The Resurrection of Garibaldi

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Hulton Archive / Getty

Italian patriot and a leader of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 - 1882).

The typical Roman history tour begins with the tomb of an ancient emperor and winds down with the works of your Renaissance-era artist-of-choice. But perched atop the Janiculum hill — with St. Peter's over the north slope, and a splendid view of ancient Rome sprawled out to the east — stands an imposing monument to a more modern and no less fascinating hero of the past. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legendary 19th century general who helped liberate and unify what became the modern state of Italy, has a place in history that both defines and transcends Italianita. For the bicentennial of his birth (July 4, 1807), towns and cities and the President of the Republic will honor Garibaldi's legacy as the figure who fought and preached for unity of what were then divided regions on the Italian peninsula under foreign and papal rule.

On a recent afternoon, as cars and scooters zipped around the enormous Janiculum statue, and tourists gazed off at the view of the city below, one 86-year-old Rome native was looking up at the giant bronze Garibaldi. "He was a man of action," said Bruno Ambrosi dei Magistris, a retired paint company owner, sporting a white moustache and aviator sunglasses. "Sure we know that Italians tend to be self-centered. But when called to do something serious, we respond." In Italy, the iconography of Garibaldi — a dashing figure with piercing eyes and a mane of hair — has been massaged by virtually every generation since the 1815-70 Risorgimento established the modern country we know today. Mussolini cited Garibaldi's nationalist determination as the precursor of fascism, while leftists have claimed him for his battles over equality and anticlericalism. Still, few deny that Garibaldi's combination of charisma, courage and integrity was pivotal to the birth of the nation in 1860. Indeed, among his many nicknames, Garibaldi is known as the "George Washington of Italy."

But Garibaldi's legend stretched far beyond Italian shores. He had in fact begun his military career by leading independence movements in Brazil and Uruguay before returning home to lead battles to unify Italy. This "Hero of Two Worlds" would eventually become an international icon both during and after his lifetime, an archetype of the modern military folk hero who understood the link between his cult and his cause.

Traveling widely and feted by the wealthy and well-connected, Garibaldi was a favorite in Victorian England of what historian Rohan McWilliams calls a precursor to the "radical chic" crowd. His mix of egalitarianism, insurgent tactics and rugged sex appeal made him a forerunner of Argentine Marxist Che Guevara. Though T-shirts may be rare, after his death Garibaldi's name would adorn monuments, towns and mountain ranges from Rome to New York City, from Russia to Brazil.

In Italy, the 200th anniversary of his birth has been a yearlong opportunity to bring to life the countless Garibaldi monuments in town piazzas. A made-for-TV movie depicted his battlefield prowess, the month-long Giro d'Italia bicycle race began in his adoptive hometown on the island of Sardinia, his famous speeches have been re-enacted from the same balconies were he once appeared before adoring crowds, and of course the obligatory commemorative stamps and coins. But Garibaldi's spirit has also returned to foreign shores, with a concert in Staten Island, New York, and celebrations in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo and the Brazilian town of, well, Garibaldi. But in case anyone thought this was just dusty nostalgia, it turns out that the very face of 21st century youth is a fan of the Italian. "Garibaldi is my favorite hero," said Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter movies, in a recent Italian magazine interview. "In my final exam I wrote about Garibaldi and Italian unification. Actually, there was also the German (unification), but Italy's is much more heroic. What Garibaldi did was amazing!" The legend lives on.