The Fathers of Modern Italy

Strife Among the Leaders

The movement that led to the birth of Modern Italy bore its principal fruit only after decades of clandestine struggle, local but violent uprisings, and open warfare. Italians speak of there having been four main leaders of this revolution, the four “Fathers of the Fatherland.” Nevertheless, one of these four has a huge tomb that bears the label, “The Father of the Fatherland,” as if he were alone in fathering Italy. Kings have advantages in such promotional matters, and his tomb is even placed in the Pantheon, a rather impressive location. The King in this case was Victor Emmanuel II, and he also has by far the largest and costliest monument of any of the four main leaders. It is called the “Vittoriano” or, more commonly, “the Wedding Cake.”

Each of the other three leaders of the Risorgimento also has a monument in Rome, and all four are honored all over Italy in the naming of piazzas, bridges, and streets. These other three are Giuseppe Garibaldi, Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, and Giuseppe Mazzini. I will dedicate one pod to each of these four men and their monuments, and another one or two to other visible reminders of the Risorgimento in Rome.

The characteristic that they shared the most, besides their eagerness to secure Italy’s independence, was the intensity of their disagreement with each other. Each is remembered in Rome by a significant monument and by the names of streets or piazzas as well. They enjoy the same honor in most other Italian cities as well, so travelers hear their names often. And yet their disagreements are as interesting as their achievements.

Our pods on “the man and his monument” will take them up in this order:

  • Victor Emmanuel II: The First King of United Italy
  • Giuseppe Garibaldi: The General
  • Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour: The Diplomat
  • Giuseppe Mazzini: The Revolutionary in Exile

The main monument to the King is the much-criticized “Wedding Cake,” more properly known as the “Vittoriano.” Charlie Wheeler’s photo below shows the King in Military garb above the central part of the monument, known as “The Altar of the Fatherland.” It sits on prime real estate on the Capitoline Hill and overlooks Piazza Venezia. Our pod on the King will examine the many symbols on the monument, while also considering why the first king of Italy has a “II” after his name.

Central portion of the Victor Emmanuel II monument

The central portion of the Vittoriano, the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II and United Italy.

The main monument to Garibaldi is on the top of the Janiculum Hill. The reliefs on the front and back call special attention to his tenacious fight against the French defenders of the papacy in 1849 and to his brilliant conquest of all of southern Italy in 1860. A small museum and other monuments pertinent to the Risorgimento are nearby, including a statue of his wife Anita on horseback. Noting that she is (almost) nursing a baby while wielding a pistol will later help us learn about Mussolini as well as about Anita herself.

The location of the Garibaldis’ statues is apt, for the Janiculum Hill was the main battleground in 1849, when the French sent troops to crush the Roman Republic, which seized power in Rome after Pope Pius IX had fled the city’s growing tumult. Garibaldi and his “Garibaldini” offered tenacious resistance, but were driven out of the city and dispersed. His wife Anita died during the ordeal.

Garibaldi's Equestrian Statue on the summit of the Janiculum Hill

Garibaldi’s Equestrian Statue on the summit of the Janiculum Hill

Whereas Garibaldi was a brilliant military leader, nicknamed “the General,” Cavour was an elected member of Parliament, often its Prime Minister, and a diplomat. Garibaldi led troops on the ground, often troops not officially members of any army; Cavour bargained to get the French army to help drive Austria out of Italy. Cavour was to Italy what Bismark was to Germany, but, sadly for Italy, Cavour died very soon after the birth of Italy, when the new country could still have used his help. Unlike Romulus, Cavour never planned anything like the abduction of the Sabine Women to help his new country come into being and survive, but a look at how he achieved what he achieved will raise its own share of moral questions.

Statue of Cavour, facing the Palace of Justice

Cavour, facing the Palace of Justice, with personifications of Rome and Italy

Giuseppe Mazzini was convicted of leading an insurrection against Piedmont-Sardenia when he was a young man, and he lived the rest of his life in exile, mostly in London. From this relatively safe haven, he wrote thousands of revolutionary articles and letters for clandestine distribution, and he remained the most widely followed voice of the revolution. He was also the most uncompromising democrat of the Four Fathers of the Fatherland, and he never accepted the idea that Italy should be born a monarchy, even a limited monarchy, which distinguished him sharply from the King and Cavour, but even from Garibaldi. He died in Italy, but he was there clandestinely, for he was not legally allowed in the country he helped to found.

A statue of Giuseppe Mazzini seated above the Circus Maximus

A statue of Giuseppe Mazzini seated above the Circus Maximus

Down with the Priests!