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The Hero Machine

Alexander Stille is the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and the author, most recently, of The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Silvio Berlusconi (Penguin).

Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero

By Lucy Riall

(Yale University Press, 496 pp.,


Until recently, the publication of yet another life of Garibaldi might have been greeted with a shrug and a yawn. What new could possibly be said about a figure whose every word and every deed has been memorialized or picked apart in children's textbooks, scholarly histories, and a plethora of biographies both hagiographic and critical? Fatigue with the lore of the Italian unification and skepticism about its founding fathers were plain already in 1926, when Piero Gobetti published his famous essay "Risorgimento Senza Eroi," or "The Risorgimento Without Heroes." There was already an awareness that the creation of the Italian state had been a deeply flawed and inadequate process, championed by a small cultural elite, carried out more by diplomatic maneuvering and the power of foreign troops than by a great popular uprising; and also that unification had left Italy almost as divided as before, a country where old and deep allegiances to family, town, region, and church continued to compete with the new nation for the loyalties of most Italians. From the 1960s on, when historians became more interested in "history from below," the fascination with the "great men" of the Risorgimento seemed more like quaint nineteenth-century hero worship than serious history.

But then the intellectual climate changed again. In recent decades, new scholarship on the nature and history of nationalism has opened up a new space for a reconsideration of Italian unification and its heroes. In 1983, there appeared two groundbreaking books on nationalism, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism. Each in its own way argued that nationalism, rather than a hoary and innate form of identity (as all nationalisms insist they are), is in fact an exceedingly modern phenomenon that was made possible not least by the invention of printing, industrialization, and mass communication.

Before the invention of print and the creation of large-scale markets, most people, almost all of whom were farmers, lived in a highly circumscribed world made up of face-to-face contacts. Their identities were local, defined by religion and by a series of feudal rights and obligations, by dialects and customs that were limited to their small places. The leading powers--the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire--were multinational, polyglot dynasties. The royal families of Europe intermarried and traded thrones. No one questioned the fact that the same Swiss family, the Hapsburgs, governed both Spain and Austria. In the eighteenth century, the British preferred to import a non-English-speaking king from Germany in order to avoid having a Catholic branch take the throne--something that would have been unthinkable a century later. In other words, nationalism as we have come to know it--based on larger unities of territory, language, and culture--did not exist.

At that time, popular culture, expressed in a multitude of dialects, was local, while learned and religious culture--which took place in Latin--was transnational. Instruction in universities and seminaries was conducted in Latin, and learned men corresponded across borders in Latin. Latin was the administrative language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is why there was no reason for Czechs, Serbs, or Hungarians to feel discriminated against at the court of Vienna. But with the growth of capitalism and print, increasing numbers of people learned to read not in Latin but in their vernacular tongues, and a growing commercial and professional class, increasingly literate and prosperous, challenged the traditional hierarchies of church and aristocracy. Growing nation-states raised large standing armies, and nationalism--now defined by language and culture--served as the social glue of a new order.

Print made it possible, through dictionaries and national academies, to establish official national languages and to promote the idea of a national culture. It was open and upwardly mobile for emerging groups within the nation, but exclusive in relation to those outside it. At the same time, establishing some tongues as national languages meant reducing others to the status of mere dialects, creating privileged in-groups and disadvantaged out-groups. Anderson and Gellner both emphasized the role of intellectuals--who created dictionaries and grammar books, collected folk music and fairy tales, resurrected national epics and wrote national histories--in forging a culture that made the love of nation seem as natural as mother's milk and made dying for the fatherland the most elementary filial piety.

Although this scholarship developed outside of Italy, the Risorgimento is a perfect case study for this kind of self-conscious nation-building. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Italian intellectuals began publishing a stream of novels, memoirs, and journalistic articles promoting the idea of italianita, or Italianness, and writing a national narrative of Italy in which the glory that was Rome languished under the yoke of foreign domination and its people longed for nothing more than national unity. Since political speech was carefully monitored by the powers that controlled most of Italy--the Austrians in the north, the papacy in the center, and the Spanish Bourbons in the south-- the cultural expression of italianita became a way of building a political identity while avoiding censorship. The operas of Verdi were commonly regarded as allegories of unification and patriotism; crowds of patriots would shout "Viva Verdi!", the great composer's name serving as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re d'Italia, or "Victor Emanuel, King of Italy," who became the monarch of unified Italy. An extraordinary number of those who joined Mazzini and Garibaldi were scribblers, poets, and painters; in the service of the cause they fought battles and composed anthems, poems, pamphlets, and memoirs. Those who carried out unification--mostly from the middle and upper classes--were aware that their literary and military efforts had made only mild inroads into the population of the new Italy, the vast majority of whom were illiterate and spoke a local dialect rather than Italian. "We have made Italy," one of Italy's founding fathers, Massimo d'Azeglio, is reported to have said. "Now we must make the Italians."

