Italy – My Memories Of Italy, 1851-1915

IN these days of Italy’s great part in the World-War, I often recur in thought to my memories of the soldiers and patriots whom I saw, heard, and talked with in the Risorgimento ; during the war and the agitations of 1859–6o–61 ; when Italy, after fifty years of battles, struggles, and of martyrdom, was at last made or let us say today very nearly made. It is fifty-five years ago, but I remember, as if it were yesterday, Vittorio Emanuele II, Ricasoli, Farini, Minghetti, Carlo Poerio, Marchese Pepoli, Mamiani, and the Provisional Governments of the Duchies. I had correspondence with Count Cavour, I had long conversations with Mazzini, I saw Garibaldi in his red shirt at the head of his troop ; I have heard him address a great meeting ; and I was with him when widows brought their fatherless children for him to bless them, which he did as simply and as devoutly as any saint might have done.

As my thoughts go back over more than half a century to my own personal intercourse with the immortal Makers of Italy, I often ask myself today what would be the feelings, the hopes, and the counsels of these unforgotten patriots, martyrs, and heroes. My memories of them, how they looked, how they spoke, and how their inspirations worked may interest and hearten their successors today.

I was bred up Italianissimo. In 1850, whilst a student at Oxford, I read Dante with Count Aurelio Saffi of Forli, who, with Mazzini, was one of the Triumvirs in the defence of Rome in 1849. Saffi introduced me to Mazzini in London, Campanella of Milan, Pianciani and other soldiers and exiled comrades. I subscribed to a Republican journal ; and indeed sixty-five years ago I was as much in touch with the nationalist movement as if it were my own fatherland.

In 1851 I first passed under the ineffable radiance of the sky of Italy. I heard the native tongue of the people at home. In 1853 I travelled to Florence, where I had friends and introductions in the time of the Grand Duke and met the poet Browning, then residing in the city. When war broke out in 1859, I shared the enthusiasm of the Brownings ; and after sundry appeals to the English Press, I resolved to see the work myself, and, armed with various introductions from the Liberal Press and Government of the day, I spent the autumn of 1859 in Turin, Genoa, Leghorn, Florence and Tuscany, Romagna, Bologna, Modena, Parma and Milan.

In each centre I was properly accredited to the provisional rulers, but I had also private and nationalist introductions ; and having a perfectly free hand, I sent off my impressions to several English journals. In 1865 I spent the autumn in Rome in the days of Pio Nono and the French occupation, and I had various acquaintances in more than one party. In scores of later travels I have visited every part of Italy, from the Alpine passes to Brindisi and Syracuse. And I have had the advantage of knowing representative men of almost every school, or class, or profession in the peninsula. For sixty-five years I have been in correspondence or in intercourse with journalists, politicians, men of letters, and patriots of Italy. And I hold it important such being the versatility and originality of the Italian genius that to know Italy truly, one must be in touch with all the various parties, elements, ideas, couches sociales of that most complex nationality must avoid all tendency to what is narrow, one-sided, or exclusive.

Now, I desire to bear witness that, in the Revival and Unity of Italy from 1849-1870 the hearts of liberal Englishmen were as deeply stirred in sympathy with the cause as if it had been their own country and future at stake. Only those behind the scenes ever knew how much Palmerston, Russell, Sir James Hudson, and Gladstone supported Cavour and Rattazzi. Only those in touch with the revolutionary enthusiasts knew the passionate admiration of unofficial, unorthodox, and adventurous Englishmen for Garibaldi, Mazzini, even for Orsini. Italy, under the consummate audacity of Cavour, had been our ally with France in the Crimea. But quite apart from that, and with our growing suspicion of the third Napoleon, the heart of true and living England was stirred by the character of Victor Emanuel II, of his generals and statesmen, by Cavour, La Marmora, d’Azeglio, Bixio, Cialdini, as well as by that of Garibaldi, Mazzini, and the hot-heads of La Giovane Italia.

