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Of the Four Founders of Modern Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi lived the most colorful life and—at least on the field of battle—made the greatest contribution to the new nation. He fought tirelessly for freedom for four decades, not only in Italy but also in South America and France. He was so dynamic a leader as to attract followers ready to fight to the death, the so-called Red Shirts or Garibaldini, and he even led them against the pope in Rome, only to be turned back by the nation he had helped to create. The names of bridges, piazzas, and streets remember him all over Italy. Today we visit the most important Monument to him in Rome, his statue on the summit of Rome’s highest hill, the Janiculum.

Show Notes

For a simple introduction, see The Four Fathers of Modern Italy and “Down with the Priests.”

The Janiculum Hill is an excellent spot for a quiet and panoramic gaze over the city, and it includes or is adjacent to several of Rome’s most pleasant parks. There are also impressive sites along the way up, including the Tempietto di Bramante, an anticipation of Bramante’s plan for St. Peter’s, and the great fountain of Paul V, the Fontanone, whose waters feed the fountains in Piazza San Pietro.

The Tempietto di Bramante in the Cloisters of San Pietro in Montorio, on the way up the Janiculum. (Photo by

Giuseppe Garibaldi late in life but still in his characteristic garb. (Wikipedia and public domain.)

If he was at times hated by other leaders, he had a gift for winning the love and even the superstitious veneration of common folk, and not only in Italy. He received a hero’s welcome during a trip to London in 1864, where his bathwater and nail clippings were sold as if they were holy relics: his bloody bandages had already received similar treatment after he was wounded in 1862. He even looked a little like the bearded Christ, a resemblance that was stressed in numerous drawings. His flamboyant dress, with red shirt, poncho, and distinguishing, may also have contributed to his cult, while infuriating his more dignified peers in the Italian Parliament.

Often referred to simply as “the General,” Garibaldi was primarily a soldier with a gift for leading men into battle and directing military operations. He enjoyed spectacular successes and suffered hardships that would have crushed the spirit of most of us. He repeatedly risked his life in battle and suffered uncomplainingly the hardships of life in the field, even when an old man. He was outspoken, ardent, courageous, tough, a skilled leader of men, and capable of impassioned oratory.

I consider Garibaldi as one of two top candidates for having been the greatest of the Four Fathers of the Italian Fatherland. Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour, is the other, and he can help us see that Garibaldi’s list of virtues is not exhaustive. Few would attribute any of Garibaldi’s signature qualities to Cavour, but Cavour’s admirers would say that he was not just a clever diplomat but also a sage one, and that he understood well how to recognize and achieve the limits of the possible in complex political situations. What Garibaldi was, Cavour was not; but it is also doubtful that the colorful Garibaldi possessed the hardheaded political judgment that distinguished Cavour. If he thought he did, he would not be the first general to think his brilliance on the field of battle implied that he also possessed the qualities needed for political rule.

My own impression, which should be put to the test, not blindly accepted, is that Garibaldi offers even better material for a Broadway show than Hamilton does, especially when his wife Anita is added to the picture, but I cannot see Garibaldi writing anything quite like the extraordinary Federalist Papers that Hamilton wrote jointly with his colleagues Madison and Jay. Cavour would be a far better candidate for this sort of challenge. But even if Garibaldi’s political judgment was sometimes dubious, his life is one that can make one think that our leaders, and we ourselves, have grown smaller in the contemporary period. If nothing else, he was not tainted by any desire to profit from the causes to which he tirelessly dedicated himself, even though he lived in poverty. This can be said also of Giuseppe Mazzini, whom we will get to later.

Italy and Rome simply had to erect monuments to Garibaldi; he was the sword of the Risorgimento and a hero larger than life. But it was not an entirely easy task to know how to do this. Leaving mere envy aside, the main problem Garibaldi posed was that the New Italy was a limited monarchy, but Garibaldi was not a monarchist.

True enough, he had risked his life to create the new nation, and for this end, he had served the King. It is thus to be expected that his statue in Rome emphasizes his loyalty; it does so especially by an inscription on the pedestal of, which reads, “Italy and Victor Emmanuel,” a rallying cry that Garibaldi had used while conquering southern Italy. But Garibaldi served the king only because the king possessed the power and perceived authority that was essential if Italy was going to be successfully united. Once this goal was achieved, Garibaldi made it clear that unification was not enough. He promptly became a severe critic of the New Italy, and he would have been happy to see the Italian monarchy swept away and replaced by a republic, as he made clear especially in the last fifteen years of his life.

