In November 1853, a 46-year-old candle-maker set sail from Staten Island for Europe, where he had been one of the most famous soldiers since the fall of Napoleon 40 years before. Giuseppe Garibaldi was already one-half on his way to becoming “the Hero of Two Worlds” of legend, as he had the previous decade fought for Uruguayan independence in South America. His fighting on behalf of his native soil, however, had not gone so spectacularly.
Garibaldi, who was born in Nice when it was still part of the proto-Italian kingdom of Piedmont, had been one of the top leaders of the Roman Republic of 1849, the result of the residents of the city and surrounding areas rebelling against the temporal rule of the archconservative Pope Pius IX (aptly translated from Pio Nono) and the French, Austrian and Neapolitan troops propping him up. The republic lasted a few months; it collapsed after a siege by those same foreign troops; Pio Nono safely returned to rule another 20 years; and Garibaldi split Europe, eventually ending up casting candles on Staten Island (the cottage where he lived is still there as a museum).
It is what happened before and after his swaggering run in Rome that matters most to the story of Italy told commandingly by British history writer David Gilmour in his The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 447 pages; $30). Garibaldi had returned to Europe from South America in the revolutionary year of 1848; and “had led without distinction a volunteer force against the Austrians in the foothills of the Alps. Surprised to find that the local population was unwilling to join his irregular troops, he had been outmaneuvered by the enemy and forced to take refuge in Switzerland.” And after his later defeat in Rome, some of the happiest people to see him go were Italian politicians from his native Piedmont.
That Garibaldi could not rally Italians against the Austrians before Rome, and that many of those same Italians were happy to see him high-tail it to New York after the republic’s fall encapsulates Mr. Gilmour’s argument: Just as is the case today, while there were plenty of people on the peninsula 150 years ago who may have identified themselves ethnically as Italians, there were not that many who were keen on identifying themselves so politically. This went for the people who, largely by accident, formed the Italian state.
There was the bellicose King Victor Emanuel II of Piedmont, squat and mustachioed, fond of medals but not of the fighting to earn them; Cavour, his canny lieutenant who as prime minister sought the expansion of Piedmont but not necessarily the birth of the Kingdom of Italy until the two became one in the same; and other players like Mazzini, the dreamer (think of him as the Italian equivalent of Thomas Paine), stoking nationalist fire (though, like the king, Mazzini was no fan of actual fighting). And then there was Garibaldi, Italy’s George Washington, a farmer inimitable as a soldier but uncomfortable as a leader (ironically enough, after his role in uniting Italy, he would take a steamer called “Washington” back to his farm in northern Sardinia, having refused honors from Victor Emanuel).
Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in May 1860 with a volunteer army culled mostly from northern Italian states like Piedmont, Lombardy and Tuscany—and with the backing of the British navy—commenced one of the more brilliant military campaigns of the 19th century. Within a year it was all over: Garibaldi’s “Thousand” had routed the Neapolitan government, a wing of the Spanish monarchy, and its Austrian allies; captured the capital Naples; and basically met Cavour’s expansionist Piedmont army in the middle of the peninsula, where together they swept away Pio Nono’s domains all the way to the gates of Rome. The Romantic revolutionary—literally, in this case—coming from the south had joined with the pragmatic politicians coming from the north. Italy was born. (Rome, the last piece of the puzzle, would be fitted in after the French troops protecting the pope dashed out in September 1870 to fight the new German empire.)
But then what?
Mr. Gilmour shows that as is often the case with accidents people get hurt. Cavour died suddenly in 1861, and Garibaldi the same year shuffled nobly off the stage. Victor Emanuel—who, tellingly, kept the “II” after his name as if continuing to rule as the king of Piedmont rather than as the first king of Italy—was not much of an administrator; and he left his new country at the whim of northern politicians who saw the south as inferior and perhaps hopelessly so. “The Piedmontese who came uninvited in 1860 felt they had arrived in another country but in another continent.” A racist joke circulated in Victor Emanuel’s court that Garibaldi had not united Italy but had split Africa.
And, despite the northerners’ “sprees of statue-making and street-christening in homage to the heroic four” of the king, Garibaldi, Cavour and Mazzini, southerners rebelled, sometimes in large numbers, against what many considered a foreign occupation. Indeed, Mr. Gilmour guesses that long-forgotten uprisings in the former Kingdom of Naples could have cost as many as 60,000 lives in the 1860s. The northerners dismissed the fighting as “brigandage,” with Victor Emanuel authorizing brutal reprisals against southern peasants who hadn’t gotten the memo re: the unification of Italy; that it was clean and foreordained, and most certainly did not involve conquest.
So, instead of economic development for the south or political reforms across the board to welcome disparate former states into the new kingdom (Venice, an independent republic for hundreds of years, was as discontented as Naples—maybe more so—at being dragooned into Italy), the king’s governments chose a succession of ill-fated wars to … to what, really? To show that Italians could be as militant and imperialistic as Germans or Englishmen, one guesses. Revenue that could have been steered toward road and railroad building, education and trade, was instead spent on colonial conquests in Africa, including in Libya, and on fighting on the (barely) winning side in World War I. In that conflagration, the Italians were soundly and routinely beaten by the Germans and Austrians, time and again having to be rescued by the French and British.
A national inferiority complex set in. Millions on the peninsula simply threw up their hands and emigrated away from the grinding poverty and the anemic social mobility (including this writer’s grandparents). Of the four million, mostly southern Italians who emigrated from the late 19th century through the 1920s, most settled in the U.S., and the vast majority passed through New York City on their ways.
Italy’s more recent history will be familiar to many, though Mr. Gilmour gives Mussolini and the corruption-infused march to modernity since World War II, all the way through Berlusconi, their thorough due (as he does Italy’s history from antiquity to the early 19th century). But it’s those years of unification upon which he hinges his argument—the Italian state was an accident, though one that need not have been so damaging.
“It was a very different Italy which I spent my life dreaming of,” Garibaldi wrote shortly before his death in 1882, “not the impoverished and humiliated country which we now see ruled by the dregs of the nation.”
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