The Obsessions of General Garibaldi

9781844133321-usTim Parks at the London Review of Books:

Histories of the Risorgimento find it difficult to present Garibaldi without a patina of condescension. The modern intellectual’s suspicion of the folk hero – pursued by drooling ladies of the British aristocracy, believed by Sicilian peasants to have been sent by God – is everywhere evident. In his otherwise excellent biography of 1958, Denis Mack Smith frequently referred to Garibaldi as ‘simplistic’ and ‘ingenuous’, made fun of his habit of wearing a poncho, and saw his decision to set up home on the barren island of Caprera as merely idiosyncratic. Pick takes a similar position. His Garibaldi has huge personal charisma and is a brilliant military adventurer (though almost no space is given to reminding the reader quite how brilliant), but he is also ingenuous, gullible when it comes to dealing with money and endearingly ignorant of the ways of the world. In short, he is the genius simpleton.

Pick continues a tradition that began with Garibaldi’s contemporaries and is still alive in Italy today, whereby he is to be exalted as a national hero and simultaneously never mentioned in serious public debate (Italian schoolchildren are kept well away from his incendiary, anti-clerical memoirs). So at one point, having noted Garibaldi’s lack of appetite for official honours and his tendency to live in a single, bare room even when a palace was at his disposal, Pick continues: ‘Yet he was an appealingly inconsistent ascetic, with his own touching foibles and predilections for the good things in life, and for display: thus he would occasionally don a rather gaudy embroidered cap.’

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