55. Mussolini’s Recasting of Garibaldi on the Janiculum Hill
1932 was the tenth anniversary of the Fascist March on Rome and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the most lionized leader of the movement to unite Italy under liberal political principles. As a major part of his attempt to associate his Fascist Blackshirts with Garibaldi’s patriotic Redshirts, Mussolini added a statue of Anita Garibaldi to the Janiculum Hill and hosted three days of celebrations as her mortal remains were ceremoniously transported to Rome and interred in the base of her statue. But would Garibaldi really have thought the Fascists were good representatives of his principles?
The Monument to Garibaldi on the Janiculum Hill, south side
On the right bank of the Tiber River, the Janiculum Hill is a parklike spot from which to look out over Rome, and most of those who visit it come primarily for its panoramic views. But as we saw months ago, it would not have been surprising if the new Italy had changed the name of the Janiculum to Monte Garibaldi. After all, it retains no evident connection to its namesake, the god Janus, but reminders of Garibaldi are all over the place. The reason for this, as discussed way back in Episodes 13, 16, and 20, is that the Janiculum was the site of the heaviest fighting between the Roman Republic and French troops sent to overthrow the new Republic and restore Pope Pius IX to power in Rome. The Janiculum is thus remembered as a battlefield on which Italian patriots fought bravely for a new Italy, while the papacy needed a foreign army to restore it to power. Garibaldi was the military leader of these patriots.
There are many reminders on the hill of its connection with Garibaldi and the short-lived Roman Republic of 1849. These include Rome’s main statue to Garibaldi, busts of over eighty of his best-known followers, and larger statues to a select few. Many of the streets in the area also bear names reminiscent of the Republic and of the fighters who tried to defend it. Most of these tributes were commissioned by the new Italy in its first decades.
Mussolini’s Statue of Anita Garibaldi (my photo)
Mussolini added two more to the Janiculum’s assembly of Garibaldi-related monuments. One is a large statue group honoring Anita Garibaldi, who died while retreating from Rome with her husband after the French victory. The other is a Mausoleum, the Mausoleo Ossario Garibaldino, whose name ties it directly to Garibaldi’s followers. “Ossario” or “ossuary” implies that only the skeletal remains of bodies first buried elsewhere were transported to this location. We’ll focus on Anita’s statue today and leave the Ossario to a future episode.
By way of background, it is important remember how greatly admired Garibaldi was even a half-century after his main achievements. Some of those who had fought with him were still alive, and they brought the memories of Garibaldi and the battles of the Risorgimento into many Italian households, thus creating a palpable legacy that did not depend on books or the lessons of a classroom. Organizations dedicated to the memory of Garibaldi and the Garibaldini added to his influence, as did monuments on the Janiculum and all across Italy. So how did Mussolini, the great leader or “Duce” of Fascism, position himself in relation to Garibaldi’s legacy?
One might think that Mussolini would simply heap honors on Garibaldi in an attempt to win for himself the support that Garibaldi and the Risorgimento still enjoyed, but what if Mussolini’s Fascism did not stand for the same goals or ideals as Garibaldi? Usually, revolutionaries must attack old heroes, smash their statues, and rename their schools and streets so as to publicly claim that they stand for a new and better order, and Mussolini did speak of his fascism as radically new. Nevertheless, the statue of Anita shows that the Duce preferred to reinterpret the legacy of Garibaldi rather than break from it. To do this, he recast Garibaldi to make him seem a sort of Fascist even before the arrival of Fascism. If Mussolini shows himself to be loyal to Garibaldi’s legacy, it also adjusts that legacy to suit his purposes.
Remember that Mussolini tried to win authority and dignity for his regime by associating it with Augustus and the Ancient Roman Empire. Hence, he made dramatic changes to Rome to strengthen this association, as discussed in Episodes 29 and 32. So when it came to history, Ancient Rome gave him a way of escaping the context of the recent unification of Italy, but he certainly did not neglect Garibaldi and the Risorgimento altogether.
