Of Garibaldi’s many military adventures and many contributions to the unification of Italy, none was more dramatic or more consequential than his conquest of Sicily and all of southern Italy in 1860. We discuss it in this episode.

Show Notes

The point of departure for our last episode on Modern Italy was the statue of Garibaldi on the summit of the Janiculum Hill and, in particular, the group of bronze statues on the front of the monument. As we saw, they represented the courageous stand Garibaldi’s followers made against the assault of a French army in 1849. The Garibaldini were trying to defend the brand new Roman Republic, a democracy, while the French were fighting to pacify Rome and bring the pope back from exile so he could rule it as God’s representative on Earth. On failing to hold out against the larger, better trained, and better equipped French army, the Garibaldini left Rome, with their leader declaring that wherever they went, that would be Rome. But hunted especially by the Austrian Army, they quickly became a weak and ragtag group, and they had to dissolve to save themselves. Garibaldi’s defense of the Roman Republic thus left behind no tangible gains but, at least in the eyes of patriots, served as an inspiring example of sacrifice for a nation that did not yet exist.

It was a decade before Garibaldi resumed his fight for a new Italy, and when he did so, circumstances had changed greatly. Instead of leading the forces of a short-lived and upstart democratic state like the Roman Republic, he served as a Major General in the Army of Piedmont, a monarchy; and instead of fighting against the French, he would be fighting as their ally in the Second Italian War of Independence. The Austrians had won the first in 1848-49.

These watershed changes were owing especially to the diplomatic gifts of Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour (C-A-V-O-U-R), and an adequate picture of them must wait until we discuss him and his monument in Piazza Cavour. But the gist of the matter is not complicated.

Piedmont, you will remember, means “at the foot of the mountains,” and its capital city was Turin, in northwest Italy. It was the most powerful independent state in Italy, and it had a parliament that limited the powers of its king, Victor Emmanuel II. Its Prime Minister in the late 1850’s was Cavour, and he managed to get France to be Piedmont’s ally in a war against Austria. Cavour’s goal was to force Austria to get out of Italy, that is, to cede Lombardy, the area around Milan, and the Veneto, the area around Venice, to Piedmont, which could then become the core of a New Kingdom of Italy, an Italian version of the one Napoleon had created a half-century earlier. Cavour’s plans did not work out exactly as designed, but by the end of 1859, his subtle mix of war and diplomacy had enabled Piedmont to double in size.

The same events also enhanced Garibaldi’s reputation. He had supported Piedmont’s war against Austria and headed a group of volunteers called “the Hunters of the Alps,” or “I Cacciatori delle Alpi,” and though they were a small fraction of the total army, they won several dramatic victories near Lakes Maggiore, Como, and Garda, known today as Italy’s beautiful Lake District. Garibaldi received much of the credit for these successes, and there are reports that, when “the Hunters of the Alps” marched by, townsfolk shouted “Viva l’Italia; Viva Garibaldi, that young and old kissed his hands and feet, and that some women even asked him to baptize their babies. His emerging cult following would explode in the coming year.

Garibaldi had made a notable contribution in Piedmont’s war with Austria, but Cavour continued to distrust him, and Garibaldi returned the favor. After all, Garibaldi had been condemned to death back in 1834 for trying to overthrow the Piedmontese government, and he seemed to be both a loose cannon, prompt to act independently and hard to control, and also a democratic cannon, who could not give his wholehearted support to Piedmont’s limited monarchy. His erstwhile friend and colleague Giuseppe Mazzini, for example, had chosen to live in exile, whence he could continue to shower abuse on Piedmont and Cavour for not introducing more democratic policies. For their part, Cavour and the King would have executed Mazzini if they could have gotten their hands on him. So how reliable could Garibaldi be? Nevertheless, Piedmont wanted help from Garibaldi as a recruiter of volunteers, leader of men, and symbol of popular support for the war with Austria.

For his part, Garibaldi knew that he would not be entrusted with the forces or the independence he wanted. He even suspected, after he had been promised artillery and cavalry support so he could attack the town of Lonato, near the southern shore of Lake Garda, that Cavour then delayed the arrival of this help to make it more likely that Garibaldi would lose both the battle and his life. More certain, and perhaps even worse to Garibaldi’s way of thinking, Cavour handed over some of Piedmont’s territory to France in return for French favors respecting Northern Italy. This territory included Nice and Savoy, which became part of France only at this time. Garibaldi would not have liked this kind of payoff in any event, but Savoy was the home of the king’s dynasty, and Nice—previously Nizza—was Garibaldi’s beloved birthplace. So any future Italy that Garibaldi helped to bring into being would not include his family home. He and Cavour would hate and distrust one another for the rest of their lives.

