Born in Nice to a sea captain father, the young Garibaldi was a professional revolutionary. He took part in the Mazzinian uprising against the Piedmontese monarchy in 1834 and, following its suppression, was condemned to death for his role in the fighting. Garibaldi, however, had fled to Brazil. There, he met his first wife, Anita, and fought gallantly for six years (1836–1842) on behalf of the South Rio Grande republic, trying to achieve independence. Garibaldi ended the war as admiral of the would-be republic’s small fleet. In 1846, he organized and commanded the Italian legion that fought for Uruguay in its war against Argentina. Garibaldi’s reputation as the “hero of two worlds,” and his familiar penchant for South American peasant garb, dates from this period.
News of the 1848 revolutions, however, prompted his return to Turin. Garibaldi fought bravely against the Austrians in Lombardy and in defense of the Roman republic in the spring of 1849. Together with a faithful band of volunteers and Anita, Garibaldi broke out of Rome and retreated toward Venice, which was still resisting Austrian rule. After suffering heavy casualties, they were forced to take refuge in the swamps surrounding Ravenna, where Anita died of exhaustion.
Garibaldi, at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, was expelled from Piedmont-Sardinia and was forced to lead the life of an exile once more. He worked briefly as a candle-maker in Camden, New Jersey, before returning to Europe in 1854. He established himself in a house on the Sardinian Island of Caprera and gradually became more politically realistic. Under Camillo Benso di Cavour’s influence, Garibaldi accepted that the Piedmontese monarchy offered the best hope of unifying Italy. This renunciation of his Mazzinian and revolutionary principles restored him to favor in Turin, and in 1859 Garibaldi was made a general in the Piedmontese army.
Garibaldi was violently critical of the Treaty of Villafranca. In January 1860, he endorsed the latest venture launched by Giuseppe Mazzini, the “Action party,” which openly espoused a policy of liberating southern Italy, Rome, and Venice by military means. To this end, in the spring of 1860, Garibaldi led a corps of red-shirted patriots from Genoa to the assistance of a Mazzinian uprising in Palermo. The “Expedition of the Thousand” is the most famous of all Garibaldi’s military exploits. After landing near Palermo with the support of ships from the British fleet, Garibaldi swiftly took command of the island. On 14 May 1860, he became dictator of Sicily and head of a provisional government that was largely dominated by a native Sicilian who would play an important role in the political future of Italy, Francesco Crispi.
With the support of thousands of Sicilian peasants and workers, Garibaldi then invaded the Italian mainland, intent on marching on Rome. He entered Naples in September 1860. He was joined there by the principal republican theorists, Mazzini and Carlo Cattaneo, and for a brief moment it looked as if the process of Italian unification would take a radical turn. Cavour’s shrewdness enabled him to outmaneuver Garibaldi. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States, blocking the road to Rome. Garibaldi decided not to compromise Italian unity by risking a conflict with the Piedmontese. On 26 October 1860, he consigned southern Italy to the monarchy.
Garibaldi, however, was unable to consider Italian unification complete while Rome remained under clerical domination, protected by French troops. He became a thorn in the side of the first Italian governments by carrying on his own independent foreign policy. In 1862, Garibaldi returned to Sicily to raise another army of volunteers willing to march under the melodramatic slogan “Rome or Death.” The outraged reaction of Napoleon III compelled the Italian government to intervene, and Garibaldi’s advance was halted by Italian troops at Aspromonte in Calabria. There was a skirmish, and Garibaldi was shot in the foot. Garibaldi was briefly imprisoned, but his international fame (especially in England, to which he made a triumphal visit in 1864) soon led to his release.
In 1866, Garibaldi led Italian troops in the Trentino, liberating a great part of the Italian-speaking territory under Austrian rule before being ordered to relinquish his gains upon the end of the hostilities between Prussia and Austria. His short reply amply conveyed his disgust at the command: Garibaldi sent a one-word telegram saying obbedisco (I obey). His exploits in the Trentino were a prelude to further impolitic attempts to take Rome in the fall of 1867. Escaping from house arrest on Caprera, he joined 3,000 waiting volunteers in Tuscany. The courage of his amateur troops, however, was no match for the French army defending Rome, and at the small but bloody battle of Mentana on 3 November 1867, Garibaldi was decisively beaten. Once more, he was forced into exile on Caprera.
