Bloody Glamour

Tim Parks

  • Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism 1830-1920 edited by C.A. Bayly and Eugenio Biagini
    Oxford, 419 pp, £45.00, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 726431 7

On 22 February 1854, James Buchanan, then the American ambassador in London but soon to be president of the US, celebrated George Washington’s birthday with a dinner to which Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi were invited. At Mazzini’s request other leading revolutionaries were present: Kossuth (Hungary), Worcell (Poland), Ruge (Germany), Herzen (Russia) and Ledru-Rollin (France). Together they toasted ‘the alliance between America and the future federation of free European peoples’.

The initiative was typical of Mazzini. It had no real consequences, except perhaps to embarrass Buchanan in Washington, since these guests were all wanted men in their own countries. But it created expectations. And it framed Mazzini’s personal interest in Italian unification within a benign vision of a new world order: a Europe of free democratic nation states. It is this international aspect of Mazzini’s thinking, particularly his insistence that a peaceful world depended on the spread of democratic republics, that makes him a timely object of study. The more, however, one reads the essays in Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism 1830-1920, the less enthusiastic one feels about the man’s ideas, and the more fascinated by the man.

Born in Genoa in 1805, his father a leading physician, his mother unusually well-educated and politically aware, Mazzini was a delicate child who walked late and read early. He initially intended to follow his father’s profession, but couldn’t bear seeing bodies dissected and switched to law. From the age of 25 he spent his life promoting armed insurrections in which thousands were butchered; as a rule he was not present. Even discounting the fact that all the accounts we have of his life, including Denis Mack Smith’s authoritative 1994 volume, tend to hagiography, it’s clear that from the earliest age Mazzini was both physically attractive and immensely charismatic.

Briefly united under Napoleon, Italy was returned in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, to a divided and largely subject condition. Sicily and the south were under a Spanish Bourbon monarchy; the pope governed Rome and much of southern central Italy; the rest of central Italy was split into a handful of duchies whose ruling families were in thrall to foreign powers. Lombardy and the Veneto were incorporated into the Austrian empire. The only large and independent Italian state was Piedmont, a monarchy whose Francophone royal family governed without a constitution. To strengthen Piedmont against France, the victorious powers of the anti-Napoleonic alliance expanded its borders to include the once independent republic of Genoa. The Genoese were not enthusiastic. Mazzini tended to think of the crowned heads of Piedmont, France and Austria as personal enemies; as soon as they became aware of his activities they returned the compliment.

A nation, or would-be nation, with a long-standing and seemingly intractable predicament invites a range of responses and role models. From Dante onwards Italy had been described as plagued by factionalism and inertia, dwarfed by the glories of ancient Rome, hampered by a powerful church whose interests were universal rather than national, and thus laid open to every foreign predator. ‘The most rational behaviour,’ given such a woeful state of affairs, Leopardi remarked, ‘is a complete and constant cynicism of spirit, mind, character, behaviour, opinions, words and actions.’ Other possible responses included collaboration with foreign despots, exile, or withdrawal into disillusioned gloom. But both Dante and Machiavelli had invoked a saviour to reform the national character, unite the country and deliver it from its enemies, and establish Italy as a major European force. Many have cast themselves in that role: most successfully, though briefly, Garibaldi; most tragically, Mussolini; most recently and grotesquely, Berlusconi. No one stuck at the task for so long, with so much desperate genius and such far-reaching consequences outside Italy, as Mazzini.

In 1829, Mazzini, now a 24-year-old lawyer, joined the Carbonari, a quasi-Masonic movement of liberal-minded conspirators. A year later, after attempting to enlist a new member, he was betrayed and imprisoned. Isolated, with no books but ‘a Tacitus, a Byron and a Bible’, he decided that his life’s mission was to unite Italy under a republican government. Released after three months, he went into exile in Marseille where, in 1831, he formed the revolutionary movement Young Italy. Much abbreviated, the oath of affiliation ran as follows:

In the name of God and of Italy, In the name of all the martyrs of the holy Italian cause . . . On account of the duties that bind me to the land where God has placed me and to the brothers that God has given me . . . On account of the trembling of my soul created for liberty but powerless to exercise it, created to act for the good but powerless so to act in the silence and isolation of servitude . . . Believing in the mission entrusted by God to Italy . . . Convinced that virtue lies in action and in sacrifice . . . I swear to dedicate myself wholly and for ever to striving with them to constitute Italy as a Nation, One, Independent, Free and Republican.

