Garibaldi and His Monuments

garibaldi monumentsOn the eve of the Siege of Palermo (May 26, 1860), Giuseppe Garibaldi and a hand-picked retinue rode into Villabate, Sicily. Two weeks earlier, Garibaldi had landed at Marsala and had advanced to Rapingallo and Salemi. After conquering Calatafimi, storming through Adamo, Partinico, and Parco, and enduring the carnage of Piana dei Greci, his men had reconnoitered Marineo and had scouted the hills between Misilmeri and Gibilrossa to prepare to take the Sicilian capital.

The Red Shirts might have starved in the Conca d’Oro, however, if my great-grandfather Antonino Coffaro had not smuggled food and supplies up to the mountains. Just fifteen years old, he had abandoned a life of privilege in Bagheria to work at an inn in Villabate, then a hotbed of revolution. A courier relayed that Garibaldi wanted to personally thank Nino for his services.

The townspeople gathered in the municipal square. Some were excited. More were wary. Poor communication had fueled fear and skepticism. The Sicilian patriot Giuseppe La Masa, who had visited Villabate to recruit volunteers, had been forced to refute an absurd rumor that Garibaldi had never landed in Marsala but was being impersonated by a Polish adventurer. But here apparently was the Great Man himself.

Dressed in an old poncho and a gold-braided toque, Garibaldi clapped my great-grandfather’s shoulder and shook his hand. Turning to his aide Nino Bixo, Garibaldi proclaimed: “Nino, oggi qui, domani a Palermo!” Today here, tomorrow at Palermo. Until the day he died, some eighty years later, Nino Coffaro liked to joke that Garibaldi actually had uttered these words to him.

According to my mother, every Villabatesi of my great-grandfather’s generation could recite this story by heart. Unfortunately, history books never mention the incident. If anything, official Italian chronicles insist that Garibaldi never set foot in my ancestral town. The British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan addresses this controversy in “Garibaldi and the Thousand” (1909). Treveylan mentions the Villabate story but concludes that his troops came down the Mezzagno side of Monte Grifone. An obelisk at the Gibilrossa Pass (erected in 1882 to mark the 600th anniversary of the Sicilian Vespers and dedicated by Garibaldi himself) marks the point of descent. A granite tablet displays the words: “Nino, Domani a Palermo!”

araldicaThis monument irks my mother, who idealizes her Nanno Nino. But it is possible, even likely, that Garibaldi shook my great-grandfather’s hand at Gibilrossa, not Villabate. Records show that at least a score of Villabatesi men joined the Red Shirts there and participated in the Battle of Palermo. Even so, monuments are not always accurate, particularly when they are imposed by a central government for propaganda purposes.

During the 60 years following Unification, every event of Garibaldi’s expedition, no matter how trivial, had to be memorialized. The results are not always inspiring. “Within this illustrious building,” proclaims a plaque in Palermo’s Piazza Bologna, “Giuseppe Garibaldi rested his tired limbs.” Perhaps feeling that this was an inadequate description of the general’s heroic efforts, the monument committee added a sentence relating how “with extraordinary valor the genius exterminator of tyranny slept serenely here in the midst of battle.”

For sheer bathos, however, nothing beats the plaque at Casamicciola Terme, a spa town on the Neapolitan island of Ischia: “Returning from Aspromonte—in this chamber—Giuseppe Garibaldi took a bath.”

So did Naples and Palermo.


This article is an excerpt of the novel-in-progress “After the Fair is Over”

Anthony Di Renzo
Anthony Di Renzo
Anthony Di Renzo, a fugitive from advertising, teaches writing at Ithaca College. His books, such as Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and History from the Imperial Kitchen (SUNY Press, 2010) and Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily (Guernica Editions, 2013), and the forthcoming After the Fair is Over, satirize the ongoing war between traditional Sicilian culture and American business and technology. Sicily usually loses. As Pasquino, Rome’s talking statue, Di Renzo contributes a monthly column to San Francisco's L’Italo-Americano. He lives in Ithaca, New York, an Old World man in a New Age town.

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  1. I need to learn more about Garibaldi. My grandfather was from Villabate. I visited in 2006. Love Sicily!
    Thanks for your post.

