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Women in Arms:
Gender in the Risorgimento, 1848–1861
By Benedetta Gennaro
B. A., Università degli Studi di Roma “La Sapienza”, 1999
M. A., Miami University, 2002
A Dissertation Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
in the Department of Italian Studies at Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island
May 2010
c Copyright 2010 by Benedetta Gennaro
This dissertation by Benedetta Gennaro is accepted in its present form
by the Department of Italian Studies as satisfying the
dissertation requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, Advisor
Recommended to the Graduate Council
Caroline Castiglione, Reader
Massimo Riva, Reader
David Kertzer, Reader
Approved by the Graduate Council
Sheila Bonde, Dean of the Graduate School
Benedetta Gennaro was born in Rome on January 18th, 1975. She grew up in Rome
and studied at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza” where she majored in Mass
Communication. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the history of the American
Public Broadcasting System (1999), after spending a long and snowy winter in the
middle of the Nebraskan plains, interning at NET the Nebraska Educational Television Network. She went on to receive her M.A. in Mass Communication from Miami
University (Oxford, Ohio) in 2002. Her master’s thesis focused on an analysis of
gender, race, and class in prime-time television opening credits. She decided to move
west, to Portland, Oregon, where she worked for three years for the Northwest Film
Center, a branch of the Portland Art Museum, organizing the yearly Portland International Film Festival. In Portland, she began teaching Italian language, film, and
culture; first at Portland Community College and the as adjunct faculty at Portland
State University where she designed and taught the first course on Italian film ever
offered there. She subsequently began her doctorate at Brown, in the Department of
Italian Studies, where she taught different levels of Italian language and culture. She
also served as teaching assistant for the introductory course in Gender and Sexuality
Studies. She has presented her work at many conferences and seminars, most recently
as invited guest at the Università di Pisa and at the École Normale Supérieure in
Paris. Her dissertation, “Women in Arms: Gender in the Risorgimento (1848–1861),”
focuses on the active participation of women in the battles for Italian Unification.
In researching and writing this dissertation, I was fortunate enough to have been
supported, counseled, and encouraged by many people. First of all, I would like to
thank Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, my advisor, without whom this project would have
never seen the light of day. She challenged me to revise my arguments and taught me
to read closely the sources. Her support inside and outside the Department of Italian
Studies has been irreplaceable. I wish to thank Massimo Riva for his enthusiasm
and support at every stage: his generosity has facilitated numerous research trips,
which have resulted in many stimulating conversations and irreplaceable archival
findings. Caroline Castiglione has supported my research from the beginning, her
careful reading, and the generosity of having provided me with a room of my own
during her sabbatical year from Brown have been crucial for the completion of this
work. I would also like to thank David Kertzer for his attentive reading and careful
I would also like to thank Cristina Abbona-Sneider and Dedda De Angelis for
having fostered my love for teaching and instilled in me a sense of professionalism. I
would like to thank all the people that have participated in the Sheridan seminars,
who have helped me shape my philosophy of teaching and advised me on public
speaking. Mona Delgado has been a dear friend and a great source of calmness and
My friends at Brown University have been the source of constant help, both emotionally and intellectually. In particular, I would like to thank Roberto Bacci because
I always knew where to find him and felt a little lost when he left; Erica Moretti, for
knowing what I was talking about; Mauro Resmini, for having watched my back during the most difficult year; and Antonella Sisto, for her intellectual brilliance and unconditional support. Chiara Valenzano, for teaching me that chemistry is not always
bad; Khristina Gonzalez, for having read and edited some of my chapters; Michael
Black, Denise Davis, and Lee Millward for their friendship and generosity. Friends
and colleagues in the Mellon seminar on “Bodies and Nations” and in the Italian
Studies Colloquium were invaluable readers and stimulating conversation partners.
Many were the people who supported, encouraged, and inspired me throughout
these years. My “Risorgimento” friends, Raffaella Bianchi and Bruno Grazioli with
whom I share a passion for the nineteenth century; Lorenzo Benadusi for his historical
advice; Emanuele Faccenda and the archivists at the Museo del Risorgimento in
Torino: their dedication for preserving our nation’s memory is truly inspirational;
Isabella Ricci, former director of the State Archive in Turin, who showed me around
and was instrumental in my love for the “Countess;” my Turinese family, especially
Paolo Arese and Ursual Isselstein who opened their house to me, providing a wonderful
home away from home, with a majestic view of the Alps and the Mole; our breakfast
conversations were a constant source of inspiration; Gilles Pécout for his hospitality
at the École Normale Supérieure, and generous support; Gian Luca Fruci and Alessio
Petrizzo for having invited me to present parts of this work in their seminar at the
University of Pisa; last, but not least, Sara Tarissi for her unwavering support across
the ocean, her patient editing, her iconographic advice, and most of all for a friendship
that begun thirty-three years ago.
To my families in Italy and Germany for their support, love, and patience. To
my father, Maurizio, who still inspires me and who I miss deeply every day. To
my mother, Francesca Romana, her unconditional love leaves me speechless. To my
brother Lorenzo, my sister-in-law Jaime, and nephew Luca, endless laughter and affection. To my husband, Stefan, who I met “nel mezzo del cammin” and has transformed
my life in countless ways. His support, patience, advice, and love count more than
words will ever express. The million miles we have accrued in these three years have
not slowed us down. To my daughter, Ella, who thinks I am writing about “warring
women.” She has grounded me, loved me, and reminded me that there is a whole
different, colorful, and joyful life outside of my office. This dissertation is for her.
List of Illustrations
1 Centering the Margins
Gender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Gender & History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Performance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Negotiations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Imbalances . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Subversive Figures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2 “O Italiani, io vi esorto alle storie”
Forging Traditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .
Re-Inscriptions: “La figlia del reggimento” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Suspensions: 1846–1861 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Liberté,” “Marianne,” and “Mater Dolorosa”
Odabella . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stamura . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Gazettes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
La Bella Gigogin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Retaliations: Post-Unification . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Catalogues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3 Women of 1848–1849
1846–1848 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
Women in 1848 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
Luigia Battistotti Sassi and Milan’s “Five Glorious Days” . . . . . . . 109
Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110
Women and Violence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116
Cross-dressing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119
Colomba Antonietti and the “Roman Republic”
Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127
Icon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
4 Contessa Della Torre
. . . . . . . . . . . . 126
A Full Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150
The Countess and Garibaldi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157
From Sword to Pen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166
Recasting the Countess . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 188
Manuscript Collections and Their Abbreviations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 216
Primary Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 216
Secondary Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218
Il mondo alla rovescia. Stampa popolare toscana del diciannovesimo
Civica Raccolta delle Stampe “Achille Bertarelli,” Castello
Sforzesco, Milano. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Odoardo Borrani, Il 26 aprile 1859, 1861. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
La Fille Du Regiment. Poster, New York. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stamura D’Ancona. Book cover. Torino: Baricco & Arnaldi, 1848. . .
Il giuramento degli Anconetani. 1856. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stamura che incendia le macchine d’assedio di Ancona. 1877. . . . . .
Anonimo, Tonina Marinelli. Courtesy of the Museo del Risorgimento,
Torino. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Luigia Battistotti Sassi. Lithography, Museo del Risorgimento, Torino. 124
Colomba Antonietti. Lithography, Museo Centrale del Risorgimento,
Roma. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139
Colomba Antonietti. Bust, Gianicolo, Roma. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
Colomba Antonietti. Bust, Bastia Umbra. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 142
Anon., Countess Maria Martini Della Torre. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
Anita. Rome, Italy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209
Garibaldi and Anita. Porto Alegre, Brazil. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
“Son capaci, ma non devono” [They are able, but they should not], this is how
eighteenth-century Italian thinker Luciano Guerci summarized the debate on whether
women should be allowed to get an education.1 As this statement suggests, the debate
over allowing women to participate in the world of literature and culture was not one
that questioned their capacity to participate in intellectual conversations or literary
exchanges, nor was it one that challenged their ability to contribute to the life of the
universities. The problem was that women did not fit into the university, a space
neither designed nor prepared for their entrance. Until the French Revolution, the
realms of arts and of politics had been considered the almost exclusive province of
men.2 It was only well into the twentieth-century that women gained access to both.
It took many women longer than that before they could enter a voting booth and ex1
Qtd. in Rebecca Marie Messbarger, “The Italian Enlightment Reform of the Querelle Des Femmes,”
Contest for Knowledge: Debates over Women’s Learning in Eighteenth-Century Italy, ed. Paula Findlen and Rebecca Marie Messbarger (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005) 12.
There were exceptions to this exclusion: for example, in the eighteenth century women contributed
to the flourishing of the salon culture in France, Germany, and Italy; in 1750s Britain, women
writers, artists, and thinkers assembled in the house of Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and
Frances Boscawen and named themselves “The Bluestocking Circle.” The literature on the salon
is vast, see for example: Dorothy Anne Liot Backer, Precious Women (New York: Basic Books,
1974), Maria Teresa Mori, Salotti. La sociabilità delle élite nell’Italia dell’Ottocento (Roma: Carocci,
2000), Benedetta Craveri, La civiltà della conversazione (Milano: Adelphi, 2001), Maria Teresa Betri
and Elena Brambilla, eds., Salotti e ruolo femminile in Italia: tra fine Seicento e primo Novecento
(Venezia: Marsilio, 2004); on the Bluestocking Circle see Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, Brilliant
Women. 18th-Century Bluestockings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
press their vote. The seemingly inclusionary paradigm so evocatively expressed in the
motto, “liberté, égalité, fraternité” came with a footnote: liberty, equality, and fraternity were concepts and values that referred to men only. Women found themselves
excluded from the most inclusive expression of political and civic life.
The fact that women should not fit into certain social roles is illustrated perfectly
in a Tuscan print popular in the nineteenth century. The print is titled “Il mondo alla
rovescia” and was part of a long standing European iconographic tradition of “popular
prints” which, from the fourteenth century, centered on satirical representations of a
disorderly society set against the reality of an orderly and stable world.3 The anxiety
produced by images that suggest the possibility of an “upside down” order was curbed
by the knowledge of the satiric nature of the prints - such a reality did not exist.
“Il mondo alla rovescia” is composed of twelve frames, each evoking a different
disorderly scenario: animals in place of men (as in the first three images, in which pigs,
a horse, and a mule perform human actions), earth in place of the sky, and reversals
in social hierarchies (as in the case of image number ten in which two students are
physically punishing their teacher).Image number eight is the most significant for my
argument. [Fig. 1]
In it, we are confronted with a scene of domesticity in which the normative roles are
inverted. The man is sitting in a chair holding a spinning instrument while balancing
a small child on his knees; he is wearing a pink skirt and a blue blouse. Standing erect
by his side, in a martial position, is a woman in a soldier’s uniform flaunting a plumed
hat and holding a bayonet. The caption reads: “O quanti in rimirar quel ch’è qui
Giuseppe Cocchiara, Il mondo alla rovescia (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1981).
Figure 1: Il mondo alla rovescia. Stampa popolare toscana del diciannovesimo secolo.
Civica Raccolta delle Stampe “Achille Bertarelli,” Castello Sforzesco, Milano.
fatto/A se stessi diran: ’È il mio ritratto” [How many in looking at this image/Will
tell to themselves: “It is my portrait”].
The irony of this scene masks its exact contrary: women were not supposed to take
the place of men, the same way a mule was not supposed to ride a man. A woman’s
realm was the household, a men’s was war. Yet, if the Tuscan print ridiculed the
apparently impossible scenario of a woman in arms, it also hinted at its possibility,
and at the radical consequences such a reversed scenario could have on society.
Yet, women had always participated in the life of their communities and, on the
eve of the nineteenth century, they felt the call of nationalism as strongly as men. In
this dissertation I examine the ways in which women took up arms to fight during the
process of the emergence of Italy as a nation, in other words during the Risorgimento.
The participation of women in revolutions was not a novelty in the nineteenth century;
on the contrary, according to some historians women’s participation in urban and
rural uprisings was not simply tolerated, but expected.4 Indeed, as recent studies on
the French Revolution have shown, women began to appropriate spaces and values
usually associated with masculinity as early as 1789.5
Arlette Farge, “Protesters Plain to See,” A History of Women in the West. Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, ed. Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, 1993) 489–505.
The bibliography on the French Revolution is, of course, vast. Historians Joan Landes and Lynn
Hunt have worked extensively on the participation of women during every phase of the Revolution. Both are extremely interested in the symbolic meanings associated with political participation
and acquired visibility of French women, and its consequences on the patriarchal order. Landes is
particularly interested in the iconographic material produced during the Revolution and its impact
on culture and society. Italian historian Alberto Banti has also written a comparative study on
the different images of the nation, for the most part feminized, that proliferated during the Age
of Revolutions in nineteenth century Europe. See Joan B. Landes, Visualizing the Nation. Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth Century France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 2001), and Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988); Lynn Hunt, “Engraving the Republic: Prints
and Propaganda in the French Revolution,” History Today (Oct. 1980): 11–17, Lynn Hunt, “Her-
The social reactions provoked by the presence of women in arms highlighted the
divide between an abstract notion of gender identity, reliant on binary opposition
(man/woman, soldier/mother, public/private), and the complex reality of behavioral
choices that contradicted and delegitimized such model. One binary opposition in
particular fueled much of the resistance against women in arms: the divide existing
between soldier and mother. Men’s duty, in this structure, was to attack in order to
protect women and children, while women’s role was to protect in order to nurture
the next generation of soldiers. Men were life takers, and women life givers.
The presence of women in the battlefields has been characterized in various ways,
yet their choice was read often as unnatural, unacceptable, and inappropriate. I contend, though, that during the years 1848–1861, the necessity to mobilize all forces in
order to expel the enemy and proclaim the birth of Italy allowed for a more indulgent
reaction vis-à-vis these armed women. Nevertheless, this tolerance was inconsistent.
In other words, only certain women performing certain acts of war became part of
that pantheon of Risorgimento heroism, later distilled in the popular “catalogue of
illustrious women.” These so-called “Plutarchi,” or “galleries of illustrious women,”
were often written by women historians in the double effort to retain the memories
of their extraordinary predecessors and contribute to the process of nation-building
necessary to establish the heroes of the Risorgimento culturally.6
cules and the Radical Image in the French Revolution,” Representations 2 (Spring 1983): 95–117
and Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1993); Alberto M. Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo
europeo dal XVIII secolo alla grande guerra (Torino: Einaudi, 2005).
In her detailed census of historical writing by women between 1800 and 1945, Maria Pia Casalena
enumerates twenty-six such publications, see Maria Pia Casalena, ed., Scritti storici di donne italiane. Bibliografia 1800–1945 (Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2003).
For the Risorgimento to be successful, it needed the participation of large segments
of the Italian population. The wars for national unification required the support of
women, but the participation in these wars in no way guaranteed a fair representation
of women’s efforts, nor did they guarantee the attainment of equal rights. In recent
years, historians have started to agree on the necessity of investigating the participation of women in the Risorgimento beyond hagiography. Among others Simonetta
Soldani, Laura Guidi, Ilaria Porciani, Lucy Riall, Alberto Banti, Gian Luca Fruci, Angelica Zazzeri, and Paul Ginsborg have so far produced articles and single essays that
analyze women’s contribution to Unification. This work contributes to the growing
historiography on the active armed involvement of women in the Risorgimento.
A brief excursus on the history of the participation of women in war should refute the old prejudice that women and war are terms antithetical to one another.
A diachronic history of women in wars allows for understanding congruencies and
differences in their choices to participate in battle. Did they take up arms to defend
themselves in the face of violent assailants who threatened to violate them sexually? Did they wish to avoid being secluded in a monastery? Or were they acting
to save their families and their property? An overview of their motivations, whenever possible, may provide a more nuanced account of women’s involvement in in
armed conflicts. A historical reconstruction provides evidence that women did often
participate in wars in various roles and it also suggests that these women were not
always considered exceptional. Although their numbers may have not been substantial, there were always women in arms. This study aims to give them a more notable
place within the history of the Risorgimento.
The importance of investigating women, war, and their relationship with emerging
concepts of “patria” in nineteenth-century Italy is another concern of this dissertation.7 Since a major trope of the Risorgimento was the “historical” recovery of an
Italian past, historical figures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance were appropriated into this narrative of patriotism. For example, when Stamura d’Ancona in
1173 opposed the troops of Frederick Barbarossa her motivation was to protect her
city, not to unify Italy (a concept that did not exist yet). The heroism displayed
by Stamura, in particular, was recovered beginning with 1848 and made the subject
of various narratives: chapter two of this work discusses in detail this recuperation
of Ancona’s heroine demonstrating the ways in which this historical figure has been
co-opted by the national patriotic narrative of the Risorgimento. Like Stamura, who
did not choose the military as a career, many women were not full-time warriors
but became such because a particular circumstance required their intervention or
because they were inspired by a particular belief (be it the Crusades or the Risorgimento). A woman who knew when, once the emergency had ended, to put down her
sword or bayonet was often admired for her ability to adhere to the social order, and
was praised for demonstrating courage and resourcefulness under exceptional circumstances. Women who saw battle as a lifetime occupation were often painted as social
outcasts who did not understand the importance of “natural” boundaries between the
A recurrent misconception about the Risorgimento, one that is being slowly dis7
I owe to Fiorenza Taricone most of the historical data presented here. For a full account of the
theories and practices of women in war see Fiorenza Taricone, “Donne e guerra: teorie e pratiche,”
Studi storico-militari (2002): 5–168.
puted by historians, is that women had only a marginal role in it. Nevertheless,
during the course of my research the names of women who had actively participated
in the Risorgimento kept multiplying. Colomba Antonietti, Marianna de Crescenzo,
Erminia Manelli, Fulvia Mattei, Teresa Mosconi, Rosa Munari, Maria Ronzoni, Rosa
Donato, Giuditta Tavani Arquati, Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, Maria Della Torre,
Silvia Marotti, Marietta Giuliani, Antonietta Dal Cere, Luigia Ciappi, Maddalena
Donadoni, Tonina Marinelli, Luigia Battistotti Sassi, Giuseppina Lazzeroni, Baldovina Vestri are only some of the women who fought during the wars for independence.
In other words, as historian Fiorenza Taricone rightly posited:
Il dubbio non è certo quindi relativo alla sua presenza più o meno attiva
nel risorgimento nazionale (comprese quelle che osteggiavano il processo, le
reazionarie, le aristocratiche, e perfino le brigantesse), ma alle lacune storiografiche in tal senso.8
The doubt is surely not about her more or less active role in the national Risorgimento (including those who opposed the process, the reactionaries, aristocrats,
and even the brigantesse), but on the historiographical voids around her.
It is precisely these voids that my dissertation seeks to fill.
In the first chapter I discuss how the concept of gender in the nineteenth century
influenced the ways in which culture and society have received and read the participation of women in arms in the Risorgimento. In this chapter, I emphasize the
importance of using gender as a category of historical analysis to comprehend both
the position of women in arms within society and the reactions their actions provoked. Writing about gender in the Risorgimento means to privilege the relationship
between the way women and man engaged with each other. When women stepped
on the public scene brandishing swords and pens, proudly showing patriotic garments
Taricone 67.
and waving Italian flags, men’s actions were impacted as well. Confronted by an undeniable presence, the social body was forced to come to terms with the consequences
of women’s entrance in the public arena and about what such an entrance meant to a
familial and societal order reliant on strict gender norms. The investigation into the
modalities of social construction of masculinity and femininity in the Risorgimento
cannot ignore the dimension of warfare, since the very essence of the Risorgimento
was that of a military campaign to “become” Italy.
Chapter two examines how the figure of the woman combatant has been represented. In order to understand what women in arms did and how their actions were
incorporated in the national-patriotic narrative of the Risorgimento, both during and
after Unification, I look at a series of artifacts, or “forms of visible representation”
that narrated and commented upon the active presence and contribution of women
in war. In particular, through archival research, I examine how women in arms have
been represented in opera, ballads, popular narratives, gazettes, and catalogues of
illustrious women. The material that I present in the chapter is organized diachronically: in doing so, I demonstrate how the representation of women in arms changed
dramatically before, during, and after the period 1848–1861. In my opinion we should
read the period from the first war of Independence to 1861 as a “state of emergency”
during which the possibility, and reality, of women fighting for the country was not
perceived as posing a fundamental threat to the gender order. On the other hand, the
images of women in arms both before and after these crucial decades offer strikingly
different conclusions: women who defied the patriarchal order were either brought
back to normalcy by way of marriage, or they were said to epitomize the disorder
inherent in social reversals. As I will show, the negative reaction to the choices of
women to take up arms became particularly virulent in the years after 1861.
In chapters three and four, I offer a close-reading of the life and deeds of three
different women who took part in the Risorgimento and of the ways in which their
actions have been represented both by their contemporaries and by posthumous commentators. Luigia Battistotti Sassi, Colomba Antonietti, and Maria Della Torre participated in the process that led to the unification of Italy; their names recur in
almost all accounts of the “glorious five days” of Milan, the Roman Republic, and the
Expedition of the Thousand; their physical features are known thanks to portraits
that always accompany their biographical sketches. These three women could have
not been more different: Luigia and Colomba came from modest families and fought
during the 1848–1849 urban uprisings in Milan and Rome. Maria was a Countess and
the daughter of an important Piedmontese aristocratic family. Yet, all three left their
mark: Luigia by organizing and leading groups of men through the streets of Milan,
Colomba by dying during the last heroic siege of the Roman Republic, and Maria by
leaving a substantial trail of writings and by participating in some of the most famed
Garibaldinian expeditions.
In chapter three, I investigate how Luigia and Colomba have been represented
both during and after Unification. In particular, I emphasize the ways in which
these women “positioned” themselves during battle, a crucial element that will also
serve as a term of comparison with the ways in which Countess Della Torre has
been represented. In short, I posit that Luigia and Colomba’s participation in the
Risorgimento has been interpreted as the product of exceptional circumstances and
not as a long-term life choice. As such, I argue, they have largely been remembered in
a positive way. In chapter four I turn to Maria Della Torre who was remembered much
differently. In this chapter, the time-frame shifts dramatically, not least because the
Countess was born in 1835 and her first significant appearance on the Risorgimento
stage dated back to the Expedition of the Thousand. The Countess Della Torre’s
“foolhardiness” in the midst of battle and her presence in more than one military
campaign provoked mixed reactions. In her case, it is possible to discern a change
in tone between the commentaries produced by those who witnessed her actions and
those who reported them later. Moreover, the chapter offers the first comprehensive
examination of the Countess’s writings: despite having been a prolific writer, Maria
Della Torre’s production has been so far neglected by criticism.
Use of gender as productive new line of inquiry, critical analysis of the Risorgimento narrative, visual and musical production that center on the figure of the woman
in arms, and my archival research on the lives of Luigia, Colomba, and Maria have by
no means exhausted the investigation on the participation of women in the Risorgimento. For example, more research is needed to recover the experiences of the women
who fought before the core years of the Risorgimento, like Austro-Milanese Franziska
Scannagatta, who, disguised as her brother, joined the ranks of the Austrian Army to
fight in 1799. Her story was used as example of women soldiers by Magnus Hirschfeld,
one of the first scholars to investigate the phenomenon of transvestitism.9 Also in need
of illumination are the lives of women like Maria Oliviero, Maria Brigida, Michelina
Magnus Hirschfeld, Transvestites: The Erotic Drive To Cross Dress (Prometheus Books, 1910) 399–
di Cesare, and Lucia di Nella, “brigantesse,” who between 1860 and 1870 participated
in another “state of emergency,” represented by the movement of Southern resistance
to what was perceived as the Piedmontese invasion. I hope that a faithful account of
the deeds of the women in arms who contributed to he making of Italy, coupled with
a reconstruction of the ways in which women in arms have been represented throughout the nineteenth century will enrich the understanding of the Risorgimento and
its legacy into the twentieth century, when women were left behind in the factories
producing the bullets for the soldiers on the front.
