Finding Garibaldi

Garibaldi's retreat to his home in Caprera spawned a liberal-nationalist ideal of statesmanship that would live long in the European imagination.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in his signature red shirt, gazing towards his beloved Italy from a cliff edge on the island of Caprera off the coast of Sicily. Illustration c1920. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in his signature red shirt, gazing towards his beloved Italy from a cliff edge on the island of Caprera off the coast of Sardania. Illustration c1920. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At the end of his triumphant military campaign in southern Italy in 1860, the Italian nationalist hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, handed over power to the king of Piedmont. He then returned from Naples to his home on the island of Caprera. In all of this, his actions reflected a series of political errors: over the previous few months, he had allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by his political rivals, notably Camillo Benso di Cavour, the Piedmontese prime minister, and he had subsequently been prevented from marching on Rome to seize the city from the pope and make it the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, as he had always hoped and planned. In a symbolic slap in the face for Italian nationalist aspirations, Rome remained under the control of the pope, while Venice was also not ‘liberated’ by the nationalists and instead remained part of the Austrian Empire. Garibaldi’s departure from Naples left the Republican movement without a leader, and his own army in southern Italy without a general. Many of Garibaldi’s followers despaired of his decision to leave the centre of political action and ‘retreat’ to his home on Caprera.

We know all this because of the patient archival research of historians. They have examined the diaries and correspondence of the protagonists in 1860 and have concluded that the outcome of Garibaldi’s conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a defeat for Garibaldi and the Republican movement in Italy as a whole. Yet the benefit of hindsight, and the now stark reality of Garibaldi’s political defeat in 1860, can lead us to ignore that, at the time, the state of affairs seemed very different. Above all, for the public in 1860, Garibaldi’s departure for his home in Caprera was seen as one more element of his immeasurable greatness.

Indeed, far from diminishing Garibaldi’s prestige, his departure merely added to his reputation. Even his melancholy leave-taking from Naples in November, in reality an act of personal disillusionment and political pathos, was transformed by the press into a triumphant exodus; while his arrival on the island was depicted as a happy homecoming. In short, Garibaldi’s renown as a political leader was undented by his handing over of power, and his fame as the greatest hero of the modern age – the ‘sword’ of Italy – if anything, intensified.

In the months and years that followed, gifts small and large and letters containing fervent expressions of personal admiration arrived at Caprera for Garibaldi from all over the world. Dealing with this vast correspondence took up much of Garibaldi’s time, and the time of his two secretaries. ‘My correspondence quite exceeds my capacity, and the capacity of those who assist me in writing,’ Garibaldi admitted; and indeed many of his letters in this period are written in another hand and bear only his signature. Tokens of admiration arrived from a company in Milan, which sent him ‘the proverbial Panettone’ for Christmas 1860, while a garibaldino sent him nougat and jam from Cremona; Zeffira Levi made him a flag (‘what an Italian woman who can’t do more must do’); while Margherita de Sanctis of Naples composed a verse: ‘Napoli calls you, Palermo desires you. Your brave men invoke your name. The whole world admires you! Venice cries, sighs and waits for you. Rome quivers, but hopes. Only Caprera is happy. The heavens bless and protect you. The fair sex adores you, and I hold you carved on my heart.’

Further afield, in Brussels, a spiritualist group wrote to tell Garibaldi that they had ‘woken his spirit’ in a seance: the spirit had told them that he had landed in Catania with two friends disguised as him, and that his spirit ‘was that of Hannibal’. From Germany, Manfred Warmund wrote enclosing a song and expressed his great esteem for Garibaldi (‘Believe me, 100,000 young Germans think like me’); and an anonymous fan letter arrived from Bremen written in Latin. A French writer sent a letter from Aix-en-Provence to tell Garibaldi: ‘You are great! You are noble! I admire you, I envy you… Heaven has elected you to change completely the destiny of beautiful Italy… so Courage… Courage, courage!’; while a professional female companion, one E Birkardt, wrote to Garibaldi from Nice to ask if she could come and act as his companion on Caprera.

