BOOK REVIEW / Hero without a biscuit or a mausoleum: 'Mazzini' - Denis Mack Smith: Yale, 19.95 pounds

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NO ONE named a biscuit after Giuseppe Mazzini; another Giuseppe, the flamboyant Garibaldi, gave his name to both a biscuit and a loosefitting blouse. Every Italian town has a Piazza Garibaldi, but rarely have I seen a Piazza Mazzini.

Yet Giuseppe Mazzini, not Garibaldi, was the true architect of Italian independence. He championed a united Italy, liberated from Habsburg and Bourbon dominion. Unification, proclaimed in 1861, seems now to be at issue. The Northern League is clamouring for autonomy; it may return Italy to the days when it was a federal union of different states. Mazzini would turn in his grave.

The map of Europe as we see it today is still largely the map of Giuseppe Mazzini. Lloyd George hailed this romantic Italian as the 'prophet of free nationality'; his visionary writings run to a staggering 64 volumes of letters and 30 collections of essays. Without these books, the reorganisation of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries (the dissolution of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, the unification of Germany) may have taken a different course. Mazzini defended the subject peoples of Europe against rule from outsiders. His theories were a vital force in the political awakening of Asia and Africa. It is not surprising that Mazzini became a hero to Gandhi and Nehru, or that he was worshipped by Dickens and Tolstoy.

Why, then, has Italy consigned Giuseppe Mazzini to the lumber room of its national heroes? Mazzini has suffered much the same fate as Thomas Paine after the American Revolution; there are no grandiose equestrian memorials to him in any Italian city (whereas Garibaldi is a hero on horseback wherever you look). A quiet, unassuming man of ascetic habits, Mazzini dressed from collar to toe in saturnine black; never in the scarlet Garibaldian blouse. With his sparse beard and sallow El Greco face, he is easily caricatured as a guastafeste (kill-joy). Exiled in London for 25 years, Mazzini moved from one shabby boarding house to another - under sentence of death from the Piedmontese crown.

There was no police protection. To avoid assassination, Mazzini changed lodgings every few months, his curtains drawn in daylight. Denounced by the then Pope as an agent of Satan, Mazzini can still cause botheration. In 1977 a respected Italian newspaper spoke of him as a disagreeable character who had been 'above all a terrorist'.

In this first life of Mazzini to appear in English since 1902, Denis Mack Smith has salvaged his subject from slander and neglect. Mazzini emerges in this clear, readable biography as one of the most remarkable Europeans of his time: a Voltaire of a new age of national liberation. Mazzini's ideal of patriotism was always subordinated to the larger claims of humanity and a peaceful world order. He did not ignore the differences between Serbs and Croats, but hoped that a federation of 'Greater Illyria' would one day include Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians and Macedonians. One wonders what he would have made of Serb aggression now.

Denis Mack Smith is a fine popular historian; his biography of Mussolini is a classic, and he has written a magisterial account of Sicily. This life of Mazzini is marred, however, by a lack of essential information. Mazzini never married - was he ever in love? His father was a professor of pathology at Genoa university - what about Mrs Mazzini? We learn very little about Mazzini's childhood or his contribution to Italian romanticism (he wrote several astute literary analyses of Dante and Ugo Foscolo).

'The man I most venerate is Mazzini,' Nietzsche announced. Sad to say, many Italians today couldn't give two biscuits for national unification. The Garibaldi Mausoleum is an ugly block of concrete up in the Calabrian hills displaying a bust and a couple of cannonballs nestled on a tattered flag. But at least he got a mausoleum.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away.