Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Mazzini—"God and the People"

The diplomatists who assembled at the Congress of Vienna to settle the affairs of Europe, so strangely disturbed by the vehement career of that soldier-genius, Napoleon, had it in their minds to restore as far as possible the older forms of government.

Italy was restless, unwilling to give up the patriotic dreams inspired by the conqueror. The people saw with dismay that the hope of unity was over since the peninsula, divided into four states, was parcelled out again and placed under the hated yoke of Austria. Soldiers from Piedmont and Lombardy, from Venice and Naples, Parma and Modena, had fought side by side, sharing the glory of a military despot and willing to endure a tyranny that gave them a firm administration and a share of justice. They saw that prosperity for their land would follow the more regular taxation and the abolition of the social privileges oppressive to the peasants. They looked forward to increase of trade as roads were made and bridges built, and they welcomed the chance of education and the preparation for a national life. Napoleon had always held before them the picture of a great Italian State, freed from foreign princes and realizing the promise of the famous Middle Ages.

Yet Napoleon had done nothing to forward the cause of Italian freedom before his final exile. The Italians would have made Eugene Beauharnais king, of a united Italy, but Eugene was loyal to the stepfather who had placed under his power the territory lying between the Alps and the centre of the peninsula. Murat, Napoleon's brother-in-law, would have grasped the sceptre, for he was devoured by overwhelming ambition. He owed his rapid advance from obscurity to the position of a general to the Corsican, whose own career had led him to help men to rise by force of merit. Murat bore a part in the struggle for Italy when the cry was ever Liberty. A new spirit had come upon the indolent inheritors of an ancient name. They were burning to achieve the freedom of Italy, and hearkened only to the voice that offered independence.

Prince Metternich, the absolute ruler of Austria, set aside the conflicting claims, and parcelled out the states among petty rulers all looking to him for political guidance. Italy was "only a geographical expression," he remarked with satisfaction. Cadets of the Austrian house held Tuscany and Modena, and Marie Louise, the ex-empress, was installed at Parma. Pius VII took up the papal domain in Central Italy with firmer grasp. Francis II, Emperor of Austria, seized Venice and Lombardy, while a Bourbon, in the person of Ferdinand I, received Naples and Sicily, a much disputed heritage. Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, received also the Duchies of Savoy and Piedmont. San Marino was a republic still, standing solitary and mournful upon the waters of the Adriatic. Italy was divided state from state, as in the medieval times, but now, alas! each state could not boast free government.

Italians, eating the bread of slaves, felt that they were in bondage to Vienna. Metternich had determined they should know no master but himself, and all attempts to rebel were closely watched by spies. The police force allowed nothing to be printed or spoken against the government that was strong to condemn disorder. There were ardent souls longing to fight for the cause of Italy and Liberty. There were secret societies resolving desperate measures. There was discontent everywhere to war with Metternich's distrust of social progress.

The sufferings of rebel leaders moved the compassion of Giuseppe Mazzini, the son of a clever physician in the town of Genoa. He was only a boy when he was accosted by a refugee, whose wild countenance told a story of cruelty and oppression. From that moment, he realized the degradation of Italy and chose the colour of mourning for his clothes; he began to study the heroic struggles which had made martyrs of his countrymen in late years, and he began to form visionary projects which led him from the study of literature—his first sacrifice. He had aspired to a literary career, and renounced it to throw himself into the duties he owed to countrymen and country.

In 1827, Mazzini joined the Carbonari, or Charcoalmen, a society which worked in different countries with one aim—opposition to the despot and the legitimist. The young man of twenty-two was impressed, no doubt, by the solemn oath of initiation which he had to take over a bared dagger, but he soon had to acknowledge that the efforts of the Carbonari were doomed to dismal failure. Membership was confined too much to the professional class, and there were too few appeals to the youth of Italy. Treachery was rife among the different sections of the wide-spreading organization. It was easy for a man to be condemned on vague suspicions. When Mazzini was arrested, he had to be acquitted of the charge of conspiracy because it was impossible to find two witnesses, but general disapproval was expressed of his mode of life. The governor of Genoa spoke very harshly of the student's habit of walking about at night in thoughtful silence. "What on earth has he, at his age, to think about?" he demanded angrily. "We don't like young people thinking without our knowing the subjects of their thoughts."

The "glorious days of July," 1830, freed the French from a monarchy which threatened liberal principles, and roused the discontented in other countries to make fresh efforts for freedom. Certain ordinances, published on July 25th by the French Ministry, suspended the freedom of the press, altered the law of election to the Chambers of Deputies, and suppressed a number of Liberal journals. Paris rose to resist, and on July 28th, men of the Faubourg St Antoine took possession of the Hotel de Ville, hoisting the tricolour flag again. Charles X was deposed in favour of Louis Philippe, the Citizen-King, who was a son of that Duke of Orleans once known as Philippe Equality. "A popular throne with republican institutions" thus replaced the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons. There was an eager belief in other lands that the new King of France would support attempts to abolish tyranny, but Louis Philippe was afraid of losing power, and in Italy an insurrection in favour of the new freedom was overawed by an army sent from Austria. The time was not yet come for the blow to be struck which would fulfil the object of the Carbonari by driving every Austrian from their country.

