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  • Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero
  • Derek Beales (bio)
Lucy Riall , Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (London: Yale University Press, 2007), xiv + 482 pages, hardback £25 (ISBN 978-0-300-11212-2).DOI: 10.3366/E1355550208000209

Lucy Riall's book is about the myth of Garibaldi. She aims, first, to show that it had an enormous appeal – even greater than has been realised – not only to Italians but to a vast array of people across the world, [End Page 143] including many in Britain. She seeks to explain that appeal, but also to analyse the myth, and in particular to show how it improved upon the reality. Most originally, she argues that Garibaldi self-consciously fashioned and promoted his own image. She claims too that his career was of immense historical importance, not only for his great deeds but because 'Garibaldi represents an alternative, and democratic tradition of political heroism often overlooked by historians more interested in the origins of the authoritarian personality cults of the twentieth century' (p. 389).

Her main concentration is on his extraordinary media appeal, essentially to newspapers and journals. He cashed in on the rise of the press, especially the illustrated press, in the more advanced countries of the world, a rise which neatly coincided with his career.

Even in Rome in 1848–9, when illustrated newspapers were still few, and in Italy hardly known, the cartoons of Don Pirlone and Il Fischietto represented him as a charismatic revolutionary hero. His instantly recognisable features and dress, together with his eccentric life-style and daring exploits, made him excellent copy for the Illustrated London News and its imitators, and he became a cult figure worldwide, especially after he united Italy in 1860 almost off his own bat.

While his extraordinary appeal has been pretty well recognised, it has not until now been so closely and critically examined. The book shows how skilful he was in promoting himself: always available to journalists, ready to travel almost anywhere, shaking hands with all who came to see him, making graceful or rousing speeches as occasion required. His frequent retirements from public life, latterly to his private island of Caprera, gave him the reputation of a Cincinnatus and the chance to recover his strength after exertion, so that he could return again in a somewhat different role: by turns as promoter of the National Society, as a regular Piedmontese general, as a guerrilla leader or as a socially conscious member of the parliament of united Italy. He had become so famous and so much admired so early that he could and did fashion his own career.

On the way Riall makes many interesting points. Garibaldi's memoirs, for example, usually simply dismissed as unreliable, she shows to have been a piece of clever self-presentation, never intended to be a careful record. His numerous 'romantic' escapades – many of them rather hard to reconcile with his avowed support of female emancipation – seemed to redound to his credit. Even his awful romantic novels titillated his public. She does not put it quite like this, but the vacuity of his utterances and writings is reminiscent of the speeches of twenty-first-century leaders rather than Victorian [End Page 144] statesmen, and it could be said that in his later years Garibaldi had his minders, speech-writers and spin-doctors – the 'suite' of sons and 'secretaries' which his English hosts in 1864 so deplored.

Up to a point, Riall has established the self-consciousness of Garibaldi's image-making – his dressing in his poncho, his ostentatious retirements, his use of the press. But there is a danger of exaggerating the extent to which his actions were determined by publicity-seeking. It was not for publicity that he had shown himself brave, daring, resourceful and cunning in warfare. His exceptional sex-appeal, whether to duchesses or peasants, can hardly have been fabricated.The interest of the press and public was so great that he must simply have needed a refuge, an office and an entourage.

Riall deals carefully with all the episodes of his martial and political career, starting with his little-known time in Uruguay. She judges him to have been effective and...


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pp. 143-147
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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