Giuseppe Mazzini prepared the soil for the unification and eventual democratization of Italy by forty years of high-level writing urging Italians and other Europeans to support these goals. Since he also furthered them by revolutionary activity, he lived his life in exile and had to have his powerful words smuggled into Italy. Even after Cavour, the King, and Garibaldi had transformed Piedmont into Italy, Mazzini continued to attack the new country as insufficiently democratic. Eventually, his contributions were recognized, and in this episode we visit his statue, which is perched above the Circus Maximus on the Aventine Hill.

Show Notes

You have heard before that the so-called “Four Fathers of the Italian Fatherland” are King Victor Emmanuel II, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Count of Cavour, and Giuseppe Mazzini. It is only Mazzini who has not been the subject of an episode, but we’ll change this today.

Mazzini was the head of the failed Roman Republic of 1849, the one that Garibaldi tried to protect against the attacks of the better trained and equipped forces sent by France to put the pope back on his throne. You have also heard that he was sharply critical of Cavour’s effort to unify Italy by having monarchical Piedmont play the leading role: Mazzzini wanted to unify Italy as a democracy, which he thought could be achieved only if the people themselves took the lead in transforming their country. In his view, the Italian people could not simply be handed their new country by the actions of great powers like France and Piedmont; if they were really going to rule it themselves, they had to fight to create it, and this meant fighting against the monarchy of Piedmont, not for it. It is thus no surprise that he was the only Father of the New Italy who was subject to arrest if he got caught in it, for this Italy was the creation especially of Piedmont and Cavour. Mazzini did manage to die in Italy, but he was there illegally and in disguise, for he was at once a Father of the new country and its enemy. For his part, Cavour was a modern liberal, ready to break the power of the Church and the old aristocracy; but he denied that it was either possible or wise to stir up popular insurrections and overthrow the limited monarchy that Piedmont had become, so he and Mazzini were enemies.

It is similarly no surprise that it took a while for the new Italy to acknowledge Mazzini’s contribution to it. Whereas planning for monuments to Victor Emmanuel, Garibaldi, and Cavour began fairly quickly after the birth of the new nation, plans for architectural tributes to Mazzini were slow to materialize. In fact, towns that wanted to honor Mazzini were forbidden by the King from doing so. Tributes to him did arrive, however belatedly, and today Mazzini is remembered throughout Italy. Rome has a bridge, piazza, and street named after him, and one of the many busts on the Pincian Hill represents him. As with Garibaldi and Cavour, his main Roman monument is a sculptural group. It is eye-catching and, on the slopes of the Aventine Hill, in a splendid location from which to observe the ruins of the Palatine Hill and, lower down, the still extant shape of the Circus Maximus.

Monument to Mazzini, front and center (my photo)

Italy did not approve a Roman statue of Mazzini until 1902, and they did not inaugurate it until June 2, 1949, 77 years after his death. Between the approval and inauguration were delays caused by Mazzini’s opposition to monarchy, two World Wars, twenty years of Mussolini’s fascism, and complaints by the Church that parts of the statue were too anticlerical. Still, the date of the inauguration was aptly chosen for two reasons: June 2 of 1949 was the third anniversary of the day on which the Italian people voted to abolish the monarchy, which Mazzini had wanted them to do by force a century earlier; and 1949 was the 100th anniversary of the Roman Republic, of which Mazzini was the most important leader and Garibaldi the most important general. This Republic lasted only a half a year, but it came to symbolize the kind of changes Mazzini wanted to bring to the entire peninsula and the kind of sacrifices he thought would bring them.

If the Savoy monarchy had reservations against Mazzini for his anti-monarchical principles, Mussolini opposed the Freemasons, of which, like Garibaldi, Mazzini had been a suspected member. Worse, at least from the point of view of Mussolini’s regime, the sculptor working on Mazzini’s statue was Ettore Ferrari, who had carved the statue of Giordano Bruno and was himself a leading Freemason. Even after Ferrari had completed his monument to Mazzini, its bronze and marble parts sat mostly unseen in separate studios, pending a more welcoming political climate.