Mazzini passed into exile, realizing that there had been some fatal defect in the organization of a society whose attempts met with such failure. He was confirmed in his belief that the youth of Italy must be roused and educated to win their own emancipation. "Youth lives on freedom," he said, "grows great in enthusiasm and faith." Then he made his appeal for the enrolment of these untried heroes. "Consecrate them with a lofty mission; influence them with emulation and praise; spread through their ranks the word of fire, the word of inspiration; speak to them of country, of glory, of power, of great memories." So he recalled the past to them, and the genius which had dazzled the world as it rose from the land of strange passion and strange beauty. Dante was more than a poet to him. He had felt the same love of unity, had looked to the future and seen the day when the bond-slave should shake off the yoke and declare a national unity.

The young Italians rallied round the standard of the patriot, whose words lit in them the spark of sacrifice. They received his adjurations gladly, promising to obey them. He pointed out a thorny road, but the reward was at the end, the illumination of the soul which crowns each great endeavour. Self had to be forgotten and family ties broken if they held back from the claims of country. Mazzini thought the family sacred, but he bade parents give up their sons in time of national danger. It was the duty of every father to fit his children to be citizens. Humanity made demands which some could only satisfy by submitting to long martyrdom.

Mazzini himself had parted from the Genoese home, which was very desolate without the beautiful son of such brilliant promise. He dwelt in miserable solitude, unable to marry the woman he loved because an exile could not offer to share his hearth with any. He felt every pang of desolation, but he would never return to easy acceptance of an evil system. He asked all from his followers and he gave all, declaring that it was necessary to make the choice between good and evil.

The work that was to create a mighty revolution began in a small room at Marseilles. Austria would not give up her hold on Italy unless force expelled her from the country. There must be war and there must be soldiers trained to fight together. It seemed a hopeless enterprise for a few young men of very moderate means and ability, but young Italy grew and the past acquiescence could never be recovered. Mazzini was light of heart as he wrote and printed, infecting his companions with the vivacity of his spirit. He wore black still, but his cloak was of rich Genoese velvet. The wide "Republican" hat did not conceal the long black curling hair that shaded features of almost perfect regularity. His dark eyes, gaily flashing, drew the doubting toward confidence and strengthened those who already shared a like ideal. He was a leader by nature and would work indefatigably, sharing generously the portion that was never plenteous.

Political pamphlets, written by an unwearied pen, were sent throughout Italy by very strange devices. State was barred from state by many trade hindrances that prevented literature from circulating, and freedom of the press had been refused by Napoleon. It was necessary for conspirators to have their own printing press, and conceal their contraband goods in barrels of pitch and in packets of sausages!

At Genoa, all classes were represented in the Young Italy which displaced the worn-out Carbonari. There were seamen and artisans on the list, and Garibaldi, the gallant captain of the mercantile marine, swore devotion to the cause of freedom. He had already won the hearts of every sailor in his crew, and made a name by writing excellent verses.

Mazzini looked to Piedmont, the State of military traditions, for aid in the struggle that should make the Alps the boundary of a new Italian nation. He wrote to Charles Albert, who professed liberal opinions, beseeching him to place himself at the head of the new party. "Unite on your flag, Union, Liberty, and Independence!" he entreated. "Free Italy from the barbarian, build up the future, be the Napoleon of Italian freedom. Your safety lies in the sword's point; draw it, and throw away the scabbard. But remember if you do it not, others will do it without you and against you."

Thousands flocked to join the new association, which began to rouse the fears of mighty governments. A military conspiracy was discovered, into which many non-commissioned officers had entered. Humble sergeants were tried by court-martial, tortured to betray their confederates, and sentenced to death, giving the glory of martyrdom to the cause of Young Italy.

Mazzini lost the friend of his youth, Jacopo Ruffini, and the loss bowed him with a sense of calamity too heavy to be borne. He had to remind himself that sacrifice was needful, and advance the preparations for a new attack under General Ramolino, who had served Napoleon. He was in exile at Geneva, and chose Savoy as the base of operations. The whole attempt failed miserably, and hardly a shot was fired.

Even the refuge in Switzerland was lost after this rising. He fled from house to house, hunted and despairing with the curses of former allies in his ears now that he had brought distress upon them. He could not even get books as a solace for his weary mind, and clothes and money were difficult to obtain since his friends knew how importunate was Young Italy in demands, and how easily he yielded to the beggar. Bitterness came to him, threatening to mar his fine nature and depriving him of courage. Italy had sunk into apathy again, and he knew not how to rouse her. He bowed his head and asked pardon of God because he had dared to sacrifice in that last effort the lives of many others.