Garibaldi played no role in the liberation of Rome in 1870. His last campaign was on behalf of the French Republic. Garibaldi led a corps of Italian volunteers at the battle of Dijon in the fall of 1870, and his efforts were a useful contribution to what was the only French victory of the Franco–Prussian War. In his last years, Garibaldi dedicated himself to writing his memoirs (and heroic poetry) and became a declared socialist. He died on Caprera in 1882, but his myth has been a powerful influence on Italian political life ever since
In Italian, the Risorgimento means the awakening of national sentiment that led to the creation of the modern Italian state. The decisive moment for Italian political unity was the wars of 1859–1861. Thanks to a felicitous combination of international and domestic factors and skillful diplomacy, Italy was substantially united under the rule of the House of Savoy. First, the international context was favorable for the reduction of Austrian power in Italy. Austria had isolated itself during the Crimean War by staying neutral and was facing France’s challenge to its role as the power broker in Europe. Liberal England, moreover, wished to see the end of the anachronistic absolutist regime of the Bourbons in southern Italy. Within Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia, thanks to the modernizing efforts of Camillo Benso di Cavour, had emerged as a power of some weight capable of attracting the middle classes of Lombardy, Tuscany, and the rest of northern Italy to its cause. Liberal and nationalist ideas, moreover, were widespread by the end of the 1850s. The views of Vincenzo Gioberti, Cesare Balbo, and Massimo D’Azeglio had been read by every educated Italian, and republicans and democrats such as Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini also had a substantial following, particularly in central Italy.
Cavour’s unique diplomatic skills turned these favorable conditions into political action. First, he persuaded Napoleon III to ally France to Piedmont in July 1858 at Plombières by promising France Nice and the duchies of central Italy (the eventual status of Savoy was left open) in exchange for French assistance to liberate Lombardy and Venetia from Austrian rule. The four northern Italian regions so liberated were then to form a federation under the presidency of the Pope. Cavour then goaded Austria into declaring war in April 1859, allowing Piedmont-Sardinia to appear as the innocent victim of an act of aggression by a larger power. As the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino demonstrated, without French support the Piedmontese army would never have been able to defeat the Austrians. Simultaneous insurrections in Tuscany, Modena, and Parma in favor of unification with Turin were in large part organized by Cavour’s agents, thus nullifying the Plombières agreement by thwarting Napoleon III’s ambitions. The peace of Villafranca in July 1859—which granted Lombardy to Piedmont but insisted on the return of absolute rule in central Italy—was a tardy attempt by Napoleon and the Austrians to close the Pandora’s box opened by their own ambition. The treaty provoked Cavour’s resignation, but by now the movement for unification with Piedmont in central Italy was too strong to be blocked by anything short of a bloody war of repression. Cavour returned triumphantly to office in January 1860 and, in exchange for the cession of Savoy as well as Nice to France, was allowed to incorporate all of north-central Italy into Piedmont-Sardinia.
Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi regarded Cavour’s patient diplomacy as too cautious, however. At the beginning of 1860, the so-called Action Party was founded with the specific goal of liberating Rome, Venice, and southern Italy from absolutist and Papal rule. In April 1860, Garibaldi and his “Thousand” redshirts sailed from Genoa to Palermo to assist the Mazzinian uprising that had broken out against Bourbon rule. With the assistance of the British fleet, Garibaldi disembarked and swiftly established his personal dictatorship over Sicily. In August 1860, he crossed the Strait of Messina at the head of an army of Sicilians and marched on Naples, which he entered in September without encountering resistance. He was joined by Mazzini and Cattaneo, who openly argued that the red-shirts’ conquests should herald a democratic and republican solution to the unification of Italy.
Cavour, alarmed by this project, used the threat of a democratic revolution in Italy to persuade France to give him a free hand in southern Italy. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States and blocked Garibaldi’s road to Rome, and at Teano on 26 October 1860, Garibaldi ceded his conquests in person to Victor Emmanuel II. This decision was confirmed by regional plebiscites in February 1861. Only the wealthiest citizens were allowed to vote, and, particularly in the south, ballot fraud was widespread. Italy had completed its liberal revolution but had installed a regime that was ignorant of the needs of the southern peasantry and strongly identified with the interests of the northern upper classes. It is not fanciful to claim that many of Italy’s subsequent problems stemmed from the political settlement of the process of unification.