Giuseppe Mazzini: Revolutionary Londoner

Italy was united under the banner of the Piedmontese monarchy, but not many know that also London played an important role in the Risorgimento.

Giuseppe Mazzini
Camillo Ferrari / CC BY-SA

Italy was united under the banner of the Piedmontese monarchy, but not many know that London also played an important role in the Risorgimento

By Timothy Santonastaso

Among the mosaic of European peoples, the Italians are not known for their revolutionary character, nor for their romantic idealism. The first seems to be a peculiar trait of the French who, in little over two hundred years, have managed to survive about six revolutions and ten different régimes. The second is usually reserved for the Germans, historical purveyors of Sturm und Drang — the unbridled expression of the human spirit against societal conventions. But amid the ferment of nineteenth century Europe, what one could call a transition period between the Ancien Régime and the modern world, there lived a Genovese lawyer who embodied both these qualities, and whose name made the rulers of the continent shrivel with fear: that man was Giuseppe Mazzini.

Born in 1805 in Genova, then capital of the Napoleonic départment of Liguria, he was the leading political theorist of the Risorgimento, a movement driven mainly by men of letters — and some composers — who lived in the various statelets and kingdoms of the Italian peninsula, and who aspired for a moral rebirth of its subjugated people into a unified and independent republic. In his counterpoise to Enlightenment wisdom, The Duties of Man, Mazzini set the tone for this spiritual awakening. His main insight was seeing that the individual’s right to be free from servitude was meaningless for the simple reason that it couldn’t reinforce itself, but had to be fought for through struggle and sacrifice. Only through the selfless solidarity between men bonded together by a common heritage could the shackles of despotic Kings, Popes and Emperors be broken.

But Mazzini’s importance in Italian history is not solely due to his intellectual acumen, for he was also a man of immense physical courage. As a young man he joined the Carbonari, a secretive group of subversives operating to oust the Habsburg and Bourbon oppressors and crush the temporal power of the Church. To this end he risked life and limb organizing many revolts and uprisings throughout the Kingdom of Savoy, but to no avail. After being condemned to death once and twice forced into exile by the government — the second time being particularly daunting for him as his comrade and best friend, Jacopo Ruffini, committed suicide — he finally chose to settle in London with a group of fellow dissidents and very little coin in his pocket.

This was the Victorian London that is so vivid in our minds through the Dickensian images of the workhouse, the child labourer and chimney sweeper, the pickpocket and slum dweller: reflections of a nascent industrialized economy with very little conscience. It is no surprise then that Mazzini’s first impression of the city was not all that positive. He thought it was dirty and humid, and the mist that engulfed the gray streets reminded him of the bleak atmosphere summoned by James Macpherson in The Works of Ossian. The cigars were three times more expensive than their Swiss counterparts, and he could barely afford a dwelling that was decent enough to satisfy his refined Ligurian sensibilities. One can’t help but speculate as to what he would have thought of the food. He was particularly horrified by the blatant inequalities between the moneyed class and the mass of toilers, and the indigence of the many Italian street-boys exploited as hawkers and organ grinders left an impression that would eventually lead him to establish the Free Italian School in 1841. In short, it took some time for him to settle in, accustomed as he was to the clear blue skies, temperate climate and middle-class surroundings of his youth.

In the midst of this quite disagreeable state of affairs there were some distinct traits of English society that he admired and quickly warmed to. The honesty and good-nature of its people; its anticlericalism; its considerable degree of popular participation; and the general respect for free speech and range of cheap newspapers and magazines. This last element would allow him to etch out a modest living during his first years in the British capital by writing articles for the Westminster Review, The Monthly Chronicle, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, and The British and Foreign Review. Though he found himself in a foreign country, he would never shy away from wielding his pen in the name of a just cause. He spoke vehemently against British colonialism in China, and disdained British isolationism towards European affairs, thinking that the jewelled isle should play a leading role in supporting the democratic struggles for self-determination that were simmering throughout the continent.

His charismatic personality, learning, love of literature and music, and patriotic devotion to the Italian cause through his Young Italy movement soon won him the esteem and friendship of many English writers and public figures. It is in fact extraordinary to discover the list of people whom he befriended. John Stuart Mill, Lady Byron, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to name but a few, all supported him in his various political initiatives. Algernon Swinburne’s A Song of Italy is dedicated to the Genovese idealist, and Victor Hugo, a fellow exiled patriot, was one of his first colleagues at the Monthly Review. He was an especially admired figure among respectable English womanhood, probably for his staunch defence of the rights of women and the pivotal role they would play in what he termed the “banquet of sister nations.” Some eminent figures here include the Italophile and garibaldina Jessie White Mario, described by him as the bravest woman of modern times, and the suffragette Caroline Ashurst Stansfeld, to whom he wrote frequently. These and other eminent figures all coalesced around our patriot by joining the Society of the Friends of Italy, perhaps the greatest testament to British solidarity for the cause of Italian liberty.

Mazzini remained a political exile until he drew his last breath in 1872. Italy was by now united under the banner of the Piedmontese monarchy, erected not by popular revolution as he had hoped, but cobbled together by war into a political construct that to this day bears the legacy of its divided past. A century would have to pass before the republican ideal to which he gave his life would be finally vindicated. But if the Mazzinian ideal exists at all, if it still inspires awe in the Italian psyche for its nobility, then one must credit the hospitality and tolerance of a nation that allowed its champion to find, in his words, “my real home, if I have any.”

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