Centering the Margins
In this chapter I intend to discuss the use of the key term that will guide the present
research on the participation of women in arms in the Risorgimento: gender. I argue
that an important example of how gender boundaries are tested is presented with
the case of armed women fighting in the battles for the unification of Italy. This
is particularly important because it also fill a void in historiography that has often
relegated the women in arms to the status of footnote.1
Italian historians have produced important works on the “Risorgimento delle donne;” the most
interesting of which are based on rigorous archival research aimed at describing the different ways
in which women of different pre-Unification regions of Italy organized themselves in the name of a
rather abstract idea of nation while, at the same time, started to reflect on their own place in society
and politics.Many interesting studies on the structure and peculiarities of the Italian public sphere
are connected with the investigation of that peculiar and liminal space represented by the salon. For
a general overview of the culture see Marco Meriggi, Milano borghese: Circoli ed elites nell’Ottocento
(Venezia: Marsilio, 1992) and Palo Macry, Ottocento. Famiglia, élites e patrimoni a Napoli (Bologna:
Il Mulino, 2002); for more specific inquiries on the salon and some very interesting case studies,
see Maria Iolanda Palazzolo, I salotti di cultura nell’Italia dell’Ottocento: scene e modelli (Milano:
Franco Angeli, 1985), Mori, Giuseppina Rossi, Salotti letterari in Toscana: i tempi, l’ambiente, i
personaggi (Firenze: Le Lettere, 1992), and Elena Musiani, Circoli e salotti femminili nell’Ottocento:
le donne bolognesi tra politica e società (Bologna: CLUEB, 2003), and Betri and Brambilla. Among
the many groundbreaking examples of research done within the French context I can cite Landes,
Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution, Sara E. Melzer and Leslie W.
Rabine, eds., Rebel Daugthers: Women and the French Revolution (New York: Oxford University
Press, USA, 1992), Dominque Godineau, The Women of Paris and their French Revolution, trans.
Katherine Streip (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Traditional Risorgimento historiography has been consistent in representing women
in the rather unidimensional triad of the mother-daughter-wife.2 The same ideological
control has been applied to the choice of women who appeared in the various catalogues of illustrious Risorgimento women published since Unification.3 First-hand
accounts of women participating in the struggle for unification have surfaced and offer
significant variations to these representations; there were women actively engaged in
municipal politics, women who collected money, and those who tended to the injured
as camp nurses.4 Some women were remembered for having participated actively in
marches, sieges, and battles. When not in disguise (i.e. donning a soldier’s uniform),
women’s presence on the battlefield among the troops was noted and commented
upon; their contribution received either with words of admiration, which tended to
identify them with exceptional women akin to warrior saints, or it was derided and belittled, usually with very harsh words and some interesting comparisons with Amazon
queens and monstrous beings.
Historian Giorgio Rochat has written that:
I tentativi oggi di moda di rintracciare episodi di donne inquadrate come combattenti non meritano molta attenzione, perchè si riferiscono a casi particolari
o marginali. Le donne erano presenti al seguito di non pochi eserciti (a seconda
dei tempi), ma con compiti variabili [. . . ].
See, for instance, Giacomo Emilio Curatulo, Garibaldi e le donne (con documenti inediti) (Roma:
Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1913), Antonietta Drago, Donne e amori del Risorgimento (Milano: Aldo
Palazzi, 1960), and Michele Rosi, ed., Dizionario del Risorgimento nazionale. Dalle origini a Roma
Capitale (Milano: Vallardi, 1930).
For a thorough analysis of the choices behind the inclusion or exclusion of women in these catalogues see Ilaria Porciani, “Il Plutarco femminile,” L’educazione delle donne: Scuole e modelli di vita
femminile nell’Italia dell’Ottocento. Ed. Simonetta Soldani (Franco Angeli, 1989) 297–318.
See, for instance, Letizia Pesauro Maurogonato, Il diario di Letizia (1866), ed. Mario Isnenghi
(Verona: Edizioni Novacharta, 2004), Luisa De Orchi, Lettere di una garibaldina, ed. Costanza
Bertolotti and Sara Cazzoli (Venezia: Marsilio, 2007), and Opera Bevilacqua La Masa, ed., Felicita
Bevilacqua La Masa: una donna, un’istituzione, una città (Venezia: Marsilio, 2005).
Today’s fashionable attempts to find episodes of women combatants do not deserve much attention, because they refer to particular or marginal cases. Women
have been always present alongside many armies (depending on the times), but
with different duties[. . . ].5
In talking about “different tasks,” Rochat is referring to the role camp women
played in the armies throughout the eighteenth century: vivandières, nurses, prostitutes, and, when needed, fighters. I reject Rochat’s conclusion that these stories are
unworthy of attention.
In what might be read as a pre-emptive answer to Rochat’s claim, historian
Michela de Giorgio warns about the consequences of not correcting women’s marginality by asserting that women’s identity survival depends on the predominance of the
patrilineal line. As such, the space of women in family genealogy is limited and causes
their total, “almost natural,” absence from history.6
It is because of their particularity and marginality that they deserve special attention. Men’s reaction towards women in arms was often fueled by unease and
discomfort; the idea that women could enter the battlefield, one of the most exclusive among the male spaces, produced anxiety and sometimes anger. It is precisely
the possibility of change in the gender order and women’s increased sense of agency
that may account for their marginalization from historiography. I am interested in
the ways women in arms operated during the Risorgimento and what reactions their
presence elicited.
It is not a matter of “fashion,” as Rochat puts it, to recuperate stories of women
Giorgio Rochat, “Il mondo militare e le donne. Uno sguardo retrospettivo,” Donne e Forze armate,
ed. Fabrizio Battistelli (Milano: Franco Angeli, 1997) 41. All translations mine.
Michela de Giorgio, Le italiane dall’Unità ad oggi. Modelli culturali e comportamenti sociali (Bari:
Laterza, 1993) 6.
in arms, digging their experiences out of the invisible, to explain exactly why people
with equal bravery, precision in firing arms, and athleticism have been marginalized
because of their sex. It is not a matter of a scholar’s whim to seek the reasons for
societal, cultural, and historical marginalization of a certain group. What we have
to learn from the experiences and trials of marginalized individuals can explain much
about the attitudes, norms, regulations, and behaviors of the dominant group.
Recently, historians have started to question the “ideological tutelage” that has
frozen women’s presence and contributions to the Risorgimento in a rather fixed
repertoire of roles.7 None of them has fully engaged with women who chose to fight.8
I wish to insist on the necessity of investigating women’s presence on the battlefield as
combatants. In doing so, I wish to answer the following questions: why is it important
to talk about these women? and, would such a discussion benefit the historiography
and history of the Risorgimento?
A study of the women in arms is important because their presence affects and
questions simultaneously the masculinity of the nation and its moral characteristics.
Women in arms confuse the sexes and gender roles because, as it goes, women give
life and men take it. To include an examination of the ways in which women in
arms contributed to the Risorgimento means to discuss representations of gender
that departed from normative paradigms, and in so doing to complicate the roles
See in particular the work of historians Alberto Banti, Roberto Bizzocchi, Nadia Filippini, Gian
Luca Fruci, Paul Ginsborg, Laura Guidi, Ilaria Porciani, and Simonetta Soldani.
Notable exceptions to this trend are Laura Guidi, “Patriottismo femminile e travestimenti sulla scena
risorgimentale,” Travestimenti e metamorfosi: percorsi dell’identità di genere tra epoche e culture, ed.
Laura Guidi and Annamaria Lamarra (Napoli: Filema, 2000) 54–92 and Angelica Zazzeri, “Donne
in armi: immagini e rappresentazioni nell’Italia del 1848–1849,” Genesis 5.2 (2006): 165–177.
women played in the construction of the nation.
In his groundbreaking “La nazione del Risorgimento,” historian Alberto Banti
reinvigorated research on the Risorgimento by defining the discourse of Italian nationalism along the rhetorical lines of family, religion, and nation.9 In a short section
towards the end of the volume Banti cursorily examined women who fought for the
unification of their country.10 Clearly Banti, in mentioning but not deepening his
analysis, was pointing towards new directions of research. It was my call to arms.
One of the central rhetorical topoi of the Risorgimento was that a “nazione in armi”
(a nation in arms) would deliver the Italian peninsula to the freed people of Italy.
The idea of a “nation in arms” was first theorized during the 1796–1799 period when
the entire peninsula was shaken by Napoleon’s arrival. In 1797 Jacobin Giuseppe
Abamonti drafted a Republican Constitution to be used by the Partenopea Republic.
Article 311 read: “La forza armata della Repubblica è composta dalla totalità dei
cittadini della nazione intera. Tutti i cittadini italiani sono soldati ed esercitati al
maneggio delle armi” [The army of the Republic is constituted by the totality of the
citizens of the whole nation. Every Italian citizen is a soldier and everybody is able
to use weapons].11 The idea that “ogni repubblicano è soldato” [every republican is a
soldier] or that “bisogna fare in modo che ogni cittadino sia soldato, e che ogni soldato
sia cittadino” [we need to make sure that every citizen is a soldier, and every soldier
Alberto M. Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento: parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia
unita (Torino: Einaudi, 2006).
See Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento: parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia unita,
especially pp. 190–198.
Vittorio Criscuolo, “L’educazione militare nella formazione della coscienza nazionale italiana,” Armi
e nazione. Dalla Repubblica Cisalpina al Regno d’Italia (1797–1814), ed. Maria Canella (Milano:
Franco Angeli, 2002) 291.
a citizen], was never intended to include women. Active and military participation
in the fight for independence and citizenry were simultaneously negated to women
by the gendered writing and reading of the term “cittadino” [citizen] and “soldato”
Historian Linda Kerber chose to title her essay using a quote by Sarah Livingstone
Jay, wife of American Revolutionary politician John Jay, “May All Our Citizens Be
Soldiers and All Our Soldiers Citizens.” The importance of such a sentence being
uttered by a woman during a public occasion already signals the acknowledgement
of a claim and the reality of an imbalance. In the essay, Kerber remarks on the
“rhetorical imbalance” permeating the discourse on women, especially following such
a participatory moment like the American Revolution.13 The absence of clear marks
of gender in the English language allowed for a degree of uncertainty impossible
to attain in Italian, and in many romance languages. Until the Italian Unification
such a “rhetorical imbalance” remained unexplained and voluntarily ambiguous; with
the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy such linguistic equivocation was resolved
“mettendo a nudo la falsa neutralità di un soggetto politico, in realtà maschile nella
sua essenza e definizione” [unmasking the false neutrality of the political subject, in
effect masculine in its essence and definition].14
Criscuolo 292.
Linda K. Kerber, “May All Our Citizens Be Soldiers and All Our Soldiers Citizens: The Ambiguities
of Female Citizenship in the New Nation,” Women, Militarism, and War. Essays in History, Politics, and Social Theory, ed. Jean B. Elshtain and Sheila Tobias (Savage, Maryland: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1990) 90.
Nadia Maria Filippini, “Donne sulla scena politica: dalle Municipalità del 1797 al Risorgimento,”
Donne sulla scena pubblica. Società e politica in Veneto tra Sette e Ottocento, ed. Nadia Maria
Filippini (Milano: Franco Angeli, 2006) 83.
Throughout the eighteenth-century, the image and perception of Italy has been
often crippled by accusations of effeminacy, laziness, and lasciviousness.15 As a reaction, the resurgent nation in arms was predicated upon the idea that men were
biologically and morally fit to take up arms, fight, and defeat the enemy; masculinity
derived also from one’s ability and courage on the battlefield. As a corollary to this
construction, women, because of their biological characteristics and moral traits, were
a fundamental part of that nation, albeit in their role as nurturers and caretakers of
the “armed” group. They supported the Unification project in the only possible, and
natural way, by mothering the nation in arms. Within this rhetorical construction,
it becomes clear how women in arms may have constituted a substantial nuisance in
establishing Italy’s virility and a possible obstacle to asserting its masculinity. Moreover, by presenting a possible alternative to the “mother,” the woman in arm breaks
apart the primary unit of the nation: the family.
Indeed, the discourse and research on women has primarily focused on a rather
“institutionalized” image of them based on a very old stereotype which, with variations, has endured: the mother. The mothers of the Risorgimento may well have been
the most celebrated parents of Italian history. “Madri della patria” [mothers of the
nation] were nurturing bodies simultaneously feeding children and the Nation; they
sacrificed their (male) offspring to the advancement of the national cause; and they
suffered terrible losses but resilient to the pain of burying a child in the name of Italy.
For a discussion of such tropes, see Silvana Patriarca, “Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and
Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism,” American Historical Review 2 (2005): 380–408, Robert Casillo,
The Empire of Stereotypes: Germaine de Stäel and the Idea of Italy (New York: Palgrave, 2006),
and Nelson Moe, The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question (University
of California Press, 2006).
Since the early modern period, as historian Peter Burke has argued in his fundamental study on European popular culture, tales of women heroines focused primarily
on the concept of martyrdom, because “they were objects, admired not so much for
what they did as for what they have suffered.” 16 In an iconography populated by
virgin saints or betrayed wives, the image of the Virgin Mary was particularly strong
because it embodied both the passive role of the obedient woman or sufferer. Burke
acknowledges an important exception to this catalogue: Judith, the biblical heroine
who slew Holofernes and whose “subversive power [. . . ] has been harnessed to work
magic on the side of of the good against the bad.” 17 By killing the Assyrian general
Holofernes, Judith became the champion of her people18 When she enters Holofernes
quarters, enemy soldiers identify her with Israel, as Warner points out “she embodies the nation, even to its enemies.” 19 Where were the Judiths of the Risorgimento?
Where were the women who inverted the natural law of becoming national by killing
the enemy as Judith did?
There were women who simply did not marry or did not have children, like Milanese popular organizer Luisa Battistotti Sassi; women who died young on the battlefields, like Umbrian Colomba Antonietti; or women who just decided to do more
than inspire or support their husbands and children and directly take action, like the
Piedmontese Countess Maria Della Torre. These three women in particular shape
Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper, 1978) 164.
Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens. The Allegory of Female Form (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985) 147.
Warner, Monuments and Maidens. The Allegory of Female Form 161.
Warner, Monuments and Maidens. The Allegory of Female Form 162.
my analysis of the years between 1848 and 1870, crucial decades for Italian Unification, which culminated in the siege and conquest of Rome. Their actions, words, and
representations will guide me into an investigation of what spaces women occupied
during these moments of institutional, socio-cultural, and military upheaval.
Women in arms complicate and question the “[. . . ] assumption that the history
of women can be subsumed and symbolized by a single, all-encompassing image of
femininity.” 20 The women of the Risorgimento have been incapsulated in a particular
representation of femininity, that of the mother-daughter-wife dutifully bound to
remain within the boundaries of the private sphere, or guided outside of it with
the supervision and blessing of the father-husband-son. My wish is to provide an
alternative to the often uni-dimensional representation of this classic Risorgimento
topos; suggesting that not only gender roles were more complicated, but also that
women (and men) experienced these roles and negotiated them in a variety of ways.
Nineteenth century nationalism was based on collective participation: already
during the French Revolution this “collectivism” had unmasked a rigid differentiation
of roles based on the exclusion of women. This exclusionary paradigm had emerged
with unusual strength after Parisian women’s formal request to bear arms was rejected. The reason for denying them the possibility to form an armed battalion was
motivated by the fact that the right to bear arms was connected with the right to
vote (1795). In Italy, Venetian women tried to advance a similar request and were
denied it as well. In some sense, to dismiss the importance of the impact of the women
in arms is to diminish the first political/emancipatory attempts made by a fraction,
Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).
albeit significant, of Italian women.21
Women in arms disturb nineteenth-century conceptions of the nation: the unification of Italy needed to be based on the collective sacrifice of the band of brothers
who fought and died for it. Their sacrifice was rewarded with citizenship. Recasting
the Risorgimento as the “foundation story” for the new Italian Kingdom meant also
to project a masculinized narrative of its most important protagonists, hence the proliferation of biographies on Garibaldi, Cavour, King Vittorio Emanuele, and Mazzini.
Italy needed to establish itself as a strong player both internally, by curbing in the
most violent way the peasant revolts occurring in the South (the “brigantaggio”), and
externally by projecting an image of strength and reliability. Women in arms could
not fit into this project because they questioned Italian men’s masculinity and, by
extension, Italy’s.
I situate my research within the new historiography on the Risorgimento, one
deeply influenced by cultural and gender studies. I am interested in placing the “morphology” of people’s experiences and lives at the center of my investigation in the
micro-historical practice that it is precisely men and women who make and write history. In a foundational essay on the reasons behind microhistory, historian Giovanni
Levi explains that this “method of clues” is used to investigate things that do not fit,
odd characters, and marginal events in “the belief that microscopic observation will
reveal factors previously unobserved [. . . ] phenomena previously considered to be
As it will be discussed in chapter four, Princess Belgiojoso and Countess Della Torre expressed their
opposition to voting. Belgiojoso, in particular, argued that a battle for voting rights would have
distracted from the larger goal of unifying Italy and thus should have been postponed to a later
date. Indeed, most Italians will be excluded from voting rights, including men. The universal male
suffrage was made law in 1919, the inclusion of women was a conquest of the new Republic in 1946.
sufficiently described and understood assume completely new meanings by altering
the scale of observation.” 22 The investigation of women in arms alters the scale of observation because the marginal and the bizzarre, the odd and unsettling embodied in
them complicate the crystallized image of the generous and sacrificial mothers of the
traditional Risorgimento hagiographic and patriotic representations. In this sense,
the micro lens used to look at the women in arms illuminates the macro aspects
of understanding gender relations and interpretations/normalizations of subversive
behaviors during the Risorgimento.23
In conjunction with microhistory, my research has been influenced also by the
new historicism practiced by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt.24 For new
historicism, “tiny” details and anecdotes are significant insofar as their appreciation
allows for a broader and deeper understanding of culture. In particular, I find appropriate to my research the suggestion to see the body as a site of “expressive possibilities” in which culture inscribes itself. The bodies of the women in arms did indeed
express possibilities that challenged the social order and patriarchal structures; for
Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press, 1991) 93–113; on microhistory, the essential references are Carlo
Ginzburg, “Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes,” The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, and
Pierce, ed. Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983)
81–118, Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things I know about It,” Critical Inquiry
20 (1993): 10–35, Edward Muir, “Observing Trifles,” Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe:
Selections from Quaderni Storici, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1991) vii–xxviii, Jacques Revel, “Microanalysis and the Construction of the Social,” Histories: French Constructions of the Past, ed. Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt (New York:
New Press, 1995) 493–501.
For an insightful explanation on the problems posed by the “micro” in history see Matti Peltonen,
“Clues, Margins, and Monads: The Micro-Macro link in Historical Research,” History and Theory
40.3 (2001): 347–359.
Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 2000).
this reason they tended to be marginalized, ostracized, and sometimes institutionalized. New historicism looks at the body as a “spoiler, always baffling or exceeding
the ways in which it is represented.” 25 In other words, through the suggestions of new
historicism, a study of the women in arms in the Risorgimento may illuminate the
different embodiments and subversive possibilities of gender that baffled observers
and exceeded representations in nineteenth-century Italy.
In what follows, I explain the central concept guiding the present study: gender.
In this section, I explain the importance of using gender as a category of analysis for
understanding the relationship between men and women. I also investigate how the
use of the category of gender, intended as a way of structuring relations of power,
may make sense of the ways in which the participation of the women in arms has been
observed, perceived, and judged. I employ the category of gender in two ways. First,
following historian Joan Scott’s theorization, I use gender as an historiographical
category. In this sense, I intend gender not as a supplemental category of analysis but,
more importantly, as a fundamental dimension of historical investigation.26 Second,
influenced by philosopher Judith Butler, I borrow her definition of gender as the
social, therefore not biological, construction of gender as a performative act.27 Seen
Gallagher and Greenblatt 15.
Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical
Review 91.5 (1986): 1053–1075.
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." (New York: Routledge, 1993).
in light of Butler’s work, women in arms performed gendered acts that problematized
hierarchy and subverted expectations.
Gender & History
The suggestion that through the lens of gender we arrive at a better understanding
of the Risorgimento is not new; the part women played in the Italian unification has
become a significant variable that historians do not underestimate any longer. Alberto
Banti has suggested the employment of the category of “gender” to make sense of the
Risorgimento, but his notion of gender does not complicate the relationship of power
between men and women. Banti’s unproblematic deployment of “gender” follows what
Anna Rossi-Doria sees as the two paradoxes of women’s history in Italy. First, RossiDoria argues that the substitution of the term “gender” for “sex” has not changed the
historical elaboration behind it: “[. . . ] si è in sostanza ripresa la consuetudine [. . . ] di
usare il termine ’sesso’ (sexus, sex), ora appunto sostituito da ’genere’, per indicare
solo quello femminile” [in essence, we got into the habit of using the term ’sex,’ now
replaced by ’gender’, to designate only the feminine]. Second, Rossi-Doria agrees with
Virginia Woolf’s prediction on the “supplemental nature” of women’s history, when
the British writer asks “[. . . ] why should they not add a supplement to history, calling
it, of course, by some in conspicuous name so that women might figure there with out
impropriety?” 28 ) It seems that Banti chose to introduce “gender” more as a way to
fit in with recent historiographical developments rather than as a way to complicate
Anna Rossi-Doria, “"Un nome poco importante",” A che punto è la storia delle donne in Italia.
Seminario Annarita Buttafuoco, Milano, 15 marzo 2002, ed. Anna Rossi-Doria (Roma: Viella, 2003)
the relationship between men and women. As a result, Banti’s “gendered” version
of the Risorgimento is remarkably similar to that produced by his predecessors. My
contribution will be that of analyzing the actions performed by women who defied
cultural and societal conventions by embracing weapons and entering the battlefield
and, as a result, offer a supplement to Banti’s pathbreaking research.
I employ gender as an analytical category that may offer a deeper and more
nuanced reading of the Risorgimento’s rhetoric and nation-building effort. Gender as a
category of historical analysis is helpful in making sense of the oppositional dichotomy
between a woman’s participation and her exclusion from the body politic. Indeed,
the recognition of the analytical usefulness of gender makes it possible to consider
women’s distinctive roles and active contributions to history. In Scott’s foundational
essay titled “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis,” she conceptualized “gender” as
a constitutive element in the structuring of social and power relations and, therefore,
of historical processes.
The introduction of gender provoked an epistemological shift in the practice of
historiography by calling into question the fixity of terms such as “man” and “woman,”
in favour of a history interested in investigating gender relations as articulated in
discourses, representations, and practices.29 Scott articulates her definition of gender
in two parts; in the first, gender figures as “[. . . ] a constitutive element of social
relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes [. . . ].” 30 As such, gender
Predictably, Scott’s essay stimulated a very heated debate. See, for instance, Louise A. Tilly response
to it, Louise A. Tilly, “Gender, Women’s History, and Social History,” Social Science History 13.4
(1989): 439–462 in which she warns Scott of the risks associated with a teleological approach that
fundamentally privileged a sort of descriptive history.
