Patriots without Borders: Towards an Atlantic History of the Risorgimento during the Age of Revolutions

By Alessandro Bonvini

On June 23, 1848, Giuseppe Garibaldi embarked for Nice with Adrea Aguyar, a formerly enslaved Black man from Uruguay, to participate in the First Italian War of Independence. Aguyar was a member of a battalion of newly freed people, and he had fought alongside the “hero of the two worlds” in the Great Siege of Montevideo (1843-1851). Once in Italy, Aguyar followed Garibaldi onto the battlefields of Luino and Mortazzone (in the northern Italian region of Lombardy), until a shell mortally wounded him on 30 June 1849 while fighting for the Roman Republic.[1]

Map of Italy showing the first and second phases of the Italian War of Independence.
First and Second Phase of the First Italian War of Independence (March-August 1848)

The patriotic adventure between the Italian condottiero (general) and the Uruguayan soldier encapsulate the global history of Risorgimento (Italian unification). During the Age of Revolutions, Italian patriots adopted cosmopolitan attitudes alongside their aim of a national rebirth. They cherished values of political brotherhood towards their fellow men in Greece, France, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Americas and shared dreams of revolutionary revanche against absolutist powers, utopian projects of reform, and aspirations of emancipation that crossed state and imperial boundaries that shaped the idea of Risorgimento itself.      

Engraving of a battle scene with men on horses.

The outbreak of the Atlantic Revolutions in 1776 inaugurated a turbulent period of changes around the world in which a wide range of actors strove for new forms of popular sovereignty.[2] According to Christopher Bayly, revolutionaries believed in an age of irrefutable historical progress.[3] Despite being ruled by foreign kings, Italian patriots shared this vision. Amid the liberal uprisings (1820-1823), an anonymous carbonaro journalist wondered: “Italy! Would you ever consider yourself worthy of standing with, I will not say Russia, Spain, and the great peoples of America, but at least with the nation of Haiti?.”[4] As a matter of fact, a common notion that spread through the Risorgimento movement was that the struggle for the Italian independence was inseparable from the world struggle against the Holy Alliance led by Austria. This global vision demanded the development of numerous intellectual entanglements and the creation of international networks that envisioned constitutional projects, alternative regimes, and the formation of liberation armies. Italian liberals, radicals, and republicans became part of a transnational community of revolutionaries without borders.    

In 1796, Napoleon’s invasion of northern Italy established client republics which became satellite states of France. Due to the institutional change, a great number of Italians enlisted in the Bonapartist army. Under the Napoleonic flags, they assimilated a notion of nationality that transcended linguistic barriers and crossed municipal limits. Furthermore, these servicemen came to accept the international character of the revolution. In fact, expectations of political regeneration survived Waterloo’s defeat. As the Grand Armée dissolved, about one hundred Italian officers carried on fighting in the Hispanic-American colonies. In these unruly contexts, creoles’ patriotism reflected a romantic model of republicanism, based on the paradigm of the citizen in arms, which renewed former revolutionary ideals. 

During the uprisings of the 1820s, the Risorgimento’s global mobility spread out across the globe. Due to the Absolutist Restoration following the collapse of the constitutional regimes in Naples and Turin, exile was the ultimate possibility for pursuing revolutionary goals. Approximately eight hundred liberals reached Spain, where they mingled with local patriotic societies, published reformist newspapers, and formed legions to support the constitutional Regime. In the meantime, about a hundred patriots moved to Greece. Enlisting in the army of Alexander Mavrokordatos, they struggled alongside Greeks for national independence from Ottoman rule, as well as to protect Christianity from Islam. Apparently, Count Luigi Porro di Lambertenghi defined the battle of the Greeks as a “holy cause”.[5] In this light, Philhellenism and philo-hispanism were symmetrical sentiments of a Mediterranean regeneration based on anti-absolutism, self-determination, and cooperation among “sister nations”.[6]  

Despite the constitutional regimes’ defeat, the rise of the Liberal International served as a platform for the organization of the Young Italy movement. Using pre-existent clandestine networks, Giuseppe Mazzini managed to establish a global organization, based in exile from Italy. His visionary genius turned Italian nationalism into an international movement led by a multitude of agitators. These revolutionary groups joined anti-monarchic insurrections in other countries, fomented plans to invade Italy from abroad, fraternized with similar American and European organizations, and eventually became a vanguard of mid-nineteenth-century Republicanism. At the beginning of the 1840s, there were about thirty branches of Young Italy scattered around the Atlantic world.[7] The Mazzinian society headed up a large number of republicans, including French and Polish sympathizers, English supporters, South American associates, Spanish and North-American partners. Eminent figures stood out in these groups, such as the writer Bartolomé Mitre, the radical William James Linton, the politician Alexandre Ledru Rollin, and the general Juan Prim. In February 1849, when the birth of the Roman Republic was proclaimed, Atlantic Republicans celebrated the Mazzinian triumph as the beginning of a golden era for the rights of “oppressed nations”.

Italians brought examples and ideas from abroad into their movement back home. Revolutions gave a considerable boost to printing; pamphlets, papers, and translations reverberated far and wide, connecting Italy to the rest of the world. Readings of the United States’ Constitution influenced the early institutional culture of Risorgimento. For instance, literati such as Carlo Botta and Giuseppe Compagnoni sincerely acclaimed it, and considered the American system a virtuous model to legitimate democracy, even more so than the French one.[8] At a later time, copies of the Constitution of Cadiz of 1820 monopolized the Piedmontese and Neapolitan editorial markets, while catechisms and public petitions requiring social reforms explicitly invoked it. Italian Patriots also discussed British liberalism, highlighting its advanced balance between individual rights and political order.     

Additionally, even radical examples were brought into discussion. The Haitian Revolution was often cited to discuss the abolition of the slave trade and the end of colonialism, and anti-imperialistic contestations of the decisions made at the Congress of Vienna (1815-1816).[9]  Spanish American Revolutions were also at the center of public attention during Risorgimento. Since the birth of the new republics, a range of chronicles and accounts were published in Italy, opening a debate about a variety of issues, such as the model of national citizenship, popular sovereignty, and the functioning of political institutions. Among others, Guglielmo Pepe argued that the Americas were the “center of support for freedom,” and the “decrepit despotisms of Europe” would therefore soon be defeated.[10] Restoring stereotypes of “the black legend” from the Enlightenment period, late modern anti-Bourbonism seeped into the South American creoles’ Republicanism.[11] These experiences facilitated the exchange of ideas. Across the Atlantic, Italian patriots communicated with distinguished intellectuals, undertook correspondence with officials of foreign governments, and were invited to write for foreign newspapers, or supported founding new ones. What emerged was an Italian diaspora-based public sphere,[12] which discussed issues about an imagined nation, its future institutional model and geopolitical role, policies of commerce and free trade, and political alliances. Thanks to these encounters, Western elites familiarized with the socio-political movement of Risorgimento, and counterpoised Hapsburg and Bourbon absolutistic governments.  

Cultural flows were not unidirectional. Since the end of the eighteenth century, the doctrines of Italian enlightened reformers were acknowledged by European and American intellectuals. The writings of Cesare Beccaria on the government and the justice system, for instance, shaped American law. The contributions of Gaetano Filangieri deeply permeated constitutional theory in Nueva Granada.[13] In the post-Napoleonic era, these dynamics increased. Filippo Buonarroti’s theories influenced resilient democratic and post-Jacobin movements; Giuseppe Pecchio’s reflections on the Greek State were brought into Mediterranean discussion; Orazio De Attellis’ argumentations on federalism shaped the Mexican Liberals’ agenda. During the 1830s, Giuseppe Mazzini became the voice of inspiration of the emerging nationalist movements in the world. His influence went beyond his country, gaining momentum from European capitals to the peripheries of the Atlantic world and inspiring nascent republican movements, such as Young America, Young Argentina, and Young Poland. Thanks to its non-sophisticated theoretical approach, Mazzinian thought was particularly appealing to a generation of republicans who embraced his ambition to pursue national progressive demands, especially with regard to universal suffrage and social justice.[14] This milieu contributed to the consolidation of the myth of Risorgimento and its heroes – above all Garibaldi – within the global community.[15]

A leitmotiv of Italian patriotism was the conviction that Italy would be revived only by a regenerated world of independent nations. Adventurers, exiles, and volunteers conceived of their cause as a part of the struggle for human progress. Even though the locution “liberty vs. tyranny” could sound simplistic, it proved extremely powerful in creating international solidarity among liberal and republican movements.[16] Risorgimento revolutionaries rejected any conjecture about the conventional category of “Italian exceptionalism” by adopting practices and strategies that reshaped the universalism of the Enlightenment and by bringing forward new forms of internationalism, which would become typical features of the twentieth century. In a period of romantic adventures, clandestine networks, and flourishing ideals, connecting the revolutionaries’ global lives with the events of their own time offers the possibility to reflect on a crucial moment in Italian history. Moreover, it allows us to rethink the Risorgimento, its actors, and ideological models, in light of the great transformations triggered by the Atlantic revolutions. 

Alessandro Bonvini is research fellow at the Scuola Superiore Meridionale, in Naples, Italy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Salerno, in joint supervision with the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá (Colombia). He has been a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute (Florence) and a post-doctoral fellow at the German Historical Institute (Rome). His current book project examines Risorgimento patriotism in the Atlantic world. 

Title Image: The moment of the Piedmontese counterattack at the Battle of Goito, seen from the rear. Painted by Felice Cerruti Bauduc (1817–1896).


[1] Alfonso Scirocco, Garibaldi: battaglie, amori, ideali di un cittadino del mondo (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 2001), 165.        

[2] See Robert P. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959); David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds. The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).  

[3] Christopher B. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 11.

[4] Il Raccoglitore Romagnolo, 30 March 1820.          

[5] Letter from Luigi Porro di Lambertenghi, busta 603, no. 42, Museo Centrale del Risorgimento di Roma.

[6] See Maurizio Isabella, Risorgimento in Exile: Italian Émigrés and the Liberal International in the Post-Napoleonic Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Zanou, Konstantina, Transnational Patriotism in the Mediterranean, 1800-1850: Stammering the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).       

[7] Franco Della Peruta, Mazzini e i rivoluzionari italiani. Il partito d’azione, 1830-1845 (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1974), 347-355; Clara M. Lovett, The Democratic Movement in Italy, 1830-1876 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 67-90.

[8] Gian Luca Fruci, “Democracy in Italy From Egalitarian Republicanism to Plebiscitarian Monarchy”, in Re-imagining Democracy in the Mediterranean 1780-1860, edited by Mark Philp and Joanna Innes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 31.       

[9] Miriam Franchina, “Atlantic Ripples in the Mediterranean: Early Nineteenth-Century Patriotic Readings of Haiti in the Italian Peninsula,” Atlantic Studies (September 3, 2020): 1-21.

[10] The Pamphleteer, 1824.     

[11]  Alessandro Bonvini, “L’avventura nel Nuovo Mondo. Cospiratori, rivoluzionari e veterani napoleonici nella lotta per l’indipendenza della Nuova Granada, 1810-1830.” Contemporanea. Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900, vol. 21, no. 1 (2018): 3-26.           

[12] See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).

[13] John D. Bessler, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014); Juan Camilo Escobar Villegas, and Adolfo León Maya Salazar, “’Otras luces’ sobre la temprana historia politica de Colombia, 1780-1850: Gaetano Filangieri y ‘La ruta de Napoles a las Indias Occidentales’.” Co-herencia, vol. 3, no. 4 (2006): 79-111.

[14] Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati, eds. A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writingson Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1-30.

[15] See Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[16] Nir Arielli, From Byron to bin Laden: A History of Foreign War Volunteers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UniversityPress, 2018), 37-65. 

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