garibaldi : romance for the authentic

They don’t make them like that anymore. He was one of the first stars of the media age of mass produced and disseminated images. it was the beginning of celebrity as the basis for our communal lives; the most significant way we understand the world. The creative destruction of classic classicism was producing new freedoms and heretofore new variations of loneliness. Communal lives began to crave the empty gesture and celebrities were the newly minted free flowing connections to a fantasy world and free floating fantasy is still the essence of celebrity. There was a hunger for authenticity, and then as at present, authenticity was a construction and not a natural development.

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…But if Mazzini started it, Garibaldi himself soon proved an imaginative pioneer of the manipulation of the press. In 1860, when he drove the massive Bourbon army out of Sicily, he did not just have 1,000 untrained volunteers to assist him; he had a press corps of more than 100 reporters. “He was extraordinarily adept at handing this great throng of journalists,” said Riall. “He made time to talk to them and be nice to them.” He even took time out, the night before he attacked Palermo, to sign autographs. “He was creating the model of the modern politician.”

Garibaldi shrewdly amended his image according to circumstances. Sometimes, his beard ragged and wearing a red poncho, he was the revolutionary cowboy bandit of the South American plains. Other times, his beard trimmed and clad in the blue uniform of the Piedmontese, he was the responsible army officer and the heart-throb of metropolitan Europe….

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…The highpoint of his reputation came with that invasion of Sicily. First he crushed the Neapolitan army. Then, moving with remarkable speed, he bypassed the formidable Neapolitan navy – the largest in the Mediterranean – and crossed into the mainland and swept 300 miles north towards Naples. The population lined the roads as he passed. The men called him “Father of Italy” and the women brought out their babies to be blessed by him as he marched to meet the troops of Victor Emanuel of Piedmont. Hailing Piedmont with the words: “Greetings to the first King of Italy,” Garibaldi, with extraordinary political naivete for a radical republican, surrendered his conquests – Sicily, half the Italian peninsula and the vast Neapolitan Royal Navy – to the new monarch without negotiation or condition….

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…It was one of history’s last great romantic moments. “What of Garibaldi!” wrote Ivan Turgenev. “One cannot believe it – one’s heart stops beating.” Writers and journalists churned out ever more intimate and sensational material, inventing all kinds of extra stories for him and frequently comparing him to the warriors of classical epic or medieval romance. His reputation crossed the world with the speed of fire. Lincoln asked him to become a general in the Yankee army at the outbreak of the American Civil War; Garibaldi said he’d only do it if he could have full command of the army.

Garibaldi became the first contemporaneously famous international hero. A master seaman, he travelled to Rio de Janiero, Marseilles, Taganrog (in the Black Sea), South Shields and New York, where he was the first person ever to say no to a ticker tape parade….

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…In London in 1864 people of all classes flocked to see him as he got off the train at Nine Elms. The crowds were so immense it took him six hours to travel three miles through the streets. The whole country shut down for three days. He met the great and the good. Literary figures including the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott lauded him as the “Italian lion” and “the noblest Roman of them all”. Staffordshire made figurines of him by the thousand. A new football club, Nottingham Forest, adopted Garibaldi-red as its colour. Peek Freans created

eponymous biscuits (allegedly based on a raisin bread with which he had fed his troops).

On this triumphal tour he met everyone except Queen Victoria, to whom, like other political conservatives, Garibaldi was the Osama bin Laden of his day. “Garibaldi – thank God – is gone!” declared the Queen on his departure from London. The nation’s Catholics agreed, for Garibaldi’s visit had brought thousands to the streets chanting: “We’ll get a rope, and hang the Pope. So up with Garibaldi!” Anticlericalist though the Italian hero was, he became the focus of a new superstition; his host’s servants did good business selling hairs from his comb and tiny bottles of his used bathwater.

The romance of Garibaldi has endured ever since. The fascist dictators of the 20th century extolled him. So did Zionist guerrillas in the 1950s and the Marxist revolutionaries of the 1970s, until Che Guevara supplanted him as an icon. More recently bedfellows as unlikely as the Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, the Euro-racist writer Oriana Fallaci and the brutal Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev have been united in their glorification of Garibaldi. “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” Bertolt Brecht once said. Looking at Garibaldi you can almost understand what he meant. Read More:

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