I am surprised by this, but I think Mussolini’s most important references to Garibaldi in word and policy occurred in connection with the statue he erected of Anita, just a hundred yards plus from that of her husband on the Janiculum.
The idea of erecting a statue to honor Garibaldi’s wife Anita arose in 1905, but the project got shelved until one of the couple’s grandsons revived the idea in the first decade of the Fascists’ twenty years in power. This grandson, named Ezio, was himself a Fascist and served as a member of parliament for ten years; and he used his influence to revive the idea that his grandmother should be honored. The project again suffered setbacks, partly financial, partly artistic, and partly, it seems, because the designated artist was a Free Mason and socialist. But Mussolini had become deeply interested in the undertaking, especially since he had begun to plan major celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the death of Garibaldi in 1932, so he passed the project along to a sculptor with more suitable political leanings. If nothing else, completing the project would show again that Fascism was capable of getting things done, whereas parliamentary democracy, Mussolini claimed, was all talk and no action.
One reason for the Duce’s enthusiasm for this plan was that it was a way for him to show the limits of his recent accommodation with the Roman Catholic Church. As discussed in Episode 3, in 1929 Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts, thereby ending a fifty-nine-year period of hostility between the new Italy and the Catholic Church. In connection with the talks that accompanied this landmark agreement, the Church had asked that the statue of the heretic Giordano Bruno be taken down and that that the statue of Garibaldi at least be removed from the Janiculum, from which location the fiercely anticlerical general seemed to look down on the Vatican.
On May 13, 1929, just a few months after the Lateran Pacts had been signed, Mussolini responded to those who had taken them to mean that Italy was now allying itself with the Church against the anticlericalism of the Risorgimento. Here are his words, lightly edited for brevity:
Some have begun to put the Risorgimento on trial; others have found that the statue of Giordano Bruno . . . is offensive. I thus must declare that the statue of Bruno . . . will remain where it is. . . . Naturally, one cannot even think that the monument to Garibaldi on the Janiculum could be moved elsewhere. . . . Not only will he remain, but in the same zone will arise, thanks to the Fascist Regime, the monument to Anita Garibaldi.
Thus one purpose of the proposed statue was to show that Fascism would not allow the Church and its supporters to expect a significant rollback of the anticlerical statues or policies that were an important element of the Risorgimento.
But if a second bronze Garibaldi was now to look down on the Vatican from the Janiculum, how should she be represented? Garibaldi had met Anita in Brazil and became her widower after the French drove them out of Rome in August of 1849. She shared in a number of his campaigns in South America, and—apparently to his joy but against his instructions—she left their three children with relatives in Nice and joined her husband in Rome just before it fell to the French. When Garibaldi left Rome, promising his followers only “hunger, cold, forced marches, battles and death,” Anita went with him. After a month that was every bit as taxing and perilous as promised, Anita died of malaria just north of Ravenna. Hunted by the Austrian army, Giuseppe buried her in a shallow grave and moved on.
It was decided to use the statue not to show Garibaldi’s tender affection for his wife, or his wife’s willingness to run risks during the retreat from Rome in 1949, but to represent Anita as demonstrating the virtues of a woman warrior. She is mounted on a charging horse, whose straining muscles are well defined and whose front feet are well off the ground, and she brandishes a pistol. She is on the attack, not trying to elude the enemy.
A bronze relief on the base of the statue, showing Anita looking for her husband among scattered corpses (my photo)
The statue loosely represents an incident reported in Garibaldi’s autobiography as having occurred in 1840, in the then Riograndense Republic in today’s Brazil. Garibaldi was a freedom fighter there, and enemy troops were spreading terror and approaching San Simon, where Anita and their first-born child, Menotti, were sheltered. To escape, she armed herself with a pistol, and, wearing only a shirt, took off on a nighttime horseback ride through harsh terrain, holding her infant son. The report concludes that when Garibaldi finally found her, she was calmly nursing their son.
