Book Reviews

31 maio, 2007

110) Garibaldi, um heroi incontestavel

Garibaldi: An idol of his own design
The Economist, May 24th 2007

“WHAT a man! What prestige! He has the ability to excite everyone who sees him.” Thus did Le Siècle, a French republican newspaper, characterise the gathering wave of enthusiasm for Giuseppe Garibaldi. In 1860 he nearly drowned in a sea of love after capturing Sicily against ferocious odds, marching his troops through Calabria and thereby ushering in the new nation of Italy. A volunteer from Bergamo, witnessing Garibaldi's startling conquest of the south, recorded how the mere sight of the hero reduced normally sane observers to quivering goose-flesh: “The very soul of the people seemed transfused in him.”

In a study coinciding with the bicentenary of Garibaldi's birth, Lucy Riall, a professor at the University of London, also notes the trail of broken-hearted women that he left behind. But the cultivation of his renowned sexual appeal was as much political strategy—reaching a new constituency—as amorous design. “The General” (as he was known) was a shrewd politician and anti-politician rolled into one.

This is not traditional biography: virtually nothing is said of his infancy, youth or inner life. Rather, it is a history of cultural images. In setting out her hall of mirrors, Ms Riall has diligently mined obscure relics, cartoons, pamphlets, letters, novels and newspapers. Garibaldi suffered enormously for the Italian cause but his tribulations were also heavily spun—he had to incarnate the nation's “romantic agony”, not just his own personal Calvary. Such was his fearlessness in battle that contemporaries understandably considered his survival to an arthritic old age to be a miracle.

A staunch follower of Giuseppe Mazzini (the so-called “prophet of Italy”) in the 1830s, Garibaldi fled to Latin America after a failed mutiny. In exile he was frequently pictured on horseback, casually attired in his poncho, fighting for various insurgencies. Denounced by conservatives as a dangerous revolutionary bandit, he embodied (all the more so as he grew older) a militantly dissident form of democracy— alongside a much less attractive penchant for dictatorship.

He returned to Italy in 1848, a year of European revolutions. After his doomed endeavour to resist the French army that had come to crush the Roman republic and restore the pope, his stature grew, especially in liberal Protestant England. In the 1850s he came to favour the Piedmontese monarchy, but his detestation of the papacy continued, proving more enduring than his republicanism.

The Illustrated London News presented him replete with a tall, round Puritan hat, his flamboyance signalled by an ostrich feather. As the cartoonist commented, “He is a remarkably quiet-looking person, but wonderfully picturesque: he wore a white sort of cloak lined with red, and having a green velvet collar; it had plenty of bullet holes in it.” Britons still munch on the eponymous biscuits created after Garibaldi's triumphal tour of the country in 1864, when he intoxicated workers, shopkeepers, clergymen, lords and ladies alike.

Sociology was not yet a discipline, but before the century was out, mass idealisation of this sort would lend itself to the scientific study of charisma and group psychology. After Garibaldi's death in 1882, an official national cult did its best to sanitise the hero worship, airbrushing away the old hero's biting criticism of poor or corrupt government. But his image never entirely lost its incendiary appeal.

Critical of earlier historians who tended to treat Garibaldi with condescension, Ms Riall is anxious to display him as the resourceful manipulator of his own legend. There is much to be said in favour of this approach. But in rebutting the myth that he was a simpleton or a chameleon, she underplays his contradictions.

She allows that his love life had its jarring moments. He impulsively wed a second time but instantly dumped his bride on learning that an earlier liaison had led to her pregnancy. He could, she observes, be hurt, unforgiving, venomous and confused. But in the public realm, she pictures a much smoother operator. Her portrait is of a man constantly “alert to his singular importance as a political actor” but curiously lacking in the emotional convulsions that he incited all around him.

Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero
Lucy Riall
Yale University Press, 2007, 496 p.
ISBN: 9780300112122
ISBN-10: 0300112122
US$ 35.-

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary leader and popular hero, was among the best-known figures of the nineteenth century. This book seeks to examine his life and the making of his cult, to assess its impact, and understand its surprising success.

For thirty years Garibaldi was involved in every combative event in Italy. His greatest moment came in 1860, when he defended a revolution in Sicily and provoked the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy, the overthrow of papal power in central Italy, and the creation of the Italian nation state. It made him a global icon, representing strength, bravery, manliness, saintliness, and a spirit of adventure. Handsome, flamboyant, and sexually attractive, he was worshiped in life and became a cult figure after his death in 1882.

Lucy Riall shows that the emerging cult of Garibaldi was initially conceived by revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the status quo, that it was also the result of a collaborative effort involving writers, artists, actors, and publishers, and that it became genuinely and enduringly popular among a broad public. The book demonstrates that Garibaldi played an integral part in fashioning and promoting himself as a new kind of “charismatic” political hero. It analyzes the way the Garibaldi myth has been harnessed both to legitimize and to challenge national political structures. And it identifies elements of Garibaldi’s political style appropriated by political leaders around the world, including Mussolini and Che Guevara.

Lucy Riall is reader in modern European history at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her publications include The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society and National Unification and Sicily and the Unification of Italy: Liberal Policy and Local Power (1859-66).


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