Garibaldi - the first Italian

Christine Webb | Mon, 04/20/2009 - 10:28
Words and Pictures by Christine Webb

About 5,500 of the 8,100 comuni in Italy have a street, road, lane or piazza carrying the name Garibaldi.

All over the world there are similar markers with this name, from Washington Square Park in New York to Taganrog in Russia and Montevideo in Uruguay (where he is called José), cities in Brazil and the USA.
Nottingham Forest FC are sometimes called the ‘garibaldi’ because of a red stripe on their shirt and there’s even a Garibaldi Street in Greenwich, London.

Who knows how many Piazzas there are with a statue of Garibaldi pointing off in some direction with the words ‘Roma O Morte’ inscribed beneath it?
These are the heroes of the Risogimento, the epic struggle and string of fortuitous events that led to the reunification of Italy:

  • Mazzini, the intellectual, was sensitive and physically frail, living many years in exiled poverty and writing hundreds of books.

  • The gallant King was a figurehead with an incredibly long moustache.

  • Cavour played the part of a shrewd politician

  • Finally there was Garibaldi, the General.

But Garibaldi was not predictable; he was a loose cannon who charged into the fray like a bull in a china shop without the backing of his government, a victor who handed over his spoils with no thought of rewards for himself, a courageous leader, a swashbuckling rascal and a humble man whom the people took to their hearts.

Long-held dreams

Giuseppe Garibaldi was born on the 4th of July 1807, the son of an Italian sailor in Nice. He joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 15 and was certified in 1832 as a merchant marine captain. During his travels he met expatriate Italians who told him about La Giovane Italia (Young Italy), a political movement founded by Giuseppe Mazzini dedicated to the unification of Italy. He met Mazzini, joined the secret society, the Carbonari, dedicating his life to liberation and was soon involved in a failed plot. Forced to exile, he escaped to South America, where he met the first woman he married known by the most as Anita, the mother of his children and a skilled horsewoman who fought courageously at his side. Their love would ignite the spirit of the 19th century’s age of romance and idealism.

In the South America, Garibaldi took up the cause of the Uruguayan people oppressed by a dictatorship. He formed an Italian legion, guerrilla fighters who adapted the red shirts as their uniform. He liberated Uruguay and became a hero of the oppressed. It was during this time that he adopted his unusual mode of attire. He often wore a poncho and a circle-brimmed hat cocked over one eye.

Founding of the thousand

1848 was a year of revolutions and unrest throughout Italy. A popular uprising against the Papal Government in Rome led to the short-lived Roman Republic, established on February 8, 1849 headed by Mazzini.

Napoleon III of France sent an army to defend the Pope. After four weeks of intense fighting Garibaldi, with his Legions outnumbered, decided to withdraw and retreat to Venice. This march became the epic of the Risorgimento.

Garibaldi was preparing an armed expedition to recover Nice – previously handed over to the French by Cavour - when a revolt by supporters of Mazzini started in Palermo, Sicily, against the governing King of Naples. Calling for more volunteers, Garibaldi and a force of about 1200 young men in their redshirts, known as I Mille (The Thousand) set sail.

The expedition was hurriedly put together, poorly equipped and unsupported by Cavour.
Luck and bravery were on the side of The Thousand. They sailed into the port of Marsala, arriving alongside a detachment from the British Navy and the local commandant of the port, thinking Garibaldi was under British protection, refrained from attacking. From Marsala, the Redshirts advanced on Palermo, picking up supporters on the way. Against 25,000 well-armed men, they somehow managed to take Palermo by running through the streets drumming up support while the Neapolitans withdrew their garrison to Naples and Sicily fell to Garibaldi.
This chapter in history is recounted brilliantly in The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

After establishing himself, he moved northward to take Naples and, on hearing the King had left the city, he accepted its surrender. Fearful that Garibaldi would make a direct attack on Rome and incense Catholic Europe, Cavour sent an army south with Victor Emmanuel at its head, defeating the papal army on the way.
On 26th October, Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel met and with a handshake, Garibaldi turned over control of all the lands he had won to the King. Unification was complete. The King offered him the rank of Major General, the title of Prince, a large pension and even a castle. He refused it all and instead retired to his island of Caprera with little more than a year’s supply of pasta.
Before long Garibaldi made two more disastrous attempts to take Rome by force, one where he was wounded in the foot at Aspromonte before bowing out of Italian history.

Garibaldi died on the island of Caprera in 1882 but not before many more adventures and battles across Europe. His life was larger than fiction and it seems no wonder that he co-authored his memoirs with none other than Alexandre Dumas, writer of The Three Musketeers. As I walk through the Museum of the Risogimento under the marble ‘wedding cake’ of the Victor Emmanuel monument in the centre of Rome, my guide talks reverently of his hero Garibaldi. ‘He was a great Italian,’ I suggest. ‘He was the first Italian!’ he replies.

This article was originally published in the print edition of ITALY Magazine.