I do not doubt that this story is suggestive of the character that Anita displayed on other occasions, but I suspect that it was chosen as the statue’s subject because it suited messages Mussolini wanted to spread. I even suspect the statue must distort the story, at least in minor ways, to ensure it conveys the desired message. At least there is a documented story that when Mussolini saw the artist’s model of Anita on a rearing horse while brandishing a pistol, the dictator suggested adding an infant in her other arm. Thus, the woman with a warrior’s spirit became an exemplary mother as well. Although ridiculous, this suited Mussolini’s “Battle for Births,” which he had begun a few years earlier, and which encouraged women to be wives and mothers with large families. On this, at least, Mussolini and the Catholic Church were in agreement. And the statue makes Anita ladylike as well as motherly, at least in one respect, for it has her riding sidesaddle, even though her horse is charging.
On the statue base, Anita leads troops, thus showing her warlike spirit (my photo)
It is possible that Mussolini’s inauguration of the statue was as important to his regime as the statue itself. The inauguration was planned for 1932, which was the tenth year of the Fascist Era, which dated from the March on Rome of October 28, 1922. This tenth anniversary was celebrated first by a great exhibition of the achievements of Fascism, the Mostra della Rivoluzione fascista, and second by the fiftieth anniversary of Garibaldi’s death, the Cinquantenario Garibaldino. We’ll return later to the exhibition, but note for now that it announces Fascism as a revolution, not as a continuation of traditional policies.
Of the many ways in which Garibaldi was remembered during this busy year, the most import was a three-day National Commemoration. It began on June first with the transfer of Anita’s remains from northern Italy to Rome. It continued on the next day with a solemn march from the Termini train station, down the via Nazionale, and up onto the Janiculum. The march ended with Anita’s casket being deposited in the statue base of the still veiled statue. Then, on the fourth of June came the third element of the Commemoration, the official inauguration of the monument by the Duce himself. Mussolini was careful to capture all three events on film, so they could be part of a genuinely national celebration. I’ve put links to this original footage on the Get Ready for Rome website, along with photographs of the statue.
Plaque marking the burial place of Anita Garibaldi in the base of her statue (my photo)
Of the three parts of the National Commemoration, the most revealing is the third. Even though Mussolini’s speech is less than 500 words, it gives a good indication of how he wants to take advantage of Garibaldi’s honored name without binding Fascism to Garibaldi’s principles. He spoke off the cuff on many other occasions, but he wrote out this speech, which I take to mean that he chose his words carefully.
Mussolini delivers his interpretation of the statue in his very first words. He says it represents [quote] “the warrior who pursues the enemy” and “the mother who protects her child,” and in case we missed the point, he adds that Anita’s spirit is honored because she always reconciled the duties of a mother with those of an intrepid combatant at the side of her husband. The Duce dodges for the moment any account of just what principles she was fighting for. For him, it is enough to say she was a dutiful wife and mother, and a warrior. The deep bronze reliefs around the base of the statue depict her as part of her husband’s soldierly band, an Amazon warrior among men.
But if Anita fought alongside her husband, what did he fight for? The Duce seizes the occasion to say that Garibaldi is surrounded by many legends, but his and his Redshirts’ true political descendants are the Fascist Blackshirts who fought and died for Italy during World War I and when Italy was threatened by Communists and Socialists, or, to quote his words, “those who knew how to fight and die during the years of our national humiliation.” More bluntly, he says of Garibaldi that he had only one passion, one thought, one program, and one faith: the unity and independence of Italy. And this he can connect with his Fascists, whom he presents as the great defenders of Italy in his day.
Clearly aware of a powerful and rival point of view, that Garibaldi had other goals besides unity, such as making Italy freer and more democratic, Mussolini goes on to assert a perfect coherence in everything Garibaldi did, even in those of his actions that might seem contradictory. Although he does not pause to support his assertions by argument, he mentions those moments when Garibaldi was most aggressively lawless in attacking the papacy to unify Italy with Rome as its capital. Conversely, he never mentions that Garibaldi was in favor of universal suffrage or women’s rights.
