The legend of Giuseppe Garibaldi – A hero for all ages?

In this article, Helen Saker-Parsons considers the enduring legacy of Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the founders of modern-day Italy. In his own lifetime he led armies and had numerous relationships. He was also adored by the great men of his age – and later ages. 


What makes a person more important, the legacy they leave or the reputation they hold whilst alive? For Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 -1882), one of Italy’s founding fathers, his popularity since his death is only matched by the accolades he received when alive. At the time many women sought locks of his hair, some left their husbands and a few aristocratic ladies risked their reputations for him. American generals wanted him on their side in the US Civil War; Russian peasants carried his icon; Balkan revolutionaries waited for him to lead them and an Anglo-French dispute erupted when a bullet went missing in his ankle. In Italy there are streets, piazzas and buildings that bear his name. In England he was the inspiration for a football (soccer) kit, and more significantly, for a biscuit. So why is the ‘French’ mercenary soldier heralded as an Italian and international hero?

The legend of Giuseppe Garibaldi – A hero for all ages?

Giuseppe Garibaldi by Gerolamo Induno

Garibaldi was born in Nice in 1807, a town that vacillated between France and Italy throughout his life. He started his career as a merchant seaman and his travels brought him into contact with Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy movement, la Giovine Italia – whose main aim was to bring about the Risorgimento or creation of a united Italian republic. It was his role in the failed Mazzini insurrection in Genoa in 1834 that forced his exile to South America and was to shape the person that became the legend. For twelve years Garibaldi combined sea-faring with guerrilla warfare in South America, fighting for the independence of southern Brazil and Uruguay. He discovered an aptitude for military leadership and a fascination for the gaucho traditions of his new home: adopting their fashions of red shirts and ponchos. When the Revolutions of 1848 broke out across Europe, he returned to Italy and led a heroic defense of the Republic of Rome against French and Papal forces. This brave but ultimately disastrous attempt won him fame and fans – both of which increased further after his conquest of Sicily in 1860. The world spoke of the charismatic commander who led an army of volunteers known as “The Thousand.” This army adorned red shirts like the gauchos and lassoed stray animals, but also vanquished a large professional army, swept across southern Italy and entered Naples in triumph – all within four months. Popular support for Garibaldi in Europe and the Americas reached near-hysterical proportions.



When exiled to America, in the early 1850s, Garibaldi’s host in Staten Island was Antonio Meucci, the man often accredited with inventing the first telephone but now also renowned for having employed Garibaldi in his candle factory. Garibaldi’s reputation stretched further in the Americas; US President Abraham Lincoln even offered him the role of Major General in the US Army. But Britain was not to be outdone in its adulation. Having no Civil War to fight it honored the hero in other ways. In 1864 ‘Garibaldimania’ swept through England as Garibaldi paid a visit. After alighting from his train in London the newspapers reported it took him six hours to travel three miles through the crowds. Potteries in Staffordshire released popular figurines of him. Nottingham Forest football club, founded in 1865, designed their red kit in honor of him. But arguably more impressive was the honor bestowed by a Bermondsey factory, Peek Freans, which in 1861 gave their new biscuit his name – although the reasons why are disputed. In 1854, when visiting Tynemouth, Garibaldi allegedly sat on an Eccles Cake and flattened it, thus producing the familiar looking snack. Others claim that it was so-called because it had the appearance of the raison bread served to his troops, or more grotesquely that it resembled bread and berries soaked in horse’s blood which the redshirts were given and which attracted the flies.

Garibaldi’s international reputation was not merely on the political stage; it was also on the personal one. He proved a hit amongst the world’s women, as they adorned red dresses and blouses in honor of the Garibaldini. He showed a certain penchant for younger ladies and was already in his thirties when he acquired his first wife, a married Brazilian teenager: Anna Maria Reveira da Silva (known as Anita). Anita had been forced to marry a local shoemaker at fifteen, but he left her for army service. Whilst still only eighteen in 1839, she had been standing on a hill when Garibaldi’s ship sailed into port. He had spotted her through his telescope and on disembarkation made it his mission to find the woman who had entranced him so. He succeeded and she immediately fell for his charms, left with him, gave him a child, and eventually became his wife three years later, once widowed. She travelled to Europe to fight alongside her hero husband and bear him several more children. But in 1849, when fleeing Rome and heavily pregnant, she succumbed to malaria and died.



