Rome or Death: The Obsessions of General Garibaldi 
by Daniel Pick.
Cape, 288 pp., £16.99, July 2005, 0 224 07179 3
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In 1822 Giacomo Leopardi was finally allowed to leave home and visit Rome. He was 24. A child prodigy, he had spent his life in the remote town of Recanati in the Italian Marche, governed at that time by the pope. He was extremely excited to be going on this first trip. Having read Cicero, Caesar, Livy and Tacitus, Rome was for him both the seat of past glory and the focus of his patriotic dream of a united Italy, a political credo he had assumed in rebellion against his reactionary father. Monaldo Leopardi had kept Giacomo at home largely out of fear that the young man’s brilliant mind would be polluted by liberal influences. He need not have worried. Giacomo hated the eternal city. The place was noisy and filthy, the people stupid. ‘All the greatness of Rome,’ he wrote home, ‘has no other purpose than to multiply the distances and numbers of steps you have to climb to see anyone at all.’

Although it doesn’t mention Leopardi, Daniel Pick’s book is very much about such visits, the dreams Rome inspires and so often disappoints, the city’s place in Italy’s and indeed Europe’s collective psychology. Defeatist by vocation, Leopardi was not the man to do anything about the gap between the Rome he had hoped for and the Rome he found. Instead, two years after his visit, he elaborated a theory that since Italian life was bereft of all principle, a product of the most cynical calculation camouflaged only by the crass superstition that was modern Catholicism, the country was in dire need of some collective ‘illusion’ that would provide its people with a sense of purpose and mutual self-esteem.

To give his considerations on Rome a focus, Pick follows the story of the man who, in the decades following Leopardi’s death, sought to promote an ‘illusion’ of the sort the poet had prescribed: in speech after speech from the balconies of Italy’s great cities, Giuseppe Garibaldi pronounced the rousing words ‘Roma o morte, inviting Italians to sacrifice their individual interests for the ideal of a unified nation-state.

As the defining moment of his book, however, Pick does not choose Garibaldi’s defence of the Roman Republic of 1848-49, nor any of his great military campaigns, but a visit the Risorgimento hero paid to Rome in 1875. Fourteen years after the unification of Italy in 1861, five years after Rome itself had been seized by Italian troops, the ageing, arthritic Garibaldi left his home on the tiny island of Caprera (between Sardinia and Corsica) and went to Rome to lobby for the diversion of the Tiber away from the city to make way for the construction of a Parisian-style boulevard in the river’s place. Describing Garibaldi’s interest in the project as an obsession and a fantasy, but remarking elsewhere that in engineering terms it was not unfeasible, Pick seeks to uncover the history that lay behind this expedition.

Malaria first and foremost. Surrounded by the swampy Campagna, crossed by a river which could slow to a near stagnant trickle or flood across the city devastating its antique sewage system, Rome bred mosquitoes of a variety that was malarial and virulent. A survey of 1886 reported that 66 per cent of the inhabitants of Lazio, the region around Rome, were infected. At the time the cause of malaria was unknown, though simple observation led it to be associated with swamps, poor sewage arrangements and fetid air: hence the desire to re-route the Tiber.

Pick, a cultural historian with a training in psychology, shows how this widespread sickness, with its recurring fevers and languorous state, had become confused, particularly in the minds of visiting foreigners, with the common perception of Rome as the city of the dead, a city where a huge amount of space was given over to ancient monuments, ruins and tombs. For many travellers, it was as if the cityscape had created the malaise. ‘There is a strange horror lying over the whole city,’ Ruskin wrote. ‘It is a shadow of death, possessing and penetrating all things. The sunlight is lurid and ghastly . . . the shadows are cold and sepulchral.’

