A review of Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero by Lucy Riall

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero by Lucy Riall
Yale University Press 
2007, ISBN 978-0-300-11212-2, $35.00, 496 pages

The period in which Garibaldi flourished is one of absorbing interest. Nationalism, a compound of need and absurdity with dangerous future possibilities, was a powerful and socially transforming force. In Italy it assumed particular characteristics as those who agitated for national unity and freedom from foreign interventions acted within a framework of the natural disunion of the individual states, the indifference of the mass of the people, and the opposition of the Church.

Although the promotional material of the publisher describes this as a biography, Riall concentrates rather on the implications of her subtitle. Garibaldi had some of the characteristics of a present day rock star. And, like a rock star, he could be willful and contrary.

The format of the book reflects the author’s concerns. After each chapter, more concerned with how Garibaldi was merchandized than with his life, she appends a conclusion to many chapters. I was reminded of the preacher who, when asked how he prepared for his sermons, replied, “First I tell them I’m going to tell them, then I tell them, and then I tell them I told them.” Riall pursues a similar redundancy. She also uses ‘enthuse’ and ‘and/or,’ both in a properly run world indictable offenses.

There are many black and white illustrations scattered throughout the text. A rather large amount of squinting is required since they are very far from the leading edge of reproduction excellence.

Of his early years there is little known. He ran away to avoid a clerical education, but later had so far reconciled himself to his father as to participate with him in his sailing ventures. Involvement in Risorgimento politics made him leave Italy for South America where he distinguished himself, not always consistently, as a military leader. With the revolution in the late 1840s he returned to Italy and performed spectacularly if not always to the satisfaction of Mazzini who considered himself to be in charge. The revolution was immature and Garibaldi once more was obliged to flee. It was during this flight that his wife Anita died.

During the aftermath of the failure of the 1848 revolution, Garibaldi again lived the private life of a sailor. During his absence in the United States, leadership passed from Mazzini with his radical republicanism to the more conservative Cavour who sought unification under the headship of the Piedmont king. Garibaldi, freed by an inheritance from the necessity of supporting himself, retired to Caprera, an island off Sardinia where he managed an ideal state in miniature. Here he struggled with the crippling effects of rheumatism and explored a variety of amourous relationships. He aligned himself with the party of Cavour and this gave it enormous prestige.

Riall’s description of the print and communication revolution of the mid-nineteenth century is especially good. The rise of literacy (although less in Italy than elsewhere) and the rise of improved and cheaper methods of printing and distribution take place among an increase in dramatic productions and – In Italy – operas with a political edge. The generous spread of advanced aims in Italy ran counter to an established pattern. The normal impulse of nationalism ran hand in hand with liberal, often radical, political aims. In Italy the nationalistic impulse raced far ahead of political radicalism and the Italian nationalist was in general entirely ready to accept a unified Italy under monarchical rule.

Garibaldi used his temporary retirement to write his memoirs. He gave copies to several writers – Alexandre Dumas was one of them – with permission to make what use of it they liked. Independently of this he became a character in several English novels, a stereotypical hero in faded works that were once popular and are now forgotten.

In 1859 Cavour and Napoleon III conspired to draw Austria into declaring war against Piedmont, the kingdom of Vittorio Emanuele II. France would help Piedmont defeat Austria and drive it from Italy, which would then – not be united – but be consolidated into four states. England intervened to secure peace but Austria, much to Cavour’s delight, made a unilateral demand on Piedmont that was unacceptable. Austria in the future would blunder into wars in the same manner, drowsing on dreams of past glories.

After initial victories, Napoleon III lost his nerve and signed a separate peace with Austria. Garibaldi, repressed by Cavour and Vittorio Emanuele II, distinguished himself before this betrayal and after it agitated for a continued struggle against Austria, which, despite the treachery of France, was finding it difficult to reestablish itself in those territories from which it had been ousted.

Garibaldi set out with his Thousand, the volunteers that he had collected. Poorly supported by the Piedmontese government, he commandeered two ships and landed in Sicily where, by virtue of his ability as a leader and strategist, he confounded the armies of the Bourbons, left alone in the matter of allies by the defeat of Austria. Sicily proved intractable and Garibaldi, disgusted at the mess, left with his army for Naples, the other bulwark of Bourbon rule. King Francesco II abandoned Naples and Garibaldi took the city without a struggle. Popular acclaim accompanied his every step. He met the Bourbon army at Volturno and defeated it, but the problems presented by an army of Piedmont marching towards him induced a state of lassitude in Garibaldi and his failure to act effectively marred the rest of his career. Plebiscites handed Italy – but not yet Venice and the Papal States – to Vittorio Emanuele. A gloomy Garibaldi returned to Caprera – and his numerous amorous dalliances, which, although known to many of the journalists who created his public image, were kept secret by them.

The need for a hero may have conditioned this reticence. The glorification of Garibaldi spread to his followers. Much of Riall’s detailed documentation of the sort and creation of the necessary propaganda is an accumulation of many separate strands, no one of which is particularly memorable but impressive in the total effect. There is, of course, no way to make this documentation exciting and Riall’s account of it is often exhausting. The political situation demanded that Garibaldi appear as a hero since the logical outcome of a semi-unified Italy demanded the removal of the Papal States from the rule of the pope, a step that was hedged with scruples and hesitations. Best to have at this juncture a hero without blemish.

It was against the Papal States that Garibaldi next turned his attention. His decision to do so was unilateral and lacked the support of the Piedmontese government. In fact, it opposed him and in the resulting conflict Garibaldi was wounded. From this wound and from the rheumatism which had become ever more severe he never fully recovered. The Italians united with Prussia against Austria and Italy, although it covered itself with no glory whatever, gained Venice and its territories. Vittorio Emanuele connived at action against the Papal States, but the transparency of his action – his violation of the immunity that he had by treaty promised the papacy – impaired his attempt. The intervention of France in defense of the papacy emphasized that semi-united Italy was no more immune to foreign interference than its divided predecessors. The conflict between France and Prussia led in 1870 to the defeat and capture of Napoleon III and the French withdrew from Rome. Garibaldi in retirement on Caprera did not participate in the subsequent invasion of the Papal States. He did, however, respond to the chaotic situation of France and left Caprera to fight for the reestablishment of the republic. His efforts were unsuccessful. Back in Italy after a brief political career in France, he moved to the radical left politically and broke with Mazzini with whom he had had an on-again-off-again relationship. He continued to the time of his death in 1882 to agitate for his political cause.

Riall sees the mythos of Garibaldi as an effective if unrealistic public relations tool. His frequent intransigence and independence was as valuable as if he had been the brainless tool of Cavour, Cavour’s successor, or Vittorio Emanuele. In the pursuit of her message she inundates the reader with trivia, which, however relevant, could have been more effectively presented. A reader interested in the political history of the nineteenth century will find this book indispensable although most readers will think that, had it been half as long, it would have been twice as good.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places