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Giuseppe Garibaldi - Man and Myth
by Filippo Spadafora

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Hero or opportunist?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 the Risorgimento, 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 three marriages.

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.

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