Given the 19th century’s love of the gothic, and given Rome’s reputation for offering an abundant supply of prostitutes and sexual adventures, an attraction to the city tended to be spoken of, not without some excitement, in terms of eros and death. ‘A vampire lay on weak and backward Rome and sucked its blood,’ Herzen wrote. He wasn’t deterred. The pleasantly stupefied state of the Northern intellectual dealing with Mediterranean heat and wine, his sensual appetite heightened, was associated, consciously or not, with the fevers of local malaria victims and the grandiose wreck of an imperial past. ‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime,’ Henry James commented, ‘and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity.’ Nathaniel Hawthorne was equally complacent: ‘The final charm,’ he wrote, ‘is bestowed by the malaria . . . For if you . . . stray through these glades in the golden sunset, fever walks arm in arm with you, and death awaits you at the end of the dim vista.’

Understandably, this aestheticising of Rome’s ills was not entirely welcome to those who lived there. A further layer of imagery had long attached itself to the city, one that saw disease and urban decay not in terms of golden sunsets but as manifestations of moral corruption. A polemical note was struck as Rome’s rulers, the pope and his cardinals, were held directly responsible for both the city’s long decline and its malarial fevers. The papal court, the revolutionary Lamennais wrote, was ‘the most dreadful cesspit . . . the great sewer of Tarquin itself would have been incapable of dealing with such a mass of filth.’

This was the kind of talk that could lead those who were not on holiday to think of a clean-up. Giuseppe Mazzini, the radical ideologue of the Risorgimento, berated tourists for seeing only ancient grandeur where they should have seen suffering. As one reads through the quotations Pick has brought together, it’s not difficult to see how, in the Italian mind, xenophobia and iconoclasm might form the kind of alliance that prompted the Futuristi of the early 20th century to talk of tearing down the ancient glories that the foreigners came to gape at. ‘It would be difficult to find another spot on earth,’ Garibaldi wrote in his novel Clelia, ‘that presents so many objects of past grandeur and present misery as the Roman Campagna. The ruins, scattered on all sides, give pleasure to the antiquary . . . but the lover of mankind mourns over it as a graveyard of past glories, with the priests for sextons.’

In 1870 the French garrison that had continued to defend papal Rome after Italian unification abandoned the city to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. Shortly afterwards Italian troops walked in. At this point, the military phase of the Risorgimento was over; Italy had been made, but not, as D’Azeglio famously remarked, the Italians. There was at once a perceived gap between what patriots had desired – a vigorous modern nation – and what had actually been achieved, an uneasy unity under an incompetent and self-regarding Piedmontese monarchy. Backward and malaria-ridden, Rome was the point of maximum tension between aspiration and reality. It was the country’s new capital and its rotten core. Throughout the Risorgimento, Garibaldi had presented himself as the man most likely to force reality into the shape the dreamers wanted it to assume. It was therefore understandable that, with the fighting over, he should turn what energy he had left to a grand project that, practically and symbolically, might drag Rome and Italy into the modern age.

So far so good. But Pick feels that there is an obsessive quality to Garibaldi’s behaviour that renders this simple ‘public’ explanation inadequate: ‘deeper biographical enigmas and psychological puzzles’ are involved, he tells us, ‘particularly concerning guilt, mourning and reparation’. He sets himself the task of bringing cultural history and ‘psychohistory’ together to explain the months Garibaldi spent in Rome discussing the course of the Tiber with engineers and trying to rouse the interest of a government that had a thousand other problems to deal with, not least a shortage of cash. Eventually, Garibaldi left the capital in disgust, cursing the slowness of parliamentary politics and the corruption and spinelessness of politicians. Pick wonders whether this ambitious campaign followed by furious disappointment was a performance of failure.

It’s unfortunate that having noted the difficulty that visitors to Rome experienced in seeing the city afresh – in not being influenced, that is, by everything they had read about the place – Pick himself fails to put aside the clutter of received ideas that has grown up around Garibaldi. Indeed, Pick’s prose often seems driven by a determination to demonstrate how regularly the individual mind is prey to the collective commonplace. Talking about Rome’s sanitary problems he tells us that ‘miasmatic theories hung in the air’ due to ‘the unsavoury reality of stewing waters’; all of this was ‘breathtakingly perilous’, and made even worse when ‘decisions about the Tiber were once more frozen’. Little wonder then that Emile Zola wrote ‘a sustained post mortem on the eternal city’. And so on. The irony is that if there was a man in 19th-century Italy who had set his spirit against received ideas and the thrall in which they held the minds of ordinary people, it was Garibaldi.

