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.

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