Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: The Battle of Aspromonte

Further Insights

The Battle of Aspromonte

Aspromonte (literally, Sour Mountain) is a ridge in the province of Reggio Calabria, at the bottom of the Italian boot. Although it marked a setback in the general’s career, and dented his legendary invulnerability, the Battle of Aspromonte greatly contributed to the Garibaldian legend and the Romantic image of the gallant hero temporarily defeated, as in 1849, and now wounded for the same noble cause. In the early months of 1862, Garibaldi had abandoned his retreat at Caprera to take a seat in the newly formed Italian Parliament in Turin. In a famous speech, he had launched a personal attack against Prime Minister Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, the leader of the moderate party and the diplomatic mastermind of Italian unification. Garibaldi complained that Cavour had made him “a stranger in Italy” by trading his hometown of Nizza (Nice) to France, in exchange for Napoleon III’s help in defeating the Austrians. He also accused the prime minister of provoking “a fratricidal war” against the volunteers who had fought for the national cause and embodied Garibaldi’s idea of a people’s army—an idea abhorred by the monarchist conservative party which, nevertheless, had used the volunteers in the Sicilian expedition. After this dramatic incursion on the parliamentary scene, Garibaldi promptly returned to Caprera. Yet, rumors circulating in the press at the time anticipated that the Mediterranean hero was on the move again, directed to Spain or Montenegro, always expecting him to lead his freedom fighters in support of all causes of national independence. Instead, Garibaldi went to Lombardy in order to promote the creation of citizens’ rifle clubs similar to the Robin Hood Rifles, the grassroots of a people’s army. From Lombardy, he flew back to Sicily, as in 1860: “Rome or Death”—the cry of the Republican left—“has rung again in the land of the Vespers,” Garibaldi proclaimed in July 1862 from Palermo.75 Thousands of volunteers, and Sicilian picciotti (“young men”), veterans of the 1860 campaign, rushed to his side. As the Nottingham Journal reported on Friday, August 29—the Day of Aspromonte—the French constituted a formidable obstacle on the way to the Eternal City: “We may expect to hear every moment of a terrific eruption in that volcanic land which is now heaving with revolutionary excitement.”76 Indeed, Aspromonte became a sequel to the Roman debacle, rather than a new triumphal addition to the Neapolitan apotheosis of 1860.

In order to avoid French intervention, the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, and his prime minister, Cavour, deployed the Italian army to stop the general and his red shirts, and the two sides clashed on the Calabrian mountain: Garibaldi was wounded and arrested. The British public outcry provides the inspiration for the scenes added by Story to his panorama: his sources were three engravings published in the Illustrated Times on September 20. On September 6, the Times had already published a detailed account of the events that began as follows: “The news of Garibaldi’s capture is the worst news that we have received from Italy since the re-establishment of the Austrian dominion in Lombardy thirteen years ago.” The manuscript accompanying the panorama doesn’t mention the added sequence (it ends with scene 49), but we can assume that Story’s narrative would have adopted the same tone of the Times’ articles, echoing the widespread sentiments of the British public. Here, filling the gap, as in the preceding chapters, we complete the panorama’s transmedia storytelling with descriptions from contemporary newspapers.

We have already commented upon the first scene of the Aspromonte sequence, scene 52: it shows Garibaldi on foot, surrounded by his officers, surveying the field and the enemy troops with a telescope, as though intent to recognize, at a glance, “the best point of attack.” Yet, the caption to the image in the Illustrated Times reads as follows: “Aspromonte. Garibaldi ordering his troops not to fire.” As the article further elaborates: “Now, as to the truth in the affair of Aspromonte. The General supposed that he would have been allowed to continue his march on Rome and to complete the unity of his country.” When he saw, instead, “the Italian troops ascending to the attack of his positions, he gave orders to his officers not to fire on them.” Faithful to his patriotic ideals, Garibaldi did not want to foment that “fratricidal war” he accused Cavour of provoking. What happened next would be immortalized across media, from illustrations and paintings to a famous song: bravely “standing on an elevated piece of ground, well in advance of the others,” the general is fired upon and hit in the foot by two Italian bullets. “Garibaldi fu ferito…fu ferito ad una gamba”: “Garibaldi was wounded… wounded in the leg,” as goes the refrain of what became one of the most famous songs of the Risorgimento, and a children’s doggerel. As the eyewitness account in the Illustrated Times tells us, the general was “carried to the border of a wood of pines,” where Italian officers reached him and summon him to surrender, as scene 53 shows (fig. 24). At first, he refused: “He had thought of his cry at Marsala, ‘Rome or death!’ and he wished to die.” His officers finally convinced him to spare his own life, and as scene 54 shows, “the great man [was] carried on a sort of litter from Aspromonte to Scylla,” down from the rugged mountain to the area on the Calabrian coast named after the famous mythological monster who threatened the life of Ulysses and his companions in the Odyssey (fig. 25).

The journey down the mountain lasted sixteen hours, the Times’ article reports, and the account provides perfect captions to the missing panorama narrative: “Lighted by night by torches and by day by a burning sun,” with the Italian bersaglieri (the soldiers who had taken him prisoner) telling the people crowding around at their passage, “Hats off! It is the General!” As another eyewitness, also quoted by the Times, reports: “The journey in the dark on so rough a road must have caused great torture to the General: but he never uttered a complaint, not a groan.” Finally, as the procession reached its destination at Scylla, “the people fell on their knees” at the sight of the wounded hero and one of the Picciotti said, “Ah, you recognize him, your General, your father!”

In Garibaldian iconography, Aspromonte is immortalized as the hero’s Calvary, a paradoxical Christian “transfiguration” for the fiercely anti-clerical freemason and atheist hero. Indeed, Aspromonte generated a real cult: “Objects relating to the affair...were collected and conserved as ‘relics,’” Riall writes, “Garibaldi was photographed in prison, at Varignano...with his wounded foot displayed like a stigmata.” Heavily retouched, “to emphasize his...sacrifice,” some of these photographs “were widely circulated as cartes-de-visite and lithographed copies.”77

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