BOOK REVIEW / In Caesarian sections: Mazzini by Denis Mack Smith: Yale pounds 19.95

Click to follow
GIUSEPPE MAZZINI was one of three great figures who dominated the Risorgimento. He never achieved the military renown of Garibaldi or the political effect of Cavour, but the purity of his principles and the force of his ideas won him international fame. He was worshipped by Nietzsche and praised by John Stuart Mill. The Pope denounced him as an agent of Satan, the royal courts of Europe thought he was a terrorist and Karl Marx, whom he met in London, wrote him off as a bourgeois reactionary. When he died, the Times accorded him a grander obituary than Dickens, Manzoni or King Victor Emanuel of Italy.

In the first book in English on Mazzini's life for almost 100 years, Denis Mack Smith has rescued his subject from unjust oblivion, and provided a biography full of enlightenment for anyone ready to study Italy's past in order to understand her modern travails.

Mazzini was the opposite of Cavour, who believed in power politics and who maintained, in a famous phrase, that the worst of chambers was always to be preferred to the best of antechambers. Mazzini rarely entered even the antechambers of power. He spent much of his career in exile or, under sentence of death, flitting between England, Switzerland and the disunited states of the Italian peninsula. His pamphlets, letters and conspiracies played a vital part in the revolutions of 1848, and he briefly served as a member of the ruling triumvirate during the transient Roman republic of the following year. He continued to struggle for a united Italy, but he detested the intrigue and cynicism that was eventually used to bring it about.

Setting Mazzini's life and works against the complex background of 19th-century diplomacy, Mack Smith provides a good deal of detail about his time as a penniless exile in London, applauded by radical society though disdained by the grandees. This is, however, strictly a political biography, in the mould of Mack Smith's study of Mussolini. It is Mazzini the historical figure and theorist, not Mazzini the man, who is paramount.

Mazzini himself insisted on the unity of Italy as a prerequisite for a Europe composed of free and equal nations. But even in the heady days of 1848, many doubted whether Italy could ever be governed as one country. Two of Mazzini's followers, Giuseppe Ferrari and Carlo Cattaneo, argued that personal liberties and a pluralist society might best be served by a federation of Italian states, an idea not so far from the desire of the Northern League today. One aristocratic Prime Minister of Piedmont, Massimo d'Azeglio, thought that patriotism and unity meant nothing to most of the population, while Cavour himself notoriously preferred a divided Italy, and believed Neapolitans to be so corrupt that they would have to be held down by military rule.

Through Mazzini's ideas, Mack Smith illustrates the historical tensions between the notion of a single Italian state under central government and the conflicting tendencies towards 'excessive individualism and Caesarism', which still bedevil present-day Italy. The lesson of Mazzini's disillusion is that Italy emerged from the Risorgimento with many of her social structures unchanged, just as in the present crisis it is the power of the old, not the strength of the new, that is predominant at the moment.

Mazzini knew that the Risorgimento was in truth a minority movement, and Garibaldi acknowledged that not one contadino, or peasant, had joined the ranks of his famous volunteer armies. 'I had hoped to evoke the soul of Italy and instead find merely her inanimate corpse,' Mazzini lamented. It was left to Lloyd George, many years later, to eulogise him correctly: 'He was the prophet of free nationality. The glittering imperial fabric reared by Bismarck is humbled in the dust but the dreams of this young man have now become startling realities.' He should be remembered as one of Italy's many gifts to our modern world.