Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Man of the Hour: Giuseppe Garibaldi

Italy has a very special place in my heart. Many of my most potent life's lessons were learned while I was living there. The language is musical, the people are passionate, the food is to die for and the culture is absolutely enchanting. It moved me so deeply I still dream about its streets, doused with the smell of wine, pastries and nostalgia.

Since I came back to the States I tasked myself with the study of Italian culture and history. It amazed me how long the country remained divided. It wasn't until relatively recently that the language was universalized and the regions united into one nation. Today the regional differences are strong. Different dialects are still spoken, especially by the older generation, and sound like separate languages. The various regions take pride in their local, unique attributes. While these differences are charming to tourists and give depth to the country's overall culture, they are the residue of hundreds of years of conflict. Wars were fought, men died, all in the name of conquest between the princes and republics of territories like Venice, Sardinia and Florence. The eventual unification is largely thanks to a few key individuals that were man enough to believe in something bigger than themselves.

One of these men was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of Two Worlds.

Garibaldi was greatly admired by men like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. If you've read any of their books you'll have a clue about the type of man those authors might idolize. Garibaldi was an idealist, who backed up his words with action.

He was born in Nice, which thrust him into the nucleus of an Italian-French conflict at a young age. When he was born the region belonged to France but after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 it was granted to the King of Sardinia, King Victor Emmanuel I when Garibaldi was just seven. The nationality of Nice would create in him a sense of political activism. This spirit drove him to join La Giovine Italia, a political group dedicated to Italy's liberation from Austrian power and unification within its own borders.

Later he met Giueseppe Mazzini, the man behind La Giovine Italia, and joined a group called the Carbonari, who tried to stage an uprising in Piedmont. It was a failure and Garibaldi was forced to flee to France as a political refuge to escape a death sentence. However this brush with fate and exile from his home did not extinguish his spirit of independence and unification. In fact, it's possible it plunged him deeper into a life full of fiery obsession for liberty.

He sailed to South America and joined the Republic of the Rio Grande do Sul, which was trying to separate from Brazil. There he met his wife, Anita, who fought by his side during these Brazilian campaigns.
Anita Garibaldi

They moved to Uruguay, where he raised an Italian legion to support the Colorados faction of the Uruguayan Civil War.

Meanwhile in Italy, a new Pope, one who seemingly made positive steps in favor of Italian liberation, was elected. It was a turning point that prompted Garibaldi to return to Italy to take part in the First Italian War of Independence. In Italy he went from province to province offering military assistance to anyone struggling to free themselves from Austrian dominion. He eventually made his way to Rome where the French sieged the city and he was forced to leave again, now hunted by Neapolitan, French, Spanish and Austrian troops.

During this time he traveled to New York, down to Central America, went on a merchant voyage to China, sailing underneath the southern shores of Australia, and eventually to Great Britain and back home to Italy.

When the Second War of Independence happened in Italy, he was appointed as a Major General (he was the very model of one) and led successful battles against the Austrians, but his country dealt him a personal blow when they gave the County of Nice, his home, back to the French in return for military assistance.

When he heard about uprising in Sicily, the island off the south west coast Italy, he gathered 1000 volunteers and went to crush Neapolitan occupation there. He was successful, though entirely outnumbered, and declared himself dictator of Sicily, but that was not enough. With swelling support he walked with growing ranks through the south of Italy until he got to Rome, still occupied by Neapolitan troops.

At Rome the fuse ran out.

Garibaldi had 24,000 volunteer troops by then, but there were at least 25,000 hostile soldiers in Rome. In a surge of the spirit that had possessed his soul throughout his life, his thirst for freedom, his hunger for unification and his anger at losing his home to the French, he attacked the city. In an enormous battle, Garibaldi's heroic group of volunteers struggled against the highly trained and experienced Neapolitan troops.

Defeat was imminent until on the horizon, similar thinkers came to terms. King Victor Emmanuel II had arrived with his Piedmontese troops to assist. Together they defeated Napoleon's men and a very awkward situation arose. Garibaldi, dictator of Sicily, the Hero of Two Worlds, leader of thousands of men who had simply volunteered their lives for his cause stood in contrast to the pre-established ruler of Piedmont.

His whole life Garibaldi had been waiting for people to do what he had personally accomplished. Someone to lead the people and force them to action to rid themselves of foreign invaders. He had watched regional governments fail this goal time and time again. Was King Victor Emmanuel II to be any exception the others before him? How could he trust anyone not to blow it when he had so much momentum? Surely he, himself, was the man that could unite Italy.

And he did.

In a historical gesture, Garibaldi rode up to the King, shook his hand, and yelled back to his men, "Hail to the first King of Italy!" He turned all of his territorial gains over to the King and retired.


This act of humility has always been inspiring to me. I often find myself laden with projects, dreams and ideas. They excite me, sometimes even energize me. But really, I need to take a step back and think about Garibaldi. I need to recognize what will and what won't help me accomplish my end goals. We can get so easily sidetracked that it's not hard to lose sight of what we aim to accomplish in the first place.

For me Garibaldi is the man of the hour because he demonstrated the ability to keep his eye on the prize. His whole life he believed Italy could be united and free from foreign rule. When it finally came time for him to realize that dream, he was already 52. It would have been so easy for him to get caught up in the power and influence he had during his march to Rome, but when it came down to it, he kept his head cool and, amidst all the chaos of war, recognized the path to the bigger picture.

Abraham Lincoln wrote to him and invited him to join the Union's cause during the Civil War against the south. Garibaldi reportedly said he would only accept the position if Lincoln would declare then and there that the war's main purpose was the emancipation of slavery. Had the United States been his home, I could see Garibaldi marching through the Confederate States rallying slaves to his cause, fighting his way back to Lincoln.

Obstacles should never distract us from our end goal. They're stepping stones placed in a confusing web to the finish line.

It also illustrates the importance of having dreams in the first place. If we don't have an end goal, how can we expect to have the strength and fortitude to withstand the setbacks that come along the way.

Be unified, be free. Learn from Garibaldi.