University.

Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero

Author - Lucy Riall
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 384
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 978030011212

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