Lucy Riall has taken brilliant advantage of the opportunities created by the new understanding of nationalism. Her biography of Garibaldi is innovative, exciting, masterful. Together with the Italian scholar Alberto Banti, Riall has developed a fresh and much more interesting way of telling the story of the Risorgimento. In the traditional telling of the tale, Garibaldi was the instinctive man of action, the valorous soldier who threw himself into the breach wherever freedom called, but whose political ideas and political career were of negligible importance. He was the unthinking "arm" of unification, while the nobler body parts are assigned to others--Giuseppe Mazzini, the tireless promoter of nationalism, was the soul; King Victor Emanuel II was the heart; and his prime minister, Count Camillo Cavour, was the brain. (This corporeal metaphor was created after unification to create an illusion of organic unity.)But Riall shows that Garibaldi, along with being a soldier, was also an important, innovative, and supremely modern political leader. The struggle for Italian unification, from the 1840s until 1870, coincided with the emergence of the penny newspaper and a mass reading public, and by those means Garibaldi became one of the first international political celebrities. Italian unification was a popular cause in countries around the world, much as Vietnam, the solidarity movement in Poland, or the cause of the Palestinians have been in our time. Newspapers and journals in England, the United States, Germany, France, and elsewhere sent journalists and illustrators to document Garibaldi's military exploits, and they produced special albums that were valued collectors' items and commercial successes. Garibaldi shrewdly cultivated journalists, and crafted his cult by the publication of memoirs and pamphlets, and maintained a vast international network of contacts through his ceaseless letter-writing. He was able to draw on this extraordinary publicity machine to raise money, weapons, and volunteers from across Europe and the United States for military operations in Italy.

Anticipating Che Guevara by a century, Garibaldi more or less invented the persona of the modern freedom fighter. (Unlike Che, he was actually interested in freedom.) After participating in wars of national liberation in Latin America, he adopted the look of the gaucho, wearing a poncho, a scruffy beard, a simple red shirt, and a dashing handkerchief about his throat--a free and rugged horseman who was content to use his saddle as a pillow. Garibaldi knew how to strike a pose. When he wanted to win over a middle-class audience, he could suddenly appear with a trimmed beard in the uniform of a Piedmontese general, and the next day he would be back in his poncho and red shirt when he needed to play the role of the anti-establishment rabble-rouser.

Garibaldi was born in 1807 in Nice, which at the time was part of Savoy, an independent state with its capital in Turin that included the northwestern corner of Italy known as Piedmont, as well as Corsica and a sliver of what is now southeastern France. In 1720, the duchy of Savoy became the Kingdom of Sardinia and incorporated the city of Genoa and its surrounding area. Sardinia, where the population spoke various local dialects and the ruling elite spoke mostly French, was an unlikely launching pad for the struggle of Italian unification. Indeed, both Mazzini and Garibaldi were forced into exile because of their roles in nationalist conspiracies. Mazzini, the indefatigable propagandist, wound up in London, the communications capital of Europe. Garibaldi, a sailor, left Europe for South America and became involved in revolutionary politics in the new world.

As early as 1843, Mazzini wrote to one of his followers in South America to say that Garibaldi was a figure who could be extremely useful to their movement. There was already an Italianlanguage Mazzinian press that began to sing Garibaldi's praises and to help establish his reputation as "the hero of two worlds." To her credit, Riall does not go the extreme of claiming that Garibaldi was an entirely "invented" hero. He did in fact play a significant role in helping the young nation of Uruguay fight off domination from Argentina, and he was even made the head of the Uruguayan navy. Consistently, over more than thirty years, he showed considerable courage under fire, adopting bold and innovative tactics in fighting larger, organized armies with smaller, irregular troops. Imitating the idea of the French Legion, he invented something called the Italian Legion and recruited some six hundred men whom he led in battle. In 1846, they fended off a much larger Argentine force at a battle in San Antonio del Salto, an event that was followed closely in Europe and became a cornerstone of Garibaldi's legend.