Almost all of the private correspondence praised Garibaldi for his pursuit of an established tradition of humble radicalism. For example, Joel Hart, an American sculptor living in Florence, compared Garibaldi to the ‘great men’ of history, only to reject the comparison in favour of someone even greater: the American president George Washington who, like Garibaldi, had retired to his farm at the height of his personal fame and power: ‘Not the Chief of Marathon; / Nor the Nelson of the Seas; / Nor the Caesar, like to these; / But the more of Washington; / More the People’s common son; / More like Him, who, all degrees; / Mightiest and the frailest won; / At the well, the woman, none / Too abject for Garibaldi.’

A British admirer, Michael Threlkeld, wrote from Cumbria in the north of England to tell Garibaldi that: ‘I saw an account in the newspapers lately of your manner of passing your time with your family in your island home which pleased me very much and I trust that you may live happily upon your farm. I think that this letter must express the feelings of our Queen and of every Englishman towards the Italian nation.’ Another Englishman, describing himself as ‘your hearty sympathiser and lover’, wrote to tell Garibaldi that he had been ‘a blessing in this your generation’ and would be a blessing ‘in all ages yet to come’. ‘Yours has been the path of honour, true glory, nobility and true manhood,’ the correspondent wrote, ‘And vile and base indeed must be the heart that has not to thank you for your rousing and invigorating example.’

After a visit to Caprera, the Scottish radical John McAdam was so taken by Garibaldi’s homesteading lifestyle there that he conceived an elaborate plan to set up a salmon hatchery on the island. Indeed, such was McAdam’s enthusiasm that he managed to involve others in the plan, notwithstanding the immense practical obstacles to its implementation. Another Garibaldi enthusiast, a rich entrepreneur, paid the inventor of a new method of pisciculture to travel to the west of Ireland, collect the eggs and from there travel all the way to Caprera with the fertilised eggs in a box on his knees ‘lest so delicate a thing… be destroyed by shaking’. The inventor, in turn, was so pleased to be entrusted with this task that, at the end of what must have been a long and exhausting journey, he gave his fee and expenses to the next Garibaldi campaign ‘for the love’, in McAdam’s words, ‘he bears you and the cause’.

McAdam’s salmon fishery failed and, in hindsight, these florid expressions of passionate admiration for a nationalist leader seem ridiculous at best. Nevertheless, to my mind they also offer important insights into Garibaldi’s reputation in the early 1860s and into its popular reception, insights that are obscured by an exclusive focus on the machinations of nationalist politics or on the scale of Garibaldi’s political defeat. It is worth remembering that such was Garibaldi’s fame and popularity in 1860 and thereafter, that even Cavour and his colleagues, his victorious rivals in 1860, were forced to acknowledge it. Reflecting on the situation in Naples in early 1861, on the problems of government and its lack of authority among the population, the Piedmontese diplomat Costantino Nigra commented to his prime minister: ‘And on top of all [these problems] we have the gigantic figure of Garibaldi, standing tall on his rock in Caprera, and casting his vast shadow over us even at this distance.’

My subject here is Garibaldi’s ‘vast shadow’. Specifically, I want to ask how Garibaldi managed to cast such a powerful spell from such a long distance, and despite his defeat and his exclusion, and to investigate the significance of this achievement. First, it is clear that Garibaldi’s fame should be understood as, at least in part, a media creation. That is, it was the result of a fit established in the popular press in Europe and the Americas between, on the one hand, the popular genres of biography and romantic fiction and, on the other, the spread of radical political ideas. It was made possible by the rapid increase in mass literacy in the mid-19th century, and perhaps even more by a contemporaneous and rapid expansion in print culture: the broadening availability of books and magazines, and the production in ever larger numbers of the cheap printed portrait (the lithograph, then the daguerreotype and finally the photograph).

Garibaldi’s fame also benefited from and, in turn, helped to create a new kind of public. This was a very different one from the elite public of letters of the 18th-century Enlightenment, a public that had less polite tendencies, a desire for racy entertainment and an appetite for daring romantic heroes. Thus, in Garibaldi’s lifetime, the alliance between politics and publishing was democratised. Indeed, it was political radicals across Europe and the Americas who pioneered a new style of publicising politics, a style which borrowed from popular culture and prevailing romantic conventions, which challenged traditional notions of deference, authority and good taste, and which had a particular enthusiasm for heroes of the soon-to-be enfranchised nation.

