‘It wasn’t the Italy I dreamed of’… Remembering the Risorgimento 150 years later

By Niamh Cullen

‘It wasn’t the Italy I dreamed of.’ 2011 marks 150 years since Italy was unified as a nation, and the words of a disaffected Giuseppe Garibaldi in his later years still seem to cast their shadow over the commemorations. Italy has always had a troubled relationship with nationalism. Unified only since 1861 in a campaign which despite Garibaldi’s best efforts, did little to capture the popular imagination, the creation of the Kingdom of Italy didn’t manage to prise people’s loyalties from their own town, city or region, and onto the nation. The unification was seen as something carried out by politicians and soldiers, which had nothing to do with the lives of ordinary Italians, and the creation of a legal ‘Italy’ in 1861 could do very little to make Sicilians, Neapolitans or Venetians feel ‘Italian’. In the twentieth century, it was only Mussolini who managed to inspire some level of popular patriotism in Italians, and the distaste for his brand of patriotic pomp and where it led, meant that nationalism was once again discredited after 1945. 150 years later, I was interested to see how the Unification would be celebrated, or simply marked, across the country. Would the lack of popular enthusiasm for a united Italy both then and since, and the popular disaffection which followed be forgotten as officials seized the chance to glorify their nation’s past? Or would a more balanced, less celebratory tone be allowed to emerge?

The excellent exhibition, ‘1861. The painters of the Risorgimento’, running in Rome until January 16, definitely tends towards the latter interpretation. The exhibition, which gathers together some of the best art of the military campaigns that led to Unification, contains very few cliched images of Garibaldi on horseback, wearing his iconic hat. Since most of the paintings were carried out very close to the time of the conflicts, and often by artists who had taken part in the battles themselves, they are much less concerned with myth-making than with documenting the realities of war. The first stage of the exhibition, which illustrates the battles that led to the creation of Italy, thus allows – surprisingly, at least to me – the messy, unglorious and tragic sides of war to emerge almost as much as its heroic aspects. Faustino Joli’s striking depiction of one of the failed battles of 1848-9 shows fierce fighting on the narrow cobbled streets of Brescia. Although the main action in the painting takes place in the left foreground, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the street at the centre of the painting, littered with dead bodies and stretching right into the distance. Another painting by Joli and depicting the same battle shows the town on fire; in both an atmosphere of confusion and destruction reigns.

Gerolamo Induno’s, ‘The battle of Magenta’ has a more epic quality, as it shows the beginning of a charge on the village below. Still, a few dead bodies populate the foreground and the confusion of some of the officers and drummers seems to temper the more heroic qualities of the charge in the distance. While the paintings all depict important battles and episodes in the Risorgimento, the focus is seldom on the heroic aspects; more often we see the soldiers at ease and looking a little bored, the officers confused about what to do next or the drummers unsure whether to continue their beat, as the campaign falters. Of the paintings that focus on smaller details of the battles, the most memorable are Giovanni Fattori’s painting of the fallen rider and Induno’s depiction of a group of bersaglieri as they take Rome in 1870. In Induno’s painting, the soldier at the very front-centre of the company is stumbling forward, wounded. Both are filled with an immense energy, as they capture the movement of the riders on horseback charging forward to battle; however both ultimately focus on the fallen soldier, left behind wounded or dead in the heat of the moment.

The second part of the exhibition focuses on the home front; on the impact of war on the families sending husbands and fathers to war, waiting or receiving news at home. The paintings are smaller and more intimate, often giving us fascinating insights into the interiors of bourgeois and peasant homes in mid-nineteenth century Italy. ‘Letter from the field’ shows an extended family gathered to read the words of their brother, father and husband at the front. Some paintings also give us an insight into how news of the campaigns travelled across Italy. Many of the bourgeois interiors show women or old men reading newspapers. Indeed the Risorgimento years did see a proliferation of printed material in Italy as demand grew for news and propaganda both to explain and to persuade; however since only a tiny proportion of Italians could actually read, the spread of news shouldn’t be exaggerated. Domenico Induno’s (brother of Gerolamo) painting ‘The newspaper of 14 July 1859 announcing the peace at Villafranca’ (which ruled out the incorporation of Venice into Italy for almost another decade) shows the popular reaction to the news in a working-class quarter of Milan, the city and the iconic face of the Duomo in the distance. It captures the multiplicity of reactions from a variety of characters; the wounded soldier in uniform looking disappointed but resigned; the old man’s despair and the indifference of the child street-seller with his basket.

‘The vigil’ shows three generations of women gathered around a kitchen table reading newspapers, embroidering and absorbing the news of the day under a vivid lamplight reminiscent of Caravaggio. We are told that the scene depicted was taking place in 1878, on the evening of King Vittorio Emanuele II’s death. It was under his reign that Italy was unified and he became the first monarch of Italy; his death marked the end of an epoch for many bourgeois, patriotic Italians. The context explains the painting’s quietly elegiac tone.

Most Italians had an ambiguous relationship with the ideals of the Risorgimento, and the reality that they had brought into being. Garibaldi himself ended his life disappointed and embittered about the conservative, monarchist kingdom which he had unwittingly helped to create. The fact that his words are found on many of the posters and banners marking the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento around Rome indicates that Italians still feel ambiguous about their past and are unsure if, even now, in the age of Berlusconi, this is the Italy he dreamed of. It is nevertheless a crucial period in Italian history that deserves remembering in all its facets, if not celebration. This is a sentiment that the curators of this exhibition seem to share, and it shows the Risorgimento years in all their visual detail, providing a fascinating insight into Italian society, both on the battlefield and on the home front.

The exhibition ‘1861. I pittori del Risorgimento’ runs until January 16 at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. If you won’t be in Rome before then, you can view some of the paintings on the exhibition website.

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