Garibaldi: The Escape from Rome

Posted by T on August 08, 2014

George Macaulay Trevelyan’s narration of the life of Garibaldi through his escape from the collapsing Roman Republic of 1849 electrified me like no biography has since I discovered Nathan Bedford Forrest twenty years ago. Indeed, once it got to the point of the escape from Rome, it was almost impossible to set the book down. If your hair needs exercise in standing on end, by all means get a copy of this book and read it.

It was Giuseppe (Joseph) Garibaldi’s destiny in life to bring about the unification and independence of Italy. This book tells the first third of that story. He was born in 1807 in the city of Nizza — better known today as the French Riviera city of Nice, but then under the jurisdiction of the Italian kingdom of Piedmont. Piedmont was destined to be the kernel around which the full nation was built  — but does not yet play a decisive political role in the part of the story told in this book.

As Forrest was a boy raised in a saddle, so Garibaldi in a ship. Neither had book learning, but both grew into a young manhood in which they knew how to command men, seize the moment in conflict, and defer to ladies, as if by instinct. Not a political theoretician, Garibaldi was like the living instantiation of the Romantic era into which he was born, acting from primal instincts governed by an intuition of the glory of freedom.

His foray into politics began by pure chance in 1831 on a sailing trip in the Black Sea, where he met an enthusiast of the “Young Italy” movement headed by Joe Mazzini. This soon led to meeting Mazzini, who was two years older than Garibaldi, and from Genoa. Initially hardly more than a society for publishing Mazzini’s manifestos, the Young Italy club gradually turned militaristic. In February 1834 a pincer uprising was attempted against Piedmont. Mazzini led a force of toughs down from Switzerland, Garibaldi having earlier been sent  to infiltrate the navy at Genoa and recruit and lead rebels up from there. The conspiracy was easily stopped, and Garibaldi escaped to Marseilles, where he read in the papers that a death sentence hovered over his head.

Effectively an exile in his own land, he lurched about for a while, eventually sailing to South America, and after a tasteless stint as a merchant, became a brigand/guerrilla warrior for the burgeoning Republic of Uruguay against Brazil. He was as brilliant at the stern of a ship as Forrest was to be in the saddle. Independence won, he had a bungalow in Monte Visto and lived there with the pretty Amazonia he had won some time earlier, refusing emoluments corresponding to his contribution, or giving them away immediately to the poor and downtrodden. If nothing else, we can certainly say that Garibaldi was a man of the people and not in the liberation business for personal gain.

Italian states

Italian states

To understand what was happening back in Italy, a brief note on the political geography in 1848 will be helpful. Marching across the northern latitude from left to right, you had Piedmont, an independent kingdom as already mentioned, then Lombardy and Venice, both under Austrian domination. Next, going south along the left bank (skipping two or three minor states) was Tuscany, under an Italian arch-duke. Below that, you had the odd “papal states,” ruled by the pope. This region was headquartered in Rome, then cut across the Apennines to the right coast, and upward, hooking around to include land as far as Bologna but not Modena. Finally, at the bottom of the boot, King Ferdinand II of Naples also held sway over Sicily. He was known as “Bomba” because of his ruthlessness, taking the name specifically from his shelling Messina into ruins. Possibly, an even more despicable man than Arthur Bomber Harris a century later, since his wrath was directed against his own paesani.

The Romantic watchword freedom! was in the air everywhere. In the revolutionary year of 1848, the Milanese got the ball rolling for Italy by rising up as a people and expelling the Austrians from Milan. The question was, could they hold their new-found independence forever? After vacillation, King Charles Albert of Piedmont marched in to solidify Lombardy as an independent Italian province, but within months was driven all the way back by the mounting Austrian reserves. It was just at this moment that Garibaldi sniffed something in the air, and mounting ships with something under 100 other Italian expats, sailed from Uruguay to north Italy.

It was over before he got there. He thrashed around for a time in the alpine regions, but then gave up the fight for Lombardy and went south. In Rome, Pope Pius 9 (“Pio Nonno”) had made compromises with the democratic agitation and, among other reforms, established a representative assembly.  Unfortunately the first prime minister, Rossi, was assassinated by an extremist. Mobs started to agitate, and in November 1848 Pio Nonno fled to Bomba’s protection.  Rome became a republic: soon, both Mazzini and Garibaldi arrived to offer their services.

Had these agitations been an internal battle for control of Italy among Italians, it is clear, at least in broad terms, what the outcome would have been: each region would have either gone republican or adopted a constitutional framework hedging in the nobility; a national settlement of some sort might have ensued (the difficulty: no monarch would have wanted to take the second chair just like that), the pope resuming a position of spiritual but not temporal authority.