Mazzini had been reading Saint-Simon, whose religion of humanity was to be enlisted to a specific political cause. The demoralisation and inertia of the Italians, Mazzini understood, would not be turned around by an enlightened but essentially materialist and individualist laissez-faire liberalism. What was required was a positive act of faith, a creed of action, a cult of duty – not a political movement, he insisted, but an ‘apostolate’. Just five years earlier, in his Discourse on the Present State of Italian Customs, Leopardi had observed that there were no fanatics (religious or otherwise) in Italy: the Italians were far too cynical. He spoke of the need for some collective illusion, or faith, that might give Italians a sense of community. Mazzini was the exception to Leopardi’s rule: an unapologetic fanatic who had a faith to offer, and was determined to build a national community. It would be nourished, he told his followers, by ‘the blood of martyrs’.

New to the excitements of conspiracy – the invisible ink, coded letters in minuscule handwriting, passwords and secret handshakes – and supported, as he would be throughout his life, by his mother, Mazzini created a periodical, Young Italy, and recruited thousands to his movement. In 1833, a failed army mutiny in Turin led to 12 executions and the suicide in jail of his closest friend, Jacopo Ruffini. Mazzini was condemned to death in absentia. Garibaldi, too, was condemned to death, after another failed mutiny, this time in the Piedmontese navy, and fled to South America. In 1834 an attempt to ‘liberate’ Piedmont with an army of international volunteers was a fiasco. ‘Mazzini himself took an active part,’ Denis Mack Smith writes, ‘but as often in the future, was incapacitated at the critical moment by illness and had to be carried to safety.’

Many deserted him. His lover Giuditta Sidoli, herself a patriot, the young widow of a Carbonari and mother of four, returned to Italy to seek custody of her children. Hunted by the secret police of half of Europe, Mazzini retreated to a solitary hideout in the Swiss alps and fell into the one great depressive crisis of his life.

In Ugo Foscolo’s 1798 novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis – one of Mazzini’s favourites – a young Italian patriot, betrayed in conspiracy and smitten by a woman betrothed to another, sinks into a pit of Werther-like disillusionment. At no point does he try to imagine what can be done to further the political cause or establish a happy domestic life: nothing is possible in Italy. Despair is savoured and suicide inevitable. The Risorgimento would be full of such stories of disappointment and withdrawal. The Italians, Mazzini wrote to Giuditta in 1835, were ‘the vilest race, the most reluctant to act, in the world . . . if you could see the satanic smile I have on my lips for them!’ Emerging from the crisis, he was more religious, more idealistic, more spiritual than before, determined never again to hamper his crusade with romantic love, determined to care nothing for material comforts. In January 1837, after six years on the run, he fled Switzerland for London, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

In one of the many fine essays in Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism, Roland Sarti explains how the setbacks for Young Italy in the early 1830s led Mazzini to raise the stakes and form Young Europe. Members of copycat organisations – Young Poland, Young Germany, Young Austria, Young France, Young Switzerland – came together in the awareness that love of country was a first step to love of humanity, each nation having, once independence and democracy were achieved, a God-given mission to contribute to the community of nations. France, Mazzini insisted, had completed its mission with the French Revolution and the assertion of the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. All nations were equal, but God now had more important plans for Italy than for France. Sarti suggests that it was partly Mazzini’s desire to prevent French organisations from taking the revolutionary initiative that prompted him to set up Young Europe.

Considering Mazzini’s ‘divergent legacies’ in England and in Italy, Christopher Duggan examines the paradoxical aspects of his long London exile. Giving away most of the money his mother sent him to other exiles, running a small charity school for poor Italian orphans, Mazzini could hardly help but seem a saint to London society. A good singer and guitar player, quietly eloquent with an attractive foreign accent, handsome and charmingly celibate, at once safe company for well-bred women and the revolutionary bête noire of European despots, the Italian seduced wherever he went. A ‘more beautiful person I never beheld’, Thomas Carlyle wrote:

with his soft flashing eyes, and face full of intelligence . . . he might have taken a high rank in literature . . . But he gave himself up as a martyr and sacrifice to his aims for Italy. He lived almost in squalor; his health was poor from the first, but he took no care of it. He used to smoke a great deal, and drink coffee with bread crumbled in it, but hardly gave any attention to his food. His mother used to send him money, but he gave it away. When she died she left him as much as two hundred pounds a year, all she had, but it went to Italian beggars.

