Birth of Giuseppe Mazzini

Richard Cavendish charts the life of the Italian nationalist Guiseppe Mazzini.

Italian nationalist, republican and leading intellectual champion of the movement for Italian unity – the Risorgimento or ‘resurgence’ – Giuseppe Mazzini was not a popular figure with Italian governments, in his own time or afterwards. The fact that he believed in God, but not in Christianity did not endear him to churchmen, his radical views on liberating women and the poor offended conservatives and his criticisms of Karl Marx annoyed Communists and socialists. He was born in Genoa, where his father was professor of pathology at the university. After the fall of Napoleon, Italy was a patchwork of small states, dominated by Austria. The situation suited most Italians and there were no signs of any general public appetite for changing it, but Mazzini began to think that ‘we Italians could, and therefore ought, to struggle for the liberty of our country.’
Graduating from Genoa University in law, Mazzini wrote articles for progressive reviews and thought of being an academic literary critic or perhaps a historical novelist, but in 1829 he joined the Carbonari, a network of secret societies on roughly Masonic lines working for greater personal freedom and the overthrow of tyranny in Italy, which had inspired various unsuccessful insurrections in the 1820s. The following year Mazzini was betrayed to the police by a comrade and spent three months in prison. After his release, there were uprisings in Parma, Modena and the papal states, and he went to Corsica, hoping to gather a group of Italian exiles and lead them back to invade the mainland in support. The risings were quickly put down by Austrian troops, however, and the leaders were executed.
Deciding to start a more effective political movement, Mazzini went to Marseilles, where in 1831 with a few like-minded exiles he founded Young Italy (Giovine Italia). It started, in the words of Mazzini’s biographer Dennis Mack Smith, as ‘a quasi-religious movement calling its members to a life of political conspiracy and self-sacrifice’. As branches formed in secret in Genoa and other cities, the membership grew phenomenally and Mazzini found himself at the head of the first Italy-wide political party. It did not last long, as all its early attempts at revolution failed. A projected uprising in Piedmont in 1833 was squashed before it began and Mazzini was tried in his absence and condemned to death. Expelled from France, he moved to Switzerland and then in 1837 to London, where he spent most of the rest of his life, fomenting revolution from a succession of cheap boarding houses.
Mazzini was not a man of action like Garibaldi or a shrewdly effective politician like Count Cavour, but a man of ideas. John Stuart Mill admired him as Europe’s ‘most eminent conspirator and revolutionist’, but the true extent of his importance in the Risorgimento is debatable. When it came, he did not like it. By liberty he did not mean creating an Italian monarchy under Victor Emmanuel of Savoy. He said he thought he had been awakening Italy’s soul and all he could see was its corpse. In 1870 he went to Sicily to lead a republican insurrection, but he was arrested before he left his ship in Palermo. Nobody stirred a finger and he died in 1872 in Pisa, aged sixty-six.