Garibaldi's military campaigns also had a carefully considered political dimension, which he managed shrewdly in a world increasingly dominated by public opinion. He refused any honors or rewards after the great victory at San Antonio, and strictly forbade his troops to accept any--something that helped to establish an important feature of his legend as a noble, disinterested revolutionary. Mazzini asked his people in Montevideo to have a painting made of Garibaldi so that lithographs could be produced and distributed. "The early fame of Garibaldi was the result of a deliberate strategy conceived by Mazzini and enthusiastically endorsed by his followers, including Garibaldi himself," Riall writes. Garibaldi became a household name across Europe for his involvement in the revolts of 1848-1849, in which Sicily rose up against the Bourbons of Naples, and Milan and Venice revolted against Austria, and Mazzini and Garibaldi briefly established a republic in Rome, ousting the papacy. The revolts in Italy stimulated similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe, where many traditional, authoritarian governments were either toppled or gave ground to new popular movements. In the age of the telegraph, political events and movements had become planetary and nearly instantaneous. (Globalization is not as unprecedented a phenomenon as we think.) Censorship was lifted in many countries, and the doings of Garibaldi--who fought in all the major theaters of the rebellions of 1848-1849--were chronicled around the world.

As Riall effectively shows, Garibaldi was both the cause and the effect of a major change in Western political culture. As a man of the people from a humble background, with his simple and unconventional style of dress, Garibaldi represented the aspirations of new political classes who were trying to break into a closed hierarchical system. The Chartists in Britain gathered more than three million signatures to push for universal suffrage in a country that allowed only a tiny minority of its people to vote. Pressing the cause of national liberation in Italy was an acceptable way of channeling popular feeling that also had deep local roots. Half a million wildly enthusiastic people turned out when Garibaldi visited London in 1864, and Garibaldi poems and songs, a Garibaldi hymn, and even a "Garibaldi polka" were written for the occasion. He drew huge crowds wherever he went. But his visit was cut short before he could reach the big working-class towns of Manchester, Newcastle, and Glasgow. "Garibaldi--thank God!--is gone," Queen Victoria wrote to her daughter after his departure. "It has been a very absurd and humiliating exhibition and was becoming very dangerous by the connection with Mazzini and all the worst refugees."

Garibaldi, Riall argues persuasively, was a transitional figure whose cultic power derived in part from combining old and new forms of reverence. "It is no coincidence that the mid-century revolution in publishing coincided with the first great age of nationalism, and with the creation and the consolidation of nation states in much of Europe," Riall writes. "The unprecedented scope and scale of Garibaldi's fame as a popular leader were largely maintained by the publishing and entertainment industry." Riall adduces numerous sources to show that part of Garibaldi's appeal was that he seems to conform to the type of the romantic hero of early nineteenth-century novels. Numerous contemporaries compared him to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, the latter a figure described by his creator as "wild, irregular ... and unearthly" in his appearance, an "outlawed robber" who had been pushed outside by the law of an unjust society, but "kind and gentle" by nature, a loving husband with a strict code of morality. That Garibaldi understood the value of being a figure of romance is clear from the fact that he gave a draft of his memoirs to Alexandre Dumas, one of the greatest historical mythmakers of his time, who recast and published them.

Another element of the Garibaldi romance was his marriage in 1842 to his Brazilian wife Anita, a skillful horsewoman who accompanied Garibaldi on some of his military adventures. She died with him in 1849, pregnant, accompanying his troops as they fled French and Austrian troops after the fall of the Roman Republic. This, too, fit the story line of Rob Roy: she was such a devoted highlander that she could not live outside the highlands, and he could not bear to be separated from her. Not least as a consequence of this tale of love, thinly disguised versions of Garibaldi began to appear in novels of the period. "Garibaldi's popularity in mid-century liberal Europe was the result both of the spread of democratic ideas and of their fit with the genres of romantic popular fiction," Riall explains. "Garibaldi's political appeal was part of a radical style which was structured and told like a story."

Riall also emphasizes the importance of Garibaldi's virility and good looks: "Like the Risorgimento hero, Garibaldi is virile and attractive: he smolders in long hair and flowing clothes. He is of a 'noble and lofty character,' personally modest yet rebellious, and defiant in the face of defeat.... The fashioning of an imaginary Garibaldi tailored specifically to the demands of women readers needs to be noted." He made speeches and wrote pamphlets specifically addressed to women, and many women around the world became passionate champions of his cause. This made sense in the sexual politics of the time. Women could not vote in their own countries, but it was considered entirely acceptable for them to play an active role in the cause of Italian freedom. The sexualization of politics also began much longer ago than we like to think.