Scott 1067.
is explicated through the interlocking of four elements pertaining to the cultural,
normative, socio-political, and psychological realm. Through these four elements,
gender undergoes constant change, adapting to the different historical conditions and
forms of representation.31 The revision of premises and parameters, invoked by Scott
through the analytical use of gender as a category of analysis, would contribute to
a new way of conducting historical investigation, “to disrupt the notion of fixity, to
discover the nature of the debate or repression that leads to the appearance of timeless
permanence in binary gender representation.” 32
Above all, gender is a social construction upon which a certain set of expectations
on how women and men should behave are generated, produced, and represented.
Derivations and deviations from what constitute gender normativity may undermine
the fixity and timelessness of such representations. One of the most important corollaries of utilizing gender as a category of analysis rests in the acknowledgement of
gender’s relational qualities. In other words, the introduction of gender has allowed for
the recognition of the necessity of opening up the analysis of women to “an integrated
vision of feminine and masculine” 33 or, as historian Zemon Davis comments, “treating
women in isolation from men, [. . . ] ordinarily said little about the significance of sex
roles in social life and historical change.” 34 Gender boundaries are constantly chang-
Scott 1067.
Scott 1067.
Simonetta Piccone Stella and Chiara Saraceno, “Introduzione. La storia di un concetto e di un
dibattito,” Genere. La costruzione sociale del femminile e del maschile, ed. Simonetta Piccone Stella
and Chiara Saraceno (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1996) 12.
Natalie Zemon Davis, “"Women’s History" in Transition: The European Case,” Feminist Studies
3.3/4 (1976): 83.
ing as a result of the changing positions of men and women within the social order;
indeed, Denise Riley has argued, that “tedious” and “monotonous” polarity between
men and women is destined to change and be questioned constantly.35
The employment of gender points to the necessity of looking beyond biological
determinism. This position is especially important when considering the impact and
admiration some women cross-dressers extolled until discovered on the battlefield.
These women were often hailed as brave, strong, and courageous exactly like their
male comrades. Of course, this was only until their sex was discovered and their gender was used to exclude them from the battlefield. The experience of the women is
arms is particularly interesting because in them it is possible to observe the intersection of sex and gender in all its complications. A biologically deterministic position
has difficulty in reconciling the experience of women in arms based as it is on the
belief that women cannot side with war because of their ability to reproduce; in other
words, women are thought to have the natural (biological) propensity to oppose war.
The discovery of a woman under a soldier’s garment signifies a dramatic rupture to
the order of things. Political philosopher Jean Elshtain writes of the “semiotic surprise” elicited by women cross-dressers because they are“unexpected, doing violence
to normal anticipations, inviting angry or awed reactions.” 36
Qtd. in Stella and Saraceno 13.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (New York: Basic Books, 1987) 174.
The sight of an armed woman generated feelings of surprise and bewilderment because
these women were not performing their gender as conventionally expected. Judith
Butler has argued that gender is constituted by a series of stylized repetitions and
specific corporeal acts through time, so much so that one cannot distinguish anymore
between the original act and its copy.37 The fact that the cultural-societal and economic apparatus of the newly unified Italy so forcefully connected domestic gestures
and acts with ideas of Italian femininity, suggests the importance of considering any
variations to this gender canon as possible sites of conflict and cultural transformations. Indeed:
To be female is [. . . ] a facticity that has no meaning, but to be a woman is to
have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of
’woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in
obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained
and repeated corporeal project.38
In this context, gender is not only a “project,” but becomes a “strategy” because it
ensures cultural survival. “Hence, as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance
with clearly punitive consequences. [. . . ] those who fail to do their gender right are
regularly punished.” 39 Having this picture in mind, in what measure were women in
arms “doing their gender” wrong? How did this reflected on the project of making
Italians (Italiani )? What happens when a domestic gesture such as that of picking
Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Subordination,” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories,
ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1991) 13–31.
Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue Ellen Case
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990) 273.
Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist
Theory” 273.
up the needle to sew a red shirt is substituted with bearing a sword? I will try to
answer all these questions in the course of this study.
What did it mean to do one’s own gender “right” in nineteenth-century Italy? As
historian Michela De Giorgio notes, a productive way to learn what was considered
proper and how such etiquette was taught is to look at manuals of good manners and
handbooks. The absence of a unified national context contributed to the absence of
handbooks, otherwise quite common in other parts of Europe, explaining to women
“good and proper behaviors.” Nevertheless, the model-woman was thought to be
patriotic and very Catholic or, in the words of patriot writer Niccolò Tommaseo “La
donna italiana, d’ispirazione capace, sapiente dell’ubbidire, sapiente del comandare
ove occorra, è guarentigia a noi di men duro destino” [The Italian woman, of able
inspiration, wise in obedience, wise in commanding when needed, guarantees our quiet
destiny].40 Italian women presided over the domestic realm with moral authority,
educating the children in following Catholic principles and inculcating patriotic ideals.
Of course, the Catholic Church never supported the project of national unification
that would imply the Holy See’s loss of sovereignty. It is in this opposition that
the progressive “feminization” of religion must be read, in other words, having lost
political leverage on men, the Church concentrated on the cultural “occupation” of
the household by focusing on women as the principal carriers of religion in private
Qtd. in Michela De Giorgio, “Il modello cattolico,” Storia delle donne in Occidente. 4. L’Ottocento,
ed. Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot (Roma: Laterza, 1991) 161.
Traditional nineteenth-century history in Italy has focused mainly on the public
sphere, that is to say on rulers, statesmen, forms of government, and diplomatic
relations. Only recently have there been investigations on the impact that nation
building processes had on the private sphere and civil society.41 What is at stake
in the question of women in arms in Italy in the nineteenth century? Fighting in
battle has been perceived always as the male realm par excellence in virtually all
Western patriarchal cultures, and the image of the woman in arm has always caused
a considerable amount of anxiety. The level of rejection experienced by women in
arms during and immediately after the Risorgimento may be read as the symptom of
a more generalized anxiety about the dangers connected with a weak sense of national
identity in Italy, where, after all, Italians were yet to be made, to paraphrase Massimo
In particular, it seems that the hostility demonstrated towards women who trespassed the boundaries of the accepted and excepted became progressively more pronounced as the “cult of domesticity” took hold of post-Unification Italian culture and
society. The years immediately following the conclusion of the Risorgimento battles saw a progressive return to the hearth and signaled a stricter separation of the
spheres: it was within the domestic and bourgeois walls that women were supposed
to produce, educate, and maintain the new first generation of Italian (male) citizens.
Women, then, were supposed to perform the role of perfect Italians through a
series of acts imbued with quintessentially domestic gestures. Many of the interior
In a 2002 assessment on the state of women’s history, Anna Rossi-Doria noted how the majority of
the research has been done in the fields of social, religious, and juridical history. See Rossi-Doria,
“"Un nome poco importante"”.
scenes painted by the nineteenth century school of the Macchiaioli represents a useful catalogue of such acts and gestures. Some of the most famous paintings of the
time take interest in the small quotidian gestures that become, discreetly, vehicles of
patriotism. Odoardo Borrani’s “Il 26 aprile 1859 in Firenze” depicts a young woman
sitting on a chair by an open window, engrossed in sewing an Italian flag. [Fig. 1.1]
The intimate register of the image is typical of the Macchiaioli and tends to highlight
the domesticity distinctive of the bourgeois household. Other favorite subjects of
representations are women caught in the acts of greeting their loved ones returning
from the front; women writing letters on behalf of their servants; women acting as
nurses; and women educating their children to the love of Italy.
The iconographical repetition of these images, paired with the rhetorical efforts of
some of the most important moderate leaders of the Risorgimento for whom women
should reign in the household and only be educated enough to learn how to express
properly their feelings, probably contributed to the forging of this domestic ideal.42
Gender, then, is not only an existential category determining appearance and, very
relevant to my research, the choice of clothing; gender is also a cognitive structure
that tests the way women and men approach the world while at the same time in-
See Lucia Re, “Passion and Sexual Difference: The Risorgimento and the Gendering of Writing
in Nineteenth-Century Italian Culture,” Making and Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National
Identity around the Risorgimento, ed. Albert Russell Ascoli and Krystyna Von Henneberg (New
York: Berg Publishers, 2001) 164.
Figure 1.1: Odoardo Borrani, Il 26 aprile 1859, 1861.
fluencing the way such structures are represented.43 In other words, how did women
deal with a rather conservative gender ideology and the norms of practicing gender
in the roles of mother/wife/nurse/combatant? One way to understand the results of
these negotiations, is to examine what place subversive, or non-conforming behaviors
that were noticed for their a-normality, had in nineteenth century Italy.
The disequilibrium in gender roles is exemplified in the actions of the women
in arms and society’s reaction to them speaks to the deeply uncomfortable notion
that links women to violence and self-fashioning. Women’s aggressive involvement in
war defies the conventional and essentialist dichotomy of “warlike men” and “peaceful
women.” In order to understand Italian culture’s response to the idea of armed and
fighting women, let me give an example of such reaction.
On April 10, 1848 Maria Graziani, Attilio Bandiera’s widow, affixed a poster
throughout Venice’s canals that read,
La sicurezza della patria, l’amore della libertà sono forse sentimenti esclusivi
soltanto degli uomini? Che cosa siamo noi? Incapaci forse di questi nobilissimi affetti? [. . . ] Dunque all’armi anche noi e se abbiamo l’amarezza di esser
state prevenute, seguiamone almeno l’esempio. La difesa esterna della Patria
potrebbe reclamare il braccio della Guardia Cittadina [. . . ]. Accorrano dunque
alla pronta iscrizione tutte quelle cittadine che sentono la carità della Patria
ed offrano le loro fatiche e le loro vigilie onde conservare l’ordine e la sicurezza
pubblica [. . . ]. Diamo anche noi un saggio di patriottismo e di fratellanza e
diamolo col cuore e si smentisca coll’opere l’assurdo principio che le donne sono
nate per la conocchia e per l’ago.44
Are the fatherland’s security [and] the love of freedom feelings exclusive to men?
What are we? Perhaps incapable of such noble sentiments? To arms then, us as
well, and if we had the sorrow of having been anticipated, let’s follow such an
Silvia Valisa, “People or Not: The Ideology of Character in Six Modern Italian Novels,” Unpublished
essay, 2009.
Qtd. in Nadia Maria Filippini, “Figure, fatti e percorsi di emancipazione femminile (1797–1880),”
Storia di Venezia. L’Ottocento e il Novecento, ed. Mario Isnenghi and Stuart Woolf, vol. 1 (Roma:
Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2002) 468.
example. The fatherland’s external defense could demand the help of the Civic
Guard[. . . ]. Rush, then, to enroll all those female citizens who feel love for Italy
and offer their hard work and vigilance to ensure order and public safety [. . . ]
We, too, want to give an example of patriotism and brotherhood and we want
to give it wholeheartedly to repudiate with our deeds the absurd principle that
women were born to work with the needle and yarn.
Maria claimed her right to participate in the Risorgimento because her patriotism
was in no way different from that of a man. More importantly, Maria’s outrage at
the absurdity of being stuck in a fixed role provided the opportunity to trespass the
domestic boundaries in order to participate in more meaningful ways for her than, for
example, by sewing red shirts for the Garibaldini. Maria Graziani’s thought-provoking
manifesto affected Venetian citizens to the point that both men and women felt it
necessary to respond to it. The mere idea that women could surrender the needle for
the bayonet necessitated an operation of containment.
As Nadia Filippini reports, both sexes reacted uneasily to Maria Graziani’s proclamation. The perception that the abandonment of the domestic space for the battlefield would produce a dramatic imbalance is clear in the words of men and women
alike. Venetian woman Irene Ferrari wrote how:
sembra a taluno che in questo momento possano invece le donne prestar un
servizio più utile se non colla conocchia almeno con quell’ago che voi testè
consigliaste di deporre.
To some it may seem that in this moment women could offer more useful services
if not with the yarn, with that needle that you just now advised to put down.
In Ferrari’s words the preoccupation with a transformation of the gender order is
palpable and Graziani’s proposal derided. Similarly, men’s reaction to such a request
highlighted the fear of living in a world turned upside down.
Notary Giuseppe Giuriati, a friend of Venetian patriot Daniele Manin, wrote that:
se le donne hanno ferma intenzione d’ajutare la patria, la ajutino coi mezzi
che la natura ed i costumi loro acconsento [. . . ] si arruolino le cittadine di
Venezia e dichiarino che tutte le arruolate sapranno . . . cucire le vesti della
guardia nazionale.45
If women intend to help the nation, let them help with the means nature provided them and customs allow; let the citizens of Venice enroll, and have them
all declare to be able to . . . sew the Civic Guard’s uniforms.
The anxiety produced by the idea that women could fight is transformed rhetorically
into derision. In using the same military terminology, Giuriati implies that women’s
only weapon is the needle. Anything more is unnatural and ridiculous.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence on Giuriati seems evident. Indeed, the French
philosopher had argued that women are naturally not disposed to war, comparing
them to city boys who are not used to sun and physical force,
[. . . ] will a woman abruptly and regularly change her way of life without peril
and risk? Will she be nurse today and warrior tomorrow? Will she change
temperament and tastes as a chameleon does colors? Will she suddenly go from
shade, enclosure, and domestic cares to the harshness of the open air, the labors,
the fatigues, and the perils of war? Will she be fearful at one moment and brave
at another, delicate at one moment and robust at another? If your people raised
in Paris have difficulty enduring the profession of arms, will women, who have
never endured the sun and hardly know how to walk, endure it after fifty years
of softness? Will they take up this harsh profession at the age when men leave
Of course, Rousseau conceded, there are societies where women are stronger, but
their strength depends on the comparable physical power displayed by men; in other
words, women are always weaker in comparison to men, making them naturally unfit
for anything warlike.47 I offer Rousseau’s reflection on women’s limitations because
All quotes in Filippini, “Donne sulla scena politica: dalle Municipalità del 1797 al Risorgimento”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: or On Education, ed. and trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic
Books, 1993) 362.
“There are countries where women give birth almost without pain and nurse their children almost
of the interesting suggestions that women could take up the sword and fight and that
action would be categorized as absurd and unnatural. The fact that Rousseau uses
the example of the “profession of arms” as the most ridiculous sphere a woman could
enter suggests the profound unease felt at such reversal of roles. What would happen,
though, if women were given the chance to leave the parasol home and walk on their
own? How would men react to such subversive behavior?
Historian Joan Scott writes,
The legitimizing of war - of expending young lives to protect the state - has
variously taken the forms of explicit appeals to manhood (to the need to defend
otherwise vulnerable women and children), of implicit reliance on belief in the
duty of sons to serve their leaders or their (father the) king, and of associations
between masculinity and national strength. High politics itself is a gendered
concept, for it establishes its crucial importance and public power, the reasons
for and fact of its highest authority, precisely in its exclusion of women from
its work. Gender is one of the recurrent references by which political power has
been conceived, legitimated, and criticized. It refers to but also establishes the
meaning of male/female opposition. To vindicate political power, the reference
must seem sure and fixed, outside human construction, part of the natural or
divine order. In that way, the binary opposition and the social process of gender
relationships both become part of the meaning of power itself; to question or
later any aspects threatens the entire system.48
Gender and power are inextricably linked: one is the declination of the other. In
breaking this equilibrium or, as Carole Pateman puts it, in violating the sexual contract upon which society is based, women who actively participate in actions of war
without effort. I admit it. [. . . ] When women become robust, men become still more so. When men
get soft, women get even softer. When the two change equally, the difference remains the same.”
Rousseau 362.
Scott 1073.
inject a dose of anxiety that reflect on the dichotomy “just (male) warrior” and “beautiful (female) soul.” Women are the reason men move war against one another. As
Elshtain argues,
If military preparedness is the sine qua non of a virtuous polity, and women,
in this narrative, cannot embody such armed civic virtue - a task for men women are nonetheless drawn into the picture: as occasion for war; as goads
to action; as designated weepers over the tragedies war trails in its wake; or,
in our own time, as male surrogates mobilized to meet manpower needs for the
armed forces.49
Women work and act at the periphery of war; a gesture towards centering their
position has never been welcomed with ease. The model of society derived from the
French Revolution presented the paradox of broadening civil liberties to all citizens
while excluding them from political rights on the base of sex.
The interest to go beyond dichotomies, contrasting a dominant masculine position
with a largely oppressed feminine one, has been explored since the Eighties by Italian
women historians working on questions of social history. In doing so, women historians
began to focus on the ways in which women were affected by power and exercised
it. In particular, they worked on how women resisted and negotiated power and the
representations and symbols that had accompanied the definition of gender roles and
identities.50 What is at stake in investigating the interstices in which Italian women
Elshtain 58.
Numerous are the monographs and journal articles published since; some of the most interesting
are Lucia Ferrante, Maura Palazzi, and Gianna Pomata, eds., Ragnatele di rapporti. Patronage e
reti di relazione nella storia delle donne (Torino: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1988) which investigates
the relationship between power and gender roles; Dianella Gagliani and Mariuccia Salvati, eds., La
sfera pubblica femminile: percorsi di storia delle donne in età contemporanea (Bologna: CLUEB,
1992) which discusses the place women occupied in the public sphere and its political consequences
on Italian society from the Risorgimento to the post- World War II years; Dianella Gagliani and
Mariuccia Salvati, eds., Donne e spazio nel processo di modernizzazione (Bologna: CLUEB, 1995)
that traces the re-articualtion of space and its appropriation by women between the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries; Christiane Veauvy and Laura Pisano, Parole inascoltate. Le donne e la
of the Risorgimento inserted themselves?
The question of how women who actively participated in the Risorgimento interpreted and “restyled” the profoundly masculine nationalist discourse is particularly
important not only because it sheds light on the different strategies used to make
sense of such rhetoric but also because it helps understanding the language used by
these women to avoid and in some cases anticipate public opinion’s ostracism.
Historian Rosanna De Longis cautions against the risk of interpreting the presence
and participation of women to the Risorgimento movement as an absolute novelty.
Indeed, already in the eighteenth century women started to participate in public
conversations opening their houses to weekly discussions. The notion that public and
private spheres are characterized and defined by their separated-ness obscures the
importance of the exchange happening between the two. Historian David Kertzer, in
analyzing the nineteenth-century phenomenon of infant abandonment, has pointed
also to the same tension in anthropology, where distinctions between public and
private spheres were often untenable precisely because, “the public sphere has long
invaded the domestic sphere in Western societies.” 51 An important consequence of
costruzione dello Stato-nazione in Italia e in Francia 1789–1860. Testi e documenti (Roma: Editori
Riuniti, 1994) compares the debate on citizenship and voting rights that occupied Italian and French
women from the French Revolution to the Italian Unification. Many are the volumes that explore
the debate on citizenship, the fundamental Franca Pieroni Bortolotti, Alle origini del movimento
femminile in Italia 1848–1892 (Torino: Einaudi, 1963), along with Annarita Buttafuoco, Questioni di
cittadinanza. Donne e diritti sociali nell’Italia liberale (Siena: Protagon Editori Toscani, 1997), Anna
Rossi-Doria, Diventare cittadine: Il voto alle donne in Italia (Firenze: Giunti, 1996), and Marina
D’Amelia, ed., Donne alle urne: la conquista del voto, documenti 1864–1946 (Roma: Biblink, 2006).
David I. Kertzer, “Gender Ideology and Infant Abandonment in Nineteenth Century Italy,” Journal
of Interdisciplinary History 22.1 (1991): 4; for the theoretical and methodological complications for
the field of anthropology see Michelle Z. Rosaldo, “Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical
Overview,” Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Louise Lamphere and Michelle Z. Rosaldo (Stanford,
Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1973) 17–42.
this “invasion” has been precisely the reciprocal contamination of these spheres; in
terms of gender roles, this meant that expectations about feminine and masculine
behaviors changed as well.
Women and men constantly moved from one realm to the other, and it is precisely
the dynamism that problematizes this binary conceptualization.52 Similarly, tradition
and subversion coexist and influence one another and the often blurred boundary
separating them offers a very interesting terrain of analysis because it is precisely in
this space that women have often found themselves. Historian Laura Pisano writes:
Il problema è dunque di capire se la collocazione delle donne nella (e rispetto
alla) politica, disegni un particolare modo di essere, di partecipare e di condividere la costruzione della nazione assumendo il posto, i ruoli simbolici ad esse
assegnati nella pratica, ma anche nelle forme di rappresentanza, o viceversa
criticandole, ed in quali forme.53
The problem, then, is to understand if women’s position in (and vis-à-vis) politics outlines a particular way of being, of participating and sharing the nation’s
building process, assuming the place and symbolic roles assigned to them in
practice and in the forms of representations, or vice-versa criticizing them and
in what ways.
Women opened their domestic spaces to cultural and political meetings, where
important friendships and political alliances were forged, and operated outside of the
home to promote popular education, philanthropically reforming prisons, and aiding
Feminist social historian Leonore Davidoff effectively explains how “Despite their instability and
mutability, public and private are concepts which also have had powerful material and experiential
consequences in terms of formal institutions, organizational forms, financial systems, familial and
kinship patterns, as well as in language. In short, they have become a basic part of the way our
whole social and psychic worlds are ordered, but an order that is constantly shifting, being made and
remade.”Leonore Davidoff, “Regarding Some ’Old Husbands’s Tales’: Public and Private in Feminist
History,” Feminism, the Public and the Private, ed. Joan B. Landes (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1998) 165.
Laura Pisano, “Giornalismo politico delle donne italiane dalle Repubbliche giacobine al Risorgimento
(1796–1860),” Parole inascoltate. Le donne e la costruzione dello Stato-nazione in Italia e in Francia
1789–1860. Testi e documenti, ed. Laura Pisano and Christiane Veauvy (Roma: Editori Riuniti,
1994) 20.
the least privileged. It is the act of “stepping out,” as historian Michelle Perrot
emphasizes, that could signify more than simply crossing one’s domestic threshold:
“It could also mean breaking out morally, stepping outside one’s assigned role, forming
an opinion, abandoning subjugation in favor of independence - and this could be done
in public or private.” 54
Historians have worked abundantly on the French Revolution and on the Parisian
women’s claim to full citizenship and research had been done also on the women
of the Risorgimento. Of course, nineteenth century France and Italy enjoyed very
different conditions. On the one hand, France had been a united country for years
thus encouraging the development of a critical consciousness that allowed women
to organized in more constructed ways. On the other, women living in the Italian
peninsula until the conquest of Rome preferred generally to concentrate their efforts
and energies toward the goal of national unification.
Princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso wrote that the women of her generation
were laying the fertile soil upon which their daughters could have demanded political rights but that, for the time being, “i nostri legislatori, coloro che rappresentano
l’Italia libera, non debbono venir distratti dal loro gravissimo incarico” [our legislators, those who represent a free Italy, should not be distracted from their most serious
task].55 In this sense, Italian women’s experience was closer to that of the American
revolutionaries who “without a strategy of collective behavior, without political theo54
Michelle Perrot, “Stepping Out,” A History of Women in the West. Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, ed. Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, vol. IV (Cambridge, Mass.: The
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993) 450.
Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, Il 1848 a Milano e a Venezia. Con uno scritto sulla condizione delle
donne, ed. Sandro Bortone (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1977) 184.
rists of their own, women did not immediately develop a mode of forcing the political
community to take account of their distinctive interests.” 56 The relative marginality
of the voting rights question for the Risorgimento women is apparent in the various
edited collections on the theme of women and citizenship that often start with the
years after the Unification. The absence of a unified movement has also its reasons
in the fact that Italian women could not present their claims and bring their requests
to an Italian Parliament before 1861, when, in Turin, the first assembly met. Even
then, the women of Rome and Venice were still under the dominion of foreign powers.
