Garibaldi Hero of Italian Unification Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :


Christopher Hibbert's award-winning biography Garibaldi: Hero of Italian Liberation is arranged chronologically to cover each phase of the freedom fighter's career: his early life as a sailor, participant in the 1848 Revolution and in liberation struggles in South America in 1807-59; his great victories in Sicily, Naples and southern Italy in 1860; and later years in 1861-82. Hibbert's historical methodology always focused on "individual personalities," including biographies of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington, much less than the social and economic conditions that led to the Risogimento (Hibbert xiv). He prefers the romantic image of Garibaldi and his Red Shirts marching on Rome, even though it was also reminiscent of Benito Mussolini's seizure of power in 1922. Of course, Garibaldi's radical and social democratic views should never be confused with those of the later fascist tyrant and totalitarian, and he probably would have gone to war with the Duce had he still been alive at that time. Hibbert did make good use of primary and secondary sources in preparing this biography, including memoirs, biographies, newspapers and Garibaldi's autobiography, but who was also able to write in a highly engaging narrative style that few professional historians could ever match. Although he clearly admires his subject for rising from very humble beginnings as a cabin boy to becoming one of the great nation builders of history, Hibbert was not blind to his character flaws, such as his vanity, "susceptibility to flattery" and tendency toward excessive conflict with other unification leaders (Hibbert xv).

Giuseppe Garibaldi was the son and grandson of sailors, born into a very poor family that did not even own a house. He had a deep and abiding love for the ocean and went to sea at age sixteen, although he was better educated than many other boys of his social class. Throughout his adult life, he was rabidly secularist and anticlerical, yet he had been educated in a Catholic seminary in Genoa and his parents had hoped he would become a priest. Garibaldi tried to conceal this aspect of his early background, however, and always referred to priests as the "pestilent scum of humanity" and the "enemy of the whole human race" (Hibbert 4). Even as a young man his character was always restless, courageous and adventurous, and he traveled all over the world, from Constantinople to South America. Garibaldi was athletic, powerfully built, well groomed and highly attractive to women, but also a very serious and humorless personality. Even as a teenager, he bragged about having saved the lives of those who were in danger more than once, and commented that "I have never shrunk from helping any fellow creature in danger, even at the risk of my own life" (Hibbert 5). As a young sailor and later an officer in the merchant marine, he became a follow of Saint-Simon's New Christianity and its ideas of sexual freedom, industrialization, emancipation of women and improving the social and economic conditions of the lower classes. He was an early supporter of the Young Italy movement, although ironically for an Italian nationalist, he grew up speaking French and the Ligurian dialect, and only learned standard Italian as an adult.

No matter that the South American phase of his career is little known today, Garibaldi learned the methods of guerilla warfare there that later served him so well in the wars of Italian unification. In 1836-40, he fought for the independence of the southern region of Brazil against the empire of Dom Pedro II, and later for radical and democratic party in Uruguay against the dictator Manuel Oribe and his ally Juan Manuel Rojas -- the tyrant who ruled Argentina. His army of freed slaves and European exiles that defended Montevideo was the first force he led that wore the distinctive Red Shirts. During this time, he also had an affair with a married woman named Anna Ribero da Silva and eventually married her in 1842 -- a bigamous marriage. She accompanied him to Europe when he fought in the 1848 Revolution when he temporarily controlled Rome, but died crossing the Alps the next year when his army was being chased by Papal and Hapsburg forces (Hibbert 45). He had heroically led the defense of the Roman Republic for three months in 1849 against the forces of France,…

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