I recently read Denis Mack Smith’s biography, Mazzini (Yale University Press, 1994). A figure who is not very widely remembered now, but in the nineteenth century was regarded as one of the major figures of the time. He was a major figure in the Risorgimento, the nineteenth century unification of Italy awaited at least since the time of Machiavelli. Mack Smith has written biographies of the two other leading figures of this movement. Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedemont, which provided the nucleus of unified Italy, and Garibaldi, the commander of volunteer armies against the old monarchies and foreign powers which had partitioned Italy. Mazzini was the political leader from exile, mostly in London, of Italian republicans and nationalists, organising for an Italy of democracy and liberty to emerge from popular struggles. Mack Smith outlines an amazing complicated dance between; the monarchy of Piedmont very much inclined to absorb the rest of Italy while regarding nationalists, and particularly republicans as a threat to monarchical authority; Mazzini’s republicans willing to seek compromise and accept an Italian monarchy if necessary, but also inclined to endless conspiracy; and Garibaldi’s military leadership of volunteer forces. The liberal conservatives around Cavour who dominated Piedmont politics were often previously Mazzini republicans who both repressed republicans and came into conflict with the personal ambitions of the Piedmont monarchy. The ambiguities, double dealing, switching, conflict between overt enmity and covert alliance, or overt alliance and covert enmity is labyrinthine, particularly as it drew in a multiplicity of Italian states, the Papacy, and the major European powers. Both Bismarck and Tocqueville appear on the horizon, Alexis de Tocqueville as the regretful foreign minister of France unwillingly complicit in the brutal French extirpation of a Roman Republic.
The biography is certainly very favourable to Mazzini, but the evidence is presented clearly enough of Mazzini’s extraordinary personal altruism, self-sacrifice, intelligence, and dignity, constantly in poverty due to his habit of giving money away to fellow Italian emigres. He struggled to provide education to poor Italian children in London, against the opposition of Italian princes and Catholic conservatives. He walked half way across London to visit friends, including famous people of the time, particularly Thomas Carlyle because he could not afford any form of transport in his self-imposed poverty. I’m not in any position to form an expert opinion on Mazzini, but my guess from the book is that Mazzini had all the admirable personal qualities Mack Smith attributes to him, but was even more of a hare brained impulsive political conspirator than Mack Smith hints. The risorgimento succeeded, and Mazzini played a very large part in that, but I suspect because the conditions allowed a passionate emigre with a motley and unreliable network of followers, to have an impact by simply shaking up an unstable situation.
Mack Smith further points out that Mazzini had a huge European reputation, growing over time as major personalities who had been sceptical of him like the famous British Prime Minister and liberal leader, William Ewart Gladstone. His now largely unread political writings were given a master thinker status. I have an old volume of them, I will come back to them in a future post. He combined passionate nationalism with a strong belief in a federated Europe. His vision patly depended on a view of natural boundaries and nations which seems now to mistake historical accident for transhistorical claims to sovereignty, but he was not the only one and it’s certainly important that he though nationalism and trans-European federalism would go together. The quality Max Weber attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Gladstone of charismatic leadership of a type suitable for a democracy, should also be applied to Mazzini even if unlike them he was never to lead a unified nation.