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16 June 2021

What we can learn from Giuseppe Garibaldi

In the 19th century Garibaldi united a divided country. Today’s polarised politics could benefit from his pragmatic idealism.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In May 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Sicily with about 1,000 patriotic Italians. From there the general marched north, gathering thousands more. Together they united most of the Italian Peninsula previously fragmented and dominated by foreign powers. This political Risorgimento (resurgence) would be completed in 1871 following the conquest of Rome and would produce a new, united country: Italy. Garibaldi’s triumph in the face of adversity and his inspirational personality marked him out as a figure of rare vision. To visit Italy today is to encounter him everywhere: on Piazza Garibaldi, Corso Garibaldi or Via Garibaldi in villages, towns and cities across the country.

What is less well known is that in 1849 he had led a similar march that had greatly informed the 1860 campaign. This earlier march ended in abject but noble failure.

Amid Europe’s liberal revolutions in 1848, Garibaldi – a nationalist, republican and radical born in Nice – returned to Italy after 14 years spent fighting in South America. He offered his support to the Roman republic, a short-lived state formed when the Pope ditched the liberal surge and abandoned his territories. After a bold but unsuccessful defence of republican Rome against the French, inspired by the revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, Garibaldi’s forces were on the defensive. Gathering his supporters in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, on 2 July 1849, he urged them into one last bid for freedom. He seemed like a “hero of the Middle Ages”, observed the American journalist Margaret Fuller at the time.

The patriots marched across the country, evading the militaries of conservative France, Spain, Naples and Austria deployed to finish off this last gasp of 1848, before seeking refuge in the statelet of San Marino and finally disbanding. Garibaldi fled to exile first in the UK and then the US. But the doomed march equipped him with a new political understanding that would enable him to transform the map of Europe 11 years later. It is a romping tale, fit for a film.

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The man himself was a cocktail of paradoxes: inscrutable but heroic, restrained but inspiring, “the kind of man who has brown eyes but everyone thinks they are blue”, as one observer put it. In 1849, aged 42, he cut an eccentric pose in his gaucho’s poncho and sombrero. So too did his accomplices and followers, known as the garibaldini, in their motley attire. There was Anita, his fearless, pregnant Brazilian wife; Gustav von Hoffstetter, his idealist Bavarian aide-de-camp; the illiterate but genius populist Ciceruacchio; and the diligent 13-year-old Gaetano Sacchi; not to mention the wider band of patriots, thrill-seekers and ne’er-do-wells who accompanied their march from Rome.

Almost exactly 170 years later, in the summer of 2019, the author Tim Parks and his partner Eleanora set out with rucksacks to walk the 250-mile journey the garibaldini took; a unifier’s path through a still strikingly disunited country. The resulting book is a dream for armchair globetrotters – especially those confined to their own country by Covid-19 this summer. But Parks intertwines his travelogue with thought-provoking contemplation on leadership, history, memory, politics, idealism and the true meaning of love of country.

Parks is a novelist and a non-fiction chronicler of modern Italy, but also a translator of such authors as Calvino, Moravia and Machiavelli. Like any good translator, he seeks to evoke the original. Aiming for a walk “as close as possible to the garibaldini experience”, he uses detailed accounts of the march by the likes of Hoffstetter, as well as modern hiking apps, to re-create the route.

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Their path is thus not direct; the garibaldini had to use feints and diversions to escape their pursuers. They hurried out of Rome to Tivoli to the east, then north-west to Todi in Umbria, then described an arc through Tuscany before reaching San Marino – independent today partly because it briefly protected supporters of unification back then – where Garibaldi finally released his followers as it became clear he could not hold off the Austrians.

By following the same route, Parks shows us many of the complex realities of the country Garibaldi helped create. There is much humorous juxtaposition between the minor hardships of the modern hiker (sink-washing sweat-sodden hiking gear, blisters and, in one case, a broken Nespresso machine) and those of the marchers (threatened by death at the hands of foreign powers, sleeping on hard, requisitioned monastery floors, the dismal prospect of dry wells and springs at the end of long days on the road).

