A decade before this, however, there was a battle that, even though it ended in defeat, lives just as vividly in Italian hearts. This was the battle to defend the short-lived, but seminal Republic established in the city of Rome in 1849. The struggle included not only Garibaldi in his first real appearance as hero of Italy, but also that other giant patriot, Giuseppe Mazzini. As G.M. Trevelyan says in his beautifully-written history, Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic:
That there should ever have been a time when Mazzini ruled Rome and Garibaldi defended her walls, sounds like a poet’s dream. (Trevelyan, Intro, 3)
But it was no dream. As Mazzini makes clear in his writings, the 1849 battle for Rome in the face of hopeless odds was a necessity in order to trumpet to the Italian people not just the dream of liberation, but its possibility, its inevitability:
To the many other causes which decided us to resist, there was in my mind one intimately bound up with the aim of my whole life—the foundation of our national unity. Rome was the natural center of that unity, and it was important to attract the eyes and reverence of my countrymen towards her… (Mazzini, quoted in Trevelyan, 112)
To understand what happened and why it happened in Rome, some acquaintance with prior events is necessary. Mostly this involves the European uprisings of 1848. Due partly to crop failures in 1845-7, and partly to revolutionary ideas of liberation among the middle classes, popular uprisings rocked Europe’s monarchies in 1848, forcing many rulers to either flee or to grant concessions. Prince Metternich was forced to resign as Austria’s foreign minister; King Louis Philippe fled France and a Republic was declared; similar revolts took place in Krakow, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Madrid and elsewhere. In Italy, insurrections shook all the major territories. In January, citizens struck against Austrian rule in Lombardy by refusing to smoke or play the lottery—thus denying the Austrians needed taxes. Soon Sicily revolted against the Bourbon King Ferdinand, who then granted his Kingdom of Two Sicilies a constitution. Tuscan revolts in February ousted the Grand Duke and led to a constitution and a provisional government. Later in February, the newly installed Pope, Pius IX (Pio Nono), surprised the Papal States by initiating reforms and granting a constitution there as well. Despite the concessions, however, tensions continued to grow. An insurrection in Milan starting on March 18 resulted in the famous five days (cinque giornate) of street fighting that expelled the Austrian garrison and forced Marshal Joseph Radetzky’s army to retreat. With Daniele Manin leading a similar revolt in Venice, King Charles Albert of Sardinia/Piedmont concluded that Italy’s struggle for unification was at hand, and declared war on Austria. The whole of Italy seemed to be in revolt against her foreign rulers.
It was at this point that the two revolutionary exiles, Mazzini in London and Garibaldi in Uruguay, returned to their homeland to join the struggle. They met, for the first time, in Milan sometime in the summer of 1848. Mazzini had gone to Milan in April hoping to inspire the Milanesi to form a Republic, but after offering Charles Albert his services, became increasingly disenchanted with the King’s timidity. Garibaldi, too, had offered his services to Charles Albert on July 5, but the King mainly wanted to get rid of this uncontrollable firebrand and passed him on to staff in Turin. On the way, Garibaldi stopped in Milan, where he was offered a Generalship and, at the end of the month, asked to defend Bergamo with 3700 men under his command. Mazzini took up a rifle and joined Garibaldi’s troops at Bergamo, but both were so disgusted with King Charles Albert’s easy defeat by the Austrians (at Custoza July 25, 1848) and the subsequent armistice that Garibaldi issued a proclamation:
“The king of Sardinia may have a crown that he holds onto by dint of misdeeds and cowardice, but my comrades and I do not wish to hold on to our lives by shameful actions.” (Alfonso Scirocco, Garibaldi, Citizen of the World, Princeton U Press: 2007, 145)
Garibaldi’s legionnaires were then hunted by both the Austrians and a force sent by King Charles Albert to capture him (the second time Charles Albert had ordered Garibaldi’s arrest). By the end of August, after daring battles in Luino and Morazzone, an exhausted Garibaldi took refuge in Switzerland, where Mazzini had earlier gone, and then in his hometown of Nice (Nizza).
