Italy Stirs

Adrian Lyttelton

  • Mazzini by Denis Mack Smith
    Yale, 302 pp, £19.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 300 05884 5
  • Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz
    Oxford, 941 pp, £30.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 19 313204 4
  • The Real Traviata by Gaia Servadio
    Hodder, 290 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 340 57948 X

The struggle for national independence often takes on a significance which transcends its immediate and local aim. Its leaders, who require resources of courage, sacrifice and determination much beyond what is needed in the ordinary run of politics, are invested with a romantic halo, Garibaldi, to take one example, has claims to be considered the most popular political figure of the 19th century. Poetry and music helped to spread the idea of the Risorgimento as a peculiarly noble enterprise, transforming history into myth and symbol. After his dismissive biography of Mussolini and his scathing treatment of Italy’s royal family, Denis Mack Smith has turned back to a figure who fully engages his sympathies, and some may miss the darkly satirical tone of those earlier essays in denunciation. Mazzini is a work of passionate advocacy, which aims both to remind us of its subject’s enormous importance on the European as well as the Italian stage, and to convince us that on the essential issues he was right. Mack Smith succeeds in conveying the moral and, indeed, physical fascination which Mazzini exerted over his friends and admirers. At a deeper level, Mazzini was admired as the living symbol of a political faith, a man who fought with extraordinary tenacity against overwhelming odds to achieve the fulfilment of the ideals he believed in. The great Russian exile, Alexander Herzen, credited him with ‘an infinity of persistence and strength of will’: ‘Such men do not give in, do not yield; the worse things go with them, the higher they hold the flag ... In this inflexible steadfastness, in this faith which goes forward in defiance of facts ... there is something of grandeur and, if you like, something of madness. Often it is just that grain of madness which is the essential condition of success.’

In 1919, the two most important architects of the Versailles peace settlement, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George, both acknowledged Mazzini’s inspiration. According to Lloyd George, ‘the map of Europe as we see it today is the map of Joseph Mazzini. He was the prophet of free nationality ... He taught us not merely the rights of a nation; he taught the rights of other nations ... He is the father of the idea of the League of Nations.’ Disillusionment with Versailles, and the revulsion against nationalism, were the major reasons for the decline in Mazzini’s reputation, particularly in the English-speaking world. It cannot be denied that the idea of the ‘national mission’ lends itself to dangerous uses, and that Mazzini did not resist the temptation to assign Italy a more exalted role than that of other nations. Yet, as he understood it, the ‘national mission’ did not imply an exclusive nationalist pride, but on the contrary, the interdependence of free nationalities. Each nation had to discover its own special virtues in order to perform its particular mission in the general cause of humanity. His ideal was not the self-sufficient, autarchic national state, but a ‘Europe des patries’. A look at contemporary Europe might confirm the importance of Mazzini’s vision. Is a community founded only on common interests enough? What should be the role of national states within the EC, and how does this relate to their separate national traditions? In trying to answer such questions, one could do worse than take Mazzini as a starting-point, even if his historicist mysticism may be unacceptable.

Mack Smith shows that, in one respect, Lloyd George’s claims for Mazzini were excessive. To attribute the map of Europe in 1919 to his paternity is to credit him with a detailed foresight which he did not possess, and to saddle him with a responsibility he does not deserve. He confessed frankly that his ideas about the future national organisation of Europe were tentative. He was unusual in his knowledge of, and sympathy for, the national movements of the Czechs and the southern Slavs. But he was not an advocate of the ‘balkanisation’ of Europe into small states. Instead, he tended to favour broader federations of nationalities to ensure political and economic viability (for example, the union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway). In detail, Mazzini’s solutions may have been unrealistic, and he never really faced the problem of how to reconcile self-determination with natural frontiers, but at least he was aware of the dangers of excessive fragmentation.