  2. I cannot believe how many monuments there are to him and in how many different countries! Why did people revere him so much?

  3. People revered Garibaldi, Adele, because he seemed a throwback to myth and legend. Crispi compared him to a Homeric hero, Gladstone to a medieval Crusader. Because he was larger than life, almost everyone idolized him. For 19th-century bourgeois liberals with a Hegelian bent, Garibaldi embodied the inexorable historical forces of progress and democracy. Southern Italian and Sicilian peasants, who conflated the Communist Manifesto with the Book of Revelation, called him “Nosto Gesù Guerriero,” the Warrior Christ who had come at the end of time to establish a millennium of justice and equality. Of course, publicity and merchandizing also helped. Fashionable British ladies and apple-cheeked American boys wore mass produced red shirts. If you want to learn more, read Lucy Riall’s “Garibaldi: The Invention of a Hero” (Yale University Press 2007).

  4. S. Ben Piazza’s article is perfectly valid, Giovanni. For many Sicilians, a monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi is about as welcome as an equestrian statue to William T. Sherman in downtown Atlanta. But I can forgive Garibaldi much because of his sterling qualities and because he suffered at the hands of the politicians and industrialists who exploited and ultimately betrayed his cause. Garibaldi appears in the first chapter of “After the Fair is Over” at a reception in Palermo’s Hotel des Palmes. During the 600th anniversary of the Sicilians Vespers, the Hero of the Two Worlds, now a wheezy and arthritic old man whose poncho no longer fits, has returned to Sicily to dedicate an obelisk to the Thousand at Gibilrossa. He meets Maestra Regina Tumeo, who runs a schoolhouse and Risorgimento museum in Villabate, and her two-year-old son Attilio Giuseppe, whom she has named after her childhood hero. Garibaldi dies three months later on the Sardinian island of Caprera. The last thing he sees is a Genovese steamer heading for Sicily.

    • The real issue here is that books, at school, yet describe Garibaldi as the “eroi dei due mondi” (Hero of Two Worlds). Now and only now some politicians start (i.e. Renzi last month in Palermo) admitting that “Risorgimento has produced iniquity in Italy” …
      History is written by the victors, and not only history.

  5. Thanks Anthony, for the great explanation. Much appreciated. Gives me some stuff to go on.
    Thanks for the link, giovanni!

  6. Giuseppe Garibaldi’s title “the Hero of Two Worlds,” won in a series of brilliant guerrilla campaigns in Brazil and Uruguay, legitimized the War of Italian Unification. At the same time, it delegitimized the entire South, creating two Italies, not one. Garibaldi also fought against racism, which is why Abraham Lincoln asked him to lead the Union Army in the American Civil War. (Garibaldi turned down the commission when he discovered that members of Lincoln’s cabinet would allow slavery to reunite the country.) And yet Northern Italian politicians considered Southern Italians “Africans,” biologically unfit for the rigors of modern democracy. Such racism shaped repressive public policy and culminated in the catastrophe of the Great Diaspora. Despite shedding crocodile tears, the national government considered mass migration a Godsend, a golden opportunity to practice ethnic cleansing while stoking the furnace of global capitalism. Where did most of these immigrants end up? North and South America, where Garibaldi had created and promoted his reputation as the Hero of Two Worlds, the greatest freedom fighter on both sides of the Atlantic. Historical irony had come full circle.

    • We agree Anthony! I haven’t thought about this historical irony: very well “spotted”! Not sure my words make sense in English… but I guess Garibaldi, risks to become the “scapegoat” of a period, the Risorgimento Italiano, not well written by the winners … period that created the catastrophe of the Great Diaspora.
      So, as Italians say: dalle stelle alle stalle.

  7. Dalle stelle alle stalle. My mother always quotes this Sicilian proverb: “From the stars to the sties.” You would think Garibaldi had paid his dues in L’America. After the collapse of the Roman Republic in 1848, he slaved for months in the United States. He did everything from shipping guano in San Francisco to grinding sausages on Staten Island. Surprisingly, he was never a cowboy, although he had worked as a gaucho on the South American pampas. That would have made one hell of a Western.

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