Though he took some time to recover, Garibaldi was soon ready to renew his efforts, deciding in October that Sicily, now at war with King Ferdinand (newly christened “King Bomba” for his bombardment of Messina), was ripe. A stop at Livorno interrupted his plans when patriots there asked that he lead a revolution in Tuscany. Though this, too, failed for lack of recruits, Garibaldi then opted to aid Daniele Manin, still holding the Austrians out of Venice. Once again, though, the hero was detained enroute, this time by Liberals in Bologna begging him to lead their revolt against Papal rule.
Just as matters were coming to a head in Bologna, stunning news arrived from Rome: On November 15, the Pope’s prime minister, Pellegrino Rossi, was murdered. Luigi Brunetti, son of Rome’s populist “leader” Ciceruacchio, had stabbed the minister on his way to the opening of Parliament. Rome, and most of Italy, had been simmering with resentment against Pio Nono—once hailed, not least by Mazzini and Garibaldi himself, as the potential savior of Italy, the one whose troops could finally put an end to all foreign rule. Just as his 12,000 soldiers were joining Charles Albert in Lombardy, however, the Pope backtracked with his infamous “Allocution” of April 29, 1848. It declared, among other things, that the Pontiff was not the least inclined to wage offensive war against Austria (a Catholic power). For this reversal, the democrats and liberals who had placed their hopes in Pius IX were beside themselves with rage, venting it by attacking the Quirinal Palace and firing on the Swiss Guards. So petrified was the Pope by this demonstration that, on November 24, he disguised himself as a simple priest and fled south to the protection of King Ferdinand. Then, from his safe fortress in Gaeta, the Pope refused all overtures for negotiations and demanded unconditional surrender to his temporal rule over Rome and all the Papal States.
Garibaldi saw his opportunity. He set out for Rome with his Italian Legion, now 500 in number—a force that included the recently-added cavalry of Angelo Masina. This rather motley crew passed through the Papal States, and settled in the village of Rieti to await developments. They were not long in coming. Republican leaders put together a Provisional Government. Not yet sure of itself, the government made no offers to Garibaldi when he took a quick trip on his own to Rome. But in February 1849, when a Constituent Assembly was summoned, Garibaldi again traveled to Rome with his constant companion, Aguiar—a giant of a black man from Brazil—and Ignazio Bueno, who carried the arthritic Garibaldi up the steps to the Assembly. This time, Garibaldi, as a member of the Assembly, made a speech urging quick action, and was given a command, though not of the whole army as he had hoped. Rather, he was made a lieutenant colonel in the Roman army, but with authority for only 500 troops to defend Porto San Gregorio on the Adriatic. Like Charles Albert, Rome’s leaders clearly wanted to keep him at a distance.
Still, Garibaldi remained ready—recruiting more troops as well as outfitting his legion—as Rome’s government, on February 9, declared itself a Republic. In its Fundamental Statute of Four Articles it declared: the Papacy was deposed from temporal authority, though the Pontiff was granted full independence regarding his spiritual power; the form of government was to be a complete democracy; and the resulting Roman Republic was to join the rest of Italy in a movement for a common Italian nationality. The new republic had put monarchs and foreign rulers of any kind on notice: their days were numbered. As the revolutionary priest, Ugo Bassi, had declared weeks earlier, “Choose now—Garibaldi or Pius IX! Italy or continued slavery!” Romans had now chosen Italy (though not Garibaldi as yet). They had also chosen Mazzini (he was called with these words: Rome. Republic. Come!), one of their first acts being to make him a Roman citizen (he’d never been in the city before). When he did arrive on March 5, Giuseppe Mazzini was not only welcomed as Rome’s latest and greatest citizen, he was named a triumvir—one of three men to rule the city, though in fact he was the real ruler. Mazzini then set out organizing the government, and marginalizing the criminal elements that had been threatening to pervert democratic rule. As Trevelyan notes, Mazzini replaced the unruly elements with “a spirit of tolerance and liberty almost unexampled in time of national danger.” Mazzini, at one point, put it thus to the Assembly: “We must act like men who have the enemy at their gates, and at the same time like men who are working for eternity.”