Riall does not overemphasize the modernity of Garibaldi; she recognizes that he is not quite our contemporary. One of the interesting cultural differences that separates us from the culture of the Garibaldi cult is the almost willful use of wholly invented stories and details in the vast majority of Garibaldi biographies that circulated at the time. Even though there was plenty of dramatic and novelistic material from the real life of Garibaldi to draw on, writers seemed to go out of their way to fabricate stories and details. As Riall observes, conforming to the canons of contemporary romance and melodrama was much more important than any notion of journalistic accuracy and historical verisimilitude. "One of the most striking features of this script," she writes, "was the apparently seamless blend of fact and fiction, of novelistic fantasy and political truth, and this blend ... seems to have been at the heart of Garibaldi's public success."

Along with tapping into the culture of the romantic novel, Garibaldi also struck more ancient chords. Riall reproduces popular prints in which Garibaldi is pictured in the role of Christ. In this folk Christian scheme, even Garibaldi's many failures and defeats could be seen in a different light. The topos of the defeated hero, the betrayed and crucified Christ, may have strengthened Garibaldi's hold on the popular imagination. Secularly speaking, this may also have been the conscious strategy of rebels who had to find a way of using modest resources to defeat much stronger enemies. A friend of Mazzini's suggested that he recognized that he was hoping to score a political rather than a military victory in 1848: "[he] knows that the war cannot bring any great success, but his idea is to attract the attention of Europe and to get sympathy for the Republic and for the relentless struggle for freedom." This was to become an essential tactic of modern liberation movements: the transformation of military defeat into political victory.

After the failure of the revolutions of 1848-1849, Garibaldi, badly wounded and grieving over the death of Anita, removed himself for a time from active public life. He traveled to New York, where crowds of well-wishers were prepared to make him the toast of the town. Instead he chose to stay out of the limelight, living in Staten Island and Westchester and working as, among other things, a candlemaker. Intentionally or not, it was another shrewd move, since other refugees of the 1848 revolutions destroyed their reputations by becoming caught up in the American politics of the time.

Then Garibaldi disappeared from sight to work for a few years as a merchant seaman, captaining cargo ships in the Pacific. And when he returned to Europe, he presented himself in a somewhat different guise. "Garibaldi's American exile also marks the moment when he leaves his bandit persona behind him," Riall writes. "The Garibaldi who returned to Europe in 1854 after his 'second exile' was a different figure--older, perhaps sadder and certainly more 'respectable' than the youthful romantic, the exotic and picturesque rebel who had fought on the hills above Rome in 1849." He bought a large property on Caprera, a small island off the coast of Sardinia which was part of Piedmontese territory. He gained the right to return by agreeing to stay out of politics, but his lengthy retirement added a new chapter to his legend. Contemporary journalists described him as a modernday Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman who renounced power to return to his rural farm and had to be persuaded to leave it when the Republic was again in danger.

Garibaldi's isolation from politics was anything but total. Caprera was visited by a steady stream of journalists and acolytes, and its simplicity was described in books and newspapers around the world. He maintained a vast network of correspondents, writing and dictating a mountain of letters that helped to keep his political career and his immense international reputation very much alive. During his period of exile, he gave drafts of his memoirs to supporters in various countries, generating multiple editions of his own story, sometimes in the form of autobiography, other times as heavily reworked biographies. At the same time, Garibaldi began quietly preparing for the next major campaign for unification. The Garibaldi who returned to Europe in the 18s was decidedly more pragmatic than the one who left in 1849. He distanced himself from Mazzini, a staunch Republican and implacable foe of the Piedmontese monarchy. Instead he decided that joining forces with Piedmont, the only independent Italian state, represented the best opportunity for Italian unification. And his dealings with the Piedmontese--in particular their crafty prime minister Cavour and King Victor Emanuel II--is one of the more complex and controversial chapters of Garibaldi's biography.

Cavour was hardly an Italian nationalist. Like many educated Piedmontese of the time, his French was better than his Italian. The Piedmontese were mainly interested in the territorial expansion of their own little state, and so they were happy, when it suited their purposes, to use Risorgimento rhetoric against the Austrians to further their claims to northern Italy. For the most part, however, they treated hotheaded nationalists such as Mazzini and Garibaldi as dangerous criminals. Cavour placed much greater weight on backroom deals and state-to-state diplomacy, and in 1858 he signed a secret treaty with France in which he agreed to cede Nice and Savoy in exchange for French military support in a war with Austria. French armies were decisive in allowing Piedmont to gain hold of Milan and much of Lombardy in 1859. At the same time, the Piedmontese somewhat reluctantly made Garibaldi a general in their army; but they placed him in charge of a small, poorly trained, ragtag force. Still, he acquitted himself well on the battlefield, winning at least one major victory against Austria. His fame attracted thousands of volunteers, quadrupling the number of his troops.

