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South Central Review 21.1 (2004) 1-17

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Subjective Vision, Romantic History, and the Return of the "Real":
The Case of Margaret Fuller and the Roman Republic

Larry J. Reynolds
Texas A&M University

On September 14, 2001, all of Rome united in two minutes of silence to express sympathy for the United States in the wake of the events of 9/11, and during this observance, a group of citizens left a bouquet of flowers under the plaque in the Piazza Barberini honoring Margaret Fuller. "With this symbolical gesture," one speaker declared:

We wish to render homage to liberty and to Margaret Fuller . . . a figure who not only symbolizes the defense of liberty in days in which liberty stands wounded, but which reminds us of how important is the testimony of a person like Margaret Fuller, a continual example of simplicity and courage in the face of extremity.1

In addition to this tribute and the commemorative plaque in the Piazza Barberini on the building where Fuller lived, the city has plans for another plaque on the Janiculum Hill near the sites of the Giuseppe Garibaldi and Anita Garibaldi monuments. In English translation, the inscription reads:

Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), famous American writer and journalist, forerunner of the feminist movement, was one of the most important personages of the Roman Republic. Fervent supporter of Giuseppe Mazzini's ideas, she contributed, as a correspondent of the New York Tribune to create a wide support for the Italian cause among the American public opinion. In 1847 she settled in Rome and married a supporter of Mazzini, Marquis Angelo Ossoli, with whom she had a son. In 1849, during the siege of Rome, while her husband was fighting with Garibaldi's troops, she engaged herself in the resistance with absolute devotion, organizing the assistance of the wounded soldiers in the hospitals. After the fall of the Republic, Margaret Fuller decided to return to the United States, but the ship [End Page 1] was wrecked by a storm and she died with her husband and her son. In the 150th anniversary of her death, we honour her as a great friend of Italy, who spent her life fighting for the freedom of the individual and of the peoples.2

Most of the facts in this statement are true, but it remains unclear whether Fuller and her Italian lover Ossoli ever married. And although she and Mazzini were close friends, her support for his ideas was qualified.3

Such public remembrance of Fuller raises questions of how and why this particular American, out of all her contemporaries, made her way into Italian historical memory. One answer, of course, is that she happened to be in the right place (Rome), at the right time (1848-1849), with the right means to gain widespread attention (i.e., access to thousands of readers and to the men credited with unifying Italy—Mazzini and Garibaldi). If we look within these circumstances to Fuller herself, again some obvious explanations emerge, including her intelligence, her powerful prose, and her identification with the Italian people.4 Fuller could read Latin by the age of six, and she later recalled "the influence of those great Romans, whose thoughts and lives were my daily food during those plastic years." She especially admired the vitality of the Roman: "One wants no universal truths from him," she wrote in her autobiography, "no philosophy, no creation, but only his life, his Roman life felt in every pulse, realized in every gesture. The universal heaven takes in the Roman only to make us feel his individuality the more."5

For Fuller, Brutus represented the highest form of republican virtue, and the first article she ever published defended his role in the assassination of Caesar.6 Like Plutarch and Shakespeare, she imagined Brutus as the ideal patriot, motivated by a sense of duty and honor. In her Boston "Conversations" she led her students in a discussion of whether a woman could ever perform...