The popular success of Garibaldi with this public was equally the result of a deliberate political strategy planned by the nationalist revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, and implemented by him and a group of talented publicists. Using the press (the printed word and printed image) they set out to create an imagined community of Italians. From the early 1840s onwards, they carefully promoted Garibaldi as a real-life radical hero, and turned him into an international symbol of the united, resurgent Italian nation that Mazzini so tirelessly promoted in his life and writings.

However, by insisting on the constructed nature of Garibaldi’s fame, I do not mean to suggest that Garibaldi was a fake, or that he played no part in the popular cult which grew up around him. By contrast, it helped enormously that he looked and acted the part. He was good-looking, with long hair, a strong athletic body, charming manner and flamboyant clothes, notably a bright red blouse which he wore loosely tied around his waist. Indeed, he was romanticism personified. He made theatrical speeches, appealing to Italy’s famous past, to religion, martyrdom and betrayal, to military violence and hatred of the foreigner, and to family, sex and romantic love. He was extraordinarily, even recklessly, courageous in battle, at a time when such courage was highly valued in society and could have a real impact – as it did in Sicily in 1860 – on the outcome of a battle or campaign.

Thus, and at the same time, Garibaldi’s own life provided the source for much of his popular appeal. Here it is impossible to underestimate the importance of the period he spent as a political exile, between 1834 and 1848, in the states of Rio de la Plata in South America. Garibaldi’s experiences there profoundly shaped his vision of Italy and its future. Through his friendship with Giovan Battista Cuneo, a Mazzinian journalist, Garibaldi absorbed the message that the task of the exile was to dedicate himself to the distant fatherland. First fighting with the Farroupilha rebels in the war against Brazil and subsequently organising the defence of Montevideo against the aggression of Buenos Aires, Garibaldi made constant reference to Italy and to the need, as exiles, to uphold Italian honour in foreign lands. When, as part of the Farroupilha Rebellion, Garibaldi launched a series of attacks on Brazilian shipping, he called his vessel ‘Mazzini’, and the flag carried by the Italian legion in Montevideo showed an exploding volcano (Vesuvius) on a black background (mourning for the enslaved fatherland). Towards the end of his stay in South America, Garibaldi sought repeatedly to return with their legion to Italy to fight for freedom there. In 1847, he organised a demonstration in Montevideo to celebrate the advent of liberal reforms in the Italian states.

More important still was Garibaldi’s development of a distinctive political style in these years. His public image was particularly shaped by contact with the gaucho militias of southern Brazil and Uruguay, and he adapted their dress – long, unkempt hair, loose clothes – and behaviour in order to emphasise his rejection of military hierarchies. Garibaldi’s unconventional relationship with his first wife, Anita, was also redolent of the family model favoured by the gaucho. There were, of course, practical reasons for Garibaldi’s mode of attire (one English admirer wrote that the poncho concealed ‘the dilapidated state of his clothes’, and others noted that the famous red shirts worn by him and his men were merely cast-offs from a local slaughter-house), but the look still had an immense contemporary importance as a political sign. If, in early 19th-century Argentina, the gaucho stood for barbarism and savagery, he was also a symbol with great fascination and the potential for diverse political interpretation; for Garibaldi, the gaucho held an enormous, and lasting appeal as an expression of his alternative lifestyle and radical public aims.

In South America, Garibaldi also became part of an extended, cosmopolitan network of Italian, European and American republicans. Italians like Cuneo, Giacomo Medici, Livio Zambeccari, Luigi Rossetti, and Francesco Anzani became collaborators and models of integrity to whom Garibaldi referred throughout his political career. Garibaldi’s first personal exchange with Mazzini was made through Cuneo. Through this same network, Garibaldi met the Rio Grande president, Bento Gonçalves da Silva, as well as the Uruguayan leader, Joaquín Suárez and members of the liberal Argentine ‘generation of 1837’ (and the future nation builders of Argentina,): Juan Bautista Alberdi, Esteban Echeverría and Bartolomé Mitre.

