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This month (May 2010) marks the
150th anniversary of the arrival of Giuseppe Garibaldi and his thousand
troops to bring Sicily to Italy. General Garibaldi was a patriot, plain
and simple. There is, however, a distinct dichotomy between Garibaldi the
man and Garibaldi the symbol.
As a humanist and liberal, Garibaldi can be said to have been at the
vanguard of his times in certain important respects, but as a historical
figure his legacy has been embellished beyond reason in Italian officialdom's
attempt to defend the kind of national unification which in Germany was
achieved without bloodshed during the same period. Hence the description
of southern Italy having been "liberated" by Garibaldi, while
nobody thinks of Bavaria or Prussia being "liberated" by the mere
fact of central European unification. One of the first mainstream writers to challenge
this enshrined nationalist view was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose historical novel
describing Sicily during this period, The Leopard, is Sicily's bestselling work of fiction.
Admittedly, there is much complexity and nuance in the sober view of Tomasi di Lampedusa and other intellectuals. The
fact that the annexation of Sicily to the unified Kingdom of Italy (through
a rigged election in which 99% of eligible voters supposedly confirmed the
unification) ushered into existence a police state which was - if anything
- more repressive than the one that existed in Sicily before 1860, eventually
morphing smoothly into Fascism,
is not overlooked by astute historians today.
In fairness, it must be said that Garibaldi himself was not solely responsible
for these unpleasant developments and could not have foreseen them, but his invasion of Sicily did facilitate
the antics of the Savoys' mediocre statesmen, such as the infamously duplicitous
Francesco Crispi, in a new nation (the Kingdom of Italy) far more important
than the "Kingdom of Sardinia" then ruled from Turin in Piedmont.
With Naples, perhaps Europe's fourth wealthiest city (after London, Paris
and Vienna) as its capital, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was the economic
jewel in the Italian crown, and in 1860 even its "second city,"
Palermo, was larger
and more prosperous than Turin or Milan - facts too readily overlooked nowadays.
Apropos facts: The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies spawned Italy's first
constitutions (in 1812 and 1848), promulgated before Carlo Alberto's Statuto,
while Naples boasted Italy's first railroad. The level of literacy and the
standard of living in Sicily, miserable though they were, were actually
comparable to those of other regions, including Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany
and the Papal State. There was political repression and censorship in the
Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, but here these ugly phenomena were no worse
than in Piedmont, where Waldensians were massacred and (at one point) Garibaldi
himself was sentenced to death. There was neither serfdom nor slavery in
Sicily in 1860; feudalism had been abolished in 1812, and plutocracy, such
as it was, was no worse than what existed in Piedmont. If anything, Naples
and Palermo were a good deal more industrialised than Turin and Milan. Full of gold, their
local treasuries were far richer. But the precious metal was not the southern kingdom's only yellow treasure.
Garibaldi owed much of his initial success in the Sicilian campaign to the British, who coveted control of
Sicily's sulphur supply, at that time one of the most important sources of this useful
mineral. In London it was (correctly) presumed that the Savoys' bureaucrats, who viewed Sicily as a subject province, would
be more amenable to a British sulphur monopoly than the Bourbons' Neapolitan administrators had been.
Leaving aside more recent events, such as Italy's
massacre of Libyans and her deplorable role in the Second
World War, both unforeseen by Garibaldi, Cavour, Mazzini, D'Azeglio
and their contemporaries in the Italian unification movement (though Crispi
later advocated Italy's first invasion of Ethiopia), the difficult question
must be asked: Were most Sicilians better off in 1870 (a decade after the
unification) than they were in 1850? For that matter, was life better in
Sicily under the Savoys circa 1900 (when horrendous living conditions prompted
mass emigration) or even in 1930 than it was under the Bourbons before 1860?
Was it necessary, in the interest of unification, to kill or imprison thousands
of Sicilians whose only "crime" was their opposition to an invasion
of their island?
So why did Garibaldi invade Sicily? The Piedmontese had sampled the sweet
taste of Sicily's relative wealth for a few years early in the eighteenth
century when Vittorio Amedeo of Savoy was briefly king of Sicily, and the
gold in the national bank of Naples far outshone what was deposited in Turin.