In addition to frequently criticizing the government he had helped to create, Garibaldi had twice raised his own volunteer army to drive the pope out of Rome. He even had to be stopped by the army of the government he had helped to create. So how should the Italian monarchy honor a man willing to raise an army and violate the law to press his own anticlerical agenda?

Would the Italian government want to honor Garibaldi precisely for the ways he had attacked it? Is the goal of any monument, in the eyes of its makers, to remember the past in all its complexity? Or, do monuments seek to influence the future in ways their makers deem salutary? The trick for the Italian authorities—or at least for the political mainstream—was to honor the good and patriotic Garibaldi, while not bringing the left-leaning firebrand into the limelight.

Now that we’ve introduced “the General” and indicated a few reasons he is a complicated character, let’s turn to his monument on the summit of the Janiculum Hill, the highest point in Rome.

The Monument to Garibaldi on the Janiculum Hill, south side (Photo Podcast on the Vittoriano.) Bands of reliefs run around the statue and evoke ancient Rome. They depict laurel wreaths, fasces, and the armaments that ancient soldiers used to take from their defeated foes (“trophies”). On the front of the statue base is the famous she wolf, suckling the twins Romulus and Remus.

Beyond this unsurprising silence about the Church and its faith, there are a few hints of tension. The one that first caught my eye is the plaque on the long south side of the statue. Note the date. It reads MMDCLX. This is 2,660 in Arabic numerals, which should not sound quite right. The reason is that the date is given in the fashion of the ancient Romans, from the founding of Rome in 753 BC, so the date referred to is actually 2,660-753=1907, which marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Garibaldi’s birth. Thus the plaque rejects the Christian dating system in favor of that of the ancient Romans.

The plaque also identifies itself as a gift of the Freemasons to a Grand Master, for Garibaldi held this high position among the Masons, an international organization that supported modern free institutions and were deeply anticlerical, as they showed in their support for the statue of Giordano Bruno. Catholics were prohibited from being members, and Pope Leo XIII attacked the organization in his encyclical entitled Humanum Genus in 1884. Calling attention to Garibaldi’s association with the Freemasons, calls attention to his anticlerical and republican sentiments, but this was done a dozen years after the statue was inaugurated; and it was the Masons who took the lead, not the Italian nation.

Another hint of Garibaldi’s anticlericalism may be seen in the location of the statue and in the direction of his stare. He is looking warily to his left, toward the Vatican, as if to be prepared for trouble from that quarter, more or less the way Giordano Bruno glared toward the Vatican in his statue. And Garibaldi has been given the advantage of high ground: he can look down on his rival, as was much more clear a century ago, before a stand of trees grew up and blocked the view.

A further hint of Garibaldi’s anticlericalism can be found in a battle cry inscribed on the south side of the statue’s pedestal. It reads, “Roma O Morte,” “Rome or Death.” It was coined in 1862 when Garibaldi was leading an illegal army up from Sicily to unseat the pope. The Italian government sent an army to stop him, which it did near Aspromonte, in Calabria, on the toe of the Italian boot. Two years earlier Garibaldi had helped to create the New Italy; now he led forces of his own toward Rome, got himself wounded, and was sent to prison. The government did not hold him in prison for long, but the episode is a clear reminder of the tensions between the General and the country he helped to create, especially regarding Italy’s reluctance to attack the Church directly in Rome, for powerful France had pledged to defend it. Since this battle cry is a reminder of Garibaldi’s readiness to criticize and disregard the New Italy, I’m a little surprised it was allowed on the monument.

Garibaldi’s own critique of the Church was far louder than that of the statue, as he was prone to saying directly that papal rule was the main obstacle to liberty in Italy. He called the Church “the cancer of Italy,” for example, and he elsewhere wrote to a friend, “I believe the first need of Italy to be that of shaking the putrid funeral bier of the Vatican, to reduce it into fragments and scatter them.” It’s not that the authorities were unaware of this core belief of Garibaldi’s, they simply did not want to stress it in a country in which Catholicism was still very much present.

The statue gives us a good chance to introduce Garibaldi the General and the Risorgimento, for it calls attention to two important battles along the way to a New Italy. The one on the front of the statue represents the defense of the Roman Republic against the French in 1849; the one on the back is of the first battle in the conquest of Sicily in 1860. The former was a glorious defeat, the latter a spectacular victory.

We will review them when we next return to Modern Rome. Hope to see you there.

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