Nevertheless, women and men experienced a progressive blurring of boundaries between private life and political activism even though women seldom articulated their
claims to emancipation and their questions of representation.
Women as diverse in their political orientation like Erminia Fuà Fusinato (who
sought for women “true emancipation. . . from ignorance”),57 Aurelia Cimino Folliero
(who campaigned for better working conditions), Sara Nathan (exemplary Mazzinian
supporter and icon of Republican maternity), and Gualberta Alaide Beccari (journalist and founder of “La donna”) all sought to advance the socio-political condition
of Italian women. The increased visibility and participation of women in various capacities conjured up a new understanding of citizenry and political involvement; at
the same time, women and men found themselves in newly defined separate spheres
whose boundaries tended to become stricter. Between these two models, were there
Kerber 97.
Judith Jeffrey Howard, “Patriot Mothers in the Post-Risorgimento: Women After the Italian Revolution,” Women, War, and Revolution, ed. Carol R. Berkin and Clara M. Lovett (New York: Holmes
& Meier, 1980) 237.
spaces for alternative behaviors? If there were, how were these behaviors expressed?
Were women aware of the consequences of their choices? The oscillation between
participation and retreat from public life characterized women’s status throughout
the nineteenth century.
Since the experience matured during the Jacobins Republics, when women acted
on an individual basis, with the outbreak of the first war of Independence, women’s
actions started to be more organized and a new consciousness emerged. Subversive
behaviors emerged then: women became public speakers, some left their husbands,
others escaped convent life, or renounced aristocratic titles. It is especially in their
public discourses that women sparked reactions; as one anonymous observer noted,
“delle donne sfrontate ebbero persino il coraggio di portarsi colà e pubblicamente
proporre questioni, e disputarsi a guisa di baccanti” [some brazen women had even
the courage to publicly ask questions, and debate like they were participating in a
When women stepped out of the private to enter the public, their presence elicited
surprise and amazement. Since the French Revolution, as political scientist Carole
Pateman has argued, a new political model emerged, based on an egalitarian social
contract between brothers. This new egalitarian model excluded women from the
public sphere and did not modify domestic relations in the sense that men still held
rights of property on women.59 The process that defined the public sphere, as the
locus for politics and state affairs, in opposition to a private one, that privileged the
Qtd. in Filippini, “Donne sulla scena politica: dalle Municipalità del 1797 al Risorgimento” 92.
Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988).
family and its web of relations, contributed to the clarification of roles and positions
in society. Intimate relations such as those among family members did not enter the
public sphere because they were considered pre-political, in the sense that existed outside politics: the new subject of the public sphere was the individual (man) released
from any familial or religious ties.60
Despite such model, women did find spaces for action. They stepped out and
walked the fine liminal space dividing public and private. After all, the emergence
of the possibility for women to become part of the public sphere had been hinted
at by the use of feminine allegories in representing the Nation. In these images,
women embodied civic virtues such as those behind the concepts of “freedom” and
“independence.” 61 Women also were assigned the delicate task of educating children
to patriotic values, and the family was invested of fundamental role of becoming a
microcosm of the nation. The education transmitted by women within the domestic
walls was supposed to be “virile;” the paradox of the woman who teach her young children how to become soldiers and true men went largely unquestioned. In articulating
the importance of an education that started from infancy, and largely unaware of the
contradiction, Francesco De Sanctis wrote: “Il soldato suppone che ci sia l’uomo; e
l’uomo non si forma né in tre, né in quattro, né in sette anni, l’uomo si forma fin dal
principio con un’educazione virile” [The soldier presupposes the man; and the man is
not formed in either three, four, or seven years; the man is formed since the beginning
Vinzia Fiorino, “Il ’gender’ e la ’polis’; gli itinerari della storiografia politica,” Ricerche di storia
politica 3 (1998): 325–326. As Fiorino notes, the debate around the dichotomy public/private did
not help surpass the immobilism generated by a rigid reading of the relationship between genders.
Recently, this trend has been reversed especially within Anglo-American historiography.
Hunt, “Hercules and the Radical Image in the French Revolution”.
with a virile education].62 The superimposition of gender, national, and civic identities highlighted, however, the fundamental fear concretized by the presence of women
in places traditionally reserved to men.63 During military parades, women occupied
a marginal space and always as mothers or wives of soldiers. They were never alone:
women needed to be protected by the social and moral boundary represented by the
family unit. At the same time, they were asked to be the protector of bourgeoise
morality by supervising family and domestic life. Mothers on one hand and the State
on the other contributed to the maintenance and transmission of nineteenth-century
One of the ways through which women were able to go beyond the limits imposed
by bourgeoise morality was represented by charitable work. Activities such as taking
care of the ill, unemployed, or wounded were seen as an extension of the normal
chores expected to be performed by a respectable woman. Many of the women who
performed charitable work left no trace of themselves because “a woman’s name was
supposed to be engraved in the heart of her father, her husband, or her children, and
none other.” 65 Through charity and social work, women of the aristocracy, joined
later by those belonging to the middle classes, were allowed to handle money through
the organization of fundraisers or “ladies’ sales.” 66 Handling money was clearly the
Qtd. in Ilaria Porciani, La festa della nazione. Rappresentazione dello Stato e spazi sociali nell’Italia
unita (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997) 91.
Fiorino 327.
George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (Howard Fertig, 1997).
These remarks are attributed to French essayist and political theorist Sylvain Maréchal, qtd. in
Perrot, “Stepping Out” 451.
Perrot, “Stepping Out” 452.
acquisition of a skill otherwise prohibited. Indeed, organizing fundraisers to aid the
Unification efforts was one of the public realms in which Italian women were actually
encouraged by their husbands.
Duchess Felicita Bevilacqua wanted to follow her husband Giuseppe La Masa on
board of the vessel “Lombardo,” one of the two ships bringing Garibaldi and his
Thousands from Liguria to Sicily. Predictably, her husband forbade her to do so.
Left home alone, Felicita decided to do her part by publishing an appeal in all the
most important Italian newspapers of the time; in it, she urged women to organize in
local committees to collect money for financing military campaigns and managed to
collect a large sum of money.67 Felicita’s appeal was successful: she collected about
This is the text of the appeal:
[. . . ] Un comitato femminile si formi in ogni città, ed in ogni grossa borgata, che riceva le
oblazioni, e deleghi le sorelle che dovranno recarsi a questuare nelle case e nelle botteghe. La
sottoscrizione dev’essere nazionale, e quindi sia cura dei comitati provinciali il diffonderla, nel
miglior modo possibile anche nei comuni delle campagne, ove i parroci ponno essere invitati
a farsene capi (ove manchino donne influenti) siccome opera supremamente cristiana. Ogni
classe vi partecipi, chè il soldo della povera donnicciola sarà gradito quanto la ricca elargizione
della doviziosa signora, e ne avrà pari benedizione. Le fanciulline vi si associno pensando ai
tanti bimbi che rimangono orbati di padri e derelitti. Oh quanto ogni donna debb’essere lieta
ed altiera di consacrare il denaro disposto all’acquisto di una nuova veste o monile a questo
scopo misericorde! [. . . ]. Sorelle! nella coscienza di aver fatto il più doloroso sagrificio all’ajuto
di questa causa santa, io mi sento non indegna di aprire questa sottoscrizione femminile e di
invitarvi, e scongiurarvi al più generoso e sollecito concorso onde renderla efficace.
[. . . ] A committee of women should be formed in every city and large village in order to
receive monetary donations and to delegate our sisters who will go from house to house to
seek pledges. The underwriting must be national, at this scope it will be up to the provincial
circles to spread it, in the best of ways, even in the rural counties where priests (in lieu of
well-connected and powerful women) may take a leadership role since this is a supremely
Christian effort. Every social class should participate in it, since the poor woman’s penny is
as valuable as the large donation from the rich lady, and both will be blessed the same way.
Young girls should join the committee thinking about all those children without fathers who
are poor. Oh, every woman should be happy and proud to consecrate money arranged to buy
new clothes or jewelry for such a merciful aim! [. . . ] Sisters! knowing that I have painfully
sacrificed to help such sacred cause, I feel worthy enough to open such a feminine subscription
and to invite you, and implore you, for the most generous and quick help to make the pledge
as successful as possible.
Qtd. in Elena Sodini, “Il fondo Bevilacqua: un itinerario tra famiglia, patriottismo femminile ed
emancipazione,” Scritture femminili e storia, ed. Laura Guidi (Cliopress, 2004) 338.
5.000 francs that were sent to Garibaldi.
All these activities did not engendered preoccupations; women were not actively
occupying spaces in which they did not belong. In other words, they were not “polluting” the public sphere with their presence. Or at least, that is how it seemed.
Subversive Figures
So far, I have employed a notion of gender that implies an understanding of its
relational and performative qualities. Now, I would like to discuss how subversion
can be read as a fundamental element for the understanding of the mechanisms of
reception reserved to women in arms. Moreover, I would like to consider the ways in
which subversion impacts gender through a discussion of what Banti and Ginsborg
call “deep figures” around which Risorgimento rhetoric has been organized, that is
the categories of family, love/honor/virtue, and sacrifice. I read subversion as a force
that simultaneously weakens and strengthens these figures, and look at how it can
complicate some of the conventional dichotomies used to talk about gender relations
and gender identity, inclusion/exclusion and public/private.
I intend to engage with Alberto Banti and Paul Ginsborg and their notion that the
Risorgimento’s rhetoric is mainly articulated through three main "deep figures." The
authors maintain that these, “sono delle immagini, dei sistemi allegorici, delle costellazioni narrative, che incorporano una tavola valoriale specifica, offerta come quella
fondamentale che dà senso al sistema concettuale proposto” [are images, allegorical
systems, narrative constellations that incorporate a very specific value system in-
tended as that which make sense of the proposed conceptual universe]. Moreover, their
depth means that “hanno a che fare con fatti “primari”: nascita/morte, amore/odio,
sessualità/riproduzione” [deal with primary facts: birth/death, love/hate, sexuality/reproduction] placed within a “continuum discorsivo talora vecchio di secoli, se
non di millenni” [discursive continuum centuries, if not thousands of year, old]. Their
value resides in the fact that they are placed:
[. . . ] in questo continuum valoriale, che ne fa immagini ben note e, al tempo
stesso, adattabili a nuovi contesti discorsivi; mentre l’efficacia del sistema discorsivo che le incorpora dipende dalla funzionalità delle coerenze interne che gli
sono proprie.68
[. . . ] in this continuum which makes them well-known images and, simultaneously, adaptable to new discursive contexts; at the same time, the efficacy of the
discursive system in which they are incorporated depends on the functionality
of its own internal coherence.
The Risorgimento presented an array of discourses and rhetorical moves that often
complicated these primary facts, making them simultaneously stronger, more appealing and more complicated.
In line with Banti and Ginsborg’s remarks, many of the discourses generated by
Risorgimento rhetoric stressed inclusion as the most important asset of a successful struggle for independence. In this context, any subversive behavior had to be
read as doubly damaging; for example, women who cross-dressed questioned roles
traditionally assigned to men, defied familial structures by leaving the household,
and demonstrated self-reliance and determination. I believe that the intersection of
the category of subversion with the triad of family/honor/sacrifice provides a more
nuanced understanding of how people experienced the Risorgimento and at times
All quotations from Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg, “Per una nuova storia del Risorgimento,”
Il Risorgimento, ed. Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg (Torino: Einaudi, 2007) xxviii.
challenged its foundations.
In this sense, my research intersects with contemporary historiography that strives
to complicate the experiences and lives of nineteenth-century Italian men and women
by proposing an image of the Risorgimento as a complex and variegated movement
of people and ideas. As I will show in later chapters, claiming a forbidden space by
wearing clothes of the opposite sex and going to the battlefield did not help further
women’s position in society; on the contrary, it pushed them even more inside the
home. The threat of women claiming the right to bear and use weapons was very real
and produced images of troubling and non-conforming individuals.
In order to "narrate" and "activate" the idea of Italy as a Nation, patriots and
politicians needed to create basic discursive structures made of symbols, narrations,
and allegories that possessed a visceral and emotional appeal. Some of these tropes
predated the nineteenth-century consolidation of a national independence movement.
These deep figures speak to fundamental life facts such as birth and death, love and
hate, sexuality and reproduction. One of the strongest tropes generated by the use
of these rhetorical constructions was that of assimilating the Nation to the Family.
Indeed, the history of the Risorgimento was for the most part written in novels, poems,
and melodrama as a history of the Italian Family.69 The Italian nation-family had
As Banti and Bizzocchi noted:
Nei vari intrecci e nelle varie interrelazioni tra padri, madri, figli, figlie, fratelli, sorelle, amanti,
amici, si esplora la geometria variabile del reticolo familiare, ponendo l’accento ora sulla forza
degli affetti, ora sull’abominio di un tradimento che li viola, ora sulla natura esemplare delle
gesta eroiche che il contesto parentale racchiude.
In the various plots and relationships between fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers,
sisters, lovers, friends, it is possible to explore the changing geometry of the family web,
emphasizing now the strength of the affects and then the abominable betrayal violating them,
the exemplary nature of the heroic deeds and the familiar context containing them.
been separated by foreign intruders, but it was determined to reunite; consequently,
one of the key terms of the Risorgimento lexicon became that of a “brotherhood”
possessing “spiritual values, of elective and egalitarian kind” that contributed to this
As in families, nations are based on biological connections that are particularly
strong; and not unlike families, each member plays a fundamental role in the construction and preservation of the nation. Family members, and in particular women,
had the crucial role of instilling moral values in the family unit. As Ilaria Porciani
remarks, the discourse around the family was, however, prescriptive and because of its
rigid patriarchal structure, the family was also one of the most oppressive institutions
of its time, one where women were confined and with difficulties could escape.70
In light of this basic familial-national configuration, a first possible subversive
element could be embodied in women’s claim to form a sisterhood with equal powers
and rights to that formed by men. Similarly, to endanger the cohesion of the family
meant also to act outside of it. A certain degree of tolerance and veiled admiration
was expressed towards women who engaged in secret conspiracies (their presence was
common enough that the ranks of the main secret society of the first half of the
nineteenth century assigned women the code name of "giardiniere," a term whose
implication of growth and care taking are obvious), although women who chose to
abandon the family unit and the domestic heath were more difficult to forgive and
Alberto M. Banti and Roberto Bizzocchi, “Introduzione,” Immagini della nazione nell’Italia del
Risorgimento, ed. Alberto M. Banti and Roberto Bizzocchi (Roma: Carocci, 2002) 15.
Ilaria Porciani, “Famiglia e nazione nel lungo Ottocento,” Famiglia e nazione nel lungo Ottocento
italiano: modelli, strategie, reti di relazioni, ed. Ilaria Porciani (Roma: Viella, 2006) 16.
recuperate. A second important figure is represented by the triad love/honor/virtue.
This triad is responsible for the articulation and construction of gender identity in
the Risorgimento; through melodrama, poetry, and novels the heterosexual norm was
constantly reinforced. In these narratives, the wedding between hero and heroine to
ensure the reproduction of the family unity and, by extension, of the nation becomes
a fundamental narrative moment. To protect the family-nation both men and women
need to follow a precise code of honor and uphold certain values. Heroes need to
defend their nation’s military and need to be ready to sacrifice their lives on the
battlefield; in this context, men fighting for their country’s honor and freedom became
the symbol of a nationalized masculinity. Women become heroines of the nation
because they provided emotional and psychological support to their men. Italian
women’s first and most important task was that of keeping the family strong, united,
while preserving it as a safe heaven for men. Moreover, women ensured the continuity
of the nation by reproducing and educating offspring to patriotic values. Both men
and women sacrificed themselves and it is this act that constitutes the third deep figure
upon which the Risorgimento rhetoric was built. Sacrifice is articulated along gender
lines: for men it implies dying for the country, for the women it means to endure
suffering and mourning. The community of warriors who sacrificed their lives was
exclusively male. Subversive behaviors explicated themselves when these rhetorical
figures were translated into social practices and gestures; in other words, when these
deep figures were performed on the stage of the national unification.
Some of the most important men of the Risorgimento did not contribute to the
material continuation of the nation; they did not have families, did not father children,
and lived outside of the marital unit. Marital separation was a subversive behavior
that not only reflected on religion (the breaking of sacred vows), but also on the
political. Indeed, matrimony is a small-scale reproduction of the Nation-State: to
break it is to endanger allegiances. The pervasive metaphor of the “famiglia della
nazione” alerts against any breach of the conventions. To betray the family unit is
to betray the nation. If such subversive behaviors were tolerated in men and in some
cases even exalted by romantic rhetoric, for women the choice to live outside of the
norm became a source of public polemic and in some cases ostracizing.
In the chapters that follow, I write of three women in particular who broke conventional behaviors and societal norms. One aspect that caught my attention was the
different ways in which a seemingly similar behavior (taking up arms, fight, and kill)
solicited different interpretations, influencing posthumous readings and these women’s
historical “visibility.”
“O Italiani, io vi esorto alle storie”
In this chapter, I examine how the figure of the woman combatant has been represented in nineteenth-century Italian culture, filtered through opera and ballads,
popular narratives and gazettes, and catalogues of illustrious women. Furthermore, I
want to provide a useful framework for making sense of the multiple representations
that captured the participation of women in the struggle for independence. In particular, my intention is to show how in these fictionalized accounts the representation of
the woman in arms has changed depending on the period in which it was produced.
I look at the “forms of visible representation” 1 that contributed to the construction
of the imagery surrounding the figure of the woman in arms. These forms changed
dramatically when produced in the years preceding 1846 and following 1861.
I contend that the “state of emergency” represented by the period encompassing
the first war for independence and the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy following
Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousands represents a watershed for how women in
Maurice Agulhon, Marianne into Battle. Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789–1890 ,
trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1981) 2.
arms have been represented. During this span of time, representations opened up the
possibility for women to participate actively in war without posing a fundamental
threat to the gender order. The fictionalized representations of medieval heroine
Stamura d’Ancona, Italian princess Odabella, young Gigogin, and red-shirted Tonina
Marinelli exemplify an acceptable alternative in a state of emergency like that of the
wars of the Risorgimento where the entire “nation” was called to arms.
In the years immediately preceding and following, the message behind the portrayal of women in arms could have not been different. This repertoire of images
exemplifies and revitalizes the position of women within the patriarchal order, where
the examples given by women who participated in battle is used to close down the
possibility of fighting by associating them with unnatural behaviors or solitary exploits. For example, in 1840, Gaetano Donizetti premiered an opera buffa entitled “La
figlia del reggimento.” Maria, the protagonist, was raised in a regiment and dreamed
of becoming a soldier her entire life. After a series of vicissitudes, Maria marries a
soldier; her destiny fixed. I maintain that Maria’s narrative fate is the product of the
year in which her story was staged. At the opposite end, we find “La Bella Gigogin,”
a song composed in 1858, which narrates the story of a girl who fearlessly goes to war
in the name of Italy.
The Risorgimento reinterpreted the past to make sense of the present and to
build a future for Italy and its citizens. In “Attila,” Giuseppe Verdi’s opera on the
struggle against the Hun’s invasion, and in Felice Govean’s popularized historical
account of the Ancona siege of 1173, “Stamura d’Ancona,” heroines are pervaded by
an unmistakable patriotic sentiment, and excitement for the Risorgimento movement
is palpable. These texts provide a compelling realization of the trope of the woman
who roused patriotic sentiments by choosing to participate in battle.
In an essay on the articulation of the concepts of nation and nation-state in Italy,
historian Umberto Levra observes how the process of “making Italians” had started
well before Unification (1861). Levra encourages historians to look at the Risorgimento as a moment during which “the invention of a common tradition, of the aggregation of images in order to represent the identity of Italy as a nation” was forged.2
This tradition was also created by utilizing historical female figures often centrally
positioned in the narrative and having the function to rouse and encourage the men.
This trope was not uncommon and was used in a variety of ways, as will become
clear in the following pages. Once political Unification was accomplished, however,
the image of the women in arms changed in tone.
Nevertheless, one can register an interesting slippage between official iconography
and that found in more accessible cultural artifacts, such as opera, popular narratives,
and gazettes. Indeed, as Alberto Banti notes, it is mainly through these forms that
national-patriotic discourse was articulated:
[. . . ] il tema della nazione si sganciò del tutto dall’ambito dell’ingegneria costituzionale [. . . ] e si proiettò nello spazio della produzione poetica, narrativa,
melodrammatica pittorica. In tal modo il discorso nazional-patriottico poté
avere una presa e un successo di pubblico che, per la natura dei media, gli
sarebbe stato negato quando fosse stato affidato esclusivamente al classico trattato politico [. . . ].
[. . . ] the theme of the nation completely left the realm of constitutional en2
Qtd. in Adrian Lyttelton, “Creating a National Past: History, Myth and Image in the Risorgimento,”
Making and Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento, ed.
Albert Russell Ascoli and Krystyna Von Henneberg (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001) 31. The full
citation for Levra’s essay is in Umberto Levra, “Nazione e stato nazionale in Italia: Crisi di una
endiadi imperfetta,” Passato e presente 12.33 (1994): 13–30.
gineering [. . . ] and projected itself in the space of poetic, narrative, melodramatic, and visual production. In such ways, the national-patriotic discourse
could engage and be successful with the people something that, because of the
media’s own nature, would have been impossible if delivered exclusively through
traditional political treatises [. . . ].3
The “popular” dimension proves to be interesting because it demonstrates that
society needed to reckon with the presence of the woman in arm. Before analyzing
more in details the role women characters had in the fictionalized narrative of the
Nation, however, it is necessary to look at how the national-patriotic discourse was
articulated in nineteenth-century Italy.
Forging Traditions
When Ugo Foscolo exhorted his compatriots to look at Italy’s history and its past
glories in order to find motivation to fight for its freedom and independence, he
probably did not imagine a history celebrating many glorious women.4 A common
trope of the Risorgimento rhetoric grounded its rejection of past stereotypes in the
depiction of Italy and its inhabitants as effeminate and weak. It employed the figure
of the woman warrior, whose courage was an example to revitalize and stimulate
Italian men to engage in battle.5
In Italy, the concepts of “nazione” (nation) and “patria” (fatherland) began to
Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento: parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia unita 29.
Ugo Foscolo, “Dell’origine e dell’uffizio della letteratura. Orazione inaugurale degli studj
nell’Università di Pavia,” Prose scelte critiche e letterarie, ed. Raffaello Fornaciari (Firenze: G.
Barbèra, 1896) 89.
For more on this, see Joseph Luzzi, “Italy without Italians: Literary Origins of a Romantic Myth,”
MLN 117.1 (2002): 48–83, Patriarca, “Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism”, Moe, and Casillo.
circulate at the end of the eighteen-century. The “national character” was based
on “[la] tradizione storica, [le] tendenze morali, politiche e religiose e nei costumi
e usanze” [in its history, its moral, political and religious leanings, in its customs
and traditions].6 Because of its political fragmentation, in Italy the definition and
dissemination of this concept fell primarily into the hands of the cultural élite. Poets,
novelists, and librettists created a national and historical mythology and symbology of
incredible communicative force. In the texts of this “canon,” the terms “nazione” and
“patria” were imbued with deep emotional and sentimental qualities. The national
community was both a natural (or, as Giuseppe Mazzini argued, an entity planned by
God) and cultural fact, where ties among its people (Italy belonged to Italians even
when it wasn’t a concept yet) and the environment (the natural borders delineated
by the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea) were inextricable. It was because of these
two connotations that Italy was often symbolically represented as a mother, at times
depicted bare-breasted (to indicate her nurturing role especially towards her sons
who were thus represented as “brothers”), or as a woman in chains (to emphasize its
oppression). In order to free this woman in chains, the nation called everyone to arms.