Nothing like it has been known in our insular and cold-blooded country since the wave of enthusiasm for the French uprising of 1789. When Garibaldi came to London in 1864, our people went mad over him. I shall never forget the scene in the streets. Nothing like it has ever been seen since. The Whig Ministers feared to let the re-publican hero go about the north. Dukes, soldiers, sailors, politicians, and people all joined in the excitement. He was welcomed as no foreign visitor has ever been welcomed before or since as no Englishman in our age has ever been received. To see the Red Shirt, with the sweet, calm, unearthly look of the man, gently beaming on the roaring mob in Trafalgar Square, or, it may be, almost embraced by fine ladies and dandies in a ducal palace this was like a vision of some being beyond this sublunary earth. When he entered the room where we stood to meet him, to me it seemed as if some historic hero, familiar to us in portraits, had stepped down from the frame, and returned to life. Our poets, Tennyson, the Brownings, orators like Gladstone, aristocrats like Sutherland, radicals, and revolutionists, felt in the hermit of Caprera something that was not so much a soldier and a man, but was rather the Soul of Italy. This sense of inspiration was shared by hardened politicians, by cultured society, and by passionate reformers. From 1848 to 187o the cause of Italian Independence of Italian Unity represented to Englishmen of all schools and parties the cause of European peace and welfare. It happens that, during those middle years of the nineteenth century the middle years of my own life I was in touch with both sides of English opinion, both the parliamentary, ministerial, and official world, and also with the Press, the leaders and the thinkers of the people, their hopes, their aspirations, and their passion for reform.

I will not believe that in the forty-five years since the kingdom was finally seated in Rome, the sympathy of Liberal England has grown cooler. We understood and have never resented the policy which drove Italy into the Triplice. We have never taken advantage of her adventures when she took lines of her own, with which we could have no interest and no sympathy. When she hesitated so long before she saw her hand free to join ours, we did nothing to increase her difficulties, nor to criticise her action. We respected her famous maxim, l’Italia farà da sé ; and we did nothing to force her hand, for we were satisfied that she was not, and could not be, hostile, even if she were compelled by circumstances to be neutral. And now that she has joined the Three Allies, and is displaying her ancient valour and genius in so many a bloody field and amid such tremendous precipices, Englishmen welcome her achievements with all the pride they feel for their own sons, for French, Russians, and Serbs ; for all who are battling with the secular enemy and oppressor of Italy the historic Tedesco. We who during the year 1914 stood side by side with France in a grapple for life and death were too much absorbed by it to repeat all our ardent transports of 1860. But we feel the cause to be the same to-day. And we grasp the hand of every Italian hero to-day with the same honour that we felt for Cavour, Garibaldi, and Mazzini.

I spent, as I say, the autumn of 1865 in Rome in the days of Pio Nono and the full reign of papal rule under the French bayonets. It is only we of the Old Guard who can fully realise the enormous changes that in fifty years have passed over the Eternal City changes, material, aesthetic, poetic, political, and spiritual. I was then myself in my thirty-fifth year, and had spent my life as a publicist, a scholar, and an antiquarian, so that I must be now amongst the few living Englishmen who knew and studied Rome in the age of the Vatican dominion Rome with the habits and débris of the Middle Ages untouched, with all the historic ruins, and the squalor, and the romance, and the devotional traditions of past ages undisturbed Rome as it was seen by Byron, and Goethe, and Madame de Staël, and Hawthorne, and Ruskin, and Browning —aye, and by the travellers, the poets, the painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as it was painted by Claude Lorraine, Salvator Rosa, and Piranesi.

I am myself a staunch modernist, a Nationalist, a confident believer in the future of Italian civilisation, and in the proud resurrection and splendour of the Eternal City. But I am weak enough to feel a passing sigh of regret as I recall the Rome of fifty years ago, its Campo Vaccino, with all its fountains and its shady trees, and its mysterious mounds and the confused débris of two thousand years. Market was held, stalls of rural produce were set up, the white bullocks lay grazing at rest, wild herdsmen from the Campagna tended their cattle and their wagons on the plain of the Forum, some fifty feet above the Via Sacra, and the temples and altars now excavated and open to view. The Capitol and the Palatine and Esquiline lay as they had done since Orsinis and Colonnas had ceased to fight and make fortresses of the tombs of their ancestors. The altars of the Martyrs still stood in the festooned circle of the Colosseum, as yet unopened to the ghastly chambers underground.

The Pope in his glory and the Cardinals and Prelates in all their picturesque pomp were seen in the streets, in the myriad churches and chapels, and in the summer palaces for villeggiatura in the lonely hillsides around. Monks, mendicants, and models hung about every street corner ; the city was barely lit and ill-guarded at night ; outside the ancient walls not a single modern building existed, the Campagna was a dream of the Old World a vast mausoleum a revelation of the Fabii, the Scipios, the Caesars. I once told a Cardinal-Archbishop that at times I felt at Rome more truly conservative than the Sacred College. In my hall at home I have hung a collection of Pianesi’s wonderful engravings to remind me of what I saw fifty years ago. And I never pass them without feeling what a cost has been paid for the brilliant and aspiring city we see today the new capital of United Italy destined, we trust, to another two thousand years of glory yet to come in after ages.