The Statue

Revolutionary Struggle, front and center (my photo)

As finally erected, Mazzini’s statue represents him seated and pensive atop a large and mostly rectangular block of marble. Three and a half sides of the marble mass are covered by a frieze with sculptures of perhaps seventy-five figures in high and low relief, mostly of people but also of horses, a hydra, and several divinities. The figures across the long front of the monument clearly show a revolutionary struggle in which common people are the main combatants. Urged on by trumpets, people of different trades and classes rise up, armed only with simple weapons like scythes, hatchets, and pistols. Three women lead them, two on horseback and a third who seems almost to fly forward. A fourth woman, nude and kneeling, hands a hammer and a chisel to one of the workers who will build the new Italy. The struggle is fierce, and yet, curiously, the enemy is not represented on the statue, so victory seems assured. Sorting this out, I’d say we see representations of the aspirations for liberty Mazzini helped to arouse, the readiness on the part of his followers to sacrifice themselves for the attainment of these aspirations, the struggle that is needed to defeat tyranny, and, generally speaking, the energy, movement, and triumph of revolution. To put it in the negative, there is no state-sponsored army like that of Piedmont, no sign of any diplomatic activity, and no hint of a traditional leader, like King Victor Emmanuel II.

The Thinker, seated on the right, Contemplates the Revolution (my photo)

There is also a seated thinker, muscular like a Michelangelo, who studies the action from the far right. In a very early account of the statue by Michele de Benedetti, this thinker is taken to represent “the Mazzinian idea, which had not yet become realized, which faithfully and firmly awaits the future.” This makes sense, for the statue looks utterly pensive, like the “thinker” of Rodin, which had recently made its appearance.

But consider the monument from top to bottom, and note that Mazzini too is represented as deep in thought above the fray, separated from it first by his elevation and second because he is in bronze, the rest of the statue in marble. Isn’t the main suggestion that, like an unmoved mover, he stimulates and guides the action that rages beneath him? That his thoughts and sentiments are responsible for the successful revolution that is represented in the marble mass on which he sits?

If thought sometimes studies action without affecting it, Mazzini insists that action is needed to complete thought. In a remarkable tribute to the practical side of Mazzini’s thinking, the Austrian leader Klemens von Metternich, who staunchly opposed everything Mazzini stood for, called him “the most influential revolutionary in Europe,” and this at a time when Europe was filled with revolutionaries, Karl Marx among them. Mazzini’s goal was not to ponder Europe but to transform it, and he recognized that guerrilla war had a place in this undertaking.

The group of figures on the right side of the statue shows that the revolution has come with high costs, but the justification and consolation for these sacrifices are suggested not only by the strength and beauty of the combatants but also by the presence of protective deities on three sides of the block. On the front right a goddess offers consolation to the grieving, and it appears that the fallen are even being resurrected. In de Benedetti’s account, this scene is described as representing the goddess Unity rising over those who died to advance the revolution, while their remains are being piously recomposed. This is a good description of what we see, but less an explanation of Mazzini’s religious views than an invitation to study them. He was certainly not an orthodox Christian, so the deities on his monument are not inspired directly by the Bible, and yet in sharp contrast to Garibaldi, Mazzini was a deeply religious man. An evident religiosity permeates his writings, though it is not easy to say exactly what his beliefs were, and it seems unlikely that he expected the literal resurrection of those who sacrificed their lives for the revolution.

It appears that, in the beginning, the sculptor Ferrari wanted to make Mazzini himself to be the god or protective deity of the statue, for the first design of the statue group has it enclosed within a Doric temple. If it seems to be going too far to have Mazzini seated like a deity in a temple, think again of the Lincoln Memorial, which was being built as Ferrari was working on his statue. Ferrari dropped the idea of the temple, but he did sculpt a pagan altar to place in front of the monument, which implies that Mazzini has some sort of claim to divine status.