The defensive trope utilized in many iconographic and narrative representations
resonates with particular strength in the national-patriotic canon produced in the
nineteenth century. In it, a common topos was that of protecting the purity of the
nation from the polluting agents represented by non-Italian blood. For example,
Francesco Hayez put at the center of his painting “I Vespri siciliani” (1844–46) the
moment of retaliation for the sexual offense perpetuated against a young Sicilian
Federico Chabod, L’idea di nazione (Roma: Laterza, 2004) 25.
woman by a French man. Similarly, Giacomo Leopardi, in an ode composed in Dante’s
memory, writes,
Beato te che il fato
A viver non dannò fra tanto orrore;
che non vedesti il braccio
l’itala moglie a barbaro soldato
Blessed are you, fate/ not to live through such horrors/ who have not seen
Italian women/ in the arms of barbarous soldiers7
In many of the historical novels published in the first half of the nineteenth century,
moreover, one of the narrative threads centers on the vindication of a woman’s honor.8
Italian men are responsible for protecting Italian women. Indeed, by extension, the
usurpation of the Italian woman is metaphorically associated with that of the Nation.
The sacrificial death of the violated woman signals the ultimate act performed in
the name of Italy. In “Ettore Fieramosca,” Massimo D’Azeglio’s historical novel
(1837), Ginevra, after being violated by Cesare Borgia, loses her mind and eventually
dies. Similarly, Matilda, in Giovanni Berchet’s poem of the same name (1824), has a
nightmare in which she is forced to marry an Austrian soldier. She pleads with her
father not to let it happen, because mixing blood with that of the enemy is simply
Aside from this representational category, it was the call for general mobilization
that opened up the space for women to participate in war. Women were left with
the impression that if their participation was necessary and even expected, the terms
Giacomo Leopardi, “Sopra il monumento di Dante che si preparava in Firenze,” Poesie e prose. Vol.
1 Poesie, ed. Mario Andrea Rigoni (Milano: Mondadori, 1987) vv. 103–106.
Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento: parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia unita 93–108.
Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento: parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia unita 86.
and the limitations of such involvement were often deliberately left ambiguous. In
other words, women may have also identified with a tamed and vulnerable enchained
woman that needed to be defended. As this chapter suggests, during the heyday
of the Risorgimento battles, the representation of women in arms changed in its
consideration of the role and influence that such a figure may have on society.
“Liberté,” “Marianne,” and “Mater Dolorosa”
The model of the “nation in arms” was introduced for the first time during the French
Revolution. It was based on the principle of universal conscription: every fit person
was called to the front, everyone else stayed behind to provide economic and emotional
support to the national cause. One of the most immediate effects of this transformation was a shift of allegiance: the people’s army fought for itself and for its “patrie,”
rather than for a distant king. If not explicitly, the “nation armée” was declined in the
masculine and became the first step towards the process of militarization of masculinity that charcterized much of nineteenth century European nations.10 Bearing arms
became a sign of virility and the necessary attribute of the (male) citizen-soldier.
Given the absence of any clear prohibition, French women demanded the right to
exercise the same mark of citizenship as men, namely the ability to bear arms. When,
in 1793, the French National Assembly decided to reject such a request made by the
members of the “Société des citoyennes républicaines revolutionnaires,” the men of
the Convention sent a clear message: women were naturally destined to engage in
See Mosse, and Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo europeo
dal XVIII secolo alla grande guerra 102.
private functions and to command over the domestic sphere, and were ordered not
to take part in military actions. Their direct involvement in the Republic, so the
argument went, would upset the State’s interests in keeping order in society.
A parallel transformation in iconography marked this prohibition. The revolutionary imagery oscillated between radicalism and conservatism, between “Liberté”, a
fiercely marching bare-breasted woman often holding a lance, and Marianne, a more
sober and restrained young woman.11 It is interesting to note how after the Assembly’s deliberation, images of the French Republic briefly included Hercules, the hero
who defeated Hyppolita, queen of the Amazons, and who was later enslaved by Onfale
queen of Lydia and forced to wear feminine clothes.12 The women who formed associations and requested the right to be part of the nation in arms on equal grounds
with men granted “Liberté” corporeality and made her real. Allowing “Liberté” to
leave the iconographic realm to enter reality endangered society’s order. But the
threat posed by such transformation was too high; the men of the nation in arms
acted swiftly to devoid women of any power and space to advance their claims to
equality. The taming of the French Republic, from feisty “Liberté” to reflective and
posed Marianne, signaled the success of the “image as an argument.” 13 The “master
See Agulhon and Lynn Hunt, Politcs, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 93–94.
As Lynn Hunt notes,
More important [. . . ] than the explicit exclusion of women from the public political sphere
was the subtle reorientation taking place with respect to the role of the family and of the
mother within the family. Before the end of Terrror, Robespierre and other leading Jacobins
took small yet significant steps to reinforce the virile image of the Revolution and downplay
any association of women with active political roles. The choice of Hercules to replace the
militant goddess of Liberty on the seal of the state was the most obvious of this decisions.
Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution 153.
Landes, Visualizing the Nation. Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth Century
fiction” of nineteenth century’s European nationalisms, the French Revolution, got
dangerously close to granting women equality on all fronts; their return from exile
would be incendiary.14
One of the most influential and archetypical images of Italy was forged by sculptor
Antonio Canova for the funeral monument built to honor the memory of poet and
patriot Vittorio Alfieri.15 In it, “Italy” abandons all political connotations that had
characterized its representations during the formidable years of Napoleonic rule,16 to
assume the traits of the weeping mother mourning her son, Alfieri.17
The representation of Italy as a mother, crying for the lives that have been taken
in her name contributed to the sedimentation of an image that, as I have discussed in
chapter one, colonized the Risorgimento’s imagery. The predominance of this depiction to the detriment of a Marianne/Liberty-type can be explained, on the one hand,
in the profound influence exercised by Catholic iconography, and on the other, in the
France 24–56.
Here I am referring to the role that the so-called “Pétroleuses” (female incendiaries) had during the
Paris Commune in 1871. These women were accused of setting fire to Paris. See Gay L. Gullickson,
Unruly Women of Paris. Images of the Commune. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).
Antonio Canova worked on his “Monumento funerario a Vittorio Alfieri” between 1806 and 1810. The
monument is kept in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, where some of the most famous Italians
are buried or remembered: among them, Leon Battista Alberti, Dante, Ugo Foscolo, Galileo Galilei,
Niccolò Machivelli, Michelangelo, and Gioacchino Rossini. See Fernando Mazzocca, “L’iconografia
della patria tra l’età delle riforme e l’Unità,” Immagini della nazione nell’Italia del Risorgimento
(Roma: Carocci, 2002) 89–111.
Many representations of “Italy” shared some common elements: a woman, either standing or sitting
on a throne, her head bound by an helmet made of towers, exemplifying the glorious era of the many
powerful cities of the peninsula. Goffredo Mameli, who wrote the Italian national anthem, describes
Italy with her head bound by Scipio’s helmet, an homage to Italy’s Roman past. Often, she held a
copy of the Constitution or was presented to France by Minerva, signaling military power.
Massimo d’Azeglio wrote of Alfieri “[..] fu quello che scoperse l’Italia, ed a lui si deve il primo respiro
della vita nazionale italiana. Per questo dunque, soprattutto, egli è degno d’ogni più alto onore. . . ”
[he was the one who discovered Italy, and to him we owe the first breath of Italian national life.
Especially for this, he is deserving of the highest honors. . . ]; qtd. in Mazzocca 100.
scarcity of a tradition of women ruling over any of the Italian states.18 In particular,
the insistence on proposing feminine models based on the pure perfection embodied by the maternal Virgin Mary may have crippled any secular effort at distancing
allegorical representations from religious influence.
These nurturing abilities were first and foremost exercised within the domestic
walls, where breastfeeding (in other words the sign of mothering) was transformed
into an early educational practice. In Melchiorre Gioia’s manual of taste “Il Galateo,”
breastfeeding was considered the first step to a patriotic and national education.19 In
“Storia di Lauretta,” a short story published in 1819 by Pietro Borsieri’s magazine
“Il Conciliatore,” the title character wished to raise her children to be strong and
resilient, “Concedami il cielo [. . . ] di dare a mio marito un figlio simile ai vostri. Lo
alimenterò del mio latte, l’eserciterò alla fatica, al caldo e al freddo come fate voi” [I
pray the Lord to give my husband a son like yours. I will feed him with my milk,
I will make him resilient to work, heat, and cold like you do].20 The woman who
willingly risked her life by participating in battles abjured both her roles as mother
and educator and, paradoxically, betrayed the Nation with her death.
In what follows, I analyze an array of texts that position themselves differently
Italian history offers numerous examples of very powerful women at the head of some of the Peninsula’s most important aristocratic families. Nevertheless, it lacks figure such as Queen Elizabeth I,
Queen Christina of Sweden, or regents such as Caterina or Maria de’ Medici.
Ilaria Porciani, “Disciplinamento nazionale e modelli domestici nel lungo Ottocento: Germania e
Italia a confronto,” Il Risorgimento, ed. Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg (Torino: Einaudi,
2007) 99.
Qtd. in Roberto Bizzocchi, “Una nuova morale per la donna e la famiglia,” Il Risorgimento, ed.
Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg (Torino: Einaudi, 2007) 90. A compelling interpretation of the
rhetorical and iconographical use of maternal breast-feeding within the context of the French Revolution is found in Mary Jacobus, “Incorruptible Milk: Breast-feeding and the French Revolution,”
Rebel Daugthers: Women and the French Revolution, ed. Sara E. Melzer and Leslie W. Rabine (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 54–75.
vis-à-vis the figure of the woman in arms. First, I look at the narrativized account
of Ancona’s heroine Stamura; then I examine the success of one of the most popular
songs of the Risorgimento, “La bella Gigogin;” I consider the contribution of opera
buffa to the construction of the image of the woman in arms as opposed to that of
melodrama; and, lastly, I look at the proceedings of a celebratory conference held by
Giulia Cantalamessa in which she commemorates some of the women garibaldine by
downplaying their strategic contribution (and death) in favor of a more normative
celebration of the woman-mother of the nation.
Re-Inscriptions: “La figlia del reggimento”
In this section, I investigate those representations of women in arms that were produced before the years pre-1846, in other words before the “state of emergency” characterized by the first two wars for independence. In doing so, I intend to demonstrate
how in narratives the image of the “rogue” woman was contained and her subversive
behavior ultimately subdued by marriage, an act that contributed to re-inscribing her
into the patriarchal order. For this particular trope, I turn to an opera buffa,21 “La
figlia del reggimento,” by Gaetano Donizetti which was composed in 1840.
Music has always accompanied armies: melodies were heard ahead of battalions,
songs were played to incite armies to move to battles, and the sound of a solitary
trumpet escorted fallen soldiers to their graves. At the beginning of the nineteenth
century, different observers took notice of the fact that all along the Italian penin21
“Opera buffa” or “comic opera” commonly indicates Italian comic opera, principally of the 18th
century, with recitative rather than spoken dialogue.
sula one could hear melodious voices singing. A common opinion circulating around
Europe’s intellectual elite acknowledged that “opera si confaceva al carattere ’italiano’, teatrale e sentimentale, perché ne interpretava gli slanci altrimenti mortificati
e repressi dalla mancanza d’una vita civile attiva” [opera fit the ’italian’ character,
theatrical and sentimental, because it understood its impulses otherwise mortified
and repressed by the lack of an active civil life.]22 Throughout the nineteenth-century
opera and theatre were probably the two most popular forms of entertainment.
Italian opera contributed to the articulation of concepts and themes such as that of
“people,” and “fatherland” through the works of composers such as Giocchino Rossini
and Giuseppe Verdi. During the nineteenth century, opera underwent important
transformations in its narrative structure. Thematically, the changes from late eighteenth century opera focused especially on the definition of “good” and “bad” characters/institutions: before the Risorgimento, the king invariably represented the “good
power” and he often assured the positive resolution of the storyline. In the nineteenth
century, on the contrary, the force that was qualified positively was that associated
with the “people,” seen as a pure and just assembly of citizens fighting against an
oppressive element; moreover, the happy ending disappeared and substituted with an
almost always tragic finale.
The most popular opera genre in the first half of the nineteenth century was “opera
buffa.” 23 Opera buffa offers some interesting sources for investigating the genealogy of
Simonetta Chiappini, “La voce della martire. Dagli "evirati cantori" all’eroina romantica,” Il Risorgimento, ed. Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg (Torino: Einaudi, 2007) 290.
See, for instance, works by Naomi André, Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman
in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), Francesco
Izzo, “Comedy between Two Revolutions: Opera Buffa and the Risorgimento 1831–1848,” The Jour-
the figure of the woman in arms because it privileged contemporary themes that often
incorporated nationalist allegories.24 If melodramas are “Risorgimento documents”,25
in the sense that they galvanized patriotic sentiments while reaching large audiences,
the same can be argued for opera buffa. Historical musicologist Francesco Izzo hypothesizes that the military talents of the warrior heroines in these latter productions
“could be viewed as an expression of pre-1848 revolutionary spirit, perhaps even the
Italian equivalent of Delacroix’s metaphor of “Liberté”.” 26
“La figlia del reggimento” was Gaetano Donizetti most successful opera buffa, premiering at the Opéra Comique in Paris on February 11, 1840.[Fig. 2.1] At that time,
the composer was living in Paris where he may have been exposed to the debate
waged by French women for equality. In the French version of the opera, the action
is set in Tyrol; when “La figlia” premiered at La Scala, Milan was the capital of the
Lombardo-Veneto province of the Hapsburg Empire whose territories comprised Tyrol. Censorship promptly requested Donizetti to change the setting, and the composer
moved the action to neutral Switzerland. The scene opens with a French battalion
withdrawing after a loss; Hortensius, the majordomo of the Marquise de Berkenfeld,
a local noblewoman, inquires with Sulpizio, the sergeant of the Twenty-First regiment of the French army, if it is safe to continue travels. During the conversation,
Hortensius learns that Sulpizio and his comrades are raising Maria, an orphan found
nal of Musicology 21.1 (2004): 127–174, e Mary Ann Smart, “Liberty On (and Off) the Barricades,”
Making and Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento, ed. Albert Russell Ascoli and Krystyna Von Henneberg (New York: Berg Publishers, 2001) 103–118.
Izzo 130.
Smart, “Liberty On (and Off) the Barricades” 109.
Izzo 159.
Figure 2.1: La Fille Du Regiment. Poster, New York.
in a field during wartime; the soldiers, fearing the little girl may die in the battle,
decided to baptize her on the battlefield. Maria becomes the regiment’s mascot and
vivandiére, but
Ma di soldato ho il cuore!
Al rombo della guerra ho visto la luce. . .
Il tamburo per me
è il suono più bello;
subito senza timore,
marcio verso la gloria. . .
Patria e vittoria
ecco il mio ritornello.
Of a soldier I have the heart/ I was born during war/ The sound of the drum/
is the most beautiful to me/ right away without fear/ I march to glory. . . /
Fatherland and victory/ This is my refrain.
In sign of gratitude and when time comes, Maria promises to marry one of the soldiers.
However, she falls in love with Tonio, a young Tyrolean soldier who saved her from a
near fatal incident. She inspires Tonio to switch sides and enlist with the French so
that they can marry. Tonio is captured by Maria’s battalion and accused of being a
spy. In the meanwhile, the Marquise of Berkenfeld declares that Maria is, indeed, her
long-lost niece and forces her to move to her manor; she is determined to break off the
love affair between Maria and Tonio and promises her to the Duke of Crackenthorp.
Maria’s regiment’s “fathers” rush to the castle to free Maria when the Marquise realizes
the depth of the sentiment between the two young lovers and authorizes the marriage.
Maria’s character seems to synthesize two opposing roles, the caretaker and the
independent woman. When the regiment promotes her to the role of vivandiére, she
clarifies how she could also march with the men and challenge the enemy.
Son persuasissima ch’alla battaglia
io pur cogli altri saprei marciar [. . . ]
Schioppi e sciabole,
bombe e mitraglia,
con voi pugnando,
saprei sfidar [. . . ]
Vuol sì che ognun somiglia al padre,
somigli al mio.[. . . ]
Saprei marciar . . . saprei pugnar!
And I am sure/ I would have gone into/ battle, too, with all the rest!/ Yes, in
all the din,/ bullets flying,/ I would have fought/ Among the best!/ They say
a child resembles/ the father,/ I take after mine!/ For I could march . . . I could
fight. . . 27
Maria’s belief in her own abilities is frustrated by the limitations imposed to her sex;
children imitate their fathers and in Maria’s case, this imitation is thwarted by her
gender. The pride Maria expresses in this piece shows her allegiance to the regiment
not only as its daughter but as its equal member. The specific case of Maria’s double
allegiance mirrors the rhetoric of the Risorgimento, in terms of the juxtaposition
between the nation as a family and the army as a brotherhood. The Risorgimento,
with its focus on the people as its primary force “conflated” notions such as public
and private, family and nation and, in so doing, opened up a space for women in
arms. In the case of Maria, though, her potential subversion is re-assimilated within
gender’s normative parameters and practices.
Indeed, when Donizetti adapted the piece for the Italian theaters, he tamed
Maria’s tomboyishness considerably.28 This shift signals the difficulty to accept alternative models of female militancy that may question the sincerity of women’s loyalty
to the domestic sphere, in particular during a time in which women’s participation in
battle was not perceived as a real possibility. When Maria is forced to move in with
Gaetano Donizetti, La fille du régiment, trans. Humphrey Procter-Gregg (New York: International
Music Company, 1972) 49–50.
For a detailed analysis of all these transformations, see Izzo 152–159.
the Marquise, she is unable to adapt to the aristocratic customs and way of life and,
to the older woman’s horror, she sings military chants.
Apparvi alla luce - sul campo guerrier:
È il suon del tamburo - mio solo piacer.
S’affretta alla gloria - intrepido il cor:
Savoja e vittoria - è il grido d’onor.
I was born on the battlefield:/ The sound of the drum is my only pleasure./
The brave heart hastens to glory:/ “Savoy and victory” is the cry of honor.29
Despite censorship threats, Donizetti transformed Maria’s chant into an endorsement of the House of Savoy as the military leader of the movement for national
independence. Maria’s enthusiasm for the battlefield is genuine, and so is her gallantry. Nevertheless, at the opera’s closing, Maria marries Tonio with the Marquise
and the battalion’s blessing and looks forward to a happy and married future. Maria,
baptized and raised in a battalion, daughter of a regiment, a girl who cannot but sing
military hymns, is domesticated through love and the promise of a family. In this
sense, Donizetti’s production mirrors the lack of urgency sensed in representations
produced in the years 1846–1861: because there was no real need for mobilization,
the woman in arms was introduced back into the familiar narrative of the married
woman ready to forgo her dreams and forget her desires for the love of a man.
Qtd. in Izzo 154.
Suspensions: 1846–1861
In this section, I discuss the representations of women in arms that appeared in the
critical years around the middle of the nineteenth century, from 1846 to 1861.30 I
believe that the production of this period is representative of a different sensibility
from that demonstrated in the years before 1846; in other words, I contend that
the need for the general mobilization of the “nation in arms” called for a temporary
suspension of the domestic recuperation in the representations of armed women. I
draw examples from a variety of sources: melodrama, popular songs, literature for
the people, gazettes, and paintings. In each artifact I found the depiction of a woman
whose armed deed is accepted and at times glorified.
The first example of such a trope comes from opera, in particular from composer
Giuseppe Verdi’s “Attila.” One of the most famous opera composer of the nineteenth
century, Verdi’s arias were heard throughout Italy and often became the soundtrack
of the Risorgimento movement. “Attila,” an opera in three acts with a libretto by
Temistocle Solera, premiered in Venice at La Fenice Theatre, on March 17th, 1846.31
The character of Odabella, a virgin warrior who incites her fellow citizens to expel the
I choose 1846 as the start of the most active military period of the Risorgimento because it was
the year of Giovanni Mastai Ferretti’s election as Pius IX, an event that galvanized the democratic
and independent movement with the false hope that the newly-elected Pope would support the
Risorgimento cause.
Despite premiering three months before Pius’s election, “Attila” ’s performances continued through
the year. The genesis of the work, though, begun when Verdi read the article by Madame De Staël
“De l’Alemagne,” in which there was a summary of the play by Zacharias Werner titled “Attila König
der Hunne.”
invader in “Attila” offers the exception to the narrative of female sacrifice common in
the first half of nineteenth-century Italian culture. Odabella offers a stronger model of
patriotic femininity who, like the biblical Judith, entices the enemy, Attila king of the
Huns, to marry her. Odabella is made captive along with a group of female fighters
after the fall of Aquileia. Attila is soon seduced by Odabella’s strength and presents
her with his sword. The woman accepts it and puts it on her belt; seemingly accepting
her destiny as the king’s concubine. After a series of intrigues, poison attempts, and
secret marriages, Odabella plans her revenge. On the day of her wedding to the Hun,
dressed as an Amazon, she escapes the camp to reunite with her beloved Foresto;
Attila reaches them and Foresto is about to kill him when Odabella steps between
the two and, reaching for the sword, stabs him to death.
When soprano Erminia Frezzolini gave voice to the Verdian warrior heroine Odabella in her performance at the Fenice Theatre in Venice, audiences cheered and
enthusiastically called for an encore of the famous solo:
Allor che i forti corrono,
Come leoni, al brando,
Stan le tue donne, o barbaro,
Sui carri, lagrimando.
Ma noi, donne italiche,
Cinte di ferro il seno,
Sul tumido terreno
Sempre vedrai pugnar.32
When you warriors rush forward/like lions to take up their swords,/ your
women, o barbarian,/ stay in their chariots, weeping./ But we, Italian women,/
our breasts girt in steel/ you will see fighting/ on the reeking battlefield.
Piero Mioli, ed., Verdi. Tutti i libretti d’opera (Roma: Newton Compton, 2009) 193. The episode is
quoted in Maria Novella Lucattelli Mecheri, La donna nel Risorgimento italiano. Conferenza tenuta
alle alunne della r. Scuola normale di Cremona, novembre 1898 (Cremona: Tip. e litografia Fezzi,
1899) 30–31.
The primary function of this piece is to encourage and incite men to action: if women
were ready to fight the invaders, so should men. In this sense, Odabella has something
to share with the allegory of “Liberté,” leading citizens to victory. This tension transforms her character into something more interesting and rather distant from popular
allegories. The physicality expressed by Odabella, both in her action and vocal range,
exemplifies the tension between “immobile symbols of the Nation” 33 and their very
corporeal connotations. Eugene Delacroix’s version of “Liberté” (“Liberté guidant le
peuple,” 1831) has been accused of excessive physicality and, as musicologist Mary
Ann Smart argues, her corporeal features became the object of criticism.34 Similarly,
real women in arms, those whose exploits could not be recuperated within traditional
narratives of sacrifice and who continued to defy norms, rules, and expectations, were
depicted often as physically abnormal, excessively masculine, sometimes monstrous,
even mad.35 This tendency would prevail in the years following the conclusion of
the struggle for Unification, when representations of women in arms and fictionalized
historical accounts of those who actually fought shared the same destiny of being
depicted as unnaturally masculinized examples not to follow.
Mary Ann Smart, “"Proud, Indomitable, Irascible": Allegories of Nation in Attila and Les Vêpres siciliennes,” Verdi’s Middle Period, 1849–1859. Sources Studies, Analysis, and Performance Practice,
ed. Martin Chusid (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997) 252.
Marina Warner describes the dissonant details that “Liberté” possesses that cast her apart from
Classical prototypes inspired by the Greek goddess Aphrodite. “Liberté’s” “[. . . ] bare foot is large,
the ankle is thick, the toes grip the rubble barricades over which [she] leaps; her arms are muscly,
her big fists grip the flag and the gun, she has a smudge of hair in her armpit.”Warner, Monuments
and Maidens. The Allegory of Female Form 271.
Other Verdian heroines who joined Odabella in courage and fearlessness were Abigaille in “Nabucco,”
Giovanna d’Arco, and Lady Macbeth who found their narrative place in episodes of the classical
and medieval past. SeeSmart, “"Proud, Indomitable, Irascible": Allegories of Nation in Attila and
Les Vêpres siciliennes” 232–239.
I draw the second example from the popular literature and more precisely from the
story of “Stamura d’Ancona” published in 1848. I contend that the fictionalized account of the deeds of the woman in arms is tempered in its subversive charge because
it needed to offer an example of courage and bravery that could resonate with audiences of 1848. Stamura (o Stamira) of Ancona’s life and deeds were popularized
in a short book by Felice Govean published by the Turinese printer Baricco & Arnaldi.[Fig. 2.2] The author, Felice Govean, was a Piedmontese writer and journalist
whose principal preoccupation was that of “insegnare al minuto popolo la storia dei
gloriosi nostri fatti nazionali, dei nostri eroi, dei nostri uomini celebri” [teach people
the history of our glorious national past, heroes, and famous men].36 In 1848, the
book reached its fourth edition and was part of a series titled “Libri per il popolo,”
whose main objective was to build a common past through the recuperation of heroic
episodes in an effort to educate popular classes to “Italianess.” Stamura heroically
fought during the siege of Ancona in 1173, when the city’s safety was jeopardized by
the arrival of the German troops sent by Emperor Frederick “Barbarossa.” 37
The journalistic and literary production of Felice Govean has not been studied adequately. In 1848,
Govean obtained permission from the Piedmontese Ministry of Internal Affairs to publish the first
number of a periodical of democratic inclination named “La Gazzetta del Popolo.” It was the first
journal of its kind to be addressed to the bourgeoise, factory workers, and craftsmen audience; it
soon became the first newspaper for number of subscriptions. With the Turinese printing house
Baricco & Arnoldi, Govean also published “La battaglia di Legnano,” “Il giuramento di Pontida,”
“Balilla,” and “Ferruccio: cenni storici” all with the clear pedagogical intent to mold a historical
national consciousness.
The siege of Ancona was an episode of the larger struggle for the control of Italy, which saw Pope
Alexander III, and his ally the Byzantine empire, facing the Holy Roman Empire guided by Frederick.
In 1171, Frederick’s chancellor, archbishop Christian of Mainz, headed an army to conquer Italian
cities which supported Alexander, including the city of Ancona, which had previously allied itself
with the Byzantine empire. The Germans were assisted by the Venetians, who had been long rivals
with Ancona over the domination of Adriatic. The siege started in March of 1173 and ended in
Figure 2.2: Stamura D’Ancona. Book cover. Torino: Baricco & Arnaldi, 1848.
“Stamura” is the story of a resourceful and valiant local heroine who is initially
moved to action because the city is being starved by the siege imposed by the Germans
to receive food from outside the city’s wall. A woman heading the protest on behalf
of a starved citizenry is a familiar trope within European history, and finds evidence
in the many real episodes concerning peasant and urban mothers who became active
agents in insurrections. The participation of women to bread riots is not only explainable by resorting to the natural tendency of women to be nurturers and bread-seekers
for their families. Arlette Farge, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Michelle Perrot among
others have also noted that women in the Early Modern and Renaissance periods did
not fear involvement in protests because of their less defined legal status and because
cultures allowed for brief suspensions of “normalcy” without questioning the overall
societal order.38
“Stamura”opens with an epigraph quoting Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso,”
where the poet condemns the dismissive attitude of writers vis-à-vis women’s “audaci
Le donne antique hanno mirabili cose
Fatto nell’arme e ne le sacre Muse;
E di lor opre belle e gloriose
Gran lume in tutto il mondo si diffuse.
Arpalice e Camilla son famose,
Perchè in battaglia erano esperte e use [. . . ]
Le donne son venute in eccellenza
Di ciascuna arte, ove hanno posto cura;
E qualunque all’istoria abbia avvertenza,
October of the same year when armies under William of Marchisella from Ferrara and Aldruda
Frangipane, countess of Bertinoro arrived to help Ancona forcing Christian of Mainz to retreat.
Farge 491 and Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women on Top,” Society and Culture in Early Modern France
(Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1975) 124–150.
Ne sente ancor la fama non oscura.
Se ’l mond n’è gran tempo stato senza,
Non però sempre il mal influsso dura;
E forse ascosi han lor debiti onori
L’invidia o in non sapere degli scrittori.39
In feats of arms, as in the cultivation of the Muses,/ the women of old achieved
distinction,/ and their splendid, glorious deeds/ irradiated the whole earth./
Harpalice and Camilla achieved fame/for their practiced skill in battle [. . . ]/
Women have proved their excellence/ in every art in which they have striven;/ in
their chosen fields their renown/ is clearly apparent to anyone/ who studies the
history books./ If the world has long remained unaware of their achievements,/
this sad state of affairs is only transitory;/ perhaps Envy concealed the honors
due to them,/ or perhaps the ignorance of historians.40
Ariosto’s verses provide the expedient to narrate Stamura’s feat; through her
story, Govean accomplishes two things. One one hand, he distances himself from
those “envious” and “ignorant” writers of the past who preferred to conceal women’s
courageous deeds instead of celebrating them for their skills and expertise. On the
other, he connects Stamura’s exploits with those of Aenedian’s heroines Camilla and
Arpalice, thus establishing a direct connection with the warrior women of classical
antiquity. “Stamura” encapsulates the Risorgimento educational project by linking
the foundation of Rome as narrated by Virgil with the flourishing humanism of the
Renaissance and contemporary efforts towards unification.41 Govean’s choice to convey this genealogy of the national history through a woman in arms emphasizes the
significance of such a heroic and courageous figure, casting it as an example for the
men and women of the Risorgimento.42
Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, ed. Marcello Turchi (Milano: Garzanti, 2000) c. XX, 1–3.
Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans. Guido Waldman (New York: Oxford University Press,
USA, 1998).
On this, see Lyttelton and Patriarca, “Indolence and Regeneration: Tropes and Tensions of Risorgimento Patriotism”.
For more on this, see Hobsbawm’s notion of “cohesive narrative” in E. J. Hobsbawm and T. O.
The value of “Stamura” by Govean as a pedagogical piece to be read at Risorgimento’s audiences is exemplified by the recurrent use of patriotic nouns and adjectives
(i.e. the fatherland, or Italians opposed to Germans) to establish a clear genealogical
ancestry between Stamura, the Anconetani, and nineteenth-century Italian men and
women. If the connection between 1173 Ancona and its heroine and 1848 Italy was
not clear enough, Govean chose to invoke Stamura to appeal explicitly to the Italian
O Stamura, fortissima fra le donne italiane, tu non dubitasti per la salute della
patria esporre a nemiche saette il tuo petto di madre; o donna d’Ancona, come
dovevi essere bella cinte le trecce brune con l’elmo d’acciaio! — Figlie italiane,
la dote d’anima robusta sia non interrotta eredità fra di voi, perché a non poche
delle avole vostre la gloria depose sul capo come a Stamura, la sudata corona
delle battaglie.43
Oh Stamura, strongest among the Italian women, you never doubted that for
the fatherland’s health you would expose your motherly breast; oh woman from
Ancona, you must have been so beautiful with your steel helmet surrounding
your brunette braids! – Daughters of Italy, the gift of a robust soul should not
be lost on you, because many of your ancestors. like Stamura, received the
crown of battle from Glory.
Govean is not prohibiting women from combat, on the contrary, Italian women’s
resilient motherly body is used as a mark of courage and as a reason for fighting. The
trope of a strong maternal body will be addressed in the last section of this chapter,
when author Cantalamessa used it in opposition to that of the woman in arm.
While Ancona was resisting from the inside, outside of the city walls, another
legendary woman enters Govean’s narrative to help, joining Stamura in defeating
once and for all the German troops. Contessa Aldruda di Bertinoro rounded up her
Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Felice Govean, Stamura d’Ancona. Cenni storici , Libri per il popolo (Torino: Baricco & Arnaldi,
1848) 11.
vassals in an army and moved to Ancona’s aid alongside the troops of Guglielmo di
Marchesella, a Ferrara prince and member of the Lega Lombarda,
Marchesella e la stessa Aldruda, fatta donna animoso capitano, gli spinsero
contro i cavalli, minacciandolo colle spade nude ed animando i loro; gli Anconetani, visto dalle mura quello inaspettato soccorso, presero essi pure le armi. [. . . ]
Sull’albeggiare Aldruda e Marchesella entrati in Ancona, abbondantemente la
città soccorsero d’ogni cosa.44
Marchesella and Aldruda herself, transformed into courageous female captain,
pushed against those horses, brandishing swords and inciting their allies; the
Anconetani, realizing that help had unexpectedly arrived, took up arms. [. . . ]
At sunrise, Aldruda and Marchesella entered Ancona, assisting the city with
Aldruda is equally strong and valiant; she joins Stamura in saving Ancona, providing crucial help. If Govean’s short piece on a victorious episode of “Italian” resistance
to the Germans educated the people in the history of its country by using the familiar
trope of a people rising, by establishing some key moments (Lega Lombarda), and by
instilling suspicion for a too worldly and lustful Church (Cristiano, the Archibishop
of Mainz, died “d’orrido malore in terra di Toscana, cessando, come dice lo storico, di
usare libidine quando morte gli troncò la vita” [of a horrible death in Tuscany, having
ceased to use lust, as the historian reports, when death ended his life]),45 it did so by
employing acts of courage by women showing no surprise at the idea that they could
take up arms or commanding their own battalion. On the contrary, these women
effectively guided Ancona’s insurgence and with their example roused a defeated and
lethargic population to victory.
The story of Stamura was recovered from oblivion during the nineteenth century
Govean 19.
Govean 19.
by various authors both in literature and the visual arts. Painter Francesco Podesti
realized two canvases having as their object the siege of Ancona and Stamura’s heroic
deeds. I focus now on the one painted first, because it offers evidence of the acceptance
registered vis-á-vis women in arms during some of the most important years of the
Risorgimento. I will return to the second painting in the last section of this chapter,
where I talk about the representations of women in arms post-1861. Podesti’s postUnification rendition of “Stamura” is particularly interesting because of the stark
difference in the painter depiction of the heroine’s deed.
In “Il giuramento degli Anconetani” (1856) Podesti portrays Stamura as one among
a crowd of citizens, dressed simply, her left hand on a sword while the right hand
points to the sky. [Fig. 2.3] Compositionally, she is a prima inter pares, taking part
in one of the most rhetorically charged moments of the national patriotic narrative.
Stamura is part of the central group of soldiers and men solemnly promising the old
and blind senator, Bonifacio Faziolo to defend Ancona from the impending invasion.46
The oath represents a very important gesture in the construction of the Risorgimento
canon.47 Some of the most representative texts of the canon describe the solemnity of
the pledge uniting the patriots in their fight for redeeming a weakened nation.48 This
foundational moment suggests the voluntaristic choice made by the Italian men who
come together to take an oath in the name of Italy; indeed, according to Federico
Podesti, in accepting the commission to paint this subject, described it the oath with these words
“[. . . ] i cittadini giurano, o di salvare la patria o di morire” [the citizens swear either to save or die
for the fatherland]; qtd. in Michele Polverari, “Il giuramento degli Anconetani,” Francesco Podesti,
ed. Michele Polverari (Electa, 1996) 200.
Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento: parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell’Italia unita 56–60.
See, for instance, Alessandro Manzoni’s “Marzo 1821,” Giovanni Berchet’s “Fantasie,” and Salvatore
Cammarano’s libretto for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La battaglia di Legnano.”
Francesco Podesti, Il Giuramento degli Anconitani, olio su tela 385x510 cm, Ancona, Civica Residenza, Sala Consiliare
Figure 2.3: Il giuramento degli Anconetani. 1856.
Chabod, that of the oath was one of the distinguishing features of the Italian nationalist movement.49 Stamura participates in such moment, underscoring her contribution
and by extension legitimating the presence of women in the battles for independence,
and becoming active participants in the nation in arms.50
The circulation of ideas and the emergence of a public sphere not only communicating through the printing press but also through opera, paintings, caricatures, performances, and songs also contributed to the circulation of stories about women in
battle and women requesting political rights. The call to arms articulated by Govean
through Stamura’s deeds and voice was not confined to popular literature. When
the revolutionary wind of 1848 was blowing through the Italian peninsula , women in
Venice and Naples felt compelled to express their opinion. I have already discussed
the plight suffered by Venetian women in chapter one. I would like to turn to two
editorial pieces that appeared in the short-lived Neapolitan gazette “Un comitato di
donne.” 51
In their introductory piece, the editors write of their patriotism as the product
of an education,“educazione ad amare la patria prima di tutto” [education to love
the country before anything else’]; and incite the men to become as passionate for
Chabod 68.
Stamura’s position in Podesti’s painting differs strikingly from the compositional elements in JacquesLouis David’s “The Oath of the Horatii” (1785) in which the separation between a masculine and
martial public sphere and a feminine and somber private one is sharply demarcated.
“Un comitato” commenced in March 1848 and ceased publications in April of the same year. The
entire collection is available for consultation at the Biblioteca di Storia Moderna e Contemporanea,
Rome, Italy.
the independence cause as they are.52 A few pages later, Adelaide Ruggiero, the
editor in chief, pens a call to arms, “All’armi” that merits attention. In the first
paragraph, Ruggiero briefly summarizes the awakening of the European revolutionary
movements; she quotes Pope Pius IX, at the time still a beacon of hope for the Italian
patriots, and refers to the situation in England, Spain, and Belgium. The fervor is
palpable across the continent. Nevertheless, she expresses deep concern for the lack
of initiative shown by her male compatriots:
E voi lenti e neghittosi non correte ancora alle armi? Non vediamo ancora un
Esercito, una Guardia Nazionale che si organizza che si agguerrisca? Noi contrastiamo per la foggia della divisa, pel colore dell’abito, ci perdiamo in parole,
dormiamo sull’orlo del precipizio! [. . . ] La libertà si consolida coi petti e colle
baionette e, non colle pretensioni e colle bravate! Ah! perchè noi siamo donne?
Perchè non ci è dato imbrandire il ferro difenditore della patria? Perchè almeno
non possiamo starvi al fianco, incuorarvi, sospingervi?.. Ma sappiatelo, i nostri
sguardi da ora innanzi non saranno rivolti che a coloro i quali più prontamente
stringeranno le armi alla difesa de’ nostri diritti contro l’aggressione straniera!
Why wouldn’t you slow and lazy people run to arms? Are we still unable to
see an Army, a National Guard organizing itself and getting ready to fight? We
discuss the uniform’s style or its color, we get lost with words, we sleep on the
brink of a precipice! [. . . ] Freedom is won with courage and with bayonets,
and not with ostentation and bravado! Ah! Why are we women? Why aren’t
we allowed to brandish the sword that defends the fatherland? Why can’t we
at least be by you, encourage you, push you . . . Let it be known that our gaze
will follow those who will readily pick up arms to defend our rights against the
foreign aggression!
The piece uses the common trope of expressing dismay at the limitations imposed
by the female sex, especially in the prohibition to bear arms. Resigned to her role,
Ruggiero asks to be present, if not fighting, by encouraging the patriots who are
actively engaged in war. An interesting passage follows this plea: women will be
Between 1847 and 1849 more than 177 between newspapers, gazettes, and journals were published in
Italy, about sixty percent of the total number until 1859. See Gilles Pécout, Il lungo Risorgimento.
La nascita dell’Italia contemporanea (1770–1922) (Mondadori Bruno, 1999) 147.
romantically involved only with those men who participate in the battle to unify Italy
(“Let it be known that our gaze will follow those who will readily pick up arms to
defend our rights against the foreign aggression!”). This sexual blackmailing should
infuse motivation in men otherwise described as “slow and lazy.” Ruggiero praises
those men who are brave enough to “embrace arms in defense of our rights against
the foreign occupation.” True patriots protect their women from the enemy; women
who protect themselves, and others, with weapons present a dissonant image that
ultimately endangers the very essence of patriarchal order.
La Bella Gigogin
I draw the last example from a popular song, composed two years before the Expedition of the Thousands. Here, too, the reader gets the sense that the woman who joins
the army’s ranks to fight for her own country during a time where everybody should
participate is not rejected or demonized, rather she becomes exemplary of a moment
of national emergency. The relevance that actions performed by armed women had
in popular culture is particularly forceful when examining the words of one of the
most famous Risorgimento songs. La bella Gigogin, a polka-song wrote by Milanese
composer Paolo Giorza, was first performed on New Year’s Eve in 1858, at the Teatro
Carcano in Milan. The chorus, “Dàghela avanti un passo/delizia del mio cor” was
interpreted by the theatre audience as a veiled invitation to Piedmont to ally with
Lombardy in its fight against the Austrians.53 The song became the rallying cry for
Achille Schinelli, L’anima musicale della patria: il Risorgimento italiano nella sua espressione musicale, 1796–1922 , vol. 2 (Milano: Ricordi, 1928–1929) 41.
the Milanese people and was used to welcome Napoleon III and Vittorio Emanuele II
in Milan in 1859:
La bella Gigogin
Rataplan! Tamburo io sento
che mi chiama alla bandiera.
Oh che gioia, oh che contento,
io vado a guerreggiar.
Rataplan! Io non ho paura
delle bombe e dei cannoni:
io vado alla ventura,
sarà poi quel che sarà.
Oh, la bella Gigogin,
col tromilerillellera
la va spasso col so’ spincin
col tromilerillellerà!
Di quindici anni facevo all’amore. . .
Dàghela avanti un passo,
delizia del mio core!
A sedici anni ho preso marito. . .
Dàghela avanti un passo,
delizia del mio core!
A diciassette mi sono spartita. . .
Dàghela avanti un passo,
delizia del mio core!
Oh beautiful Gigogin/ Rataplan! I hear drums/ that call me to the flag/ Oh
what joy, how happy/ I am to go to war/ Rataplan, I am not afraid/ of bombs
and cannons:/ i follow my fortune,/ whatever will be, will be./ Oh, the beautiful
Gigogin,/ with tromilerillellera/ she walks around with her boyfriend/ with
tromilerillellera!/ At fifteen, I was making love. . . / Go forward one step,/ delight
of my heart!/ At sixteen, I got an husband. . . / Go forward one step,/ delight of
my heart!/ At seventeen, I split. . . / Go forward one step,/ delight of my heart!
“Gigogin” participates in the battle with patriotic fervor and joy, fearless and
courageous, celebrating the young woman’s decision to go and fight. The character in
“Gigogin,” once heard the drum’s call, understood it as a message directed to her as
well, transforming such battle cry in a general call to mobilization not only directed
to men. “Gigogin” goes to battle with her young lover: she stands with him and not
by him; when she turned seventeen, her heart shared both love for the country and
love for her now husband.
Indeed, according to the story on which the song “La Bella Gigogin” is based, a
young woman called Teresina may have actually fought on the Milanese barricades
during the 1848 uprising, later to become a vivandiera for the battalion guided by
Luciano Manara during the Repubblica Romana of 1849. After the defeats suffered
at the conclusion of the First War for Independence, “La Bella Gigogin” kept inciting
people by singing “daghela avanti un passo.” An unknown recorder provided the lyrics
for Giorza’s musical adaptation.54
In his memoirs, Giovanni Visconti-Venosta writes of the song accompanying the
volunteer troops throughout the Second War of Independence and during the Thousand expedition,55
Il 1859 s’apriva con una bella giornata, serena come le nostre speranze; e principiava anche lietamente. Alcune bande musicali andate sulle prime ore del
mattino a far omaggio pel capo d’anno, come d’uso, alle autorità, nel far ritorno, percorrendo parecchie vie della città, salutavano l’anno nuovo con allegre
sonate. Tra queste, ogni tanto ripetevano, tra gli applausi della folla che le
seguiva, una canzone popolare, venuta fuori da poco, chiamata la Bella Gigogin. La musica della canzone era facile e vivace, le parole erano scipite e
quasi senza senso, ma tra esse c’era un ritornello che diceva: dagliela avanti
un passo, delizia del mio cor ; parole a cui il pubblico dava un significato pa54
It was rather common to celebrate episodes of courage and individual initiative into popular texts;
we will see how Luigia Battistotti Sassi, arguably the most famous of the Milanese women fighting
on the barricades in 1848, became the protagonist of a theatrical play, and so did Countess Maria
della Torre, whose character appears in the drama “Garibaldi” by Giuseppe Tumiati.
Stefano Pivato, Bella Ciao. Canto e politica nella storia d’Italia (Roma: Editori Laterza, 2005) 39.
triottico sottinteso, accogliendole con entusiasmo. La Bella Gigogin percorse
quella mattina Milano trionfalmente, tra infiniti applausi, accolta come un augurio, e rinnovando in tutti, col buon umore, le speranze. Quella canzone fu per
qualche tempo popolarissima; talchè, quando Napoleone entrò in Milano dopo
la battaglia di Magenta, le musiche militari francesi sonavano la Bella Gigogin,
che chiamavano la milanaise.56
The year 1859 opened with a beautiful day, serene like our hopes; and it began
happily. Early in the morning, as customary on the first of the year, some
musical bands went to pay homage to the authorities and on their way back,
as they were walking through the city’s streets, greeted the new year with
happy songs. Among the songs, they would repeat, acclaimed by the crowd, a
popular and new ballad called Bella Gigogin. The song’s music was easy and
lively, the words silly and almost meaningless, but there was the refrain saying
dagliela avanti un passo, delizia del mio cor ; words that the crowd interpreted
patriotically, greeting them with enthusiasm. That morning, Bella Gigogin
travelled Milan’s streets in triumph, cheered, greeted as a good auspice, while
rejuvenating everybody with good humor and hopes. The song was very popular
for a while; to the point that when Napoleon entered Milan after the battle of
Magenta, the French military band sung Bella Gigogin, which they baptize the
Similarly, Giuseppe Bandi remembers that the Thousands would find inspiration
in the song’s chorus:
I volontari, oppressi da quel caldo africano, stavan benissimo accoccolati all’ombra
[. . . ] Garibaldi che era fermo a qualche distanza in un campo, non s’era accorto
che il suo ordine di andare innanzi trovava oppositori inesorabili [. . . ] gridò con
voce sonora: - Avanti, ragazzi, non c’è tempo da perdere. - A queste parole,
tutti i Mille saltarono su come un uomo solo e ricomposero le file, e ripigliarono
la faticosa marcia, e il lieto ritornello: “Daghela avanti un passo Delizia del mio
cuore.” 57
The volunteers, caught in the scorching heat, were comfortable in the shade
[. . . ] Garibaldi, who was resting away in a field, did not notice that his order to
go on was met with resistance [. . . ] yelled: - Come on, boys, there is not time
to waste. - At these words, all the Thousands jumped up simultaneously like
one man and recomposed the ranks, commencing the hard march again, and
the happy refrain: “Daghela avanti un passo Delizia del mio cuore.”
Giovanni Visconti Venosta, Ricordi di gioventù: cose vedute o sapute, 1847–1860 (Milano: L.F.
