What Does the Father of Italy Have to Do With Nice, France Anyway?

Monday, 27 July 1891 - Nice, France

Today I visited Place Garibaldi (Garibaldi Square) named for Giuseppe Garibaldi. If you don’t know who Garibaldi is, ask any Italian. He is called the Father of Italy, the military commander most responsible for uniting Italy into one country from a collection of small states.

For that matter ask anyone in 19th century Europe or the New World who Garibaldi is. His life reads like a Victorian adventure novel. (I’m sure he was the model for more than one ripping-yarn hero.)

Giuseppe Garibaldi
Born 1807, the son of a fisherman, Giuseppe Garibaldi started out as a merchant marine captain. He then fell in with the Carbonari revolutionary association who wanted to unify Italy and get rid of Austrian dominance. In 1834, he participated in a failed Mazzinian insurrection in Piedmont, for which he was sentenced to death.

Garibaldi flees to South America and winds up playing a prominent role in the Uruguayan and Brazilian Civil Wars. While in Brazil he meets another brave revolutionary, a lady called Anita--a lioness for this lion. They fight side by side, while making babies on the side. (Yes, they were married.)

In 1848, events came to a boil back home. The First Italian War of Independence is about to start. Death sentence or no death sentence, Garibaldi had to return and join in the fight. While in retreat from one disastrous battle, ever by his side, Anita died carrying their fifth child.

Once again he flees to the New World only this time to Staten Island, New York. He finds it too boring. (Italian Americans will build him a memorial to commemorate his being there anyway.) He heads for Central America. From there he spends a few years sailing the Pacific as a merchant captain.

Victor Emmanual II - King of Italy
Things calmed down enough in Italy for him to return in 1854. He buys half a small island and farms. Then in 1859 The Second Italian War of Independence starts and Garibaldi gathers up a group of 800 volunteers and joins in to kick out the Austrians. His victories and fame were such the man could have taken over Italy himself. But he handed it all over to Victor Emmanuel II, King of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia and now King of Italy. Garibaldi wished only to retire on his farm on the Island of Caprera.

Like that would last. One year later he heard about the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States of America and volunteered his services to President Abraham Lincoln, but only on the condition that the war’s objective be the abolishment of slavery. Lincoln was still waffling on that one.

Just as well. There were still the Papal States to conquer if Italy was to be completely unified. Garibaldi and his volunteers marched on Rome. Unfortunately he forgot to ask the King of Italy, if he was also on board on this one. Big misunderstanding. Garibaldi was captured when he refused to fire on fellow countrymen from the Kingdom of Italy. He was tossed in prison long enough for Italy to save face and to guarantee that Garibaldi would stay put long enough to receive medical attention for the wound in his foot. Victor Emmanuel owed the old boy far too much to really punish him.

Garibaldi was more than ready for the Third Italian War of Independence in 1866. (Italy certainly has a lot of War of Independences.) Everyone else called it the Austro-Prussian War where Hanover and other Kingdoms lost their impendence. Italy was hoping to wrest Venice from Austria, so backed Prussia. Prussia won, despite the fact that Italy only won one battle--led by Garibaldi, of course.

The next year Garibaldi once again marched on Rome to wrest the Papal States from the Pope. Once again he forgot to ask the King of Italy for support. Once again he was wounded, this time in the leg. And once again he was imprisoned by the Italian Government long enough for things to die done and then released.

In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Garibaldi rushed to the aid of his Prussian allies. While he was gone, the Italian army captured Rome without him, unifying Italy at last. (You would think they could have waited for him.) After the Second French Empire fell from within, Garibaldi switched sides to back the Third French Republic. (I guess he just liked the new name better.) The Prussian never defeated his Army of Volunteers.

Retiring from the battlefield, Garibaldi fought politicians. In 1879 he founded the "League of Democracy," which advocated universal suffrage, abolition of ecclesiastical property and the emancipation of women. Oh, and somewhere in the midst of all these battles, he wrote at least two novels and an autobiography. I’m not sure if he really got a lot of farming done. He died in 1888, a national hero.

Statue at Place Garibaldi
Now, you are all scratching your heads and wondering what does Garibaldi have to do with the French Riviera? Why did Nice name this square after him in 1870? And why, at this moment, is Nice building a beautiful fountain with his statue on top in that square?

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Father of Italy, was in fact born in Nice. He was very upset to say the least, when Italian politicians traded Nice to France in 1861, for their aid against the Austrians. Other Italians were very upset, too. So upset they took Nice back for awhile in World War II.

The local Italians have a saying: “The Emperor Napoleon made Nice France, but God made it Italy.” It was the local Italians who insisted that the plaza the city kept renaming be named for Garibaldi. Since he was backing the French Republic at the time, the French went along and the name has stuck.

Alexandre Dumas
It’s probably not surprising that Alexandre Dumas, the novelist of The Three Musketeers, wanted to co-author his memoirs. If Giuseppe Garibaldi had never been born, Dumas would have had to invent him.

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