By Tom Behan:
The Italian national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, the ‘Che Guevara of the 19th century’, was born 200 years ago. …
If you visit Italy, you will notice that, wherever you’re staying, the main street or square will almost invariably be named after Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi is the national hero who led the movement to unite Italy in the mid-19th century.
Italy only became a unified state between 1859 and 1871. Before that it was a patchwork of different states.
“If one were to ask Italian youngsters who they would most like to be, the overwhelming majority would certainly opt for the blond hero.”
But it is not just the left that would like to claim Garibaldi as one of their own. The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and other leaders of the Italian right have been fascinated by Garibaldi’s military exploits and admired him for his patriotism.
Garibaldi’s exploits made him an international hero during his lifetime. An account from April 1864 describes one of his visits to London:
“The working men of London had organised a procession for the purpose of meeting and welcoming the liberator of Italy.
“But this procession, though numbering 50,000 intelligent artisans, was completely swallowed up in the mighty ovation by the whole metropolitan people, and served merely as a foretaste to Garibaldi of the extraordinary testimony which was about to be given of the estimation in which his principles and services in the cause of liberty were held by the English people.”
Garibaldi was in London primarily to raise funds to finance an expedition to free Venice, which was still under Austrian rule. He mixed in government circles, and spent many evenings chattering with the middle classes.
But in a contradiction that sums up his life, Garibaldi had also been invited to London by the city’s trades council.
The reaction he provoked among workers and trade unions began to worry the government. It eventually ordered him out of the country – and Queen Victoria made clear she regarded this as good riddance.
But why did people make such a fuss about Garibaldi, and why is his memory so contested? He was born 200 years ago in the city of Nice, then an Italian-French area, the son of a fisherman.
Like many people in continental Europe at the time, Garibaldi experienced brutal domination by a foreign power. However the local opponents of this rule were often not much better.
They were typically aristocrats and business leaders, totally uninterested in democracy or in improving the lives of working people.
As a young man Garibaldi gravitated towards a secret movement known as La Giovine Italia, “Young Italy”. It was led by Giuseppe Mazzini. He believed in revolutionary action to unite Italy as a republic, rather than as a monarchy.
However it is always difficult to build a mass movement under a dictatorship, and Garibaldi’s first experience of armed insurrection, in Genoa in 1834, was a dismal failure.
The following year Garibaldi moved to South America where he spent the next 13 years taking part in a variety of national liberation movements.
Word of his exploits started to feed back to Italy and he acquired a reputation as the “hero of two worlds”.
The letters Antonio Gramsci wrote before his imprisonment in the 1920s are a fascinating record of turbulent times, says John Foster: here.