Cogliati, 1904) 464.
Giuseppe Bandi, I Mille da Genova a Capua (Firenze: Adriano Salani Editore, 1903) 119.
In conclusion, all these examples demonstrated how during the Risorgimento’s
most heated years of battle for national unification, representations of women in arms
followed a pattern according to which their choices got justified by the exceptionality
of the circumstances. The fact that these fictionalized representations of women who
picked up arms celebrated their courage and assertiveness rather than ostracizing
their subeversivness and breaking of norms speaks to society’s acceptance of genderbending under exceptional circumstances. As we will see in the following section, once
such “state of emergency” ceased to be critical these representations closed down any
possibility of positive subversion in the sense that they all focused on the abnormal
and unnatural while at the same time celebrating the opposite model, that of the
nurturing and maternal body.
Retaliations: Post-Unification
These last sets of examples show a return to the past, in the sense that they all
engaged with representations of women in arms by way of showing their outrageous,
unruly, rogue side. Let’s go back for a moment to Stamura. We have seen how in
1856 Francesco Podesti portrayed Stamura among a group of men, all taking part in
a solemn oath to defend and protect their city. In painting completed in 1877 and
titled “Stamura che incendia le macchine d’assedio di Ancona,” the heroine becomes
the only subject of the painting.[Fig. 2.4] Her imposing figure almost takes on the
entire size of the canvas, and Podesti chose to immortalize her in the act of setting
fire to the Germans’s war machineries. She is holding a dagger and wearing female
Figure 2.4: Stamura che incendia le macchine d’assedio di Ancona. 1877.
armor; her expression determined and fearless. Stamura is a lonely heroine now, the
connection with her community gone. The framing of the painting freezes the woman
in the act that would render her famous, her expression suggests a solitary endeavor.
Podesti’s portrayal of Stamura seems indebted to the historical sources that narrate this episode. Stamura’s name appeared for the first time in “Liber de Obsidione
Ancone” by Boncompagno da Signa, a story of the city of Ancona written between
1198 and 1200. This is how Boncompagno narrates the episode:
[. . . ] In quel momento si fece avanti una vedova di nome Stamira, che afferrò
con tutte e due le mani una scure e spaccò senza indugi la botticella; poi accese
una fiaccola e di corsa, mentre tutti stavano a guardare, la tenne tra i legni
delle costruzioni finché il fuoco sprigionò tutte le sue forze. E così le macchine
e le petrerie furono bruciate grazie all’audacia di quell’ eroina, che non ebbe
nessuna paura né della crudeltà della battaglia né del furore dei combattenti.58
[. . . ] In that moment, a widow name Stamira came forward and with both
hands seized an axe and promptly broke the small barrel; then she lit a torch
and running, while everybody was staring at her, kept it in between the wood
until it caught fire. So the machines and the mortars were burnt because of
that heroine’s audacity, who did not fear neither the battle’s cruelty nor the
fighters’s fury.
When Govean chooses to narrate the episode, he chose to give Stamura full agency
through the use of direct speech:
[. . . ] prende un tizzo acceso nella sinistra, nella destra ruota una scure, e colle
trecce che gli scappavano fuori dall’elmo arriva nel campo e grida: - “O uomini, vi avranno dunque ad insegnare le donne come per la patria si debba
morire? - E che, v’arrestano dall’inciendiare quelle macchine, che saranno la
rovina d’Ancona nostra, pochi sassi lanciati ed alcune saette? Guerrieri, guerrieri, seguite me che son donna, guerrieri, guerrieri, seguite Stamura.” E detto
si slancia agitando il tizzo infiammato, fra mezzo ad un inferno di balestrati
proiettili, s’avvicina alla torre, a difesa della sua testa fa mulinello della scure, il
rizzo appicca ai travami, e tanto e tanto quivi lo tiene, che la fiamma s’apprende,
si dilata ed investe la macchina fatale. Allora sollevando il suo bel volto colorato in rosso da quel fuoco resinoso, con accento di schernevole riso, grida agli
Qtd. in Chiara Censi, Stamira. L’eroina di Ancona tra storia e leggenda (Ancona: Edizioni Laboratorio Culturale di Ancona, 2004).
istupiditi tedeschi rinchiusi: “Io non sono che una donna italiana! eppure, valgo
per voi!” 59
[. . . ] taking a torch with her left hand, and with brandishing an ax with the
right, her braids coming out of her helmets, [Stamura] arrives at the camp and
yells: - “Men, should the women teach you how to die for the country? And
what is stopping you from setting fire to those machines, which will destroy our
Ancona, few rocks and some bows? Warriors, warriors, follow me, a woman,
warriors, warriors, follow Stamura.” With that said, brandishing the flaming
torch, she throws herself in the midst of a hellish rain of bullets, reaches the
tower, and to protect her head whirls around the ax, sets fire to the beams
until they catch fire and assails the fatal machine. At that point raising her
beautiful face red-colored by the resinous fire, with a mocking laugh, yells at
the astounded Germans: “I am just an Italian woman! Yet I am your equal!”
If Stamura is not only the driving force behind Ancona’s resurgence, she becomes
its public voice. Govean’s description on these frantic phases of the siege casts Stamura as the true warrior; she is resourceful, cold-blooded, and fearless. Her words of
incitement do not spare men’s reluctance; how is it possible, she asks, to repel the
enemy with only “a few rocks and some arrows?” There is a moment, in this passage,
when Stamura is portrayed as the possessed woman who is inebriated by the violence
and death she is causing. Women are traditionally the object, not the perpetrators of
violence; they are against violence, not performers of it. Despite the brief hint at the
violence that Stamura may have inflicted to the Germans, such connotation does not
emerge as the predominant one in the Risorgimento. In 1877, when Italy was finally
a reality, Stamura the warrior could not share an oath on equal grounds with men,
and her gallantry needed to be cast as an unnatural and solitary act.
Govean 10.
Once Rome was conquered and the Italian Kingdom unified (1870), a different effort
occupied patriots, politicians, and intellectuals. It was now necessary to create a
national history with which every Italian could identify. One of the most important
ways for celebrating the Italian character, its past and present glories, was through
the compilation of biographical catalogues, where iconic representations of men and
women were described “non tanto come soggetti agenti in un contesto narrativo [. . . ]
ma come esemplari atemporali, immagini didascaliche di virtù” [not as agents in a
narrative context but rather as timeless images of virtue].60
These catalogues, nineteenth century versions of a tradition commencing with
Plutarch61 and Boccaccio,62 were often penned by women.63
Natalie Zemon Davis observed that these catalogues may be considered the first
form of women’s history, although, as Gianna Pomata remarked, their intent was
more pedagogical than historical.64 Nevertheless, “[. . . ] the lives of illustrious women
Qtd. in Rosanna De Longis, “Maternità illustri: dalle madri illuministe ai cataloghi ottocenteschi,”
Storia della maternità, ed. Marina D’Amelia (Roma: Laterza, 1997) 185.
In his “Mulierum Virtutes,” Plutarch sought to correct what he believed was a serious shortcoming of
Thucydides’s model, the absence of famous women from history. “Mulierum” focused on remembering
and celebrating feminine virtues, equalling them to men’s; indeed, Plutarch drew his examples from
women who fought in the battlefield and showed the most masculine of virtues: courage. For more,
see Gianna Pomata, “History, Particular and Universal: On Reading Some Recent Women’s History
Textbooks,” Feminist Studies 19.1 (1993): 7–50.
Giovanni Boccaccio wrote one of the first catalogue of famous women, “De mulieribus claris” between
the years 1361 and 1362.
In a debate organized on the emergence of the historical profession among women, Ilaria Porciani
emphasized how precisely during the Risorgimento women began writing historical biographical
memoirs and how they differed from previous epochs because of their political and nationalist vigor.
Gianna Pomata, on the other hand, pointed out how many of these works were based on direct
participation rather than on scholarly reflection and analysis, see Ilaria Porciani, “Les historiennes
et le Risorgimento,” Gender and the Production of History, ed. Luisa Passerini and Polymeris Voglis
(Badia Fiesolana (Firenze): European University Institute, 1999) 35.
Davis, “"Women’s History" in Transition: The European Case” 83–84 and Pomata. On the biography
would not only be useful in understanding what was seen as memorable in the lives of
women of the past but would also help us in reconstructing the ways in which female
identity was represented.” 65 The pedagogical message implicit in these repertories had
thus the specific purpose of exemplifying a model of virtue that could be simultaneously associated with femininity and Italian-ness. Indeed, some of these catalogues
were first delivered as speeches during conferences addressed to audiences of young
I am interested in how the presence and contribution of the women in arms in the
catalogues of the most famous women of the Risorgimento was framed. It is especially
interesting to read these catalogues in light of the fact that they are, for the most
part, compiled by women. I refer, in particular, to Giulia Cavallari Cantalamessa’s
“La Donna nel Risorgimento Nazionale” published in 1899.66 She was the first Italian
woman who, under the direction of Giosuè Carducci, received a degree in literature
and philosophy from the University of Bologna. She went on to teach at different high
schools around Italy, and was very active in the women’s movement of the first half of
the twentieth century. She wrote numerous books that focused on the achievements
of women during the Risorgimento.67
“La donna del Risorgimento Nazionale” celebrates the two most important and
noble sentiments of the human soul, love for the nation and for the family. These
of women as a historiographic genre in the nineteenth-century, see Porciani, “Il Plutarco femminile”.
Pomata 12.
Giulia Cavallari Cantalamessa, La donna nel Risorgimento nazionale (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli,
Casalena 259.
two loves found a synthesis during the Risorgimento in the lives of the illustrious
women who are presented in the catalogue. The prototype of the Italian woman is
not extraordinary, rather she is humble and reserved and quietly performs heroic acts.
Her goal is not to be recognized, on the contrary, she works out of the limelight to
ensure that the men she cares for are loved, nurtured, and supported. By showing this
support, she contributes to the unification of Italy. Naturally, women are not inclined
to “correre armata in campo, o di atteggiarsi a tribuno” [run in the battlefield, or pose
as a tribune].68
From time to time, history narrates accounts of women warriors but, Cantalamessa
argues, the act of fighting is almost an easy choice: true female heroism is that which
is invisible, without the promise of glory or fame. The rhetorical movement of which
Cantalamessa is a part deserves attention. Women are physically weaker than men,
therefore it is difficult for them to engage in battle as successfully as men. Despite this
restriction imposed by nature, some women defied these limitations and succeeded at
fighting. Because of all the associations that the figure of the woman in arm calls to
mind, it becomes rather complicated to jump from such an image to that of the quiet
educator, the persuasive angel, the patient spinner of the nation. Indeed, women are
compared to silkworms; they work behind the scenes to ensure the success of the men
and, by extension, the nation.
Women’s strength is measured by their resilience and trust in the nation; in their
willingness to sacrifice everything for the good of the country. This discourse is
particularly interesting because it suggests that patriotism is a “natural” propensity
Cantalamessa 6.
precisely because caring for the nation functions like nurturing one’s own family. The
women who fought on the battlefield are all invariably presented as followers. Giulia
Modena accompanied her husband Gustavo, a famous actor and patriot, into exile and
into battle. While he was fighting in Palmanova, she directed the camp hospital and
was invested with the honor of carrying the Italian flag. Young worker Giuseppina
Lazzeroni followed her brother onto the barricades of Porta Comasina during Milan’s
“Glorious Five Days” of March 1848:
[. . . ] così Giuseppina Lazzeroni fanciulla modesta e gentile seguì il fratello a
Porta Comasina pronta a morire al suo fianco, o a salvar col suo corpo la vita di
lui. - Là fra l’ardor della zuffa, deposta la nativa timidezza, mostrossi guerriera
d’alto valore incitando col suo esempio, e col suo baldo giovanile coraggio i
combattenti alla pugna.
[. . . ] so Giuseppina Lazzeroni, modest and kind girl, followed her brother to
Porta Comasina ready to die at his side, or to protect with her body his life. There, in the heath of battle, she set aside her natural timidity, and appeared
a valiant warrior inciting combatants to battle with her example and with her
youthful and bold courage.69
Here, too, Giuseppina’s actions are framed in the context of sacrifice and exceptionality: she is ready to protect her brother with her own life while overcoming the natural
timidity and shyness peculiar to her sex.70
Cantalamessa 44.
Giuseppina Lazzaroni became one of the few iconic women of the Milanese 1848. For example,
her deeds were remembered and set as an example of courage and virtue by nineteenth century
best-selling author Carolina Invernizio in her 1889 short story “La trovatella di Milano,” where she
Nel 1848, diciotto anni prima della scena raccontata, allorché il popolo milanese si sentì
l’animo di scuotere il giogo austriaco, nelle gloriose cinque giornate, anche le donne presero
parte alla sollevazione, mostrando come l’amore della libertà possa rendere anche i più deboli,
audaci ed invitti. [. . . ] la Giuseppina Lazzeroni, una bella giovinetta che seguì a Ponte Vetero
il fratello e combattè intrepidamente al suo fianco, comunicando il suo ardore agli altri, facendo
prodigi di valore.
In 1848, eighteen years before this scene was told, when the Milanese people gathered strength
to fight against the Austrian enslavement, during the glorious five days, women too took part
in the uprising, showing how the love of freedom can turn the weakest into audacious and
undefeated beings. [. . . ] Giuseppina Lazzeroni, a pretty young girl who followed her brother
Cantalamessa operates a very interesting rhetorical move when recalling the experience and death of Tonina Marinelli. Marinelli was a patriot from Veneto who
joined Garibaldi and the Thousand Expedition and fought in Milazzo and Volturno.
She was decorated and promoted on the field and died in 1862 as a result of injuries.
Italian poet Francesco Dall’Ongaro composed a short poem in her honor [Fig. 2.5]:
L’abbiam deposta la garibaldina
All’ombra della torre a San Miniato,
Colla faccia rivolta alla marina
Perchè pensi a Venezia e al lido amato,
Era bella, era bionda, era piccina.
Ma avea cuor da leone e da soldato!
E se non fosse ch’era nata donna
Porteria le spalline e non la gonna,
E poserebbe sul funereo letto
Colla medaglia nel petto.
Ma che fa la medaglia e tutto il resto?
Pugnò con Garibaldi e basti questo!
We buried the Garibaldina/ In the shade of San Miniato’s tower,/ With her
face turned to the marina/ So that she may think about Venice and her beloved
Lido,/ She was beautiful, she was blond, she was petite./ But hers was a brave
heart and a soldier’s!/ And if she had not been a woman/ She would have worn
epaulettes instead of a skirt,/ And she would be laying on her death bed/ With
a medal on her breast/ But what does a medal do?/ She fought with Garibaldi,
and that should suffice!
Dall’Ongaro admiration is noticeable, and so is his unease displayed at gender norms.
Indeed, had Tonina been a man, she would have been buried with honors and with
the medal won on the battlefield. Justice has been made iconographically: in the only
image left of her, Tonina is dressed as the typical garibaldino, wearing a red shirt and
to Ponte Vetero and fought fearlessly at his side, sharing her ardor with the others, and
accomplishing marvelous valiance.
Here, too, Invernizio reads Giuseppina’s actions as exceptional and not naturally feminine. It is her
love for the Italian nation that inspired her to overcome her predispositions and join the combatants
on the barricades. See Carolina Invernizio, La trovatella di Milano (Milano: Carlo Barbini, 1889) 7.
Figure 2.5: Anonimo, Tonina Marinelli. Courtesy of the Museo del Risorgimento,
Because of the difficulty of reintegrating a character such as Tonina, Cantalamessa
decides to diminish her contribution to the Risorgimento battles by asserting that
“[. . . ] non furono quelle che combatterono e morirono, che più giovarono alla causa
italiana; basterebbero i nomi di Laura Solera, Adelaide Cairoli, Sara Nathan per
mostrare quanto possa questa creatura gentile colla sola opera dell’intelligenza e del
cuore” [ . . . those who most contributed to the Italian cause were not those who fought
and died; suffice to mention the names of Laura Solera, Adelaide Cairoli, Sara Nathan
to demonstrate how this gentle creature can achieve with only her intelligence and
heart].71 In other words, Cantalamessa turns to the “holy trinity” of the Risorgimento
mothers to counteract Tonina’s otherwise disruptive biography. A rhetorical movement perfectly in line with the attempt at domesticating the woman gone “rogue”
typical of the years after the Unification.
At this point, the reader may have noticed an interesting tendency: many of the
positive representations are the product of a male brush or pen, whereas, especially
after the Unification, women writers have been generally harsher in judging women in
arms. In order to explain why certain men’s portrayals of women in arms have been
relatively positive vis-a-vis those by women themselves, it may be useful to go back
to the story of “Judith.” As I have already explained in chapter one, Judith’s slayer of
Holofernes has represented one of the few “violent“ exceptions to the representational
trope of the suffering, obedient, and passive woman. During the Renaissance, the
story of Judith, in particular the moment of the beheading of Holofernes, became
the object of representation for sculptors and painters alike. The statue by Donatello
Cantalamessa 48.
(1457), commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici and placed in the Uffizi’s courtyard, froze
the moment right before Judith’s sword severs the Assyrian tyrant’s head; conversely,
Andrea Mantegna’s canvas (1490) concentrates on the moment after the slaying, when
Judith is holding the bleeding head. As Marina Warner argues, in Donatello’s ad
Mantegna’s versions the artists positioned themselves as “wise judges [. . . ] ruling
that the double inversion of natural law - the female champion, the good murder
- is acceptable.” 72 In other words, Judith’s violence is not condemned but praised
and such value judgment is legitimate because it comes from men. Such vision was
challenged when painter Artemisia Gentileschi chose to offer her own version of the
biblical beheading (1614). The goriness of the details unsettles the viewer because
they come from the brush of a woman painter. If Donatello and Mantegna’s judgments
seems impersonal, Gentileschi’s “Judith” pours out of her own experience of violence.
Artemesia spent part of her life defending her right to accuse her rapist; her “Judith”
is a vengeful creature.
The violence that Judith inflicts on Holofernes is, in the eyes of Donatello and
Mantegna, akin to that perpetuated by Athena and Nike, Greek goddesses whose
actions were framed in contexts of chastity and virtue. The themes of sexual restraint
and marital loyalty, moreover, were particularly important for the ways in which
women in arms have been represented. As I discuss in the following chapters, when
marital virtue becomes one of the fundamental character traits connoting the actions
of the woman in arms her acceptance in society is guaranteed, and heroic deeds
exalted. When, on the other hand, accusations of promiscuous behavior, coupled with
Warner, Monuments and Maidens. The Allegory of Female Form 169.
a personal history of divorce, fell on a woman who decided to participate actively in
the Risorgimento, the overall interpretation given to her choices assumed much more
dramatic and negative tones.
So far, I have discussed the ways in which women have been represented before,
during, and after the Risorgimento’s most heated years of battles. I have shown how
the “state of emergency” that characterized the central years of the nineteenth-century
produced representations of women in arms that focused more on their heroism and
courage than on the gender-bending and norm breaking that would instead dominate
depictions pre- and post-Unification. I will now move to a discussion of how real
women participated in the battles of the Risorgimento and how, post-Unification,
their deeds have been represented and interpreted. In the two chapters that follow,
I closely look at the lives of three women combatants whose actions were received
in very different ways. Luisa Battistotti Sassi and Colomba Antonietti lived and
fought in 1848 Milan and Rome, respectively. The first survived the revolt, was
decorated by the provisional government, and later migrated to the New World; the
second died in defense of Rome in June 1849. Both people’s heroines, Luisa and
Colomba provide a very compelling example of how the legacy of the woman in arm
was normalized and incorporated in the national-patriotic narrative. Their stories
are particularly revealing when contrasted with Countess Maria della Torre’s fate;
her long militancy among the Garibaldini, her writings, and her frankness elicited a
very different reaction that contributed to her ostracism.
Women of 1848–1849: Luigia Battistotti
Sassi and Colomba Antonietti
This chapter discusses the lives of two women who, though they likely never met,
shared the distinction of fighting in two of the most celebrated episodes of the Risorgimento: Luigia Battistotti Sassi, who fought on the barricades of Milan in 1848, and
Colomba Antonietti, who took active part in the defense of Rome and died there in
In the years that preceded and followed Italian unification, both women became
icons for a particular model of feminine valor, to the point that Colomba’s supposedly
embalmed hand was shown at the Turin Exposition of 1884.1 In almost all accounts
of Milan’s “five glorious days” and the “Roman Republic” the women’s respective
actions are invariably recounted not as the product of subversive and dangerous gender
bending, but as tales of patriotism and love. Yet, they both were women in arms:
Catalogo della esposizione romana per la storia del risorgimento politico italiano (Roma: Tipografia
Nazionale, 1884) 173.
Luigia fought more courageously than a man, while Colomba died as one. Through
their engagement in battle, they broke codes of behaviors and challenged cultural
This chapter investigates the ways in which Luigia and Colomba’s experiences
were depicted in pre- and post-unification literature. It will also set the stage for a
comparison between the ways in which these two women were read and the reception
of Maria della Torre, the woman in arms I discuss in the following chapter. I suggest
that the different ways in which these women positioned themselves at the moment
of battle tremendously affected their future representations, which, as I will point out
are markedly diverse.
I choose to focus on Luigia and Colomba, instead of other warriors, not only
because of the particular ways in which their participation in the Risorgimento has
been interpreted, but also because they were active in Milan and Rome. According
to scholars like Simonetta Soldani, the two “national microcosms” 2 of Milan and
Rome were exemplary of the ways in which women’s participation in the unification
movement became the source of their political and social “activation;” in other words,
these experiences represent the beginning of women’s sense of belonging within the
national community. Indeed, during the period of 1846–49, women’s participation
in the Risorgimento uprisings became so visible that satirical gazettes, a media form
often known to have the pulse of society, took notice and started to represent them,
usually in unflattering terms.3
Simonetta Soldani, “Il lungo Quarantotto degli Italiani,” Il movimento nazionale e il 1848, ed. Luigi
Ambrosoli, vol. 15, Storia della società italiana (Milano: Teti, 1986) 330.
For a revealing analysis on the ways in which women of 1848 have been depicted in satyrical maga-
A study of the participation of Luigia Battistotti and Colomba Antonietti during
the urban uprisings of 1848–49 enriches our understanding of the ways in which
culture reacts to women combatants because of the peculiar ways in which they have
became icons of two heroic, yet ultimately failed, episodes of the Italian Risorgimento.
These women did not inspire debauchery; Luigia was physically represented as very
masculinized, while Colomba’s image as been associated with chastity and marital
loyalty. Not only did they offer a strikingly different example from that offered by
other women during the same events, who scandalized onlookers with promiscuous
behavior; they also elicited very different reactions from those inspired by Countess
Maria della Torre.
Before analyzing in detail Luigia and Colomba’s lives and rise to iconic status, this
chapter will offer a brief section summarizing the events that led to the “Five Glorious
Days” in Milan and the proclamation of the Roman Republic. Following this concise
recapitulation, I outline in general terms the role and contribution of women to the
1848–49 events. After these necessary premises, the chapter discusses in detail the
lives and representations of Luigia Battistotti in Milan and Colomba Antonietti in
The “revolution of 1848” commenced, at least in Italy, with the election of Pius IX as
Pope in July 1846 and ended with the fall of the Roman Republic in August 1849.
