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Giuseppe Garibaldi: Book Review

"One hundred and fifty years ago Garibaldi was, perhaps, the best known name in the world. There were streets and squares named after him in a hundred different towns from Naples to Montevideo; statuettes of him, busts, medallions and china figurines were almost as common in Manchester as in Milan, in Boston as in Bologna.

Garibaldi statue in Anghiari
Garibaldi statue in Anghiari

Postcards depicting his messianic features were sold in their millions and you could drink a Garibaldi wine, wear a Garibaldi shirt, see a Garibaldi musical and eat a Garibaldi biscuit."

These are the opening lines to this book in the Preface.

Outside Italy Garibaldi was fêted from New York to London, fawned upon by politicians and high society and treated as royalty everywhere he went except by royalty themselves, who feared him. Giuseppe Garibaldi was certainly a fascinating person, with the authority and natural leadership qualities of a George Washington coupled with the daring and bravery of a Francis Drake or an Admiral Nelson.

It would be impossible to write a boring book about such a person but what makes this particular biography so good is the author, Christopher Hibbert. This 370 page book is a superb match of accomplished biographer and larger-than-life subject.

Garibaldi statue in Lucca
Garibaldi statue in Lucca

It is the story of one of history’s most charismatic figures narrated by a writer who for fifty years was one of Britain’s most accessible and entertaining historians.

Born in 1924, Hibbert studied history at Oxford University before serving as an infantry officer in the British army during World War II. He saw action in Sicily, the stage for some of Garibaldi’s greatest heroics, and emerged from the war with several wounds, a Military Cross for gallantry, a good command of the Italian language and a lifelong love of Italy.

Hibbert subsequently became a prolific writer of history and historical biographies, mainly of British and Italian subjects, and I have read and enjoyed a fair number of them. Hibbert’s supreme talent lay in making history enjoyable for people who think history is boring.

He described his approach to writing as being about “people and events rather than ideas and conditions.”

It’s not that the latter are unimportant but Hibbert knew intuitively that arguments about the economic and social underpinnings of the Risorgimento were less likely to capture the imagination of readers than the vision of the bearded poncho-wearing Garibaldi astride his white horse at the head of a band of fellow Red Shirts chanting “Rome or Death!” And it is into this world of action that Hibbert delivers us.

Garibaldi biography by Christopher Hibbert

But that is not to say that his books are history made light or frivolous; Hibbert’s command of his subject matter is not in doubt.

As the late British politician Roy Jenkins (himself a fine biographer) wrote in the New York Times Book Review, in Hibbert’s work we find “no inaccuracies to offend the historian, no solecisms to irritate the fastidious and no longeurs (tedious passages) to weary the general reader.

As Hibbert himself told an interviewer: “You’ve got to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next.

The eminent British historian AJP Taylor (who was a great historian, but an incredibly boring writer in my opinion, proving how difficult it can be to write about history in a gripping fashion) wrote decades ago that Garibaldi was “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history.” And there's some fine analysis behind that statement because just like George Washington and the Roman Cincinnatus, but few others, Garibaldi was content to retire to his farm when his work was done and not seize the power that he could so easily have taken.

Garibaldi statue in Santa Margherita Ligure
Garibaldi statue in Santa Margherita Ligure

Perhaps AJP Taylor was well ahead of his time because through today’s massively intolerant and revisionist prism, that assertion from many years ago may actually now be truer than even he suspected when writing it.

Many great historical figures were involved in the conquest of foreign lands and even those that weren’t, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus and others, now seem to have to atone for other sins and their statues pay the price.

Garibaldi fought the French, the Bourbons, the Austrians and the Pope, none of whom ruled their slices of Italy by popular consent, and he didn’t even take advantage of the Franco Prussian War in 1870 to reclaim for Italy his birthplace of Nice that was so casually ceded to France ten years earlier. So if someone today takes it upon himself to find offense in something Garibaldi did or said then the mob will struggle to pull down his statues because there’s one in virtually every single town in Italy and they will find that here in Italy Garibaldi is still universally respected and admired.

Garibaldi statue in Carrara
Garibaldi statue in Carrara

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book that also explains many aspects of Italian history that are not well known even to Italians. I highly recommend it.


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