But it was not left to the Italians to figure this out. “Roma in periglio,” as Puccini’s Rodolfo cries out, and Spain, France, and Austria stood at attention.

The Frogs responded first.  In the French Assembly, there was a papist faction that genuinely wanted to rescue the pope, but in addition, a nearly universal worry was that Austria’s power would become dangerous if it became the rescuer: if she then overran Piedmont, she would butt right up against France. Napoleon III, barely elected as the first President of the Second Republic, sent the troops.

It was inevitable that one city, no matter how brave, would eventually fall when besieged by the determined and otherwise unopposed will of France. In the event, it took nine weeks. The Frogs launched their first attack April 30, 1849; on June 3 the young poet Mameli received his mortal wound; they entered the city on July 3. Garibaldi fended off the first French wave, then had to move south toward Virgil’s Alban hills to foil a lunge by Bomba. Meanwhile, the Frogs feigned peace negotiations while in reality they were bringing up an army of sufficient size to get the job done.

And it was done. It is a great battle narrative, masterfully narrated hour-by-hour by Trevelyan. Mazzini was functioning as first among equals of a Triumvirate appointed by the popular assembly. He wanted everyone to stay, romantically, until death did him part, but when the walls were finally breached, Garibaldi wanted to escape and await a day of better auspices. He hatched the idea of breaking out with battalion strength and going east and north to the rescue of the besieged Venetians, who were losing their fight against the Austrians. But this was a pipe dream. When he finally, after much struggle, got within launching distance of Venice, a word was enough to deflect him back to reality. But the trek getting to that point, with his Amazonia panting her death’s breath in his arms, surrounded by brave but sometimes feckless men, is a story that is best left in Trevelyan’s hands. Get the original edition if possible, with many wonderful maps: the later popular paperback version has smaller, non-color maps which can serve in a pinch.

In the end, he did a huge loop, crossing the Apennines to and fro, ending up little more than a hundred miles from where he started, down to one companion, and launched a boat back to Piedmont.

I will come back with more of the story, as I get into the subsequent volumes. At this point, it is perhaps appropriate to raise a few questions.

The ferment in Romagna (the eastern part of the papal states) evidently included various secret societies, including Masons. Trevelyan justifies these as necessary for political assembly under a very repressive regime. Some of them resorted to assassination, devolving into the equivalent of gangs. There were the Carbonari on the left and the Centurions on the right. The deplorable Lord Byron fell in with the Carbonari, but even he became disgusted with their brutality. This aspect of our general polemic against secret societies and the relation of rulers to them needs to be book-marked for further investigation. In particular, Trevelyan gives us a factoid that may be a hint of what was involved: an 1841 edict in Pesaro “to inform against heretics, Jews, and sorcerers” (p. 59).

Who was this Garibaldi? Like Forrest, he was a demigod that rose from the lagoon to terrify the oppressors of his people. But unlike Forrest, he seemed to love the sting of battle for its own sake as well — otherwise, why would he get drawn into the fights of South America? A desperate battle drew him like a fire truck draws the neighborhood dogs. To read his story, one cannot help but love him, yet questions about motive still remain.

There were men that seemed to be there for the love of fighting, or the love of defeating authority, more than love of own blood and soil. Especially odd is the story of the Englishman Col. Hugh Forbes, riding about wearing a white top hat and injecting himself into several of the Italian regional fights. He fell in with Garibaldi for a while during the escape from Rome. In 1857 he went to America to free the Negro, taking orders from John Brown “to organize military resistance to the raids of the Southerners in the disturbed border districts.” (Putting it that way makes it sound like the Southerners, not John Brown, were the unruly rebels. Could it be that the English historian Trevelyan did not understand that John Brown had no authority to “organize military resistance”?)

In the end, what were the republicans fighting for? Political independence and unity (which are not the same thing) of the Italic peoples is something, but it is not everything. This is the question every republican in history should ask: after we win, what then? What should the dog do if it actually catches the fire engine? Say the people, in some incomprehensible way that could not be explained to their ancestors, elect some hollow suit Kenyan as their dictator. Is this supposed to be enviable in comparison to a hereditary monarch that loves and represents his own people? Of course, the Italians had wiser blood than us — when they got their independence and unity twelve years later, it was in terms of a monarch.

Trevelyan, G.M. Garibaldi’s Defense of the Roman Republic. (NY : Longmans &Green) DG798.5.T812G 1908


2 Comments to Garibaldi: The Escape from Rome

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *