In war, truth is the first casualty. – Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist (525BC-256BC)
One of the things I enjoy the most in Rome city center is simply hanging around with my camera dodging cars and tourists in pursuit of the perfect shot. I’ve been courting the Vittoriano Complex (national monument named after the first king of unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II) for quite a while, and the other day I finally decided to get in.
Truth be said, when I passed by Piazza Venezia, I didn’t mean to enter the Vittoriano this time either, I was simply dawdling about one of my favorite spots to photograph in Rome. What caught my attention was the poster of an exhibition standing outside the main entrance, titled The Colors of Darkness, a project by La Venta, an association of researchers who organize geographic expeditions. In their spellbinding collection on display there were photos of many of the magical sites around the world they’ve visited for this project. Still panting from my elevator-free four-floor climb, I regained regularity of my breathing while enthusing over beautiful pictures from Mexico, Antarctica, Philippines, Myanmar, Italy, and their great natural heritage, ranging from ragged caves, to underground rivers, to dramatic glaciers.
On my way out, the thought that my fatigue was rewarded by only one exhibition made me stop at the entrance of the museum devoted to the Italian Risorgimento, term indicating the series of wars, battles, intrigues, clashes that ended with the unification of the country under one rule, Piedmont’s Savoia royal dynasty.
Obviously, it didn’t take a couple of weeks to bring about the country as we know it, or at least the idea of it, but considering all wars and their subsequent armistices, we can roughly say the struggle lasted for about a century, with the incorporation of the last piece of Italy after WWI. Since this is considered the core, heart and soul of the country, in every school level we study a precise timeline, the three independence wars, the main heroes and, as it happens, the bad guys. The higher the class the harder the homework, the more dates to memorize, until university, where the accuracy of the research makes raise more questions than those it can answer.
As I stepped over the threshold, the first hall of the museum welcomed me with the Italian national anthem, Fratelli d’Italia, followed by Giuseppe Verdi’s Va’ Pensiero, one of the most famous Opera choirs, often referred to as one of the theme songs of the Risorgimento, along with its author, whose name was allegedly used as recognizing method among the troops fighting for the unification thanks to its acronym: V(ittorio) E(manuele) R(e) D’I(talia), Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy.
The first big hall had a huge bronze statue, representing one of the first battles, right in the middle, and the many tourists posing in front of it and showing off the usual two-fingered victory sign, made the sculpture look way less dramatic than it’s supposed to. I think it hardly mattered to them who those troops actually were and how much their actions shaped history, it’s Italy, everything looks “artistic”, so anything is worth a shot.
While walking through the several documents on display, I was immediately brought back to my school years: Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, the Fathers of the country, all names every Italian studies several times before adulthood. After university I started carrying out a deeper research, and found out that many independent historians were ignored by textbooks, from primary to tertiary education. As a general rule, I deeply despise who gags independent research (any research), and when I find historical records, books, studies that are not reported in any of the textbooks adopted by any school or institution, I can’t refrain myself from wondering why.
On the topic of the Italian unification, the more I research, the more confused I am. First, I find out that no textbook mentions that Garibaldi, one of the main actors during the Risorgimento, was a Grand Master of the masonic lodge Grande Oriente d’Italia, and that very likely also Mazzini was a mason; then that they depict the different royal families at stake in a distorted way, almost to confirm that when a war ends the lies of the defeated are unmasked, while those of the winners become history. As the Risorgimento happened in times when European powers were fighting and colonizing their way to every corner of the earth, it seems like Italian unification was the result of yet another struggle between royal families: the Bourbons (the same dynasty, if I’m not mistaken, of the current Spanish royalty), ruling the so called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the Savoias, Italy’s last royal family, not exactly an example of enlightenment and integrity. In my hometown, Sardinia, we had plenty of time, before the Risorgimento, to get to know the future kings of unified Italy, since they were already rulers of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont. Needless to say, they exploited both Sardinia’s natives and lands, reason why it’s a little hard to believe all over the other kingdoms the population went out of their way to be ruled by the Savoias.
Obviously, you don’t mention any of this in school, you don’t even raise doubts because otherwise you might be accused of being against unification. However, if you are a passionate of history and you like to research, of course beyond crackpot Northern League theories, questions just won’t stop coming up. Apparently, Ferdinand II, Bourbon king, was an intelligent ruler who did many good things for his people, so to what extent did southern Italians really fight for a change in ruling family? How strongly did they want the Savoia? Obviously nobody is saying that the Bourbons were angelic leaders, but how much of the acclaimed “popular revolts” was authentic, and how much was “suggested” by the winners? As historian Arrigo Petacco says, Naples under the Bourbons was a promising state undergoing industrial development, while the North was still behind, and once the country was unified, the North prevented the South from developing further.
There are many questions that need to be answered about that century, and although I’m not even sure I’m ready to know everything, the museum inside the Vittoriano complex delivers what you can expect downtown Rome, surrounded by the main centers of power of the city and the country, a thorough display of documents, old newspapers, national heroes’ personal belongings, and the official timeline of the events.
Reading and studying both versions of the facts, it inevitably comes to light that the unification was a struggle between royal families, like it had been for centuries in Europe. The participation of the masonry and the English empire might have had higher goals. Since in the 1830s France started to invade Algeria, is it sensible to assume that this is the reason why English leaders wanted to control Sicily? How high was the participation of Southern Italians to the unification? Tellingly, the famous Expedition of the Thousand, led by Garibaldi in 1860 and endorsed by Piedmont king Vittorio Emanuele II, that brought to the annexation of Sicily to the rising nation, counted in fact of only 18 people from Sicily, all the rest came from northern regions.
I’m aware that some myths are hard to defy, especially when they are very much embedded in the public mind, my own included, and I didn’t expect the museum inside the Vittoriano to answer all my questions, but it sure provided me with a good reminder of why Italians are so different from each other, why every region has their own traditions, language, food, personality, people. The official date of the unification has been established in 1861, but constant dissatisfaction and undying differences are probably evidence that what was unified was Italy, not the Italians.