When we visit his statue, we will learn more about how Cavour found a way to turn a limited Austrian defeat into a substantial gain for Piedmont. But Austria still held the Veneto,        the Bourbon Dynasty still dominated southern Italy,       and the Pope still ruled the Papal States, so the man who could not sit still was trying to decide what to do now that the Second Italian War of Independence was over. One thing was certain, he would not be seeking to act in close collaboration with Cavour.

After deciding against launching a direct attack on the papacy with a volunteer army acting independently of Piedmont, and also deciding not to try to retake Nice from the French and force it back under Piedmont’s rule, Garibaldi was led by events and the enthusiasm of others to lead an invasion of Sicily. The idea, of course, was not to conquer Sicily but to stimulate and support popular insurrections against the unjust autocracy of the king, who was seated in Naples and ruled what was then called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It included all of Sicily plus southern Italy almost as far north as Rome. Towns in Sicily had in fact been forming secret revolutionary committees, weapons had been smuggled in, Mazzini was calling for action, and some minor insurrections had already broken out,    though their results had not been encouraging. Then in April of 1860 the word arrived in western Sicily that Garibaldi would be coming, but he insisted that everyone stay calm until then. He sailed from near Genoa on the 5th of May, with a few more than 1,000 volunteers from all over Italy. Hence the name of the adventure became, “The Expedition of the Thousand,” and this Spedizione dei Mille continues to be recognized as one of the stirring highpoints in the struggle for Italian independence and unity. It is the subject of the bronze group of statues on the back of Garibaldi’s monument on the Janiculum.

The Expedition was a series of battles that stretched from all the way from western Sicily to Naples, from May to October, and it made Garibaldi the conqueror and, as he called himself, the Dictator—in the good and ancient Roman sense of the term—of all of southern Italy. As I see it, it was unlikely that the Expedition ever got started, unlikely that it achieved a safe landing in western Sicily, unlikely that it won its first encounter with the larger and more professional army of the Two Sicilies, and unlikely that it then succeeded in capturing Palermo, Milazzo, Reggio, the rest of Calabria, and Naples. The conclusion of the Expedition was also unlikely, for it required King Victor Emmanuel, in whose name Garibaldi was fighting, to stop him before he marched into Rome itself to seize it from the popes. Once stopped, he handed over all his conquests, perhaps a third of Italy, to the King. This is the general subject of the statue group on the back of Garibaldi’s monument on the Janiculum.

Choosing one moment to represent the entire expedition, the statues show Garibaldi’s troops at the Battle of Calatafimi, May 15, 1860, their first battle after their surprise landing in western Sicily and the first of the string of victories that would take them all the way to Naples. The sculpture captures the violence of the battle by showing a broken cannon, a wounded Garibaldino, and an enemy soldier who has been killed; but it also shows the unfurled banner upright and a bugler in a posture that suggests he is signaling a charge, not a retreat.

“The Thousand,” as they came to be called, had gotten ashore safely at Marsala but were not unobserved, and the Government sent 3,000 troops to Calatafimi to destroy them on their march inland toward Palermo. Although he was joined by a few young Sicilian men—picciotti as they were called in the Sicilian dialect—there was not yet any sign of popular support for Garibaldi and his men from the north. The government troops thus had a 3:1 advantage in numbers, a much greater advantage in the quality of their training and equipment, and they also held the high ground. What the Thousand had going for them was leadership and zeal. When in one difficult moment Garibaldi shouted, “Here, we shall make Italy—or die,” his troops were not discouraged: they fought harder. One report has it that the government troops ran out of ammunition that this explains their retreat. This might be part of the story, but the Thousand did much of its fighting without ammunition and with rifles that functioned only to hold bayonets. Let’s not forget courage as one cause of victory, or disillusionment and indifference as causes of defeat.

So this is the main and most obvious question the Expedition raises: How did Garibaldi win against such great odds at Calatafimi? At Palermo? At Milazzo? How did he cross the straits and win at Reggio Calabria?

We cannot pause to pursue such questions further, whose answers vary from one battle to the next, but have soldiers who believe in what they are fighting for seems to me to be one crucial factor. Another very general point is to note that success in revolutionary war often breeds further success. People are slow to commit themselves to uncertain causes, but a dramatic victory or two lead them to believe that others are possible or even likely, so they become more willing to offer their blood and treasure. By August, Garibaldi had twenty times more troops than he had begun with in May; some came from Sicily but many also sailed down from the north. A more complete discussion would also show how unwisely the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fought back, especially in Palermo, when the Thousand were eminently stoppable.

A second and still more difficult array of questions is political: Was he fighting for the government of Piedmont or not? Was Piedmont helping him or not? Why did he surrender all his conquests to Victor Emanuel on October 26? Why did he not do so sooner?

The drama of Garibaldi’s battles is matched by that of his tense relations with the government of Piedmont. As an inscription on his statue indicates, Garibaldi fought in the name of “Italy and Victor Emanuel,” and he often wore the uniform of a Piedmontese general. Most importantly, he handed his conquests over to the king, so one might think that his Expedition was supported enthusiastically by Piedmont. Hardly!

