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Garibaldi: Citizen of the World by Alfonso Scirocco

Goodbye, Columbus, benvenuto, Garibaldi!

The second Monday in October makes every year Columbus year. But this bicentennial of the birth of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82), the global freedom fighter most responsible for the 1861 unification of Italy, means that an Italian of far greater import gets the main camera eye.

These two major new studies assess not only the most famous Italian of the 19th century, not only, according to Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, a “classic hero, a character from The Aeneid, but also a man who once was, according to Englishman Philip Gilbert Hamerton in 1870, “the most famous man on the planet.”

Think “the 19th century’s Che Guevera.” Garibaldi, unlike Che, thought people should be free once he freed them — not shackled by new ideological dictates. Garibaldi also struck observers as unusually selfless. He refused to accept payment for his services, only briefly wielded political power, famously surrendered the southern half of Italy he’d conquered for the greater good of the nation, and eventually retreated, Cincinnatus-like, to his farm on the island of Caprera, off Sardinia.

Of these two books, Garibaldi: Citizen of the World, by Italian historian Alfonso Scirocco, is the traditional bio that tells you who Garibaldi was, what he did, and why he’s revered. By contrast, Lucy Riall, professor of modern European history at the University of London, believes 19th-century media pumped him up to mythological dimensions, so she shrinks him back to a manufactured celeb as heroic at PR as at warfare.

Born in Nice, Garibaldi started out as a merchant seaman and became a captain by his mid-20s. In 1833, he joined Young Italy, a clandestine group formed by Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini to incite rebellion throughout the peninsula. The goal? A unified and progressive democratic republic.

At 27, Garibaldi fled to South America after being sentenced to death for participating in a Genoan insurrection. Passionately committed to social justice, he fought with his “red shirts” for the rebel republic of Rio Grande against Brazil, for Uruguay against Argentina. When he returned to Europe in 1848, he’d evolved into a fashion statement for romantic rebellion. Handsome, bearded, blessed with a seductive voice and the sartorial flair of an Argentine gaucho (colorful poncho and neckerchief) — a radical matinee idol to activist women in particular — he began the European battles that made him famous.

In 1849, Garibaldi briefly fought French troops laying siege to Rome, but then had to take to the mountains. There his beloved and pregnant wife, Anita, who joined him in his military adventures, died.

That sparked Garibaldi’s second exile, during which he lived modestly for two years in a house on Staten Island (now a Garibaldi museum) and journeyed to Asia before returning to Italy. In 1859-60, he embarked on his most celebrated campaign, the “Expedition of the Thousand” (as in volunteers). It ended with the conquest of Sicily and southern Italy, and Garibaldi’s hand-over of the territory to King Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont, which resulted in the unification of Italy.

By the time Garibaldi made his famous visit to London in 1864, his fame exceeded anything Europe had seen before. More than 500,000 turned out to greet him. Servants sold hairs from his comb. He continued for a while to fight for causes he believed in — against the Austrians in 1866, against the Prussians a few years later. Eventually, he returned to Caprera, living simply and receiving pilgrims and other visitors until he died.

Scirocco narrates Garibaldi’s life with appropriate respect, if not reverence. At his death, after all, Garibaldi stood for many still widely admired ideals: universal free education and suffrage, a proto-European-Union or world government, racial and gender equality, elimination of the death penalty.

Riall, however, insists that Garibaldi, with an initial push by Mazzini, largely invented himself as a hero, cleverly managing his public image through a “sophisticated propaganda exercise.” She writes of the “staged” quality of Garibaldi’s ostensibly humble life, concluding that “image and reality were effectively indistinguishable” (which seems to acknowledge the authenticity of the reality). For her, the Garibaldi myth owes almost everything to the endless heroic images and accounts of him that flooded Europe.

After finishing Scirocco’s account of Garibaldi’s life, the great insurgent emerges as traditionally understood: enormously admirable, patriotic, nonmaterialistic, generous, a charismatic leader who typically refused honors.

After finishing Riall’s unquestionably provocative book, all its lithographs and media paraphernalia don’t change one’s fundamental opinion of Garibaldi, except to confirm that he grasped how people viewed him. Her claims that Garibaldi “artificially constructed” his charisma, like her assertion that late in life he sought to make his weak physical condition a “symbol of national suffering,” falls flat. What others made of Garibaldi didn’t contradict who he was.

It appears to mean nothing to Riall that intellectuals and artists as shrewd as Ivan Turgenev and Sir Walter Scott idolized Garibaldi. She attributes insincere character to Garibaldi even though virtually everyone who knew him swore by his sincerity. Her unargued ulterior conviction seems to be that Garibaldi was too good to be true.

But as the novelist and Italianista Tim Parks pointed out, some contemporary historians think Garibaldi’s basic goodness was true. A.J.P. Taylor described Garibaldi as “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history.”

Sometimes a biographer and subject wind up temperamentally mismatched. Garibaldi survives Riall’s take-down just as he eluded enough bullets to kill a regiment. Advice to professor Riall: Do that next book on a certain Italian who sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two.