The British admired his ‘martyrdom’. They also liked his anti-Communism, his loathing for materialism and class conflict, his belief that rich and poor should work together as a single people. The wealthy invited him to salons, the middle classes read him in their newspapers. To finance his shoestring conspiracies, he wrote widely not only on politics but on art and literature: novels, he felt, ought to inspire the people to action, while pictures should encourage them to defend their nation’s honour (best represented as a beautiful and vulnerable young woman). In an act of homage to a great patriot, he completed a commentary on the Divine Comedy. At the same time, like an ‘anchorite’ in his bedsit, he was producing a prodigious output of letters, pamphlets and essays fomenting armed revolution. Collected together after his death, they would fill a hundred volumes. In his essay Simon Levis Sullam shows how much of this writing depended on the liturgical repetition of key concepts: mission, duty, action, republic, faith, apostolate, martyrdom. ‘We need the masses,’ Mazzini wrote to a follower in Paris, ‘we need to find a word that has the power to create armies.’ It was this coercive, incantatory aspect of his work that made him such a successful propagandist, but it also ultimately compromised his legacy in Italy. The English could admire his spiritual aura and astonishing steadfastness, but the Italians had to live with a religious vision of nationhood that bordered on ‘popular theocracy’ and lent itself to authoritarian interpretation: ‘From whatever principle of [Mazzini’s] doctrines we start out,’ Carlo Pisacane wrote, ‘we are inexorably led to pure despotism, an inevitable stumbling-block for anyone who chooses to believe in a true and just absolute that imposes duties.’

In 1844, Mazzini’s English and Italian worlds collided in a revealing way. Inspired by Mazzini, two Italian officers in the Austrian navy, the brothers Attilio and Emilio Bandiera, first tried to stage a mutiny, were betrayed, fled, then attempted an insurrection in Calabria and were captured and executed. Realising that his letters to the brothers had been intercepted by the British and their contents communicated to foreign authorities, Mazzini complained to Parliament about this ‘disgracefully un-English behaviour’, and scored a propaganda coup when the government admitted interference. In Italy nine men involved in the mutiny were executed. The Bandiera brothers became the first glamorous martyrs of the Risorgimento cause; almost every Italian town has a street named after them. ‘They wished to die,’ Mazzini wrote, ‘for they had perceived the great cause which hinders us from being free – the want of harmony between thought and action.’

Action was an obsession, above all military action, despite or because of his old revulsion for dissection, his poor health, his mild manners. Leaving Italy, Mazzini had removed himself from the field of action, replacing it with the manic production of propaganda. The written word had to be considered a form of action, he insisted – except it didn’t satisfy. The strictures of self-imposed poverty and chastity were not enough to convince him of his martyrdom. In her essay Lucy Riall shows how determinedly Mazzini publicised the military achievements of Garibaldi on behalf of liberal causes in South America, projecting him as the quintessential romantic Italian hero. It’s hard not to feel that there was an element of yearning involved: for Garibaldi’s charisma and authority in battle, or at least his ability to give a rousing speech to a crowd of rough soldiers. Mazzini was a shy public speaker. In 1848, when Europe erupted in a rash of revolutions, the two men finally met, first in Milan, then, most dramatically, in Rome.

On 17 March, following revolution in Vienna, Milan rose in rebellion and pushed out the Austrian army. On 7 April, Mazzini arrived, followed shortly afterwards by Garibaldi. Both men had been away for more than 15 years. Mazzini immediately became bogged down in a quarrel between republicans and pro-Piedmontese monarchists that sapped energy from the revolution. He had just enough time to start a newspaper, Italia del Popolo, before the Austrians returned. Leaving the town in August, he briefly marched with a musket when Garibaldi led a small volunteer army into the mountains, but he did not take part in the one small successful military action. Garibaldi got the men out of Italy into neutral Switzerland and rejected Mazzini’s proposal to launch another invasion, heading instead to the French coast, then by ship to Tuscany, from where he marched his volunteers back and forth across the Apennines in an attempt to involve himself in the various revolutions that were still going on.

When the pope was forced to flee Rome in December, after the assassination of his prime minister, Garibaldi marched south and reached the capital in January, shortly before it declared itself a republic. Mazzini arrived in March and was elected as one of the triumvirs. It was his first time in the city. On 30 April, Garibaldi astonished Europe by turning back a hugely superior French army sent to recover the city for the pope. Mazzini opposed his desire to pursue the retreating French army.

There was a pattern to Mazzini’s fortunes over the years: he gathered disciples preaching revolution and shed them when revolution began. As he had written in an early essay, discussion of shared principles unites people, consideration of practical interests divides. One of the characteristics of his thinking was a tendency to undercut existing political conflicts by assuming positions that both sides (or perhaps neither) might agree on. So he was for the nation state, but against nationalism: patriots should fight for independence, but then build a cosmopolitan community. He was opposed to the pope and the established church, but not anti-religious or even anti-clerical: the priests must be drawn into an essential religion of ‘God and the people’ in which everyone could participate. Youth, progress and the future were all stressed as qualities and concepts that could overcome old divisions; Mazzini never drew up any constitution or proposal for a system of international law, since details could only divide. Transferred from his isolation in London to the complexity of an Italy he now hardly knew, he spent much of his time seeking to reconcile irreconcilable interests, while championing a democratic republicanism that only an elite few would support.