The conservative, aristocratic Cavour was suspicious of popular movements, but no sooner was the war with Austria over than Garibaldi began to raise funds and men to lead an expedition to aid an uprising in Sicily. The Piedmontese did not prevent the expedition, but they weakened it as much as they could by denying Garibaldi access to arms that one of his subscription campaigns had raised. With a small army of roughly one thousand--the famous mille commemorated in almost every Italian city--and equipped with old and inadequate weapons, Garibaldi set out to face the army of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Through a combination of military daring, good luck, and the support of the local population, he managed to take Palermo and then the rest of Sicily. He then crossed over the mainland and again, with stunning rapidity, defeated the bulk of the Bourbon army, becoming the undisputed master of southern Italy.

Riall sees much merit in the temporary government that Garibaldi established in Sicily. Although he labeled it a dictatorship, Garibaldi enlisted the help of his Sicilian supporters to give the government a fair degree of local participation--it was a regime with democratic and populist elements. "The regime's social and administrative policies were part of an ambitious program of Mazzinian origin, which aimed to 'regenerate' Italy, and which, by encouraging popular identification with the idea of the nation, proposed to unite government and people in a new political religion," Riall writes. "The vision of national belonging proposed by Garibaldi was aimed not just at intellectuals, or just at the literate, middle-class male, but also at those (women, peasants) who were often given a secondary role in the nationalist hierarchy, or at priests, who were often excluded entirely."

In 1860, Garibaldi's fame and status reached its apex. As the head of a large army and the ruler of nearly half of Italy, he might have chosen to dictate, from a position of equality with Victor Emanuel and Cavour, the terms of Italian unification; but he agreed instead to a simple referendum on unification and then disappeared to his island refuge, in effect turning southern Italy over to Piedmontese control. This meant that the new Italian state would be a conservative monarchy with extremely limited popular sovereignty, a highly centralized structure with extremely limited local powers. Many of his supporters were republicans, democrats, and socialists who wanted something very different from subjection to an aristocratic monarchy. And rather than granting Garibaldi's volunteer soldiers places in the new Italian army, the Piedmontese systematically excluded them, throwing away a potentially valuable source of popular legitimacy in favor of a style of governance that in the south resembled a military occupation. It was perhaps the biggest mistake of Garibaldi's career. Riall concludes that "Garibaldi threw away a huge political advantage when he agreed to hand over power to Piedmont and retired 'backstage' to Caprera in November 1860."

After unification, Garibaldi was one of the most vocal critics of the government that he had helped put in place. He moved decisively toward the left, espousing a form of socialism and pushing, unsuccessfully, for universal suffrage. Although most historians have seen Garibaldi's final years as a time of impotence and increasing marginality, Riall argues that there was lasting importance to the opposition he represented. Ironically, it was he, one of Italy's founding fathers, who offered one of the first and most prominent critiques of Italian unification, portraying it as a promise betrayed--a notion that was to remain a powerful articulation of democratic opposition. "The view of Italy as a weak and failed nation is a persistent one and, in the years after national unification, Italy's foundation story was recast as a tragic romance," she writes. "The effect of this polemic on the national discourse was to maintain at its very center the very persuasive contrast between a poetic vision of national belonging and the prosaic disenchantment of Italy's governments.... On the radical side, few used it with more skill or to greater lasting effect than Garibaldi."

Moreover, while Cavour won the battle for political control, in many ways Mazzini and Garibaldi--the losers--defined the terms of the national political discourse, with effects lasting to this day. Their form of national civic religion was so powerful that even reluctant unifiers such as Cavour were forced to try to co-opt it and make it their own. "Cavour was able to trap the democrats and push them politically out of southern Italy," Riall writes. "However, he was far less successful in challenging Garibaldi's appeal and the religion of the Italian nation which the southern dictatorship in Sicily had promoted with such skill and dedication."

Differing somewhat from Gellner, Anderson, and Eric Hobsbawm, who see nationalism as largely an invention imposed from above, Riall sees it as the product of a complex dialogue between popular desires and elite tastemakers. "It tells us that successful nationalist myths are neither genuine nor invented but a compelling blend of both; and that they are neither spontaneous nor imposed, but can far better be characterized as an intricate process of negotiation between actor and audience where the author (or source of authority) is difficult to discover." By offering a sensitive and complicated reading of one case of nationalism and one hero of nationalism, Lucy Riall makes a substantial contribution to the discussion of nationalism itself.

By Alexander Stille