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Orsini: Striking a Blow for Freedom

Jad Adams traces the momentous and paradoxical consquences of a failed assassination attempt.

Dashing Italian patriot Felice Orsini received a rapturous welcome in England in 1856.  He was the embodiment of romantic nationalism: a handsome revolutionary who had suffered for his beliefs, who had recently made a daring escape from a brutal prison. 

Yet while enjoying the luxuries of free speech and political association that Britain afforded, Orsini was slipping out of the lecture circuit to create weapons of unprecedented force which were to be used in a massacre in a foreign city.  His actions stimulated a debate on issues of freedom and despotism which still trouble liberal democracies today.

Orsini was born in Meldola, in 1819, in a fragmented Italy misgoverned by Austria and various local tyrants.  His family had a tradition of insurrectionist politics. His ideals were those of Young Italy, that a national war brought about by continuous risings was essential to free the nation. He took part in the abortive 1848 revolution and was a deputy of the short-lived Roman Republic where he became known as ‘il bambino democratico’. He was involved in four uprisings in total, which took their toll of Italian nationalists on the scaffold, while doing nothing practical to advance the cause.

Soon exiles were spread throughout Europe, with England a favourite location where the mastermind of Italian emancipation, Guiseppi Mazzini, plotted assassination and insurrection from cramped rooms on the Fulham Road, west London.

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