Histories of the Risorgimento find it difficult to present Garibaldi without a patina of condescension. The modern intellectual’s suspicion of the folk hero – pursued by drooling ladies of the British aristocracy, believed by Sicilian peasants to have been sent by God – is everywhere evident. In his otherwise excellent biography of 1958, Denis Mack Smith frequently referred to Garibaldi as ‘simplistic’ and ‘ingenuous’, made fun of his habit of wearing a poncho, and saw his decision to set up home on the barren island of Caprera as merely idiosyncratic. Pick takes a similar position. His Garibaldi has huge personal charisma and is a brilliant military adventurer (though almost no space is given to reminding the reader quite how brilliant), but he is also ingenuous, gullible when it comes to dealing with money and endearingly ignorant of the ways of the world. In short, he is the genius simpleton.

Pick continues a tradition that began with Garibaldi’s contemporaries and is still alive in Italy today, whereby he is to be exalted as a national hero and simultaneously never mentioned in serious public debate (Italian schoolchildren are kept well away from his incendiary, anti-clerical memoirs). So at one point, having noted Garibaldi’s lack of appetite for official honours and his tendency to live in a single, bare room even when a palace was at his disposal, Pick continues: ‘Yet he was an appealingly inconsistent ascetic, with his own touching foibles and predilections for the good things in life, and for display: thus he would occasionally don a rather gaudy embroidered cap.’

Foible: ‘a weakness’, Chambers says, ‘a failing’. Failings are ‘touching’, because they allow us to feel superior. But it’s possible to argue that Garibaldi’s exotic hats and his poncho were actually among his greatest strengths and not at all inconsistent with his modest lifestyle. Both were essential if he was to demonstrate to a largely illiterate public the possibility of living quite independently, of freeing oneself from the shackles of custom – something Garibaldi saw as the prerequisite of a healthy national life.

Pick concentrates on those moments in Garibaldi’s long career that might suggest ‘deeper motives’ behind his project to divert the Tiber. In particular, he considers the death of Garibaldi’s first wife, Anita (baptised Anna Maria Ribeiro), and his less than admirable treatment of his illegitimate daughter Anna Maria, also known as Anita.

Garibaldi eloped with Anita Ribeiro shortly after meeting her in 1839 in Brazil. He was 32. She was married to someone else. He nevertheless married her three years later, following rumours of her husband’s death. Ceremonies were important to Garibaldi; red tape was not. Of the various women with whom Garibaldi had children, Anita was the only one who became his partner in arms and rode with him into battle. She was with him in 1849 when he was given command of the defence of the rebel republic of Rome. It was here that he scored his first serious military victories in the Risorgimento, twice defeating superior French troops that had been sent to retake the city. Pick barely mentions this achievement.

Knowing Rome couldn’t be held indefinitely, Garibaldi sought to take his volunteer army out of the city intact and pursue a guerrilla war in the Campagna. Other revolutionary leaders disagreed. All the same, when the situation became desperate and his army had shrunk dramatically, Garibaldi turned down the offer of a foreign passport and free passage to America in favour of fighting his way out of the siege. He was in the business of creating myth, and his defence of Rome – followed by a long and dramatic flight across the Apennines pursued by both the French and the Austrians – represented for his enemies the kind of victory from which there was no way back. From that point on, despite representing no one but himself, every time Garibaldi started to gather support for a military campaign, the politicians trembled.

