The Risorgimento and the Value of Historical Fiction

The Risorgimento – meaning ‘rising again’ in Italian – was a nineteenth century cultural movement that eventually led to the unification of Italy in 1861. The Risorgimento aroused national consciousness in the Italian states and culminated in the freeing of the states from foreign influence. The triggers of the movement are varied, but most cite French reforms that were introduced when France briefly dominated Italy during the Napoleonic era as the Risorgimento’s original inspiration. During this time, some Italian states were united, and the middle classes began to play a more active part in Italian government.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, the states of Italy were returned to their original aristocratic rulers. However, opposition to these rulers slowly developed throughout the 1820s and 30s, with political movements such as Young Italy being formed by Giuseppe Mazzini, in an attempt to unite Italian youth under a nationalist message. Mazzini wanted to create an Italian republic through unification of the states, as well as lands occupied by the Austrian Empire, through popular uprising. General discontent was only kindled by the increasing influence of the middle classes in politics. Across the country, many generals, the most notable of which may be Garibaldi, commanded troops across Italy with the aim of uprooting regional rulers and unifying the country. After multiple wars of independence, the Kingdom of Italy was finally established in 1861.

The changes that took place during this period are explored by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampudesa in his 1958 novel The Leopard, a text that had been called ‘the greatest novel of the (20th) century’ by L.P Hartley. Focusing on the life of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the novel explores the Sicilian nobility’s life following the invasion of Garibaldi and the onset of revolution. Much of the novel is set during the Risorgimento; Garibaldi’s troops have just landed on the coast, and they will soon overthrow the Sicilian Kingdom. The history of revolution, and the Salina family’s decaying way of life, is paralleled with the Prince’s own decaying happiness and satisfaction. The ending is a beautifully melancholy one, as Tomasi depicts a moving portrait of aged Salina family members at the beginning of the twentieth century. The overriding question of the novel seems to be whether one should resist change or come to terms with it, even if it means the total upheaval of a way of life. The Prince finds himself plagued with this problem throughout the novel; his desire to maintain order and tradition is suddenly at odds with a desire to preserve his family’s aristocratic existence.

Tomasi himself had strong biographical ties to his novel: the Prince of Salina is modelled on Prince Lampedusa, the author’s grandfather. Tomasi was a Sicilian nobleman, himself a Prince of Lampedusa. He never saw his work through to publication, having died in 1957 before being able to find a publisher. Believing the novel had merit, he entrusted his work to his adopted son, and it was eventually published in 1958. In a letter to his son, he says the novel ‘evokes a Sicilian nobleman at a moment of crisis… how he reacts to it and how the degeneration of the family becomes ever more marked before it reaches almost total collapse.’ Tomasi’s novel, then, documents the decline of both an era and a way of life; even the Prince’s nephew, Tancredi, joins Garibaldi’s Redshirts, displaying that change is immediate and not to be avoided.

For me, Tomasi’s novel exemplifies the value of historical fiction. Whilst history may be confined to statistics and timelines, fiction allows us to access the emotions of the past in a way that is unique to the form. Through being exposed to the inner feelings and private lives of historical figures, by authors who have almost always delved deeply into historical research, we can expand our perspectives of how the past is truly relevant to our lives today. The practice of ‘putting the past back into process’, as Hilary Mantel calls it, is vital in its reconciliation of the past and the present. Tomasi’s novel is an example of historical insight contained within a beautiful piece of literature.

Photo credit:
Episode in risorgimento, by Carlo Bossoli (1815-1884), oil on canvas, Unification, Italy, 19th century.
De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / Universal Images Group