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Garibaldi: The First Celebrity

Lucy Riall discusses the life and career of the Italian nationalist and soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the circumstances by which he became the first celebrity of the modern political age.

Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861
Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861

The history of celebrity has still to be written. We know, nonetheless, that one of the most popular genres of nineteenth-century literature was the lives of ‘Great Men’. As early as the 1820s, readers in Europe and the Americas were enjoying a steady diet of biographies of historical heroes, saints and contemporary personalities such as Nelson and Napoleon. Their enthusiasm for the genre was encouraged and satisfied by the broadening availability of books and magazines, and by the production in ever larger numbers of the printed portrait, in the form of first the lithograph, then the daguerreotype and finally the photograph. By the mid-nineteenth century, a popular cult of personality had emerged.

Political leaders were among the earliest to exploit this new trend. Queen Victoria (the ‘first media monarch’ r.1837-1901), Napoleon, his nephew Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX all successfully promoted themselves to create a loyal public. Yet an equally striking sign of modern times was their inability fully to control their image and to guarantee a passive audience for it.

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