Garibaldi’s Spedizione is remarkable especially because he was personally responsible for so much of it. It was almost as if he took on the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on his own. He recruited troops, raised funds, and sought arms. Meanwhile, Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedmont, followed an ambiguous policy, sometimes opposing the Expedition, either openly or indirectly, and sometimes supporting it. Among other actions to impede Garibaldi’s success or slow his progress, Cavour denied Garibaldi modern rifles he had worked to collect, ordered that his ships be stopped, delayed a large group of reinforcements from sailing, tried to block his crossing from Sicily to the mainland, and plotted a coup in Naples to keep Garibaldi from winning Naples himself. (It failed.)

The core of the issue between Garibaldi and Piedmont was this. Garibaldi wanted desperately to unite Italy, but he had always been a defender of democratic political principles, not monarchy. Cavour wanted desperately to strengthen Piedmont and its limited monarchy, and he might have been content with a Kingdom of Italy that ruled northern and central Italy, at least for a while, without directly incorporating the south. (That Italy was a single peninsula does not mean that it was best for it to be a single nation in 1860, and some still argue that it would have been better if such alien regions as Piedmont and Sicily had not been united into a single state.) Beyond this, Cavour feared insurrections and revolutionary politics, for insurrections that began in the name of Italy might become enamored of other revolutionary goals, like overthrowing all monarchies or radically redistributing the land, especially if Garibaldi or Mazzini had their way. Finally, there were foreign policy considerations. Piedmont was at peace with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, so it could not openly support an invasion of them, especially since France, Austria, and Russia all had warm relations with the Kingdom.

Even though Garibaldi was fighting in the name of Victor Emanuel, he called himself “the Dictator,” chose to initiate reforms of his own choosing, and did not allow the territories he had conquered to be administered by the agents Cavour was sending to him. In fact, he sometimes had them arrested. It is possible, then,    if one wishes,    to explain Cavour’s ambivalence toward Garibaldi by his envy of a more glamorous leader,     but there were other more serious reasons for Piedmont to keep Garibaldi’s Expedition at arm’s length.

Complicating matters still further is that the King seems to have been much more encouraging of Garibaldi than Cavour was, and yet he kept his support secret, so as not to show how divided his government was or to reveal that he was dabbling in revolutionary politics. The single clearest example of this split occurred after Garibaldi had conquered all of Sicily and was planning to cross the Straits of Messina and take his war of liberation to the Italian mainland. On a single day, July 27, Garibaldi seems to have received two letters from the King. The first ordered him not to cross over to the mainland, which was Cavour’s policy; the second guided him in how to disobey the first. Later, as Garibaldi pondered the challenge of getting across straits patrolled by the powerful navy of his enemy, another letter arrived from the King urging him to cross over and march north even up to Rome (August 8). Garibaldi could thus think he was being obedient to the government, even as he disobeyed Cavour.

As it became increasingly clear that the government seated in Naples could not stop the Dictator, Cavour concluded that Piedmont had to do so. To his prior worries, he now feared that Garibaldi would keep marching after seizing Naples and make the pope his next target, and this would further damage relations with France and might prompt them to intervene once again on behalf of the papacy.

Cavour persuaded the king to march a large army out to intercept the General and Dictator before he could move up from Naples to Rome. Garibaldi could imagine that the King’s army was coming to help him take Rome, for in the course of its march south, it took another big bite out of the Papal States; but the King then interposed himself between Garibaldi and papal Rome, his primary target. Unwilling to initiate a civil war by attacking the King’s army, Garibaldi offered the king a handshake and all his conquests. As if in imitation of ancient Rome’s Cincinnatus, he then returned to a simple life on his rocky island, while declining all rewards for his service.

Garibaldi’s peaceful surrender of southern Italy allowed the king to reach what seemed to be a critical mass for the creation of a modern nation state. Thus the vastly enlarged Kingdom of Piedmont changed its name to “the Kingdom of Italy,” which was proclaimed in Turin on March 17, 1861. That Garibaldi contributed mightily to this moment by his unlikely conquest of southern Italy is the ultimate importance of the statue group on the back of his monument on the Janiculum.

As Garibaldi did not tire of pointing out, this new Italy was not yet complete: it still lacked Rome, which was in the hands of the pope, and Venice, which was controlled by Austria; and therefore, he would soon be back in action, fighting in both word and deed to drive the pope out of Rome, bring the Eternal City into Italy, and send the Austrians packing.

In the next episode, we will return to Ancient Rome and to Constantine the Great, a tougher cookie and even greater conqueror than Garibaldi. In this case, we will visit his arch near the Roman Forum. In contrast to the Equestrian statue of him that Bernini put in the Portico of St. Peter’s, or the giant frescos of the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums, the arch honors him as a traditional Roman emperor and conqueror, not as an agent of Christianity. This should help us to raise again the question of who this powerful mystery man really was.

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