One of the few criticisms that could be made of Mack Smiths spare and brilliant biography is that it is somewhat Anglocentric. The treatment of Mazzini’s early years and the foundation of Young Italy is a little sketchy, and the book only really comes to life with his arrival in England in 1837, at the age of 32. One learns rather more about his English correspondents than about his Italian ones. Still, there are compensatory rewards. Mazzini lived more than half his adult life in England, and Mack Smith’s account of his relationship to English society and intellectual life is fascinating. His close but often stormy friendship with the two Carlyles is well known; less familiar is the influence he exerted over a younger generation of thinkers including Henry Sidgwick, Dicey and T.H. Green. Arnold Toynbee ended his lectures on the Industrial Revolution with a tribute to Mazzini as ‘the greatest teacher of our age’. Mazzini’s moral language and his insistence on the claims of community against competitive individualism seemed to offer a way to overcome the limitations of classical liberalism. They appealed to a generation for whom the key problem was that of incorporating the working classes into the national community while preserving liberal institutions. From Mazzini’s own point of view, his success in converting liberal opinion to active support for the cause of Italian independence was of critical importance. He acquired influential contacts within the liberal establishment, like the Liberal MP and minister James Stansfeld, who married one of the remarkable Ashurst sisters, perhaps Mazzini’s closest English friends. For labour leaders and for middle-class radicals alike, Mazzini was a hero, and indispensable financial backing for his enterprises came from industrialists and businessmen in Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow. Without the help of John Macadam and other Glaswegians, Mazzini might not have been able to mount the crucial expedition of his follower Rosolino Pilo to Sicily in 1860, which paved the way for Garibaldi and his Thousand.

In Italy, the main charge against Mazzini has been that he was a dreamer, whose lack of realism and insistence on organising implausible and futile conspiracies led the Italian Left up a blind alley. Gramsci and other Marxists held the vagueness of his social programme and his neglect of the agrarian question responsible for the failure of the republican Party of Action to win mass support. Mack Smith replies vigorously to these criticisms. Only Mazzini’s extraordinary tenacity kept the cause of a united Italy alive through all the disappointments and defeats of the period between 1831 and 1859. ‘What would Italy be without the Party of Action?’ he wrote. ‘Had nothing revealed Italy’s life since 1848, would Europe believe that soon or late her nationality must triumph? Had nobody stirred, would Piedmont itself pretend to hope?’ No other radical figure, neither Giuseppe Ferrari nor Carlo Cattaneo, could match Mazzini’s talents as a propagandist and organiser.

Although Mazzini opposed the idea of class conflict as divisive and damaging to the cause of national unity, he certainly did not believe that mass support could be won without concrete social reforms. Against Marx, one can argue that his insistence on co-operatives, profit-sharing, self-help and education had more relevance than the socialist programme of small craft producers to an urban society which lacked a modern industrial working class. In fact, Mazzini won an important following among the artisans of Northern and Central Italy, and after Unification his supporters were the first to create an organised political and economic movement with a strong popular base. Mack Smith insists that even the criticism that Mazzini ignored the peasant question is wide of the mark. Because they were illiterate he could not Peach them directly by his writings, but he urged his adherents to do all they could to carry propaganda to the countryside. His proposals for the transformation of sharecropping tenancies, the recovery of communal lands and the creation of a new class of smallholders amounted to a radical yet practical programme for resolving the agrarian question. He may not have won active peasant support during his leadership of the short-lived Roman Republic, but he was at least successful in neutralising the influence of the reactionary clergy and in avoiding a counter-revolutionary uprising. Republican propaganda had considerable success in the small market towns around Rome; if the Republic had lasted longer it might perhaps have taken hold in the countryside. Nevertheless, the question remains: why did Mazzini’s injunctions to mobilise the peasantry have so little effect? The answer perhaps is that his supporters, often drawn from the professional and land-owning classes, had little enthusiasm for the idea of rousing the rural masses.

Mack Smith concedes that Mazzini’s lack of first-hand knowledge of Italian society led him to exaggerate the potential support for a national revolution. ‘I know the Italian masses better than Mazzini,’ Garibaldi told Herzen, ‘for I have lived with them and lived their life. Mazzini knows the educated classes of Italy and sways their intellects; but there is no making an army from such people to drive out the Austrians and the Pope.’ Mazzini seems, moreover, to have lacked that curiosity about the new social and economic phenomena of the age which distinguished his contemporaries Cavour and Cattaneo.