It was arguably through these Argentinians, who were all writers as well as political activists, that Garibaldi came to understand the power of the press and the importance of journalists. This was to be a relationship that he cultivated for the rest of his career. Hence, Garibaldi’s 1860 campaign in Sicily was not only followed by journalists, artists and assorted writers and writer-soldiers, Garibaldi himself also took pains to welcome journalists, give them interviews and pose for photographs. In terms of relations with the broader public, Garibaldi was quiet, dignified, modest and unassuming, and he was careful to talk to and notice everyone. When, in Palermo in 1860, he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds, Garibaldi responded with a great show of ease and openness. In Naples, and during his march across Calabria towards Salerno, he took time out from campaigning to talk to people and offer them words of friendly encouragement; he kissed babies and listened to the grievances of the poor and those affected by the war. He instinctively understood that, in the extended public communities created by the new print media, nothing succeeded so well as the personal touch.

This display of political intimacy was not just popular, it also had a real importance as a political sign. Garibaldi’s fame in the mid-19th century was a symptom of the democratisation of the public sphere; it was the result of the creation of a new relationship between public figures and their audiences, in which feelings of awe and hero-worship mingled with a sense of immediacy and familiarity. As we have seen from the letters to him, people fell in love with Garibaldi and identified passionately with his activities and aspirations. Thus, this emotional bond was neither casual nor coincidental but was central to Garibaldi’s political appeal. Just as his long hair and red shirt signalled the distance between his radical politics and the aristocrats of conservative America and Europe, so did his friendliness convey a radical message of democracy and fraternal love. At the same time, his modesty expressed an ideal of disinterested republican virtue, a modesty which was not simply personal but was also political insofar as it remained unaffected by the trappings of power and fame.

Such a mixture of private and public virtue, of humility and sociability as a political sign, helps us both to understand better the centrality of Caprera for his image and why his public responded so enthusiastically to his life on the island. In fact, as soon as Garibaldi left Naples in 1860 and arrived at Caprera, journalists started to publicise the fact that, despite his political and military triumphs over the preceding months, he had asked for no reward for his accomplishments, and had taken with him just a few provisions and some seeds for his farm. In one illustrated publication, he was shown stepping on to dry land carrying nothing more than a sack. In another, he arrived empty-handed, and according to the accompanying text, Garibaldi ‘had overthrown a powerful throne! He had created the Kingdom of Italy! But still he came back a poor man, as poor as when he left.’ As we have seen, he was compared to George Washington, a general whose greatness was defined by his refusal of public honours at the end of successful campaigns and who, like Garibaldi, had retired from public life to a preferred occupation as a humble farmer.

A series of illustrations by one of Garibaldi’s most avid promoters, Frank Vizetelly, the artist-journalist of the Illustrated London News, exemplifies the press and public interest in Garibaldi’s private life. For Vizetelly, Garibaldi’s ‘retirement’ to Caprera was very far from being a political defeat. It was simply the latest episode in his spectacular life, and Vizetelly went specially to Caprera on his way home at the end of the campaign ‘to close’, as he put it, ‘my correspondence with a few illustrations of the island home of the modern Cincinnatus [the Roman general who, like Washington, retired to his farm at the height of his fame]’. Although he warned his readers not to expect intimate descriptions, he offered them exhaustive details of the house, and of Garibaldi’s and his family’s behaviour, along with seven illustrations of Garibaldi at home. These included ‘General Garibaldi spearing fish by night off Caprera‘ (it is impossible to conceive anything more picturesque), ‘The Farmyard’, and a picture of Garibaldi digging in the fields amid a rocky, romantic landscape.

