Nationalism of the nineteenth century represents very different values to those of our era. With the present rise of frenzied flag-waving and militant xenophobia, it is hard to understand the cult status achieved by foreign revolutionary figures such as Lafayette, who was honored as the “French Hero of the American Revolution.”
In 1878 a bust of Giuseppe Mazzini was unveiled in New York City‘s Central Park. A decade later, on the sixth anniversary of his death, Giuseppe Garibaldi was memorialized with a bronze statue in Washington Square Park. Why were these relatively unknown Italian insurgents given such a prestigious presence in New York?
Rebels & Exile
Until the French Revolution, Italy was divided into a patchwork of small realms under foreign rule. Having grasped power, Napoleon Bonaparte proceeded in bringing together the numerous principalities as a single administrative unit. By imposing the Code Civil, he intended to abolish what was left of feudal laws and structures.
Being part of the French Empire meant that the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were imbibed in Italy. Many more citizens became entitled to participate in the political process. Ideas of unity and nationhood took hold, but were dashed when in 1815 the Congress of Vienna reinstated Europe to its pre-Napoleonic position of absolute rule.
The Kingdom of Italy splintered again and its states were restored to their former reactionary rulers. It remained fragmented through the mid-1800s, but the call for unification could not be repressed as the decisions made at Vienna caused intense discontent, giving rise to the rebellious Risorgimento (Resurgence).
The term denotes the ideological and literary movement that set out to promote a national effort to free the Italian states from foreign rule and unite the country politically. The desire for unification held the movement together, although the preferred form of government differed widely amongst various groups, from the formation of a Republic to the restoration of the Savoy monarchy or the creation of a confederation of states headed by the Pope.
From the 1820s onwards, many rebels were forced to flee Italy. Their struggle was continued in exile, in London or New York.
Mazzini in London
After Napoleon’s defeat, the Great Powers of Russia, Britain, Austria and Prussia called for the Congress of Vienna to solve Europe’s territorial issues. The task included the reorganization of Italy. The Congress reintroduced and reinforced the traditional split of territory into the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal States and Tuscany. Lombardy and Venice were restored under Austrian rule.
A sequence of revolutions during the early 1820s challenged the new conservative order. In July, liberal army officers revolted against Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, demanding a constitution. In March 1821 officers in Piedmont rose in revolt. Such attempts to install a democratic form of government were suppressed for the time being, but they demonstrated the potential strength of liberal and nationalist movements.
Opponents of the re-imposed regime organized themselves in secret societies, the most important of which was the group of Carbonari (charcoal-burners). Their lodges – there are parallels with Freemasonry – comprised aristocrats, intellectuals, army officers, artists and even priests.
Many of the rebels who had been forced to leave the country after the failed risings of the 1820s settled in London. Educated and independent (no strain on the British public purse), they were well-received. One of those political refugees was Gabriele Pasquale Rossetti.
The son of a blacksmith, he made an impressive career. In 1807 he was librettist at the San Carlo opera house in Naples, before being appointed Curator of Ancient Sculpture in the city’s Capodimonte museum. His political stance caused him trouble. A Carbonari member, he directed his anger against the revocation in 1821 of the Constitution. Gabriele was sentenced to death, but escaped in time never to see his homeland again. In 1826 he married Frances Mary Polidori. The couple lived in Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, where Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born, the painter-poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Unsuccessful Carbonari-led revolts in the 1820s were followed a decade later by similar risings of Giuseppe Mazzini’s movement of La Giovine Italia (Young Italy), which in turn provided ammunition for the Revolution of 1848. Its suppression forced many more Italians into exile, including Mazzini himself. He briefly stayed in Geneva, but was expelled for undermining Swiss neutrality. He then moved to London, settling in Laystall Street in the city’s district of Little Italy.
Mazzini founded a society for the purpose of harnessing nationalist feelings among the immigrant community. With funds provided by British friends (including Charles Dickens), he opened the first Italian school in nearby Hatton Garden in November 1841.
Garibaldi on Staten Island
When Giuseppe Garibaldi first met Mazzini in Geneva, he instantly fell under his influence. Having joined Young Italy in 1834, he fought alongside Mazzini in the Republican uprising for independence in Genoa. The attempt failed, the movement was crushed, and Garibaldi fled to South America where he remained in hiding for over a decade.
While in exile in Uruguay he became engaged in the defense of the small Republic of Uruguay against the might of neighboring Argentina and its despotic ruler Juan Manuel de Rosas. In 1843 he called on large numbers of migrants in Montevideo to form an Italian Legion of guerrillas. His subsequent heroic victory in the Battle of Sant’Antonio in 1846 assured the independence of the nation.
Legend has it that the Legion, instead of wearing a military uniform, sported the red shirts (camicie rosse) that would be associated with Garibaldi’s later campaigns in which his volunteer army took on the French, Austrian and Papal troops. The loose fitting shirts were originally meant for export to slaughterhouse workers in Argentina.
Garibaldi returned to Italy in 1849 to back his friend Mazzini during his co-leadership of the short-lived Roman Republic. The regime capitulated that same year to the might of Louis-Napoleon’s forces who had been fighting on behalf of Pope Pius IX. Garibaldi escaped the bloody onslaught and made his way via Tangier and Liverpool to the United States for a renewed spell in exile.