In Rome he invited the pope back, but as a spiritual not temporal leader; he attended Easter Mass in St Peter’s, but confiscated some church property; he put priests on state salaries, but ended their hold on the judiciary and the university. Foreign observers were impressed, Italian friends and enemies confused, not least the fiercely anti-clerical Garibaldi, who was again denied permission to pursue a beaten enemy when a Neapolitan army was repulsed. In July, as it became clear that the French forces besieging the city could no longer be resisted, Garibaldi took a small army out into the hills to turn a desperate struggle into the stuff of myth, while Mazzini retired first to Switzerland, then London, where he was soon to form the Party of Action.

The Rome republic marked the peak of Mazzini’s influence and reputation. His tireless propaganda had won him the chance to be elected leader of a popular uprising. He governed fairly. But the military power of the status quo was overwhelming. There were Italians willing to die for the cause, but they were too few and divided among themselves. Further attempts to stage insurrections in Milan in 1853 and Naples in 1857 proved fiascos. There were always spies among his disciples to keep the authorities informed. However, Mazzini’s philosophy had always been that each failure, with its bloody glamour, raised greater expectations and made ultimate success more likely. Eleven years after the Rome experience it was his Party of Action that began the revolt in Sicily to whose aid Garibaldi was eventually persuaded to set sail from Genoa with the famous ‘Thousand’; much reinforced, that army would miraculously capture the whole of southern Italy, prompting the Piedmontese to invade the papal state from the north and, with Garibaldi’s acquiescence, unify the peninsula under the Piedmontese crown in 1861. Mazzini had wished to sail with the Thousand but was delayed by lumbago. Joining the triumphant rebel army in Naples five months later, he was little more than an enthusiastic observer. Garibaldi, it has to be said, was always in the forefront of the action, despite his own severe rheumatism and various wounds.

Though unification was an extraordinary achievement in which he had played a crucial role, Mazzini was disappointed. He had wanted a republic brought into being by the will of the people. Instead, the new nation was a monarchy, largely constructed by dynastic ambition and international realpolitik, inhabited largely by a rural population with little interest in nationality or forms of government. In 1866, the Veneto was gained from the Austrians only thanks to the help of Napoleon III. Mazzini would have preferred a glorious battle, but in 1867 he was again suddenly too ill to join Garibaldi in a failed attempt to take Rome from the pope and his French garrison. The two fell out definitively, and while Mazzini still had his admirers, Garibaldi was now by far the greater celebrity, indeed an international hero of unprecedented popularity.

When Rome was taken in 1870 it was only because the French, at war with Prussia, abandoned their defence of the city; the Italian monarchical army then marched in, ostensibly to prevent a popular insurrection which they themselves had sought (and failed) to instigate. Mazzini was in prison, having been himself involved in an attempt to launch a republican uprising in Sicily. Released under a general amnesty, he said: ‘I had hoped to evoke the soul of Italy and instead find merely her inanimate corpse.’ After returning once again to England, then starting, in Switzerland, the last of his 20 newspapers, La Roma del Popolo, the exhausted revolutionary died in Pisa in 1872. He was 68. Fifty years later Lloyd George would say of him:

I doubt whether any man of his generation exercised so profound an influence on the destinies of Europe as did Mazzini. The map of Europe as we see it today is the map of Giuseppe 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.

Lloyd George paid him tribute in 1922; that same year, a movement seized power in Italy that would claim the apostle of the Risorgimento as its inspiration. Fascism shared with Mazzini the stress on youth, action, progress, the future; the hostility to materialism, individualism, socialism and class conflict; a ritualistic, religious, ‘spiritual’ vision of nationality that put the collective before the individual, duties before rights, and tended to disqualify reasoned opposition. It also shared with him the notion that the South Tyrol was rightfully Italian because God had set the country’s sacred borders at the Alpine watershed, indifferent to the rights of the indigenous German-speaking population. Even the disturbing idea of a ‘civilising’ Italian mission in the southern Mediterranean was something Mazzini himself had spoken of. In her essay, ‘The Legacy of Kant: Mazzini’s Cosmopolitanism of Nations’, Nadia Urbinati is right to insist that the imperialist ambitions of Fascism were alien to Mazzini, but there is an uncanny similarity of rhetoric. Once one has accepted that God has a mission for the nation, since it is always an elite that is called on to interpret God’s intentions, Pandora’s box will not remain closed for long.