Annexing Italy's wealthiest state was itself sufficient incentive for an
invasion. However, the unification movement had begun decades before 1860,
and the Savoys offered the (then hypothetical) unitary "Italian"
crown to King Ferdinando II of the Two Sicilies on several occasions. There
was not then any open antipathy between the two dynasties, and Ferdinando's
first wife (and mother of his son Francesco II)
was a Savoy. The chief impediment to unification was that Ferdinando did
not want to occupy the Papal State, and as he competently commanded the
most powerful army in Italy, and was not timid about using military force,
the Savoys were in no position to challenge him.
Historians have conjectured that without Garibaldi's invasion Italy might
have been unified - sooner or later - along Germany's federalist lines.
The Piedmontese were impatient, however, and following Ferdinando's untimely
death the presence of a weak ruler on the Neapolitan throne was too great
a temptation to resist for long.
It's that simple. The mythology of the "evil" Bourbons
of Naples is just that: a myth necessary to justify an unnecessary war. In the years immediately following 1860
the resistance movement in southern Italy was suppressed and a number of
Neapolitan and Sicilian "rebels" were even placed in a Piedmontese
prison resembling a concentration camp. In such few trials as there were, summary
judgements were the order of the day. Conveniently, this fact was not mentioned
in history books published in Italy between 1860 and 1948, when the school
history curricula were "sanitised" to purge any views favourable
to the Bourbons or, for that matter, the Church. Nowadays it is the Savoys
who are despised by the few Sicilians who think about them at all. Indeed,
newer school history texts present a more balanced view of the
unification movement and the Bourbons of Naples, whose government, it turns out,
may not have been so repressive after all. The attempt to depict the Bourbons of Naples as a "foreign" dynasty was
ridiculous; they had ruled southern Italy, residing in its largest city (which they developed into a grand capital) since 1734 and
spoke the Neapolitan dialect. It was under the Bourbons that the phrase was coined, "See Naples and die." The kingdoms of
Naples and Sicily (the "Two Sicilies") had been ruled from abroad for centuries, but that was no longer the case from 1734 until 1860.
Today, most Sicilians would agree that the promises of
Italy's unification movement, never really materialised under the Savoys.
There is still a large underclass. Land reform
(to break up the largest estates) came only in 1948, after the monarchy
had finally been toppled, and unemployment remains
as high to this day as ever it has been. In some ways, even unification itself came into question:
Sicilian autonomy, as it exists today, was not decreed by the Italian Republic but by King Umberto
II (acting as viceroy or "lieutenant of the realm") in 1946, his hand
nudged a little by the Allies' power of persuasion. Today, federalism is
a fact of Italian political and economic life, and regionalist parties control Lombardy
(the Lega Nord) in the north and Sicily (the Movimento per le Autonomie) in the south, while institutions
such as the Constantinian Order of St George keep the memory of the Two Sicilies alive.
Following the annexation of Sicily to the new unitary state, there were
pro-Bourbon riots between 1862 and 1866, ruthlessly suppressed by Piedmontese
carabinieri and army troops. To commemorate Garibaldi's landings is a bit
like a rape victim lauding the man who assaulted her. This is not mere metaphor;
it is a fact based on actual events and circumstances. The historical revisionism is
expressed not in the words you are reading here, but rather in the historical
spin perpetuated from 1860 until around 1945, when genuine freedom of expression
(introduced under Allied auspices) permitted a more objective assessment
of Italian history to "set the record straight."
(Understandably, those who've read something about Garibaldi or the Risorgimento
in other publications may be encountering some of this information for the
first time here. For more about the events of the unification movement, several
well-researched books are recommended: The Last Bourbons of Naples
by Harold Acton, The Fall of the House of Savoy by Robert
Katz, Italy and its Monarchy by Denis Mack Smith.)
In short, Garibaldi was used by unificationists and then the national
Italian government to justify the forced annexation of the Kingdom of the
Two Sicilies as well as the Papal State and the monarchies of Tuscany, Parma
and Modena. The pretext advanced by the press - censored just as much after
1860 as before - was that these monarchs (including the Pope) were all "evil"
and that Italian unification was a sacred aspiration of the "oppressed"
peoples of Italy.