I am sorry to report that there is nothing surprising about what I am saying: I suspect all politicians, and perhaps most of the rest of us as well, are consciously or unconsciously inclined to interpret the past in ways that suit our view of the needs of the present. If objectivity is possible, it’s the fruit of hard work, not a free gift, so it is not surprising that Mussolini reinterpreted Garibaldi to make him more consistent with Fascism. The surprise is only in the extent and crudity of Mussolini’s distortion.
The Duce concludes his speech like this:
If by a miracle the bronze horseman who rears up near this spot were to come alive and open his eyes, I should like to think that he would recognize the soldiers of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the Blackshirts as the descendants of his Redshirts. We have for ten years continued, in an even more popular and productive manner, Garibaldi’s volunteer spirit, and I hope he would be happy to rest his gaze on this vast, luminous and pacified city of Rome which he loved with infinite love and from his first youth identified with Italy.
I believe this is Mussolini’s most categorical assertion that there is a direct line of descent from Garibaldi’s Red Shirts to his own Fascist Black Shirts, or at least that he liked to think there was. He had stressed Garibaldi’s love of Italy as the ground of this continuity. Now he adds his voluntarism and love of Rome. The problem remains that he neglects Garibaldi’s advocacy of democratic principles and occasional advocacy of socialist ones. It’s a testimony to Garibaldi’s complicated career that he was also claimed as an inspiration for the Republicans who fought against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War and for the Communists who risked their lives to drive Fascism and Nazism out of Italy at the end of World War II. It is not that there is absolutely nothing to what Mussolini says: the difficulty is that there is so much of Garibaldi that he does not mention.
There is a minor but revealing point to be made in noting that the Duce refers to the nearby bronze statue of Garibaldi as rearing up, but the statue shows him to be sitting rather placidly on his horse, surveying the area. Mussolini was all about energy and action, however, so perhaps he saw what he wanted to see, or wished others to remember what was not there. He did make sure that Anita’s horse, at least, was charging forward.
Another way Mussolini purged unwelcome aspects of Garibaldi’s past from the Janiculum by obscuring the fact that Garibaldi was a member of the Freemasons and briefly held the organization’s highest office. The Masons were defenders of modern free institutions and included George Washington and Ben Franklin as members. To honor Garibaldi, Free Masons added a commemorative plaque on the long south side of Garibaldi’s statue. Mussolini had it removed, for his Garibaldi was not a Mason. The plaque that can be seen there now is a likeness put back in place after Mussolini fell from power.
Although it seems strange to conclude that there is a clear line of descent from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to Fascism’s Blackshirts, I don’t say that there are no details for Fascists to turn to in making their case seem more plausible in some few respects. Garibaldi wanted a march on Rome to drive out the pope; Mussolini orchestrated a march on Rome to bring his Fascists to power, for example, so those inclined can insist on a similarity there. I don’t think it makes Garibaldi a proto-Fascist, but he was willing to use force in violation of Italy’s laws when it came to his hope to seize Rome from the pope and Venice from Austria. When Gabriele D’Annunzio and his fascist colleagues seized the disputed Adriatic port city of Fiume, they could with some justice cite the example that Garibaldi had left them. Garibaldi was a democrat, but he also called himself “the Dictator” for the short duration of his march to seize southern Italy in 1860.
Mussolini emphasized Garibaldi’s devotion to Italy but chose to ignore the kind of Italy to which he was devoted. This was his way of trying to increase his own reputation by associating it with that of Italy’s greatest general, while at the same time teaching his subjects that the coherent core of Garibaldi’s life had to with his nationalism, not at all with the liberal democratic principles with which he had been previously associated. I am again reminded of the aphorism that affirms the leading cause of error to reside in the disposition to detect similarities while neglecting differences.