Garibaldi’s monument included representations drawn from two of his most dramatic battles, but Mazzini’s monument presents a more abstract or allegorical representation of Revolution and perches him above it. Whereas no one could forget the dramatic success of Garibaldi’s march across southern Italy, Mazzini’s revolutionary resume did not include a single striking political or military victory to inspire a monument. He was supremely influential, and in fact I doubt Garibaldi could have taken Sicily if Mazzini’s agents had not first fomented revolt, but his influence was spread over the hearts and minds of Europeans, not concentrated in a single battle. He was not a leader of soldiers, a king by birth, or a prime minister and diplomat: he was a revolutionary political thinker and writer, a moral force, a strong believer in the power of ideas to mobilize revolutionaries not only in Italy but across the face of Europe. He wrote of duty, sacrifice, liberty, and a morality supported by a deity, and principles like these are what we see on the statue.

He also, I should be quick to add, believed in the importance of secret organizations to spread these ideas and stimulate the uprisings necessary to bring them the power they deserve. He was himself a revolutionary, not simply one who spread revolutionary thought. But neither was this aspect of his life suitable for his statue except in rather general terms.

Portrait Busts on the back of Mazzini’s Monument (my photo)

The mostly plain drum in the rear of the statue features portrait medallions of eight associates of Mazzini’s, including the author of the Italian national anthem, who was killed defending the Roman Republic of 1849. Also present is Carlo Pisacane, who thought in 1857 that the time had come for southern Italy to rise up in revolt. His band of revolutionaries was nonetheless defeated by the very population they had hoped to lead. This sad episode does not settle the question of whether Italy could or should have been united by way of popular insurrection, but it supports Cavour’s doubts that the Italian people were likely to rise up and create a new Italy.

MAZZINI AS REVOLUTIONARY: Saying that Italy was declared into existence on March 17, 1861 makes it sound as though the Risorgimento was now a done deal, and that a new order had come into being, but we have so far seen that serious challenges remained. Venice was not yet part of the new Italian state, and neither was Rome. Garibaldi even led a private army on two different occasions to drive the papacy out of Rome, though he was stopped on both, once by Italian forces and once by the Swiss and French soldiers who were defending the pope. It was also a problem, in my view, that Cavour died within three months of Italy’s birth. But most surprising to me is that Mazzini continued his revolutionary activity even after the new Italy had united most of the peninsula. I know he wanted Italy to come into being as the product of a democratic uprising, but I thought he still would have welcomed the Italy that Cavour, Garibaldi, and the King had put together; but he did not. He would go to his death in 1872 as a revolutionary opponent of the country he had helped to create. Let’s look at his activity in 1869-70 as an example.

As with Garibaldi, Mazzini’s main goal in the late 1860’s was to have Italy take Rome from the pope and make it the capital of the new Italy, but his ambitions aimed beyond this: he even wanted to topple the Savoy monarchy. To promote his radical goals, he set up a network of agents and local revolutionary committees, he spread disaffection in the army, he concealed deposits of weapons, and he got printers to print and surreptitiously distribute revolutionary pamphlets. It was reported that as of early 1870, he had a core of revolutionary followers in most Italian towns. To guide these followers better, he moved his hideout closer to Italy, from London to Lugano, Switzerland, but spies revealed his location, and he was expelled. He naturally sought Garibaldi’s help; but though they agreed about the need to take Rome, they had had too many sharp disagreements to be reconciled. The more interesting of these are that Garibaldi was an open and vehement atheist, while Mazzini was not, and Garibaldi’s criticism of the monarchy had not gone so far that he was ready to try to overthrow it, even though he had become attracted to the Communism of Karl Marx, whereas Mazzini deplored Communism as much as he did monarchy.

Mazzini undertook all of these revolutionary activities while staying in hiding and in spite of being rather old and often sick. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in July of 1870, Mazzini thought this would be the moment in which to turn Italy from a monarchy into a republic. He then came out of hiding and headed for Sicily, either to lead the insurrection that would burn like a wildfire over all of Italy or to be captured or killed in such a way as to spark it. As things turned out, rather anticlimactically, he was arrested and put in a rather comfortable jail cell in Gaeta, and no serious insurrection ever came of all his preparations.