In the end, Mazzini saw his greatest desires fulfilled: Italy was united, and Rome became its capital. Yet he spent his last years in deep disillusionment. The new Italy seemed to him like a body without a soul. It had been founded neither on a war of liberation nor on a genuine and freely expressed popular consensus. The monarchy of the House of Savoy, lacking deep roots in Italian history, could not guarantee national cohesion, and its traditions were reactionary and chauvinist. ‘Nobody can understand how wretched I feel at seeing corruption, scepticism about the advantages of unity, financial ruin ... and moral anarchy increasing from year to year and under a materialist immoral government, all the future of Italy disappearing, all the ideal Italy, the inspiring dream of my whole life and the soul of all my belief.’ The Italy of reality did not match the Italy of Mazzini’s imagination, but his criticisms cannot be dismissed out of hand: the fault-lines in the construction of the Italian state are still visible.

In his youth, Verdi demonstrated his sympathy with Mazzini’s republicanism by growing a beard, and by naming his children after classical republican heroes (though he hedged his bets somewhat by calling his daughter Virginia Maria Luigia, the last two names being those of the Duchess of Parma). The two men met in London in 1847, although little seems to be known about the impression they made on each other. During the 1848 revolutions, however, Verdi responded enthusiastically to Mazzini’s request to write a new national anthem which would be Italy’s ‘Marseillaise’, although in the event it arrived too late to be of use. He had more luck with his next patriotic venture. His opera La battaglia di Legnano, whose theme was the defeat of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa by the Lombard League, had its premiere in Rome in January 1849, on the eve of the proclamation of the Republic, and was greeted with wild enthusiasm. After 1849, like many former republicans, Verdi turned in disillusionment towards the Piedmont of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel as the only hope for Italian independence. In 1861, Cavour persuaded a reluctant Verdi to stand for Parliament. The two men shared a realistic, hard-headed business sense and a keen interest in agricultural improvements. Phillips-Matz makes clear how important Verdi’s return to the land was in preserving his sanity and in allowing him to restore his energies, depleted by dealing with a theatrical world for which he frequently expressed his strong dislike.

At another level, however, one could speak of Verdi and Mazzini as sharing a common cultural heritage, that of European Romanticism. Mazzini’s first published writings were on literature, and the authors he admired were those who provided the inspiration for many of Verdi’s librettos: Schiller, Byron, Victor Hugo and, beyond them, Shakespeare. For Mazzini, the Marchese Di Posa in Schiller’s Don Carlos was the archetype of liberal values, and Verdi’s liberalism found its most memorable and direct expression in the great duet between Posa and Philip II. For both men, the cause of political freedom was essentially linked with that of artistic freedom from outmoded conventions. Their standpoint was not the same, of course: Mazzini was looking for literature that would work politically, Verdi for drama that would work musically. But it is remarkable to what an extent their taste coincided. It is not quite clear what Mazzini thought about Verdi’s music; about Trovatore, at least, he had reservations. One could argue, though, that Verdi fulfilled many of the prerequisites for the music of the future laid down by Mazzini in his essay on ‘The Philosophy of Music’.

For Mazzini, the shortcomings of Italian composers and librettists reflected those of a conservative, materialist and divided society. Their reliance on formulas and their conception of opera as a series of distinct ‘numbers’ militated against any sense of dramatic unity. Verdi’s constant battles with his librettists over the years were directed towards just the end which Mazzini advocated, and if some critics felt that he was still too bound by the old conventions, his development as a composer was always in the direction of greater flexibility and continuity. Mazzini was particularly insistent that the chorus should play a more active role, as the embodiment of collective emotion. It is difficult not to think of Verdi’s first great success, Nabucco, as meeting exactly this need with the famous chorus ‘Va pensiero’. It expressed the sorrow of the Jews in exile, a dramatic theme which was naturally and inevitably translated into a lament for the loss of Italian liberty.

