‘I was born to bust the balls of half humanity,’ wrote Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1837. For the Italian patriot, surveying the peninsula’s patchwork of duchies and kingdoms in the 1840s, many dominated by foreign powers, there were plenty of balls to bust: ‘Papal balls, French balls, Bourbon balls, above all Austrian balls’, the translator, novelist and essayist Tim Parks writes in his latest book on Italy. Garibaldi’s first opportunity came in 1849, when the city of Rome declared itself a republic. He had recently returned to Italy from South America, where, after being expelled from Piedmont for participating in an abortive independence rising, he had spent thirteen years fighting for nationalist causes in Uruguay and Brazil. Garibaldi sensed an opportunity to finally achieve his long-held dream of Italian unification and hastened to Rome. With little besides his charisma, he assembled a volunteer army, the fatefully named First Italian Legion, whose services he offered to the larval Roman Republic. The republic’s leaders didn’t like his long hair and beard, his South American affectations (ponchos, sombreros, red shirts), his indifference to class and the fact that his fearless Brazilian partner, Anita, accompanied him into battle. But as seven thousand French soldiers approached the city intending to restore the pope, he emerged as the republic’s best hope, and on 27 April the legion marched into Rome.
They held off the French until 2 July. That morning, Garibaldi spoke to the people. ‘The fortune that has abandoned us today will smile on us tomorrow,’ he intoned. ‘I am going out from Rome. Anyone wishing to fight on against the foreigner should come with me. I offer neither