Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Awakening of Italy


Mother of heroes, from thy death-like sleep."

— Wordsworth

I TALY, since the famous days of old, had been wrapt in sleep. The land of Dante was dead, as far as Europe was concerned. She was only a name, only a "geographical expression." The Italians were practically the slaves of Austria. At the famous Congress of Vienna, the land had been parcelled out into dukedoms and provinces, "like so many slices of a ripe Dutch cheese."

Let us tell the wonderful story of her awakening.

When she yet lay in the fetters of Austria, early in the nineteenth century, one man—the pale, fiery-eyed Joseph Mazzini—arose from among the people. And he saw, as no other saw at this time, the vast possibilities that lay before her. As a child, he had wept tears of pity for his fellow-countrymen in poverty or trouble; as a young man, he fancifully dressed in black, mourning for his dead country, whose woes had taken such deep hold of him. The task of Italy was not yet done, he told himself, she must yet arise from her glorious past and speak to nations "the gospel of humanity." A tremendous sacrifice was required. To make a new Italy meant war with Austria; it meant loss of thousands of lives, exile, prison, and misery. Men could only face it at the call of duty. So Mazzini taught his countrymen, and out of his teaching and enthusiasm sprang the society known as "Young Italy."

"Young Italy," he says, "is a brotherhood of Italians, who believe in a law of progress and duty, and are convinced that Italy is destined to become a nation."

As a nation, this mission was given them by God; God's law of progress promised its fulfilment. "God and the People" was the watchword of the new society, which by the summer of 1833, numbered some 60,000 young Italians. Amongst them was Garibaldi, the man who was later to play such a large part, in the liberation of his country.

But the founder of Young Italy was by this time an exile, and taking refuge in England, the land that has never refused shelter to the political outlaws of foreign countries.

"Italy is my country, but England is my home," he used to say in after days.

As the years rolled on, Italy grew more and more determined to throw off the yoke of Austria. In 1848, the second French Revolution broke out. It was followed by the Hungarian rebellion; and the enthusiasm of Italy now burst forth in all its newly-found glory. At Milan, after five days' heroic struggle, the Austrians were driven out and Venice won her liberty. From mountain and valley, town and village, volunteers poured forth to enlist under Garibaldi. Mazzini himself hurried home to enrol as a volunteer, and carry the flag bearing his own watchword—"God and the People."

" 'Italia Una!' now the war-cry rang

From Alp to Etna: and her dreams were done,

And she herself had wakened into life,

And stood full-armed and free: and all her sons

Knew they were happy to have looked on her,

And felt it beautiful to die for her."

Events now moved fast. The northern states threw off the yoke of Austria; the Pope fled from Rome on February 9, 1849; a Republic was proclaimed, directed by Mazzini himself. But Austrian power was yet strong. Neither the enthusiasm of a Garibaldi nor the lofty ideal of a Mazzini, could save Italy at this moment. On March 23 a battle was fought at Novara, in northern Italy, between the Austrians and Italians. With the latter, Charles Albert, King of Sardinia, had thrown in his lot, only to be utterly defeated. When evening fell, he called his generals around him and abdicated his crown.

"This is your king," he said miserably, as he bade farewell for ever to his young son, Victor Emmanuel, who knelt weeping before him. So saying, he passed from his kingdom and journeyed alone to exile and death. He did not live to see that son crowned the first King of United Italy.

Meanwhile Prince Louis Napoleon and most of the French people took up the cause of the Pope, and sent an army to Rome. In the face of danger, Mazzini's little Republic stood firm.

"Rome must do its duty and show a high example to every people," he said.

And heroically Rome prepared to resist overwhelming odds. The "Eternal City" was defended by Garibaldi and his fierce band of volunteers. They were dressed in red woollen shirts and small caps—a strange company, with their long beards and wild black hair. The first shot was fired, and "a thrill of deathless passion ran through Rome." Week after week Garibaldi and his band kept the well-disciplined French army at bay. But the end was certain. At the last, Rome sullenly surrendered, and the French army entered into possession. But not before Garibaldi with his faithful 4000 followers had started off on his famous retreat. It was the last desperate venture of men, who knew not how to yield to the foe. On a warm night in June they left the fallen city.

"Hunger and thirst and vigil I offer you," Garibaldi had told them, "but never terms with the enemy. Whoever loves his country and glory may follow us."

And into the darkness of the summer night rode the red-shirted band with Garibaldi, Anita his wife, and Ugo Bassi, his faithful monk-friend. Foot-sore, hungry, and weary, they made their way amid the Tuscan hills, until they reached the Appenines, into whose depths they plunged. Eagerly they tried to reach Venice, but, driven to the coast and surrounded by the enemy, Garibaldi was obliged to put to sea. He landed again, only to be hunted over mountain and plain. His wife died in his arms. The faithful Ugo Bassi was captured, but Garibaldi escaped from his pursuers at last and retired into silence, till the next crisis of his country's history called forth his most heroic efforts.

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