None of this is to suggest a characterisation of Garibaldi himself as
more or less than what he was. Let's cast an eye over the eventful life
and times of Giuseppe Garibaldi.
He was born in Nice in 1807. This French territory was restored to the
Savoys in 1814 but finally ceded to France in 1860. Garibaldi's ancestry
was more Italian than French. Giuseppe became a merchant marine captain
in 1832, travelling around Europe. Back in Italy he joined the Carbonari
movement and took part in the republican Mazzini's failed insurrection in
Piedmont in 1834; he fled Sardinian (Savoy) jurisdiction where he was tried
in absentia and sentenced to death.
Seeking greener revolutionary pastures, the idealistic Garibaldi eventually
fought in the rebel movements in Brazil and Uruguay, and married Anita,
the brave woman who bore him several children. This would be the first of
Between 1842 until 1848 Garibaldi defended Montevideo and honed the "proto-guerrilla"
tactics for which he would later become famous. Though unsophisticated by
today's standards, this method of warfare was rather unconventional for
its time. Essentially, it succeeded through rapid infantry charges across
rugged terrain and, where necessary, into urban areas where buildings provided
effective cover. As unusual as this approach may have been in Europe, it
was not unheard of in the Americas, and was later applied to some degree
in certain battles of the Civil War in the United States - though it is
extremely unlikely that Union or Confederate soldiers could be easily intimidated
into surrender by an enemy's "apparent" superiority.
The European revolts of 1848, which began in Palermo, brought Garibaldi
back to Italy in the service of the Piedmontese, but King Carlo Alberto
was suspicious of him so Garibaldi ended up fighting against the Austrians
for the Milanese. In 1849 Garibaldi, then supportive of Pope Pius IX, defended
Rome against the French. By now he was earning a reputation as a competent
leader but also an adventurer, and the Piedmontese effectively hounded him
out of Italy.
In July 1850 he arrived in New York as the guest of inventor Antonio
Meucci on Staten Island. Meucci developed what was probably the first functional
voice transmission device, but it was a slightly different invention, later
patented by Alexander Graham Bell, which became the basis for the telephone
produced commercially. (The story is a complicated one, but had Meucci received
the funds necessary to obtain a full patent for this early device, of which
detailed plans and an original prototype do not survive, his telephone,
rather than Bell's, might have found its way into commercial production, while credible evidence
also suggests Elisha Gray as the inventor of a telephone very similar to Bell's.)
Beginning in April 1851, Garibaldi sailed around the Pacific and visited
Australia and then , following a brief second stay in New York, visited
Britain. He returned to Italy as a gentleman farmer in 1854. In 1859 he
received an officer's commission as a general in the Sardinian (Piedmontese)
army during the short-lived Austro-Sardinian War.
Following a brief stint as a deputy for Nice in the Turin parliament
Garibaldi, by now a widower, married a pretty Lombard woman of just eighteen
who, as it happened, was pregnant with another man's child. Stunned and
saddened by the news, Giuseppe left her shortly after the wedding. (Divorce
did not then exist in Italy but a legal annulment was theoretically possible.)
Taking advantage of political developments in Sicily, particularly the
widespread dissatisfaction with King Francesco II, Garibaldi organised an
army of volunteers for an invasion already being planned by Crispi and other
Piedmontese who, in the event, preferred a non-national army rather than
one fighting under the Savoy flag. In effect, an "undeclared"
war could have created serious international diplomatic problems for Vittorio
Emanuele II, while he could readily deny involvement with an "unauthorised"
military action by Garibaldi's thousand renegades.
Some disloyal Neapolitan and Sicilian generals and colonels had been
plotting with foreign operatives since the recent death of King Francesco's
father, the more decisive and strong-willed Ferdinando II. Moreover, certain
western Sicilian ports, such as Marsala, were under British control, but
the commanders had been ordered to allow the invasion force to land, and
to fire upon Bourbon forces if necessary. (At Marsala, where Garibaldi arrived
on 11 May, the British warships docked in the harbour were ostensibly present
to protect British interests such as the shipment of marsala
wine and, more importantly, sulphur.)
