Rome or Death: the obsessions of General Garibaldi by Daniel Pick

The prophet and his poncho

In 1875, Garibaldi, now in his late sixties, made a triumphal return to the city which had eluded him, and other Italian nationalists, for so long. His battle cry was no longer "Rome or Death". Instead, he was fired by a new mission to bring physical regeneration to Rome through a programme to divert the course of the disease-ridden River Tiber away from the city, building over it a boulevard like Haussmann's in Paris, which would rejuvenate Rome and transform it into a wonder of the modern world. This ambitious scheme was the last great passion of Garibaldi's life. He considered that the political settlement, out of which the new nation had emerged, was a corruption of the great ideals of the movement for Italian unification, and his plan was a symbolic act of purification as well as a feat of engineering based on research into flood measures, irrigation and flow rates. But like the river itself, Garibaldi became hopelessly "bogged down", declaring himself betrayed by politicians who were unable to share his vision.

Daniel Pick, a cultural historian who trained as a psychoanalyst, has taken this episode and used it to illuminate not simply the quixotic, contradictory character of the General, but also the vitality - and morbidity - of Rome itself, the city described by one 19th-century novelist as "a huge, strange vision... a great fluctuating thing... a vast shape with shadowy outlines". One of Pick's early chapters explores the stagnation of Rome's waterway and the natural devastation it had wrought on the Roman Campagna, once fertile territory but increasingly a malign, fetid area where the inhabitants suffered and died from virulent outbreaks of malaria. "Roman fever", the fiery illness, was a major risk for tourists as well, as any Baedeker of the time would tell you. To linger "at the wrong time of day, at the wrong time of year, near certain sites, such as Roman excavations" was, according to Augustus Hare's Walks in Rome, "inordinately imprudent". Garibaldi's 1875 mission took place before medical advances at the end of the 19th century (most notably by the French doctor and pathologist, Laveran) identified the specific parasites responsible for malaria. Like most Victorians, Garibaldi believed in the idea of "miasma". The deterioration of organic material by the waters of the city created a sordid dampness, which in turn gave rise to bad air. This noxious gas contributed to malaria as well as many other diseases. In late 19th-century Italy, malaria alone was reponsible for 15,000 deaths a year.

Pick scrupulously examines the scientific background to Garibaldi's obsession, but what interests him as much is the world's own obsession with Garibaldi and the way in which the General's life became a modern heroic epic, endlessly celebrated and enshrined in national history, painting and folklore. His fame spread well beyond the confines of Italy. In 1864, when he visited England, crowds of excited women mobbed him at the Floral Hall at Covent Garden, grasping at his beard, his poncho and clothes in frenzy. Earlier representations of him had drawn on his Christ-like suffering and, as the "prophet of Italy", Garibaldi had emphasised the social and moral teachings of Christ while decisively rejecting the dogma and corruption of the Roman Catholic church. Despite his anti-clericalism, Garibaldi's campaign to capture and transform the Eternal City borrowed from religious imagery and was cast as a struggle of good against evil.

Ranging back and forth over Garibaldi's life and utilising English biographies by Ridley and Hibbert, as well as more recent Italian works, Pick attempts a psychoanalytic treatment of Garibaldi's obsessions. He suggests that the death of Garibaldi's first wife, Anita, from malaria, as he and his "Red Shirts" made the dramatic retreat from Rome in 1849, became a decisive factor in his later determination to save the city from natural disaster. This is an intriguing possibility - though the evidence for it seems slight - and characteristic of Pick's stimulating, often ingenious, approach. However, at times the compass of the book seems too narrow for the number of weighty themes he wants to fit into it. Someone should certainly have counselled him about the way in which his long, meandering footnotes constantly impede the flow of the narrative. But Rome or Death is a clever and illuminating study of one of Garibaldi's lesser-known obsessions. In the end it was the black shirts, under Mussolini, who made progress in conquering Rome's fevers where the famous red shirt had failed.

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