It was during the flight from Rome that Anita died. Suffering from malaria and heavily pregnant with their fourth child, she insisted on following her husband in a succession of forced marches across the mountains. Stressing the fact that she died of malaria, that the two had been together in Rome and that Garibaldi spoke of worshipping Rome with the fervour of a lover, Pick hypothesises that, 26 years later, ‘to salvage the city was, apparently, to reclaim, personally and poignantly, the most vital love object, to see her “unsullied” once again.’

In truth, Garibaldi showed little sign of being permanently damaged by bereavement. His greatest victories were still to come. Pick feels, however, that the death in 1875 of his daughter Anna Maria would have reminded the hero both of his first wife and of his own personal failings. The girl had been born to a young peasant in 1859 but Garibaldi had had the child removed from her mother in angry reaction to the woman’s affair with another man, after which Anna Maria had an unhappy childhood and was eventually reduced to working as an unpaid servant. Garibaldi allowed her to return to his Caprera household in 1875, but she died shortly afterwards, aged 16. This was actually some months after Garibaldi had begun his Tiber campaign. Unable to find any expression of guilt on Garibaldi’s part (by the standards of the day, he had not behaved badly), Pick nevertheless remarks of his motives for going to Rome:

When in a state of mania, we tend to deny guilt and responsibility, blithely claiming that the damage we have done to ourselves or our loved ones can all be put to rights – internal conflicts and external obstacles are conjured away with jubilant confidence and abandon. Was there not something of this evident in Garibaldi’s blueprint for Rome? On the one hand, he promised dramatic action to redeem the failings and deficiencies of the past, brushing aside all opposition or criticism. On the other, he seemed intuitively to expect and to prepare for defeat, to mourn the impossibility of the all-powerful solutions he promoted . . . there were logical – and impressively altruistic – reasons for his endeavour, but it would not have carried the force it did for him were it not for the way it re-enacted deeper conflicts and dramas.

Perhaps the problem with Pick’s book is that in pursuing a Freudian approach that looks for motivation in private trauma and guilt, he fails to establish a convincing link between individual psychology and the larger public events in Rome. Rome or Death splits into a compendium of literary descriptions of the city, on the one hand, and an incomplete biography, on the other, concluding with such remarks as: ‘We cannot claim to have grasped the precise configurations of Garibaldi’s desire and anxiety, and yet it would be wilfully myopic were we to study the past as though such historical figures have no internal world.’ Indeed it would. Let us try to tell the story differently.

The characteristic condition of Italian political life is the complex stalemate. Veti incrociati is the expression the newspapers like to use, ‘interconnected vetoes’: i.e. this party rejects that proposition, that party rejects the other and yet another party rejects the only thing the previous two have agreed on. The situation throughout the Risorgimento was no exception. Mazzini and his followers wanted Italian unity under a republican government. Victor Emmanuel, king of Piedmont, and his prime minister, Cavour, would support the nationalist cause, but only if it excluded republicanism. The pope was opposed to all change.

Such a dynamic naturally puts a premium on unity, precisely because it appears to be unattainable. This was as true in 15th-century Florence (which banned political parties because they caused disunity) as it was in the parliamentary crisis that ushered in Fascism in 1922, or as it is again in Berlusconi’s ruling coalition today. Every now and then, however, the stalemate throws up a figure who insists on putting unity before every other consideration, who poses no vetoes and sacrifices every other interest for the general cause.

Garibaldi was born in 1807 to a sea-captain father and an extremely pious mother. He was drawn to adventure but found action difficult if he couldn’t convince himself that the cause was a good one. Sentenced to death aged 25 for his part in a failed revolution in Genoa, he escaped to South America, where for 12 years he combined seafaring with guerrilla warfare, discovering in the process an extraordinary vocation for military leadership. His great frustration as the years passed, however, was the growing awareness that the supposedly revolutionary causes he was fighting for were less noble than he would have liked. He was being manipulated by economic interests. It was the desire to follow his vocation, but to fight only for a cause he believed was right, for Italian unification, that prompted Garibaldi to return to Italy in 1848. From this point on it didn’t matter to him whether he fought on the republican, monarchical or even papal side; it didn’t matter whether he was manipulated and exploited or appeared foolish and gullible, so long as the cause was unification.