Moreover, by remaining so true to the historical route, the author and his partner achieve something like a cross-section through today’s Italy. Their walk captures the country not always seen in travel brochures and olive oil adverts. Yes, the hilltop towns, bucolic vineyards and ancient monuments are there. The two hikers sip glasses of ice-cold cedrata in gloriously historic, sun-drenched squares. But they also fear for their lives as they hurry along thundering, dusty roads made yet grimmer by graffiti and litter; they are accosted by dogs and brambles; they pass through emptying villages; they encounter the country’s poorly integrated and vilified underclass of African migrants cleaning cars, picking fruit and scrubbing floors. Parks’s deep affection for Italy with all its flaws – present in his writing since his earliest non-fiction works – is implicit and compelling.

[see also: Why Italy remains ungovernable]

As the walk continues, his book grows deeper. The more time the two hikers spend following Garibaldi’s footsteps, the more connected they feel to the places they pass through. Parks writes of a growing “awareness of the uninterrupted intensification of physical contact with the land” and something like an addiction: “We don’t want this accumulation to be interrupted.” When they finally reach Italy’s east coast at Cesenatico, where Garibaldi rushed into the waves to avoid surrendering on Italian soil, they feel the need to keep following him. They catch a train up the coast as far as Ravenna to do so.

Historical resonances accumulate. Encountering a man leading a steed, Parks reflects on the intimate relationship that must have existed between the cavalrymen in Garibaldi’s doomed troops and the horses they rode: “What trust… as the animal felt for its footing on a steep stony riverbed in the dark.” Garibaldi, we learn, had a close connection with the landscapes he encountered. “He began to point the way himself,” his companion Badarlon recorded of the final flight to the sea. “It was as if he had always lived in the country here. He had the nose of a dog, the eye of a hawk.” He was truly a citizen of somewhere.

And yet he was also, in today’s terminology, a citizen of nowhere. The Risorgimento was about casting off foreign domination in the interests of the people, but Garibaldi was in no sense a reactionary. He lived as freely as he dressed, he fought for the freedoms of multiple nations, he was opposed to standing armies (military forces, he thought, should only be formed to deliver a specific goal) and he spoke four languages. “Garibaldi would have been a Remainer, wouldn’t he?” ruminates Eleanora. “He was an internationalist. Proud to be a citizen of four or five countries.”

Contemporary Italian politics often feels like a contest between liberal, internationalist technocrats (such as its latest prime minister, the former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi) and hard-right nationalists (including Matteo Salvini, and Giorgia Meloni of the rising Brothers of Italy party). What place for a hero of somewhere and anywhere in a country in which those two are so mutually antagonistic?

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There is an ongoing debate about Garibaldi’s historical role. Mussolini’s fascists claimed him as one of their own: the “first fascist”. Parks argues convincingly against that as he recounts his walk across an Italy whose internal security was at the time under the control of the far-right Salvini, then its interior minister. Indeed, on the way Parks encounters various ordinary Italians seduced by conspiracy theories about Garibaldi having been part of a globalist, liberal plot. “He would never have landed in Sicily if he wasn’t protected by Jewish bankers and English lords,” an otherwise benign old-timer tells Parks in a grocer’s in a village north of Rome.

If Garibaldi’s legacy is unclear, it is partly because he was a pragmatic kind of idealist. The march from Rome in 1849 – its failure and his subsequent exile – showed Garibaldi and his fellow unity fighters that, as Parks puts it, “they must drop all talk of social revolution and republicanism”. When he landed in Sicily 11 years later, he did so with a new dose of realpolitik, supportive of a monarchy (that of Piedmont, in Italy’s north-west) and the bourgeoisie.

Garibaldi was a republican revolutionary who did a deal with the establishment; a nationalist internationalist and a modest, restrained man who became the icon of an exuberant nation. To grasp such paradoxes is to walk in his footsteps.

The Hero’s Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna
Tim Parks
Harvill Secker, 384pp, £20

[see also: Mussolini and the rise of fascism]

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web