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Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero

by Lucy Riall, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2007, $35.

During the 1960s, it became the fashion among college students to display the image of the Argentine-born communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Although his actual achievements amounted to little outside of Cuba, Che’s flamboyant and romantic persona appealed to the equally flamboyant and romantic sensibilities of the young. In some respects, however, Che was merely aping the style of a far more successful man from the prior century: Guiseppe Garibaldi.

Garibaldi appealed to the progressives of his generation in much the same way that Che’s did to his. It is no coincidence, for example, that a statue of Garibaldi stands in Washington Square Park, the very heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Neither is it a coincidence, author Lucy Riall explains, that Garibaldi’s image could have been invoked almost simultaneously by both Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascists and by those Italians who volunteered to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

The bicentennial of Garibaldi’s birth, in 1807, adds a particular timeliness to this new biography of the hero of Italy’s national unification. The author goes beyond merely recounting her subject’s achievements, however, to thoughtfully explain how this dynamic revolutionary became an enduring symbol of both Italian nationalism and international democracy.

Garibaldi did not instigate the movement toward Italian unification known as the Risorgimento, nor was he its most important political leader. He was, however, its most visually conspicuous and militarily successful leader. Although political movements are born in the minds of the intellectual elite, they generally come to nothing without the influence of a charismatic individual able to inspire people into action—witness such diverse leaders as George Washington, Napoléon Bonaparte, Lajos Kossuth, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Pancho Villa, Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro and Osama Bin Laden.

Born in Nice in southern France, Garibaldi was a sea captain at the age of 23 and became an exile after participating in an unsuccessful Italian rebellion. After spending the next dozen years as a South American bandit/revolutionary, Garibaldi returned to Italy in 1848 to participate in a series of uprisings against Austrian and papal rule. His experience as a military leader in South America, as well as his undoubted personal charisma, quickly propelled him to the forefront of the Italian unification movement. The exotic appearance of Garibaldi and his volunteers, as well as their esprit de corps and lack of military formality, engaged the attention both of Italian political leaders and the international press.

The author shows how Garibaldi’s heroic image was as much a product of the leaders of his political movement and the contemporary press as it was self-generated. Riall establishes that the Risorgimento would not have succeeded without Garibaldi or someone with similar charismatic appeal. She also demonstrates how succeeding generations of Italians have manipulated Garibaldi’s image to canonize him as a sort of secular saint, as well as to symbolize such movements as fascism and communism that the leader himself might very well have opposed in his lifetime. Garibaldi is a fascinating study, not so much of the life of the man himself than of his image and the uses to which that image has been put by his own as well as succeeding generations.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here