To achieve his ends in a country where everyone is suspected of following a party agenda, Garibaldi pursued a lifestyle that would demonstrate to his followers that he was independent and incorruptible. His unusual dress style, his refusal to accept payment and his decision to live on a remote and tiny island were essential to the cultivation of this image. He was, as the Italians say, fuori dagli schemi, outside plans and patterns. Perhaps only those with a long experience of Italy can appreciate how magnetic such a person can be.

Between 1848 and 1875 Garibaldi alternated long periods of isolation on Caprera with sudden brief forays into Italian politics. His integrity, determination and military charisma focused everyone’s attention. The peninsula was galvanised by a feeling of danger and possibility. People were willing to die for him. This in itself altered the political landscape. More often than not, after a few minor victories, he would be obliged to retreat, wounded and overwhelmed, to Caprera. Then, in 1860, to everyone’s surprise, something gave. With just a thousand volunteers Garibaldi sailed to Sicily and, in battles which are among the most extraordinary of the 19th century, captured half of Italy. It seems unlikely that a man who had achieved so much would approach any future project in a spirit of performing failure.

Describing Garibaldi’s peaceful handover of the south of Italy to the advancing army of Victor Emmanuel II, Mack Smith remarks that ‘although dictatorial by temperament’ Garibaldi ‘never had the ambition or the intelligence to play Mussolini’. Some might say that he had the ambition and intelligence not to play Mussolini. What is remarkable about Garibaldi’s psychology is that despite having at this point become the most talked-about and popular man in Europe, his lifestyle remained largely unaltered. He continued to live on Caprera and to make his occasional incursions, military and otherwise, into national life. The attempt to persuade the government to divert the Tiber in 1875 was such a moment, neither more nor less obsessive than the others. Extravagant and grandiose, it shared with his other missions the special quality that even if it failed it succeeded. It altered public consciousness. Although the Italian government didn’t accept Garibaldi’s dramatic solution for Rome, in 1876 it did contract the first public works to improve the state of the Tiber.

Such an interpretation is not to deny Garibaldi an inner life, but to suggest that his psychology depended very largely on the encounter of a particular background and talents with a peculiarly Italian social dynamic. The more others prevaricated, conspired and betrayed, the more single-minded and ready for self-sacrifice Garibaldi became, at once ferociously critical of his countrymen’s behaviour and visionary about their potential. After all, without this gap, there was no place for him. In this scenario, his wives, lovers and children took a secondary role. If anything they were important because they underlined the extent to which he lived outside convention, and, in Anita’s case, because she greatly enhanced his image as a romantic and charismatic figure.

All of which brings us to the question of why Garibaldi has been so constantly and subtly disparaged. And why is almost no one aware of his memoirs, which certainly make better reading than the modern biographies? The answer, in Italy at least, and certainly in Rome, is not hard to see. In a country still in thrall to a superstitious form of Catholicism where the national news unquestioningly informs us that the Madonna stopped the bullet that would otherwise have killed John Paul II, or that the miraculous liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro has once again occurred in Naples, Garibaldi’s radical anti-clericalism is not welcome, nor is his scathing criticism of every exasperated party interest, whether on the left or right. The fact that Mussolini deployed a similar rhetoric makes it all the easier to dismiss Garibaldi, forgetting his disdain for political power. Above all, in a culture where people are convinced that to hold any important position you have to toe a party line, his strenuous independence is shaming.

Among British historians, one can only suspect that snobbery or elitism is at work: it is learned statesmen of the variety of Cavour, or intellectual radicals like Mazzini, who should make history, not the self-taught adventurer. ‘Garibaldi hobnobbed with men of influence,’ Pick writes of the 1875 visit to Rome: this of the man who had delivered the whole of southern Italy into the monarch’s hands and given his own country and Europe one of the most attractive and intelligent heroes of modern times.

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