Romanticised histories paint a picture of Garibaldi "conquering"
Sicily with just a thousand poorly-equipped men wearing symbolically red shirts. What actually happened
is that, in an eerie foreshadowing of the campaign of 1943, the defending
troops often surrendered without much of a fight, even though there were
a few serious engagements in the battles and skirmishes leading to Palermo.
Garibaldi's troops did indeed win a significant victory at Calatafimi
against a superior Sicilian force, but by the time they arrived at Palermo
the army's size had swelled to thousands as a result of deserters recruited
from the Bourbon side and the enlistment of additional (civilian) volunteers
from western Sicily. With the aid of oppressive governments, the myth of The Thousand "liberating"
Sicily was kept alive throughout the Savoy era, but it was too fragile to survive it.
Tellingly, it was a British admiral who negotiated the surrender of the
Sicilian capital to Piedmontese troops, and later it was British vessels
that assisted them in crossing the Strait of Messina. Back in Naples, an
indecisive monarch failed to act to take back Sicily, where pockets of resistance,
such as Messina's
citadel, did not fall for several months. At Milazzo,
where there was also a seaside fortress, Garibaldi's troops did not have
an easy time, but this position also fell eventually.
Garibaldi was an anticlerical participant in Italy's peculiar brand of
freemasonry, and several prominent Sicilian freemasons had secretly paved
his way in Palermo. While this was not by any means a sophisticated "conspiracy,"
and though it could not ensure the complicity of all Bourbon commanders and aristocrats,
the cooperation of influential Palermitan nobles who happened to be freemasons
(or at least opposed to King Francesco) was an important element in convincing
military officers and civil officials alike that resistance was futile.
Without such collaboration, the invading forces would have faced far more
serious street-to-street fighting in Palermo.
In mainland Italy Garibaldi's troops were met by King Vittorio Emanuele
and some contingents of Piedmontese regulars. The Piedmontese general, Enrico
Cialdini, had initially planned on stopping Garibald's advance up the peninsula
toward Naples out of uncertainty over whether he would actually relinquish
the occupied territories to the House of Savoy. He needn't had worried,
but in Calabria in August, during an "accidental" skirmish between
Garibaldi's volunteers and the Piedmontese regulars, he was shot and
wounded, though not seriously, and he was actually detained for a while
by the Piedmontese.
Naples and other cities fell to Cialdini's forces, and Gaeta, the last
Bourbon stronghold, surrendered after incessant bombardments and much bloodshed.
Contrary to popular belief, the siege, which immortalised Queen Maria Sophia,
had nothing to do with Garibaldi.
In 1863 Garibaldi offered his services to the Union army in the American
War between the States (the Civil War). Though some Italian soldiers did
serve on the Union side, Garibaldi himself did not participate.
Garibaldi returned briefly to private life but was enthusiastically welcomed
in London in 1864 by the British, who had always viewed him as a something
of a hero. Karl Marx was more cynical, referring to him as King Vittorio
Emanuele's taxi driver.
The general came out of retirement in 1866 to fight the Austrians in
Venetia. The following year he was defeated by French and Papal troops at
Rome, and took a round in a leg at the Battle of Mentana. The Italians,
commanded in part by Garibaldi, finally took Rome in 1870 but only because
the French garrison had already pulled out.
Garibaldi ended up serving in parliament but Crispi and others generally
marginalised his activity, partly because his liberalist ideals were so
often at odds with their reactionary ones. He advocated the women's vote,
European federalism and other ideas which found little acceptance among
Italian politicians; indeed, Italian women did not get the vote until 1946.
He wrote several memoirs and also two novellas having anticlerical themes.
In 1879 he remarried, this time to a woman who had already given birth
to three of his children. Giuseppe Garibaldi died in 1882 and is buried
on the island of Caprera where he had his farm.
About the Author: Filippo Spadafora is a historian
based in Rome. This article (like most of those in this online magazine) was translated
from the Italian by our staff.