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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Garibaldi in Rome

Today the name "Garibaldi" is known primarily among Italians, some Uruguayans (he was active there, too) and to those accustomed to filling in "19th-century Italian patriot" on the Monday crossword puzzle.  If it is hard to imagine, or remember, what Garibaldi was some 150 years ago, consider this line, the first one actually, from Christopher Hibbert's compelling 1965 biography:  "A hundred years ago Garibaldi was, perhaps, the best-known name in the world."  Better known, that is, than Louis Napoleon, or Charles Darwin, or Karl Marx, or Abraham Lincoln, or Giuseppe Verdi, all contemporaries. 

Garibaldi postcard
In our own half century, when heroism has been in such short supply, and the craving for it so strong and ubiquitous that every police officer, firefighter, soldier or advocate for the underprivileged is proclaimed a "hero," it is unfortunate that Garbaldi is not better known.  For he was a hero.  Not just a "Hero of Italian Unification," the subtitle of Hibbert's book, but a figure of glorious proportions, of unprecedented and largely deserved fame.  "There were streets and squares named after him," Hibbert continues, "in a hundred different towns from Naples to Montevideo; statuettes of him, busts, medallions, china figurines were almost as common in Manchester as in Milan, in Boston as in Bologna; postcards garishly depicting his messianic features were sold in their millions; you could drink a Garibaldi wine, wear a Garibaldi blouse, see a Garibaldi musical, eat a Garbaldi biscuit."  [You can also see more of Garibaldi on the Trastevere itinerary in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler;  see below for more information.]

Madonna, in the age of celebrity
None of that seems extraordinary in the postmodern age of celebrity, when Bowie, Madonna (left), and Lady Gaga have reinvented themselves for an album, concert, or public appearance, marketing the new self to consumers of pop culture, worldwide.
But Garibaldi was not born into an age of celebrity and, except for occasionally donating a lock of hair to an admirer, he did not reinvent or sell himself.  The image of Garibaldi that circulated across the globe in the mid-19th century--courageous, relentless, flamboyant, earnest, a charismatic leader of men, a brilliant tactician of guerilla warfare, indefatigable, the billowing red shirt that some believed had miraculously kept him from harm--had been earned, time and again, on the battlefields of what would become, in substantial measure due to his unfailing commitment, "Italy." 

"There are some men," wrote the novelist Alexander Dumas, who knew him well, "who can achieve anything, and Garbaldi is one of them.  If he were to say to me: 'I am setting out tomorrow on an expedition to capture the moon,' I should doubtless reply, 'All right, go on.  Just write and tell me as soon as you have taken it...."  And the poet Tennyson, on meeting Garibaldi for the first time, wrote:  "I had expected to see a hero, and I was not disappointed....He is more majestic than meek, and his manners have a certain divine simplicity in them such as I have never witnessed in a native of these islands, among men at least."

Our focus here will be on Garibaldi in Rome, but before we get to his adventures there, it is worth saying that his reputation as hero owed more to his liberation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) from the Bourbon monarchy in 1860--a genuine success, and accomplished with a rag-tag army, vastly outnumbered--than from anything that happened in Rome.  The cult of Garibaldi was apparent midway through that campaign, when his Legion managed the perilous crossing from Sicily to Calabria, where the local peasants believed him "Il nostro secondo Gesu Cristo"--our second Jesus Christ.   

Rome, more than a decade earlier, contributed to his reputation, too, but it was also, in the final analysis, a military and political defeat, with French troops helping to crush the short-lived Republic and to restore Pio Nono to dominion over the Papal States.  

Giuseppe Garbaldi's first sight of Rome was as a youth of 17, accompanying his father up the Tiber in a small boat carrying wine, pulled upstream by oxen.  Father and son would likely have done business in the port of Rome, within a few hundreds yards, upriver or down, of the Ponte Sublicio on Testaccio's edge.  He would not see Rome again until April of 1849, when the Legion, some veterans of campaigns in Uruguay and northern towns including Novara and Brescia, and led by a red-shirted Garibaldi on a white horse, entered the city from the north, through the gate at Piazza del Popolo, then down Via del Corso toward the Piazza Colonna, today the offices of the Italian prime minister. 
Piazza of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, site of the Rossi murder

Garibaldi was late to the party.  Amidst the liberal, revolutionary (and, in Italy, nationalist) fervor that spread through Europe in 1848, the Pope, Pio Nono, had rejected the Risorgimento (the movement for unification).  Then, in November, an anti-democratic appointee of Pio Nono, Count Pellegrino Rossi, was stabbed and killed in the piazza in front of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the Renaissance building at one end of Campo de' Fiori, just off Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.  Fearing for his life and threatened by a popular uprising, the Pope left the city for refuge in Gaeta (then part of the Kingdom of Naples), and in early February 1849, the Republic was declared, with Mazzini in charge.  In April a French army landed at the port of Civitavecchia, intending to restore Papal rule--and setting the stage for Garibaldi and his Legion.
Villa Corsini's entrance, where so many
Italian patriots died.

Rome was a complex battlefield.  Although the ancient walls on the city's east side were in some ways most vulnerable to attack, those in charge of the Republic's defense correctly assumed that the French would launch their attack at the more modern walls that surrounded the city's west side (Trastevere), running from Castel Sant' Angelo in the North, over the Gianicolo, and down to Porta Portese (at Ponte Sublicio).  Indeed, the most vulnerable part of the front, the part assigned to Garibaldi, was that around Porta San Pancrazio.  Here, the terrain posed a special problem: the ground outside the walls was higher than that within, allowing the enemy's cannon to look and shoot down on the defending armies.  There appeared to be only one solution: occupy the high ground by fortifying Villa Corsini, several hundred yards outside the walls.  Garibaldi made the villa his first headquarters. 