A month after he was jailed, the soldiers of the new Italy took Rome from the popes, so one might expect that Garibaldi and Mazzini would have been thrilled, and yet the deed was not done in the way either would have liked. Far from the front lines, Mazzini was in his jail cell when it happened, and Garibaldi too was kept away from the momentous overthrow of papal rule. It even appears that Victor Emmanuel justified his seizure of Rome not as the triumphal end of the popes’ unrepresentative theocracy but as necessary to defeat the revolutionaries, stirred up by Garibaldi and Mazzini, who might do the pope some harm, even though there were no such revolutionaries. The king, that is, wanted to make it plain that his seizure of Rome was a governmental action, in no way provoked by Mazzini or Garibaldi, and in no way a prelude to further revolutionary actions. To the contrary!

MAZZINI AS THINKER, INTERNATIONALIST: The statue shows Mazzini thinking, but his tireless work also entailed almost constant writing. Much of his writing urged immediate action, but he was a thoughtful man and also studied such challenging authors as Dante, Shakespeare, Kant, and Hegel.

He is the only one of the Four Fathers whose political, moral, and religious thought is studied for its merits, as it deserves to be. His short book the Duties of Man is a good introduction to the power and moral urgency of his writing, which kept him at the center of the Risorgimento for half a century.

Nor does Mazzini’s statue find a clear way to call attention to his internationalism. Like Garibaldi, he was an Italian patriot who was dedicated to advancing the causes of all peoples oppressed by autocratic empires. Not only Italians but also Czechs, Magyars, Poles, and others sought their freedom from the multiethnic Austrian Empire; and Mazzini hoped their coordinated actions would help to bring about the disintegration of this vast and anti-democratic empire. Thus Mazzini organized “Young Europe” as well as “Young Italy” and other national groups. Scholars recognize his internationalism as pointing the way toward the League of Nations and a United States of Europe. It is most clearly in the case of Mazzini that we can see how much the Risorgimento was tied to broader changes underway elsewhere in Europe.

Mazzini devoted himself to remaking Italy and Europe for over forty years, not in fits and starts but continuously, and this won him enormous admiration. One of his better-known admirers was President Woodrow Wilson, who in route to the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, went out of his way to visit Mazzini’s tomb in Genoa. He there remarked that he had “derived guidance from the principles which Mazzini so eloquently expressed” and that he would work to advance “the realization of the ideals to which [Mazzini’s] life and thought were devoted.”

Mazzini’s contribution to the new Italy was to help change the general way Europeans assessed the old monarchies and empires that still controlled so much of the continent. He challenged powerfully and persistently the arrangements made at the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which defended the old order against revolutionary change. As Mazzini himself put it, “Great revolutions are the work rather of principles than of bayonets, and are achieved first in the moral, and afterwards in the material sphere,” and he worked tirelessly his entire life to explain and defend the new liberal and republican principles that he thought should guide modern Europe.

What, then, of the great moral revolution that Mazzini hoped to set in motion? Is it still promising, and on what foundation does it rest? I’ll conclude by emphasizing just one of its most distinguishing elements, duty.

Mazzini never tired of insisting that we all have duties to our fellow man and fellow citizens. I infer that democracy could succeed because its equal citizens would recognize their duties and that it deserved to succeed because it helped citizens to become the moral beings they should be. To see how this view distinguishes him, note the frequency of “rights” as opposed to “duties” in most expressions of modern democratic liberalism. Consider the US Declaration of Independence, for example, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union: they are all about the rights of individuals, not about their duties to others. So too with such seminal thinkers as John Locke and Adam Smith.

But who says we have duties? Mazzini does not think it sufficient to simply assert that we have obligations without saying where they come from, but he also doubts there is any way to put their existence on a firm foundation except by seeing them as demanded by a God. And to establish that a duty-demanding God really exists, he grants that some sort of faith remains necessary. A defense of duties requires a defense of God—he seems to think—and a defense of God must rest on faith. These views distinguish Mazzini from most other defenders of modern liberalism, who are happy to leave duties and God entirely out it.

Although the statues of Mazzini and of Giordano Bruno are both tributes to modern thinkers and were both sculpted by the same artist, they disagree on whether reason is a sufficient guide and foundation for a good society. The address inaugurating the Bruno statue explained that it introduced a new age of Reason with a capital “R” and that free thought would drive out religious belief. On the other hand, Mazzini’s defense of Progress, Democracy, and Duty derived some of their force and hopefulness from the faith that there is an active and beneficent deity.

Share this podcase episode