Giuseppe Mazzini

The Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) devoted his life to achieving liberty and unity for Italy. He placed the skill of his pen at the service of a vigorous republicanism.

Giuseppe Mazzini was born on June 22, 1805, at Genoa. He was a sickly but brilliant child, sufficiently precocious to take a law degree from the university of his native city at the age of 21. He began very early to write reviews, but after joining the Carbonari during the flurry of revolutionary activity of 1830, he turned his writing to more exclusively political ends. As a result, he was imprisoned and kept in the fortress of Savona for 6 months, after which he was released for lack of evidence.

Advertisement

Revolutionary Organizations

In the solitude of his prison cell Mazzini developed a clear idea of the direction he wanted his life to take and conceived plans for a new organization which was formed shortly after his release. La Giovine Italia (Young Italy) would devote itself to liberation, unity, and republicanism. It would seek these goals through elaborate educational programs and, if need be, guerrilla warfare. During the formation of Young Italy, Mazzini was in Marseilles, where he had gone into exile after his release from prison. In the summer of 1832 he withdrew into Switzerland under pressure from the French government. From there in 1833 he played an incidental part in an attempt to cause mutiny in the Sardinian army. The effort was a failure, and Mazzini was sentenced to death in absentia. This did not cause him to flinch or slacken his efforts, and in the same year he founded Central Europe, a journal devoted to the liberation of Savoy.

In 1834 a second and a third association were formed under Mazzini's influence, Young Europe and Young Switzerland, respectively. These groups were devoted to the principles of liberty and equality for all. There followed upon these activities a period of some restlessness and uncertainty for Mazzini. Trouble with the Swiss government caused him to be exiled, and in early 1837 he moved to London, where he scratched a meager living from some desultory writing of reviews. He increased his revolutionary contacts during the next few years and in 1840 established a workingmen's association.

Roman Republic

Suspicions grew in London over Mazzini's clandestine relationships, and the dubious practice of opening his mail was undertaken by the home secretary, Sir James Graham. It was certainly true that the uncomfortable Italian guest was corresponding secretly with revolutionaries in his homeland. In 1848, when revolts broke out in Milan and Messina, he returned to Italy in the knowledge that the leaders of the rising were men of his acquaintance. That he had already achieved a considerable reputation is attested to by the fact that he was named in 1849, almost simultaneously, to the provisional government of Tuscany and the constituent assembly of the Roman Republic, both ill-fated outgrowths of the insurrections taking place throughout Europe.

On March 23, 1849, with defeat hovering over the revolution, Mazzini was made one of the Roman Triumvirate. His strong hand kept some order in the city until its surrender on June 30 forced him first into seclusion and then once again into exile. He kept his revolutionary fervor and in the next decade became involved, from London, in several more abortive Italian uprisings. His new journal, Pensiero e azione (Thought and Action), published in London, urged violence in the cause of liberty and unity.

Advertisement

Later Years

Mazzini came to believe, as the fateful years of 1859 and 1860 approached, that the only force capable of leading a successful insurrection against the repressive regimes of Italy was the kingdom of the Piedmont. Accordingly, he wrote to King Victor Emmanuel II, urging him in powerful language to take up the cause of Italian unity. He did this without surrendering to the monarchical principle. Inwardly at least he had not lost hope of a republican form of government for his countrymen, and when practical necessity made of the new Italian state a kingdom rather than a republic, he was disappointed. He demonstrated this continuing antipathy to monarchy as a governmental form when, in 1865, he rejected a seat in the Italian Parliament to which he had been elected by Messina. He did this because, as he put it, he felt that he could not take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy.

At that time Mazzini was still technically under sentence of death, and it was only in the following year, in a general amnesty granted when Venice was ceded to Italy, that the sentence was reversed. This was not the end of his troubles. In 1869 the Swiss government, at the request of the Italian one, forced him to leave Switzerland, where he had taken up residence. It was known that he was in touch with Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had run afoul of the Italian government over the status of Rome.

In 1870 on his way to Sicily, Mazzini was arrested and imprisoned. He was soon released but the confinement further embittered him, and he turned the energies of his last years to social questions. He tried his hand at guiding a working-class movement and even became involved, un-characteristically, with theoreticians like Karl Marx and the nihilist Mikhail Bakunin. These relationships lasted only briefly, and Mazzini, no socialist, parted company with the working classes.

Mazzini's death at Pisa on March 10, 1872, brought forth a national public display of grief, voted unanimously by the Italian Parliament. Italy was already grateful to Mazzini, although the magnitude of his contribution to its emergence as a modern state would be fully understood only later.

Advertisement

Further Reading on Giuseppe Mazzini

The best source for Mazzini is his own writings, many of which are given in Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini (6 vols., 1890-1891). Valuable works in English are Bolton King's Mazzini (1903) and his more general A History of Italian Unity: Being a Political History of Italy from 1814 to 1871 (2 vols., 1899; rev. ed. 1924). Other studies of Mazzini include Edyth Hinkley, Mazzini: The Story of a Great Italian (1924); G. O. Griffith, Mazzini: Prophet of Modern Europe (1932); Stringfellow Barr, Mazzini: Portrait of an Exile (1935); Edward Elton Young Hales, Mazzini and the Secret Societies (1956); and Gaetano Salvemini, Mazzini (trans. 1956). Mazzini is discussed in several works on the struggle for Italy's unification: George Martin, The Red Shirt and the Cross of Savoy: The Story of Italy's Risorgimento, 1748-1871 (1969), and Edgar Holt, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870 (1971).

Additional Biography Sources

Barr, Stringfellow, Mazzini: portrait of an exile, New York: Octagon Books, 1975, 1935.

Mazzini, Budapest: Gondolat, 1977.

Mack Smith, Denis, Mazzini, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Srivastava, Gita, Mazzini and his impact on the Indian national movement, Allahabad: Chugh Publications, 1982.