And so it was that the first contact between Garibaldi, his Legion (and other troops defending the city) and the French forces took place on the grounds of the Pamphili gardens, just below Villa Corsini, with Garibaldi, on horseback, personally rallying his troops in a counter-charge, shouting from his horse, "Come on, boys, put the French to flight like a mass of carrion!  Onward with the bayonet [a weapon in which Garibaldi had great confidence], bersaglieri!"  It was a great victory, to be sure, but its impact was limited; a cautious Mazzini rejected Garibaldi's request to follow up.  The momentum was lost. 

While the French licked their wounds, the Garibaldini left Rome for the foothills to the city's northwest and west, where their mission was to meet a threat from the armies of King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies.  The Legion encamped briefly on the grounds of Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli, then turned south to Palestrina to challenge the right flank of the Neapolitan army, ensconsed in the Alban Hills.  Although vastly outnumbered, the Garibaldini were again successful, first in a series of daring guerilla raids of the sort at which Garibaldi excelled, then in a full assault down the steep slopes of Palestrina. 
A few days later, and with a much larger force (not officially under his command), Garibaldi steeled his retreating calvalry into an assault on the Neapolitans at Velletri.  "So that night," writes Hibbert, "Garibaldi went to sleep in a bed that had been occupied the night before by King Ferdinand himself."  In the following days, the Garibaldini pursued the enemy down the Liri Valley.

Back in Rome in early June, Garibaldi was recuperating in his personal quarters in Via delle Carozze (near Piazza di Spagna) from wounds suffered in the Pamphili gardens and Velletri, where he was trampled by horses.   He was not at the moment in charge of anything, having resigned his command while insisting that he was "an ordinary soldier of the Italian legion."  That status changed when the French stormed and took the Villa Corsini and the nearby Vascello Villa (retaken soon after).  Garibaldi got out of bed and made his way across the river to the Porta Cavalleggeri (just south of the Basilica of Saint Peter) to check fortifications there, then up what is now Via Garbaldi to Porta San Pancrazio.  From there he coordinated and participated in a series of frontal assaults on the Villa Corsini, each futile and costly; hundreds of Garibaldini and bersaglieri were killed.  Late in this bloodbath, he had the temerity to order the commander of the bersaglieri to attack once again:  "Go," he ordered Emilio Dandolo, "with twenty of your bravest men, and take Villa Corsini at the point of the bayonet."  That attack also failed.  And so, for once, had Garibaldi. 

Villa Savorelli (now Villa Aurelia)
It was all over but the shouting, although the good guys held out for another 26 days, until the end of June.  Even that was not easy.  Garibaldi and his staff moved into Villa Savorelli, just inside the wall at Porta San Pancrazio.

 Built in 1650, the villa had a commanding view of the area, but that view also made it fodder for the French cannon, which struck it methodically, killing several of Garibaldi's dinner guests and nearly destroying the structure.  Despite the shelling, Garibaldi's morning routine included a visit to the watch-tower on the roof of the building, where he would taunt the French sharpshooters by casually lighting a cigar as the balls whizzed by.  Restored in 1856 and renamed Villa Aurelia in 1895, it now belongs to the American Academy in Rome and is used for some of its functions.

Villa Spada, restored
As the siege wore on, Garibaldi moved his headquarters once more, to the 17th-century Villa Spada, behind the Aurelian wall, consigning that structure, too, to withering fire and destruction.  It, too, was restored, and now serves as the Irish Embassy to the Holy See. 

Garibaldi had left his pregnant wife, Anita, in Rieti on the way down to Rome.  He wrote to her on June 21:  "We are fighting on the Janiculum and these people are worthy of their past greatness.  Here they live, die and suffer amputation, all to the cry of 'Viva la Repubblica!'  One hour of our life in Rome is worth a century of ordinary existence."  (Anita must have felt the same, for as Giuseppe was writing, she was already on her way to join him in Rome; she would arrive on June 26).

These were inspiring sentiments, but the reality was more depressing, and as the month wore on, Garibaldi decided--contrary to the sentiments of the political and military leaders above him--that Rome could no longer be held, and that the cause would be best served by a strategic retreat into the countryside, where he could once again exercise his skills in guerilla warfare.  "Ovunque noi saremo,"  he would say, "sara Roma":  Wherever we will be, there will be Rome.  Fierce fighting continued on the Gianicolo, but Garibaldi had made up his mind.  He gathered volunteers in the Piazza of St. Peter's and at San Giovanni in Laterano, adjacent to Porta San Giovanni.  With Anita and about 4,000 volunteers, he left Rome on July 2, from the San Giovanni gate. 

Pursued by the French, Garibaldi feinted in the direction of Palestrina, then cut north to Tivoli, then northwest through Mentana (site of a good Garibaldi museum), where he turned north again, pushing through Terni, Todi, Orvieto, Arezzo, Macerata and points further north and east, now with the Austrians in pursuit.  In late July, his forces dwindling from defections, he officially released his remaining followers.  "Remember," he wrote in his final order, "that although the Roman war for the independence of Italy has ended, Italy remains in shameful slavery."  He would not again see Rome.

Anita Garibaldi, remembered on the Gianicolo
Both Garibaldis are represented by statues on the Giancolo.  Giuseppe's is the more prominent, located in the large piazza (Piazzale Garibaldi) that overlooks the city.  Anita's is about 150 meters to the north, on the west side of the road leading up.

Our thanks to Christopher Hibbert for use of materials from his remarkable book, Garibaldi, the basis for the above account.  It's available at Amazon. 

And for more on Garibaldi in Rome, see our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Trastevere, Modern Rome features three other walks: the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores,  and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

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