It was the first of these objectives that induced the Roman government to finally turn to Garibaldi. The enemy was indeed at the gates. Pius IX, faced with the end of his temporal rule, had called for help not only from the hated Austrians, but also from the Spanish and the French—indeed from any Catholic monarch who would restore him. That the Austrians and the Spanish came to his aid was not surprising. But that the French—a fellow Republic and the initiators of revolution against despotic rule—would answer it was met with near disbelief. As the American, Margaret Fuller, wrote in one of her letters from Rome:
The interference of the French has roused the weakest to resistance. “From the Austrians, from the Neapolitans,” they cried, “we expected this; but from the French—it is too infamous; it cannot be borne;” and they all ran to arms and fought nobly. (May 6, 1849)
Nonetheless, the French President Louis Napoleon saw an opportunity to regain some of the influence France had lost when the Pope chose Naples as a refuge, rather than France. His ministers, too, saw an opportunity to curry favor with French Catholic voters in the future. And when the Austrians won a total victory in the battle of Novara (Charles Albert had decided to try war with Austria again; even more soundly defeated on March 22-23, 1849 at Novara, he resigned his throne to his son, Vittorio Emanuele) the French president, worried about Austrian domination, ignored his republican scruples and joined in the race to be the first to “liberate” Rome. As justification, he used words similar to these used by the Pope in his April 20 Allocution:
Who does not know that the city of Rome, the principal seat of the Church, has now become, alas, a forest of roaring beasts, overflowing with men of every nation, apostates, or heretics, or leaders of communism and socialism? (Trevelyan107)
Rome’s Republic was portrayed not as a movement for liberation, that is, but as a plot hatched by foreign agitators and terrorists. If they could get there first, the French would be the liberators.
Accordingly, the French Army, consisting of some 10,000 troops under General Oudinot, landed at Rome’s sea port, Civitavecchia, on April 25. Within days, they would be at the gates of Rome, expecting an easy victory over the “cowardly” Italians.
What Oudinot did not count on, of course, was the genius and charisma of Giuseppe Garibaldi, now elevated to general. With skills honed in South America, and in guerrilla war against the Austrians, Garibaldi was now at the height of his powers. Though he would have preferred to retreat to the Italian hills and fight a guerrilla war there, he yielded to Mazzini’s urging that Rome had to be defended at all costs (even though both knew the defense was eventually doomed to fail). When he arrived in the city on April 27, Garibaldi was met by the citizens of Rome in a manner befitting a god, or, at least, one of the Caesars:
“He has come, he has come!” they cried all down the Corso. (Trevelyan, 111)
In the next two days, he supervised the preparations for the coming siege, mainly digging trenches and fortifying villas near the expected point of attack. Never standing on ceremony, he rode round the city, encouraging the diggers—which even included elegantly-dressed women—himself. In later years, one Italian artist related his first encounter with him:
I had no idea of enlisting. I was a young artist; I only went out of curiosity—but oh!
I shall never forget that day when I saw him on his beautiful white horse in the market-place, with his noble aspect, his calm, kind face, his high, smooth forehead, his light hair and beard — every one said the same. He reminded us of nothing so much as of our Saviour's head in the galleries. I could not resist him. I left my studio. I went after him; thousands did likewise. He only had to show himself. We all worshipped him; we could not help it. (Trevelyan, 119)
Nor was it only the great warrior who was described in these terms. Margaret Fuller, in describing Mazzini’s March 8 visit to her three days after he arrived in Rome, used similar metaphors in two separate letters, the first to her friend Marcus Spring:
I heard a ring; then somebody speaks my name; the voice struck me at once. He looks more divine than ever, after all his new, strange sufferings. Freely would I give my life for him….
and two weeks later to her friend Caroline Tappan:
His soft radiant look makes melancholy music in my soul; it consecrates my present life that like the Magdalen I may at the important hour shed all the consecrated ointment on his head.
(both from Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: A Romantic Life, 119)
With two such leaders and an aroused citizenry facing thousands of battle-seasoned French troops, the battle for Rome could not help being legendary.
(First of four parts.)