Garibaldi’s love-life throughout the 1850s was less committed with several alleged engagements, at least one illegitimate child, and a marriage which lasted a day. His lovers were varied. They included the Englishwomen Emma Roberts and Jesse White, an Italian countess called Maria della Torre (the rebellious daughter of the Count of Salasco), and a divorced German baroness – Esperanza von Schwartz (who refused his proposal in 1857). He completed the decade through a dalliance with the housekeeper from Caprera (the island he bought in 1854 with money earned in America), Battistina Ravello, with whom he had a daughter in 1859. He began the next decade with his second marriage to Guisippina Raimondi, but he left her the following day having heard rumors she had spent the night before with another man and/or was five months pregnant with his child. Garibaldi was able to continue his merry-making simultaneously with his political campaigning. In 1879 he combined a trip to Rome to organize parliamentary opposition with having his 20 year marriage annulled so he could marry for a third time. Francesca Armasino had already borne him several children, and continued his preference for younger woman. She had arrived on Caprera in 1867, aged nineteen, as a nurse to Garibaldi’s grandchildren.

Garibaldi was a charismatic man with many honorable policies. He aroused the admiration of contemporary intellectuals such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, as well as subsequent ones: the historian AJP Taylor describes him as the ‘only wholly admirable figure in history.’ He had seen for himself the hard democracy of the pampas, where all men were treated as equals. He was a republican foremost, but somebody who accepted the role of the monarchy as a means to an end. He called for the legal and political emancipation of women, racial equality, and the abolition of capital punishment. He was a tireless combatant against the clerical power of the Catholic Church, which he saw as the bastardization of religion, and instead adhered to the beliefs of St. Simonianism whose creed was: “from each according to his capacity: to each according to his works; the end of the exploitation of man by man; and the abolition of all privileges of birth.” Indeed, in 1861 he refused Abraham Lincoln’s requests to join his army when Lincoln would not make the abolition of slavery one of his war aims.



Flattery and public adulation, however, never deflected Garibaldi from his chief objective, which was to free Italy from foreign oppression and bring about its unification. He had moved some way from the ideals of la Giovine Italia, believing that unification under the Piedmontese monarch was more viable than a republic. These aims were partly fulfilled in 1860 with the annexation of southern Italy to the Kingdom of Piedmont and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, but neither Venice nor Rome and the Papal States formed part of the new political entity. Garibaldi was determined that Rome, the symbol of a united Italy, should be at the heart of the Kingdom of Italy. Although the Italian government was reluctant to launch a military campaign against the Pope, Garibaldi resolved to take matters into his own hands – with the aid of three thousand Garibaldini. Thus in August 1862 a sea of red marched on Rome in open defiance of Victor Emanuel II to whom he had previously pledged loyalty. Fearing international reactions, the Italian government hastily dispatched troops to stop his advance. The two armies came face to face on the mountain of Aspromonte in Calabria on August 29, 1862. When the regular troops opened fire, Garibaldi could not bring himself to shoot at fellow Italians and ordered a cease-fire. During the confusion he received three gunshot wounds, one of which entered his right ankle. Briefly imprisoned for treason in Spezia, Garibaldi continued to inspire support and sympathy from all quarters: Lady Palmerston sent him an invalid bed in which to recuperate. Without the benefit of x-rays, visiting physicians were unable to conclude whether the bullet remained in the ankle and it brought eminent experts from France and England in to dispute. Eventually the French won by inventing a porcelain-tipped probe that stained with the presence of lead and proved the existence of the bullet.


But the French were not to win against the Prussians in the war of 1870-71, and Italy took advantage of the French defeat to finally expel the last of the French troops from its land and achieve its Risorgimento in 1871. The ultimate success might have owed more to the pragmatic politician Camillo di Cavour than Garibaldi, but it is the latter who remains the resonating romantic hero. Garibaldi was a visionary; many of his ideals became reality. Italy has remained unified despite some toing and froing of territory during the two world wars and in spite of examples of extreme regional rivalries (especially over who has the best cuisine!). But another of Garibaldi’s dreams has also been theoretically realized – that of a unified Europe. He also believed that this would best be led by Germany. And so Garibaldi could add ‘visionary’ to his long list of admirable qualities. And if he were alive today, of which long-lasting legacy would he be most proud? I think he would be impressed with the achievements of the European community and Italy’s role within it. Europe as a united, peace-making body has progressed with the times in the post-war era; unfortunately the same cannot be said for the lowly ranked Nottingham Forest!


Helen Saker-Parsons is the author of a book about an Allied soldier who is captured and held prisoner in Italy during World War II. The fascinating book, A Captive Life, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Helen has also written a historical fiction book related to World War I, Searching for Cecil. It is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


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