Ros Pesman University of Sydney
The Italian Risorgimento was an event that crossed national and gender boundaries, arousing enthusiasm and garnering support well beyond the peninsula and from women as well as men. Nowhere was this enthusiasm and support stronger than in Britain with its
centuries-old fascination with Italy. When Garibaldi, not only a hero of Italian unification but also the world’s first international celebrity, visited Britain in 1864, an estimated 500.000 people lined the streets of London to greet him. But it is not Garibaldi who is the subject of my research, undertaken in an ARC-funded project on ‘La Bella Libertà: Women, Freedom and the History of Italy’ with Barbara Caine and Glenda Sluga.
My focus is on Mazzini and on the network of devoted supporters he created in Britain, composed of British nationals, Italian exiles and Italian residents in Britain, and particularly on its members who were women. This network comprised Mazzini’s most faithful and unswerving followers, the true believers.
My exploration of Mazzini’s relations with his women disciples is based on a view that at its core the Mazzinian Risorgimento is the story of real emotional relationships among people. It is framed both as a contribution to Mazzini’s biography, to the contextualisation of living and teaching and to what Paul Ginsborg has described as the connections among cultural formation, private life and political action, and as an exploration of the role of love and its vocabulary in the making of political networks and movements. It also contributes to the history of the women’s emancipation movement. Through his close contacts with his British mostly independent and emancipated women followers, Mazzini’s sympathy for and appreciation of women and their aspirations developed into his becoming, alongside John Stuart Mill, one of the major proponents of women’s rights in the mid-19th century. In turn through their involvement in Mazzini’s cause, the women were given – or took – opportunities to participate in political activity and play roles that were not available to them in domestic politics.
In 19th century political movements it was above all Mazzini who, in search of the bonds that would transform the denizens of the Italian peninsula into citizens and bind them together in a democratic republic of equals, wrote, spoke and proselytised in the rhetoric of emotion, love, family and friendship as well as religion. His republican, democratic, independent and morally regenerated Italy was to be sustained by the bonds of fellowship and love; and he famously described his own patriotism in the vocabulary of love and family: “Sono fidanzato all’Italia e basta”. It was through love that loyalties and identities expanded beyond the family to encompass the nation and then humanity. And at its centre, Mazzini’s political movement was a family, a clan, a network of men and women who were linked together not only by belief in Mazzini and his humanitarian message but by close ties of love, family, kinship and friendship with the Maestro and each other.
Love and family were as essential to Mazzini’s living as they were to his teaching. Growing up in a predominately female family where he was the only son, preceded by two sisters and followed by another, Mazzini was the subject of a very intense relationship with his mother. Maria Drago Mazzini gave her son his messianic sense of mission and supported him morally and materially until her death. She was the confidante with whom he shared his political and private life, the mother to whom from exile he wrote every week.
The adult Mazzini valued women, indeed, in his own words, esteemed them more than men. Others, too, noticed that he was most at ease in the company of women. His letters show an empathy with them, the capacity to share in their sorrow and be a source of comfort, a keen interest in their activities and a strong desire to be included in their world, to be in their confidence, to share their secrets, a deep need for close loving relations with women. He was also, as attested by skeptics as well as his disciples, a man of great personal magnetism, beautiful with suggestions of androgyny, brooding, intense, charming and carrying the aura of martyrdom.
If love was central to Mazzini and the realization of his vision so too was religion. He saw himself primarily as the teacher of a new religion, one without dogma or hierarchy, a religion of duty, of mission, of liberty, a religion that would lead to the moral regeneration of Italy – and of humanity. The mid-1830s were very difficult years for Mazzini, his movement in Italy in tatters as was his relationship with fellow patriot in exile, Guiditta Sidoli, widow of another patriot. Both Mazzini and Sidoli portrayed the end of their intimacy in terms of duty, mission and self-sacrifice, hers for her children, his for the patria. And it was as the self-sacrificing martyr who was giving up home as patria and private life and who expected to live and die alone that Mazzini arrived in England in 1837. This sacrifice was made by a man who, as one of his women disciples observed, was “the most domestic man I ever knew, a man whose love, whose longing to cling to home and family were beyond all others, and yet it was these things that he had precisely denied himself”.
In time in London Mazzini recreated, first in the Ashurst family and then in the Nathan Rosselli clan, surrogate families, and with the women a group of “sorelle amorose”. These men and women became his most devoted followers, accepting the primacy of religion in his message, totally identifying the man and his cause and perceiving him as one who lived in complete consistence with his doctrines. For a number of the women he was more than a man, “ a divine essence’, a “Holy light”, the ”Man of Sorrows”.
Mazzini argued that the bonds of love and friendship were the same but the women did not always necessarily see it this way and some may have hoped for relations with him beyond loving friendship. In their competition to be of service, to be if not a wife then the bride of Christ, the women do bear some resemblance to twentieth century groupies. But to regard them as such would be a gross disservice to their high sense of duty and mission, their contribution to Mazzini’s cause and their roles in the development of feminism.
Only a foolhardy researcher would comment with any certainty about the absence of a private sexual life; and although rumours circulated in London at the time suggesting there were dents in his purity, there were none in his public image. But the longing for romantic attachment did not abate as shown in some of his letters to Caroline Stansfeld, the wife of one of his major British backers:
‘Bless you my evening star. I am always with you: it is my only, often sad, still dear support and consolation in this dreary discouraged life of mine.’
And it came to the fore with intense and romantic passion when he was old and ill, his Risorgimento in ruins, in his little-known relationship with Janet Nathan Rosselli, the 24-year-old daughter of Sara Nathan and the wife of Pellegrino Rosselli, another of his backers.
‘Do not fear for me. I will take care because of you and my hope of seeing you again. I kiss you with all the power of my soul, I am too affected to say more… Addio my Janet. I am yours on this and the other side of the sepulchre…’
The man who feared he would die alone passed away in the Rosselli house in Pisa and in the arms of his ‘dearly beloved’ Janet. Mazzini’s death was not the end of the Rosselli commitment to his vision of a republican and democratic Italy and what Maurizio Viroli calls his religion of liberty and duty. Janet Nathan Rosselli’s nephews, Carlo and Nello, are the best-known martyrs of the anti-Fascist movement.
Mazzini’s British women disciples helped greatly to publicise his cause as translators, writers, collectors and preservers for posterity of his letters, publishers, workers for his schools, public speakers as well as financial backers and couriers. But their work in creating and nurturing social and political networks should not be relegated to the private, domestic sphere. Nor should the political aspects of the love and support they provided Mazzini be ignored.