Mazzini rose again, resolved to do without friends and kindred, if duty should forbid those consolations. He thought of the lives of Juvenal, urging the Roman to ask for "the soul that has no fear of death and that endures life's pain and labour calmly." He gave up dreams of love and ambition for himself, feeling that the only way for Italy to succeed was to place religion before politics. The eighteenth century had rebelled for rights and selfish interests, and the nineteenth century was preparing to follow the same teaching. Rights would not help to create the ideal government of Mazzini. Men fought for the right to worship, and sometimes cared not to use the privilege when they had obtained it. Men demanded votes and sold them, after making an heroic struggle.

In 1837, London received the exiles who could find no welcome elsewhere. The fog and squalor of the city offered a dreary prospect to patriots from a land of sun and colour. Poverty cut them off from companionship with their equals. Mazzini was content to live on rice and potatoes, but the brothers Ruffini had moments of reaction. The joint household suffered from an invasion of needy exiles. There were quarrels and visits to the pawnshops. Debt and the difficulty of earning money added a sordid element.

Mazzini made some friends when the Ruffinis left England. He knew Carlyle, the great historian, and visited his house frequently. The two men differed on many points, but "served the same god" in essentials. Carlyle had an admiration for the despot, while the Italian loathed tyranny. There was hot debate in the drawing-room where the exile talked of freedom, blissfully unconscious that his wet boots were spoiling his host's carpet! There were sublime discussions of the seer Dante, after which Carlyle would dismiss his guest in haste because he longed to return to his own study.

The prophet had lost his vision but it came back to him, working among the wretched little peasants, brought from Italy to be exploited by the organ-grinders. He taught the boys himself and found friends to tend them. Grisi, the famed singer, would help to earn money for the school in Hatton Garden.

To reach the working classes had become the great aspiration of Mazzini. "Italy of the People" was the phrase he loved henceforward. He roused popular sympathy by a new paper which he edited, the Apostolato Popolare. It served a definite end in rousing the spirit that was abroad, clamouring for nationalism.

Revolution broke out in 1847 when Sicily threw off the Bourbon yoke, and Naples obtained a constitution from King Ferdinand. The Romans followed their lead, and Piedmont and Tuscany were not behindhand. Joyful news came from Vienna, announcing Metternich driven from his seat of power. One by one this minister's Italian puppets fell, surrendering weakly to the will of a triumphant people, and Italy could wave the flag "God and the People" everywhere save in the Austrian provinces and their dependent duchies.

Mazzini returned to learn that he was regarded as the noble teacher of the patriotism which inspired the peninsula. The years of loneliness and sorrow receded from his memory in that glad and glorious moment when he entered liberated Milan, borne in a victorious procession. Armies were gathering for the final tussle which should conclude the triumph of the first revolt. Class prejudices were forgotten in the great crusade to free a nation. Charles Albert led them, having taken his side at last; but he had no power to withstand the force of Austria, and he was forced to his knees while Northern Italy endured the humiliation of surrender.

Mazzini carried the flag for Garibaldi in the vain hope that the victory of the people might atone for the conquest of the princes. He went to Rome to witness her building of a new Republic. It had long been in his mind that the Eternal City might become the centre of united Italy. He felt a deep sense of awe as he received the honour of being made a Triumvir. No party-spirit should guide the Republic while he held power as a ruler, no war of classes should divide the city. Long cherished ideals found him true, and inspired those who shared the government. Priests were glad to be acquitted from the tyrannous power of a Pope who had now been driven from the city. Some of the more zealous would have given up the observances of the Roman Catholic religion, but Mazzini was in favour of continuing the services. He would not have confessional-boxes burnt, since confession had relieved the souls of believers.

In private life, the Triumvir clung to simplicity that he might set an example in refusing to be separated from the working classes. He dined very frugally, and chose the smallest room in the Quirinal for his dwelling. He gave audience to any who sought him, and gave away strength and energy with the same generous spirit that inspired him to spend the modest salary attached to his office on his poorer brethren. He was bent on showing the strength of a Republic to all European cities that strove for the same freedom.

The Pope tried to regain his authority, and found an ally in Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the great Emperor, who became president of the Republic which expelled the Citizen-King of France. Louis was anxious to conciliate the French army and clergy. He besieged Rome with an army of 85,000 men, and met with a brave resistance.

There were famous names in the list of Roman defenders—Mameli, the war-poet, and Ugo Bassi, the great preacher, fought under Garibaldi, the leader of the future. Mazzini cried out on them that surrender was not for them. "Monarchies may capitulate, republics die and bear their testimony even to martyrdom."

On July 3rd, 1849, Rome fell before overwhelming numbers, though the conquerors were afraid to face the sullen foes who opposed them at the very gates of the doomed Republican stronghold. The prophet lingered in the streets where he would have kept the flag flying which had been lowered by the Assembly. He was grey with the fierce endurance of the two months' siege, but his heart bade him not desert his post from any fear of death. Secretly he longed for the assassin's knife, for then he would have shed the blood of sacrifice for the cause of patriotism.