In 1847, after the performance of Macbeth, the poet Giuseppe Giusti urged Verdi not to disappoint patriotic expectations: ‘You know that the tragic chord is the one that resounds most in our soul, but sorrow takes on a different character according to the times and according to the nature and condition of this or that nation. The kind of sorrow that now fills the souls of us Italians is the sorrow of a people who feel the need of a better future ... it is the sorrow of one who feels regret, and is awaiting and willing his regeneration. My Verdi, accompany this lofty and solemn sorrow with your noble harmonies; nourish it, fortify it, direct it to its goal.’ In fact, Verdi did not merely convey political emotions: by expressing them through music he changed and intensified them. He reinforced the sense of politics as a sacred drama, as Mazzini would have wished. In successive operas, the prayer, the invocation, the oath were all used as dramatic forms for the expression of collective emotional unity through music; the patriotic message became as explicit as the censors would allow. As Phillips-Matz neatly puts it, ‘the audience saw allusions everywhere; but Verdi perceived them even before the audience did.’

It was not only the censors who imposed changes in the text; If they tried to suppress overt political references, the audience on occasion insisted on introducing them. Ernani, in spite of its liberal exaltation of the rebel, presented a problem for patriotic audiences because of its choruses of praise for Charlemagne, identified as a Germanic emperor. In 1846, the audience in Bologna changed the words of the finale from ‘O sommo Carlo’ to ‘O sommo Pio’, in honour of Pius IX, who had just granted an amnesty to political prisoners. In Mantua (under Austrian rule) in January 1848, the outcome was less happy; the audience refused to let the words ‘Glory and honour to Charlemagne’ be sung, and the performance ended in uproar. In the study of the ‘nationalisation of the masses’, Verdi has been unaccountably neglected. One should not, it is true, exaggerate the social breadth of the 19th-century opera audience. But his most popular music filtered through to a wider public in various ways, not least in the repertoire of the ever-increasing number of town bands.

The failure of the 1848 revolutions and the more rigorous censorship which followed may, ironically, have helped Verdi’s musical development by forcing him back on more private themes. Instead of his planned opera on the siege of Florence, we have Luisa Miller, Stiffelio and, later, La Traviata. When he returned to political subjects in Don Carlos, and in the revised version of Simone Boccanegra, it was in a much more subtle and complex fashion. The private Verdi, however, was no less controversial than the public, perhaps more so indeed. No opera of his suffered more at the hands of the censors than Traviata, and it was ultimately easier to circumvent the political objections to Rigoletto than those of moral propriety, scandalised by the overt references to rape. It has been very plausibly suggested that the circumstances of Verdi’s own life explain his interest at this time in subjects which explored the limits of conventional morality. Verdi lived with Giuseppina Strepponi for ten years before she became his wife. Their relationship is explored in an entertaining and highly atmospheric biography by Gaia Servadio. Strepponi was a remarkable personality, an outstanding soprano who introduced a simpler and more spontaneous style of performance, admirably suited to the operas of Bellini and Donizetti. But a scries of unwanted pregnancies damaged her career and left her with three illegitimate children, only one of whom she acknowledged. Verdi’s méanage was inevitably an absorbing topic for gossip in the small-town society of Busseto and scandalised his parents. Determined to defend his independence at any cost, he behaved with considerable ruthlessness towards his father, ordering him out of their home at Sant’ Agata at eight weeks’ notice. His rural tranquillity was won at a high cost. For Verdi, respect for privacy and freedom from clerical interference were essential liberal values. ‘I am as liberal as anyone can be without being a Red. I respect others’ freedom and I demand that mine be respected.’ Busseto ‘is anything but liberal; it sometimes shows that it is, perhaps out of fear; but it leans towards the priests.’ Liberalism might have triumphed over absolutism politically; but it had not conquered Italian society.

Phillips-Matz has done more than anyone else to unravel the whole story of Verdi and Busseto. Politics, religion, music, patronage and local faction were all inextricably involved in his beginnings, and even fame did not allow him to escape altogether. In another sense, her biography explores the politics of music – that is to say, the continual and exhausting negotiation between the composer and impresarios, theatre directors, publishers, conductors, libretists and singers. This story, told by Phillips-Matz with a wealth of detail, increases one’s respect for Verdi’s titanic determination and strength of will. His extraordinary stamina allowed him to win through and to write the masterpieces of his old age. While constantly working to deepen and extend his range of expression, he never lost touch with the sources of his inspiration. ‘Art that does not have simplicity and naturalness is not art! Inspiration can only be found in simple things.’ That may be the secret of Verdi’s lasting fame.