From Caprera, Vizetelly’s prose and pictures emphasise this juxtaposition between the great public figure and the humble private man which had become such a potent feature of his appeal: ‘Here am I, sitting peaceably under the roof and partaking of the hospitality of the man who seven months since… raised the standard of freedom on the shores of Sicily, and threw his gauntlet at the feet of Francis II and his legions. As I write this I can see Giuseppe Garibaldi, the undoer and maker of kings, trundling along a barrowful of roots that he has grubbed from the rocky soil… Little dreamt I when, nearly seven months ago, I shook hands with that daring revolutionist, the morning after his entry into Palermo, that seven months later I should congratulate him on his complete success in his cottage at Caprera.’

In this way, Caprera acquired a political significance as the physical representation of Garibaldi’s reputation and an expression of his ‘complete success’. Engaging loosely with a symbolism inherited from the American and French Revolutions, where public greatness was matched by private virtue, Garibaldi’s lifestyle on Caprera seemed proof that he was a genuine hero, whose personal modesty was unaffected by his political fame. In reality, the images that arrived from Caprera show us that Garibaldi’s ‘private’ (home and family) life was put on display as proof of his simplicity, humility and selfless dedication to the Italian nation.

While there is no denying that frugality and hard work were part of his chosen lifestyle, they too formed part of a public statement of his radical beliefs. Reading between the lines, we can also perceive in descriptions of Caprera an existence entirely dedicated to receiving visitors, writing correspondence and physically recuperating from the exhaustions of military and political campaigning. Garibaldi used Caprera not so much to retire from public life, as was often claimed, but as a kind of privileged space from which he could control his political image and extend his network of radical supporters. Caprera, in other words, was part of the nationalist struggle and the job of promoting Garibaldi.

Political charisma is often presented as something natural, if not magical, and this blinds us to its workings and increases the intensity of our emotional response. I would argue instead that political charisma is manufactured, although some individuals are much better at producing the performance than others, and the manufactured nature of charisma means that we can study, analyse and understand its production and operation over time. Garibaldi’s global reach and intense emotional appeal reflect changes in the public sphere, and in particular it was a sign of the arrival of a ‘non-polite’ society with a different set of cultural rules and new emotional responses and which, thanks to the rapid emergence of the popular press, had become more difficult to control. In this new political world, stories and their heroic protagonists became an integral part of political culture; so successful political leaders had to become popular heroes with adventurous, tragic and/or triumphant life stories.

There is nothing new about hero-worship of course, and there are precedents for Garibaldi’s fame in the cults of saints, the rituals of medieval monarchy, and the spectacular politics of the French Revolution. Still, we should note what is new about Garibaldi since it has much to tell us about the emergence of mass politics in the modern world. Garibaldi was a radical outsider with an international, revolutionary appeal. His story is equally fascinating not just for its triumphs but also for its failures. After the war for Sicily was over, Garibaldi was politically defeated and physically isolated on the island of Caprera. Remarkably, however, he still succeeded in controlling at least part of the political agenda and in reaching an international public from a position of material weakness and isolation. It was precisely this isolation from the corridors of power and privilege that gave Garibaldi this authority and influence. By connecting loosely with the symbols and traditions of republican virtue, his lifestyle on Caprera conveyed both a seductive ideal of radical heroism and a sense of diffidence and disdain for those who had won the political battle for Italy. Moreover, this symbolism worked because it could be communicated to a wide international public via the printed word and image. Thus, his fame was modern insofar as it was linked to the nascent mass media, and it involved a close, immediate and intimate relationship with the public in what the anthropologist Benedict Anderson has called an ‘imagined community’ of readers and their narratives.

Yet perhaps what is most interesting about the fame of Garibaldi is the gulf that separates his experiences as a public figure from the political displays of today. Garibaldi reminds us of a period before the nation state when nationalism was radical and inclusive, not chauvinistic and authoritarian, and when European liberalism rested on transnational networks of support and enthusiasm. Garibaldi also tells us that political leaders and their politics were once perceived as romantic. He represents an alternative, democratic tradition of political heroism, often overlooked by historians more interested in the origins of the authoritarian cults of the 20th century. Most importantly of all, Garibaldi is less of a sign of the constraining power of the press, and of political symbolism and political heroes, and much more an indicator of their potential to subvert, to destabilise and to challenge the existing political order.


Lucy Riall