Having passed through Staten Island’s Marine Hospital & Quarantine Station, Garibaldi lived in New York from the summer of 1850 to the spring of 1853. Unlike the arrival of other insurgents such as the Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth who was received and celebrated with a parade on Broadway, his presence went unnoticed.
A rebel who had had been in open conflict with the Papal States was not welcome in New York’s Catholic circles. A disheartened revolutionary in poor health, grieving the loss of his wife who had died in the violent retreat from Rome, Garibaldi first stayed at the Pavilion Hotel in St George, Staten Island.
Working as a candle maker, he met fellow Italian exile Antonio Meucci (whose 1871 invention of telephone technology predated Alexander Graham Bell, but at the time he was too poor to obtain a patent). Antonio invited Garibaldi to stay at his cottage in Clifton, Staten Island (the dwelling on Tompkins Avenue is now home to the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum), allowing him the opportunity to mentally and physically heal from his misadventure and plan his journey back to Italy to continue the fight.
Having returned in 1854, Garibaldi’s Redshirts seized Sicily and Naples six years later by beating the Bourbon armies. The campaign would lead to the unification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II. It solidified Garibaldi’s reputation as a military strategist.
Impressed by his achievements, Abraham Lincoln offered him a position of command in the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War. Garibaldi declined the offer in order to continue supporting his fledgling nation. When he died in 1882, he had achieved all his goals. For his battles in South-America and Europe he gained the legacy of ‘Hero of Two Worlds.’
Squares and public places in our cities are filled with unsightly sculptures dedicated to individuals known by few of us and ignored by most of us, be they social reformers, freedom fighters, slave traders or colonial plunderers. Memories are short. The times are always progressing, but statues are static and impervious to the winds of change. Rather than homage or shrine, they hint at our forgetfulness.
The nineteenth century was obsessed with the socio-political significance of statues. Between 1848 and 1914 European capitals filled their public spaces with additional monuments: Paris gained seventy-eight new statues, London sixty-one and Berlin fifty-nine. Statuomania was the product of an increasingly strident nationalism.
Immortalized in marble or bronze, national heroes were put on a pedestal in order to stimulate feelings of communal solidarity and/or superiority. Considered neutral and impartial, statues were supposed to convey incontrovertible information about the past. The history of every people in that interpretation is written in its monuments.
Today, such assumptions are no longer acceptable. Rather than set in stone, history is a living discipline subject to evolution and revision. Statues do not tell some immutable truth. Instead, they symbolize fixed ideas of a specific community at a particular moment in time regarding its “glorious” past.
Monuments more often than not present a controversial perspective. Disagreements about the commemorative presence of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford or that of Confederate figures in American cities underline the sharp divide between competing visions and interpretations of history.
Bust of Confidence
In 1878 a bust of Giuseppe Mazzini was unveiled in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. It was one of the early examples of public statuary in New York. A decade later, on the sixth anniversary of his death, Giuseppe Garibaldi was memorialized with a bronze statue in Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village. As many New Yorkers would never have heard of these Italian patriots, why were their statues granted such a prominent presence in the city?
During four decades of unrest in the Italian territories, many artists supported the rebels. Odoardo Borrani belonged to a group of Florentine artists that shared the socio-political aims of the Risorgimento and acted as its cultural counterpart. In 1863 he painted a group of women sewing Red Shirts for the volunteers (Cucitrici di camicie rosse). Other artists took up weapons. Born in Verona in May 1841, sculptor Giovanni Turini joined the Fourth Regiment of Garibaldi’s volunteer army to fight in the war against Austria in 1866. He moved to New York in the late 1860s, settling in the metropolis just before the arrival of Carlo Barsotti.
At twenty-two years of age, the latter had left his native Pisa in 1872. Eight years later he co-founded Il Progresso Italo-Americano which became New York’s largest foreign-language daily newspaper in circulation. In an editorial, the founder pressed his readers to “rise and walk towards the highest hopes that might smile at the emigrant in America.” His aim was to increase the visibility of his immigrant community outside its marginalized enclave (Little Italy) and boost its pride.
One means of achieving this end was to provide memorials of Italian heroes. It was Giovanni Turini who was commissioned to create the statues of Mazzini and Garibaldi. Barsotti later raised funds for the construction of monuments in honour of Christopher Columbus (Columbus Circle, 1892), Giuseppe Verdi (between Broadway & 73rd Street, 1906), Giovanni da Verrazzano (Battery Park, 1909) and Dante Alighieri (near Lincoln Square, 1921).
These statues served as “promptings” to fellow city dwellers delivered by an expanding community of newcomers that continued to grow in stature and influence. Reminders of a proud past in the country of origin was meant to give additional weight to its migrant status.
Illustrations, from above: Bust of Italian Patriot Giuseppe Mazzini (Central Park West Drive at 67 Street) by Giovanni Turini; Giuseppe Garibaldi statue in Washington Square Park, Lower Manhattan, 1888 by Giovanni Turini; the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum at 420 Tompkins Avenue, Staten Island; Cucitrici di camicie rosse, 1863 by Odoardo Borrani (Sewing Red Shirts for the volunteers; private collection); and Carlo Barsotti’s daily newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano published in New York from 1880 to 1988.
peter Waggitt says
An interesting perspective and again learned quite a bit from you Jaap. You always say that history is a perspective and more likely the perogative of the victors. This essay proves that more than most.