The turmoil generally referred to as “1848” was actually many things at once: it was a
zines, see Zazzeri.
war for independence, a battle for liberty, and a struggle for better social conditions.4
The year 1848 began with the Palermo insurrection of January 12th, which led
king Ferdinand II to grant a constitution; soon after, Leopold II of Tuscany, Carlo
Alberto of Piedmont, and Pius IX followed suit. On March 17th, Venetians demanded
the local Austrian government to release from prison the patriots Daniele Manin and
Niccolò Tommaseo; the day after, on March 18th, the first barricades were built in
Milan. In five days, the Milanese population managed to push out the well-equipped
troops of General Radetzky, while Venice became the capital of the Republic of San
Marco. On March 23th, king Carlo Alberto declared war against the Hapsburg Empire; immediately, volunteers from Tuscany, the Papal State, and Naples joined in
and contributed to the first two victories, in Pastrengo and Goito.
Despite his initial support, Pius IX soon realized that his involvement in the war
against Catholic Austria would compromise the Papal State’s religious mission and
political power. Indeed, as Benedetto Croce wrote, through the Allocution of April
29th, which sanctioned the retreat of the Papal Army, Pius IX avoided being “marked
with the stamp of nationality and thus being deprived of a universal character as head
of the Catholic Church above all national states.” 5 The Pope’s decision convinced king
Ferdinand II of Naples to withdraw from the battlefield, inflicting an important loss
on the war against Austria. Along with the strategic indecisiveness displayed by
Carlo Alberto, the Piedmontese troops lost much of their advantage over Radetzky
and, despite the heroism of the Tuscan volunteers in the battles of Curtatone and
Simonetta Soldani, “Approaching Europe in the Name of the Nation,” Europe in 1848. Revolution
and Reform, ed. Dieter Dowe et al., trans. David Higgins (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001) 60.
Benedetto Croce, Storia d’Italia dal 1871 al 1915 (Bari: Laterza, 1928).
Mortara, Carlo Alberto lost the battle of Custoza.
Despite the defeat of the Kingdom of Savoy, Venice resisted the Austrian continued
assault, while in Rome, on February 9th 1849, Giuseppe Mazzini, Carlo Armellini,
and Aurelio Saffi were elected the triumvirate to guide the newly founded Roman
Republic. Giuseppe Garibaldi was called to organize and lead the military defense
against the French troops, which had been called to support the Papal State by the
self-exiled Pius IX. On July 4th, 1849, despite an heroic defense, Rome capitulated
and Garibaldi left in the hopes to reach Venice before it, too, surrendered on August
Historian Simonetta Soldani calls 1848 the “chiave di volta” of the Risorgimento
for Italy’s quest for unification.6 1848 produced some of the most enduring images
of the nineteenth-century struggle for independence: for example the myth of the
camicie rosse rushing to help Rome with Garibaldi as its commander, the national
anthem, the barricades of Milan, and Venice’s resistance.7 The debates over what
institutional structure the new nation would take, the popular mobilization fueled
by Pope Pius IX’s supposed liberalism, and the extraordinary contribution of many
young men and women who joined battalions of volunteers, all contributed to the
solidification of symbols that endure to these days.
Interestingly, as Soldani notes 1848 also represented a crucial year for women and
Simonetta Soldani, “Donne e nazione nella rivoluzione italiana del 1848,” Passato e presente 17.46
(1999): 75.
For an enlightening exploration of these lieux de mémoire see Mario Isnenghi, ed., I luoghi della
memoria. Personaggi e date dell’Italia unita (Roma: Laterza, 1997) and Mario Isnenghi, ed., I
luoghi della memoria. Strutture ed eventi dell’Italia unita (Roma: Laterza, 1997).
the birth of the women’s movement.8 The subsequent section addresses the forms
taken by women’s participation in Italy during that year which, I believe, led to the
simultaneous surge in the feminist and nationalist movement.
Women in 1848
Throughout Europe, women’s lives were touched by revolts and revolutions taking
place in Paris, Vienna, and Dresden. Czech, Polish, French and Italian women gathered to sew flags in the national colors to be raised in victory over barricades. Yet,
women’s support of the revolutions was not limited to logistics. German women demanded and obtained seats in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche during the opening session of
the National Assembly. Jeanne Deroin, a Parisian schoolteacher, became the first
woman to run for a seat in the national elections. Everywhere, women were writing
in newspapers and gazettes, rallying for democracy and independence; many were
trying to expand a notion of citizenry to include women.9
These women combined their nationalist rhetoric with social and economic demands. On the barricades of Palermo and Rome observers would notice educated
bourgeoise men fighting alongside working class women. Bread riots and boycotts accompanied uprisings against the Austrians in Venice and Milan. Police reports from
the Veneto village of Cornuda even read of villagers coming out of church chanting
Indeed, Franca Pieroni Bortolotti in her monographic volume on Anna Maria Mozzoni and the birth
of the women’s movement individuates in 1848 its beginning. See Soldani, “Donne e nazione nella
rivoluzione italiana del 1848” 75.
Gabriella Hauch, “Women’s Spaces in the Men’s Revolution of 1848,” Europe in 1848: Revolution
and Reform, ed. Dieter Dowe, Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, and Dieter Langewiesche, trans. David Higgins
(New York: Berghahn Books, 2001) 639–682.
“Viva Pio Nono; Morte alle Patate” [Long live Pius IX; death to the Germans]. This
play on words simultaneously referred to the German occupants and to the high price
of food staples such as potatoes.10 Similarly, in 1848 Venetian peasants obstructed
the passage of wagons transporting polenta with chants of “Libertà, pane, polenta”
[Freedom, bread, and cornmeal].11
The fact that women, motivated by economic reasons, participated in these upheavals has been well documented. The novelty of the revolutions of 1848 was that
along with material demands, women also demanded the Risorgimento ideals of unity
and freedom from the oppressor. Women fighting on the barricades used codes of
conduct that had been used for centuries during food and bread revolts. This time,
those codes were used for explicitly nationalistic and political commitment. Indeed,
as Anna Maria Mozzoni wrote on the women of the lower classes participating in the
1848 uprisings: “si odono tutto il dí donne del popolo, coi loro schietti parlari rivelarsi calde parteggiatrici e darci della loro politica intelligenza una misura che non ci
aspettavamo” [one can hear all day women of the people, with their frank talk, show
themselves to be warm supporters [of the uprisings] and give us an expected measure
of their political intelligence].12 Surprising as it may have been to educated ears, these
“women of the people” were moved to participate in the uprisings for reasons that
went well beyond those of mere sustenance. As Simonetta Soldani has argued, the
superimposition of the two registers of “home” (oikos) and “city” (polis), the economic
This episode is reported by Paul Ginsborg, “Paesants and Revolutionaries in Venice and the Veneto,
1848,” The Historical Journal 17.3 (1974): 514; Ginsborg was among the first historians to analyze
the interplays between economic and political struggles in nineteenth century Northern Italy.
Hauch 667.
Qtd. in Bortolotti 63.
and political registries, began precisely with the 1848 revolts.13
The participation of women in the events of 1848–49 was notable enough to be
recorded in the celebratory biographical catalogues published before and after unification.14 Despite their involvement, women were still caught in a strictly defined gender
structure that declined the discourse around citizenship, nationality, and armed participation in the masculine. Soldani describes women’s involvement as congruous with
more economic and domestic participatory models of the past:
Le donne disselciarono le strade, accumularono e distribuirono pietre e munizioni
agli insorti, portarono messaggi e generi di ristoro di barricata in barricata,
curarono i feriti, attaccarono dalle finestre i nemici che passavano per la via [. . . ]
se qualche novità è rilevabile - nell’organizzazione delle cure ospedaliere e dei
servizi di ambulanza, nella fabbricazione di munizioni, nella relativa ufficialità
di alcuni incarichi - si tratta pur sempre di cambiamenti che non mettono in
discussione i caratteri fondanti dell’identità femminile.15
Women tore open streets, gathered and distributed rocks and ammunition to
the insurgents, carried messages and food supplies from barricade to barricade,
tended the injured, attacked from the windows the enemy walking by [. . . ]
if there were any relevant changes - in the organization of hospital care and
ambulance services, in fabricating ammunition, in the relative official status of
some duties - it had to do with changes that do not question the fundamentals
of feminine identity.
However, there was an important novelty surfacing in contemporary chronicles of the
events. In certain instances, women actually led the revolt; in Milan, for example,
Luigia Battistotti was among the first to realize the importance of building barricades and organizing neighborhood battalions. In others, women chose to wear men’s
clothing “[per] varcare i confini dell’identità prescritta, [per] esprimere e far emergere
Soldani, “Donne e nazione nella rivoluzione italiana del 1848”.
Rosanna De Longis, “Tra sfera pubblica e difesa dell’onore. Donne nella Roma del 1849,” Roma
moderna e contemporanea 9.1-3 (2001): 265.
Soldani, “Donne e nazione nella rivoluzione italiana del 1848” 94.
doti che traboccavano dal modello normativo di femminilità” [to cross the boundaries
of prescribed identity, to express and uncover qualities that overflowned the normative model of femininity].16 In Rome, during the last days of the Roman Republic,
Colomba Antonietti chose to deceive her comrades in order to have the opportunity
to fight in battle like her husband.
This “stepping out” from normative models, as Michelle Perrot has observed,
“means breaking out normally, stepping outside one’s assigned role, forming an opinion, abandoning subjugation in favor of independence which could be done in public
or private.” 17 In the age of nations, when every able person was called to participate
in the common struggle, women often found new spaces of action in realms otherwise
traditionally masculine. This normative nationalism had the byproduct of disrupting
gender relations.
Both Luigia and Colomba “stepped out” of the traditional roles assigned to them
by taking up arms in Milan and Rome. I am interested in investigating the mechanisms that guided subsequent representations of their actions, particularly in shedding
light on the reasons that neither women has been cast as a threat to gender norms.
Natalie Zemon Davis, in her study of the disorderly women of Early Modern Europe, notes that during carnivals role reversal, functioning as a safety valve, would
ultimately reinforce hierarchy. Outside of these moments of socially sanctioned inversions, however, the sight of women combatants may undermine the social order.18
Guidi, “Patriottismo femminile e travestimenti sulla scena risorgimentale” 54.
Perrot, “Stepping Out” 450.
Davis, “Women on Top”.
If war is “the virile act par excellence,” 19 why were Luigia and Colomba assumed
into the 1848 pantheon? What made their contributions so different from those of
other women whose experiences were received in dramatically different, and negative,
ways? What rhetorical mechanisms worked in their favor? I argue that one reason for
the celebratory interpretation of Luigia and Colomba’s deeds can be found in their
“stepping back;” in other words, their actions were largely read as temporarly, albeit
exemplary, heroic. Theirs were deemed episodic and contingent decisions, not life
choices. After the fall of Milan, Luigia emigrated to the United States, thus moving
outside the Italian view, while Colomba lost her life on the barricades during the last
dramatic assault against the Roman Republic.
Luigia Battistotti Sassi and Milan’s “Five Glorious Days”
In this section I retrace Luigia Battistotti Sassi’s active participation in Milan’s “glorious five days” (18–23 March 1848) by examining historical accounts and images
based on her experience. The majority of the reports on the Milan’s uprising described Luigia as an intrepid heroine who was the first one to build a barricade in
her neighborhood, capturing and killing some enemy soldiers. A common thread that
runs through almost all of the accounts of her deeds is the acceptance of and pride
in the idea that a woman could fight and kill. I have already discussed at length the
cultural and political taboos typically placed upon associating women and violence:
Perrot, “Stepping Out” 477.
because of biological differences women were supposed to give life, not take it. This
assumption, I argue, determined the common rejection of the “ferocious few.” 20 Yet,
Luigia’s subversion has been consistently overlooked.
Still, at the level of narration and visual representation, Luigia’s ferocious moments are typically contained by remarks about her physical appearance. Indeed,
eye-witness and journalist Giuseppe Cesana remarked about Luigia’s appearance,
“Deh, fossi tu men forte, e almen più bella!” [If you could be less strong but prettier!]21 thus reflecting the impossibility of reconciling in the same woman beauty and
strength. I argue that Luigia Battistotti Sassi’s heroic status derives first from the
exceptional circumstance represented by the “five glorious days,” an episode of the
Risorgimento struggle that, even within its name, communicates a precise temporal
containment. Second, the accounts representing her involvement in the “five days”
stress her masculine traits and manly appearance and thus diminish and constrain
her femininity.
Luigia was in her early twenties when she took up arms in Milan.22 She came to
the capital of Lombardo-Veneto from her native Stradella, a frazione of the Pavia
province in Piedmont, to live with her husband, a brass welder. When the revolt
Giuseppe Augusto Cesana, Ricordi di un giornalista (1821–1851), vol. 1 (Milano: Tipografia Bortolotti, 1890) 206.
According to the christening records kept in the Stradella parish, Luigia was baptized on the 26th of
February 1824, daughter of Giuseppe and Angela Ladrini, her full name appearing as “M. Rosam Johannam Aloisiam.” See “Liber baptizatorum h.a. in Arch parr. di Stradella,” Archivio Parrocchiale,
against the Hapsburg domination broke, Luigia was “la prima a formare le barricate
nel suo quartiere abbattendo alberi” [the first to build barricades in her neighborhood
by cutting down trees].23 The barricades became Milan’s most distinctive urban trait,
appearing everywhere and made of anything that could be used: church benches,
carriages, barrels, and theatre props. The Austrians were moving from their posts on
the “bastioni” towards the center of town, encountering at every corner the Milanese’s
resistance posted behind the barricades. In the first few days of the fighting, more than
1,700 barricades were erected,24 thus constituting one of the most important elements
of a new way of battling the enemy. The Austrians were, however, completely caught
by surprise and retired to the outskirts of town.25
It seemed as every able citizen of Milan was taking part in the guerrilla-style
revolt. Austrian soldiers became the target of boiling hot oil, rocks, and tiles that
were thrown out of windows and off roofs by women and children alike. In the words
of one of the main political organizers of the “five days,” patriot Carlo Cattaneo, Milan
was experiencing the “terribile momento nel quale un intero popolo con sì esigue forze
si cimentava sulla sanguinosa via della libertà” [terrible moment in which an entire
people with not enough strength tried the bloody route to freedom].26 Cattaneo was
Luigi Ronchi, ed., Racconti di 200 e più testimonj oculari dei fatti delle gloriose cinque giornate in
Milano (Milano: Tip. Valentini e C., 1848) 92.
In the definition given in the “Dizionario politico popolare,” barricades were defined as the “trono
del popolo” [people’s throne], Dizionario politico popolare appositamente compilato, vol. 1: [A-B]
(Torino: Tip. di L. Arnaldi, 1851) and the proliferation of such defense system across the majority of
Europe’s main metropolitan areas pointed to the legitimation of the “people” as sovereign subject.
Lucio Villari, “Il risveglio,” Il Risorgimento. Storia, testimonianze, documenti. Ed. Lucio Villari,
vol. 4. 1847–1848 La prima guerra d’indipendenza (Roma: Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso - Laterza,
2007) 73–87.
Carlo Cattaneo, Dell’insurrezione di Milano nel 1848 e della successiva guerra. Memorie (Bruxelles:
Società Tipografica, 1849) 34.
convinced of the necessity of involving everyone in the struggle for independence and
called all people to action, including women and children. Women, in particular,
answered the call, fought, and died; again in the words of Cattaneo, “nel ruolo dei
morti si contarono più di cinquanta donne; essendo però vero che alcune di esse erano
fra i combattenti, anzi combattevano audacemente” [among the deaths we found more
than fifty women; some of them were among the fighter, and fought very valiantly].27
Some women were called to participate in the battle against the Austrian army
by preparing ammunition within the safety of the domestic walls. For example, when
patriot Antonietta Bisi died, a Milanese newspaper recalled her commitment to the
Risorgimento with the phrase “Si può dire che nella casa Bisi si mantenne vivo il
fuoco sacro dell’amore di patria” [One could say that in the Bisi’s household the
nation’s sacred flame was kept lit], a play on words stressing Bisi’s work preparing
ammunitions for the fatherland.28 Women like Bisi spent their days fusing metal and
preparing cartridges, as was asked of them by the “Comitato di guerra.” 29
Cattaneo 48.
Qtd. in Vittore Ottolini, Le 5 giornate milanesi del marzo 1848: con nuovi documenti e coll’aggiunta
delle 5 giornate particolari di Porta Ticinese (Milano: Hoepli, 1889) 145.
In a note published on March 27th, patriot and politician Giulio Terzaghi, writing in his role as
“incaricato per le munizioni” [ammunitions’s envoy] addressed the women of Milan:
Le cartucce destinate all’Indipendenza della Patria, non devono essere frutto di un lavoro
mercenario, come quelle che servivano ad opprimerla. Le Cittadine Milanesi che ansiose
d’adoperarsi al santo scopo della Libertà sentissero il rammarico di non potervi contribuire
tanto quanto vorrebbe il loro ardente desiderio, sono invitate a da mano alla fabbricazione delle
cartucce, che tutt’ora occorrono a compiere la più gloriosa vittoria, la sospirata liberazione.
Patriottiche Donne di Milano! i giovani guerrieri, mirando le cartucce, ripenseranno a voi sul
campo dell’onore, pugneranno come leoni, onde riedere gloriosi a ricevere le carezze di premii
da quelle mani stesse dalle quali ebbero l’argomento della vittoria.
The cartridges destined to our Nation’s independence should not be the product of a mercenary’s work, like that which makes the bullets used to oppress it. Those among the Milanese
female citizens who feel the urge to help the holy cause of Freedom, and feel the remorse to not
contribute as much as their passionate desires wish, are invited to make cartridges, which are
direly needed to accomplish the glorious victory, the longed independence. Patriotic women
Women’s participation in the revolt became so legendary that Franca Pieroni Bortolotti, one of the most prominent Italian feminist historians of the twentieth-century,
chose 1848 as the beginning of the women’s movement, precisely because of the Milanese women’s action during the “five days.” In addition, Bortolotti emphasized the
heterogeneity in the composition of the Milanese upheval:
[. . . ] le popolane milanesi presenti nell’insurrezione del marzo ’48, combattenti
sulle barricate, o infermiere o portaordini, sono artigiane, donne di casa, oppure
pittrici e istitutrici.30
[. . . ] the women of the people who participated in the uprising of March ’48,
fighting on the barricades or nurses or dispatchers, are artisans, homemakers,
or painters and teachers.
For Luigia, involvement in the movement was spurred by her residence in the
Santa Croce neighborhood, mainly inhabited by artisans and people from the lower
classes. While patrolling the streets and alleys, Luigia encountered a small battalion of
Austrian soldiers and was quick enough to disarm one of them. Once in possession of a
pistol, she ordered the others to walk towards the nearby military police station where
she handed them over to the custody of the local Milanese authority. In the same
barracks, commander Bolognini was organizing a battalion of volunteers riflemen. It
was there that Luigia’s transformation took place: both she and other eye-witnesses
recalled her entrance to the building dressed as a woman and her subsequent exiting
in a male soldier’s uniform. It was in these clothes that she fought and killed a number
of Milan! The young warriors, looking at the cartridges, will think of you on the battlefield
and will fight like lions to accomplish glory and receive caresses as prize from those same
hands which provided them with the means to victory.
See Ottolini 145. Interestingly, here incitement is expressed through the bullets that women fabricate
and men shoot. On the surface, this arrangement preserves the gendered status quo because it kept
women out of the battlefield; in reality women were participating in a more meaningful way than if
they were limiting themselves to sewing flags and rosettes.
Bortolotti 35.
of soldiers.
At the conclusion of the “five days,” Luigia was called to testify about her participation in the revolt. A note of the “Comitato di guerra” reported Luigia’s deposition:
Luigia Battistotti, moglie di Sassi, lavorante in ottone, abitante alla Vettabbia
N. 3615, si presenta vestita da uomo, e depone: domenica (19) vestita da donna
avere fermato 5 soldati nemici, ed averli condotti nella caserma de’ finanzieri.
Mercoledì (22), vestita da uomo, avere uccisi 3 ussari sui bastioni di P. Ticinese.
Fu arrestata di sera come sospetta all’Orfanotrofio di P. Tosa. Non constando
alcun sospetto, si rilascia con dono di lire 6, per il momento.31
Luigia Battistotti, married to Sassi, a brass welder, living in Vettabbia N. 3615,
came dressed as a man, and testified: Sunday (19) dressed as a woman stopped
5 enemy soldiers, brought them to the military’s barracks. Wednesday (22),
dressed as a man, killed 3 hussars on the bastions of P. Ticinese. In the evening,
she was arrested as a suspect at the Foundling House of P. Tosa. It was impossible to find anything suspicious on her, so for the moment she was released on
a 6 penny bail.
I will come back to the significance of this piece for understanding Luigia’s representations; for now, it is important to know that this testimony earned her one of
the two honorary pensions awarded by the provisional Milanese government. Along
with shoemaker Pasquale Sottocorno, Luigia was one of two civilians to be asked to
sit among the political authorities during the solemn “Te Deum” celebration in the
Duomo cathedral that took place after the Austrians left Milan on April 12, 1848. The
public decree sanctioning the provisional government’s gratitude for Luigia’s bravery
motivated its decision ordaining that:
[. . . ] un annua pensione di L. 365 è assegnata a Pasquale Sottocorno e a Luisa
Battistotti Sassi che, secondo il grido universale, riportarono alte lodi di coraggio
e di fortezza nei giorni del combattimento.32
Emphasis in original. See Archivio triennale delle cose d’Italia dall’avvenimento di Pio IX
all’abbandono di Venezia, vol. II. Le Cinque Giornate di Milano riferite al moto generale d’Italia
(Capolago: Tipografia Elevetica, 1851) 396.
Qtd. in Wanda Baiardo Brondoni, ed., Luisa Battistotti Sassi, eroina della Libertà (Stradella, Pavia:
Lions Club Stradella Broni Montalino, 2001) 25–26.
[. . . ] an annual pension of L. 365 is awarded to Pasquale Sottocorno and Luigia
Battistotti Sassi who, according to the majority of people, demonstrated exceptional courage and prowess during the days of battle.
After the fall of the provisional government, Luigia found shelter in nearby Piedmont. She later embarked for San Francisco where she lived until her death.33
In the work “Donne del Risorgimento italiano,” writer Renata Pescanti Botti narrated the stories of the women who participated in the Risorgimento. In the section dedicated to the “five glorious days” Luigia is depicted as a young cross-dressed
woman who built the first barricade on her street and lead a group of citizens to
expel the Austrians from their neighborhood. Botti closes the pages on the Milan
uprising by noting that Luigia’s behavior was particularly intense: while the majority
of women behaved equally valiantly, none acted in quite so violently. Botti acknowledges Luigia’s extremism but does not assign any particularly negative connotation
to Luigia’s violent deeds. In the following sections, I engage with the ways in which
Luigia has been represented both in contemporary and later accounts of her deeds.
In particular, I focus on two recurring qualifications of her actions and persona: her
deadly aim at Austrian soldiers and her cross-dressed masculine appearance.
Unfortunately, with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake much of the documentation on immigration
got lost; therefore it is impossible to reconstruct Luigia’s years there. The only available record of
her years as immigrant indicates that she died in 1876: “Vuolsi che sia morta in America (nell’anno
1876, secondo la targa posta all’inzio della strada a lei dedicata nella città natale) dove da anni
viveva in discreta agiatezza” [It is sai that she died in America (in the year 1876, according to the
celebratory plaque in her hometown) where she had lived for many years in relative affluence]. See
Alessandro Maragliano, Biografie e profili Vogheresi con 29 ritratti e note storiche (Voghera: Tip.
Gatti-Rossi-De Foresta, 1897) 359.
Women and Violence
The combination of violent behavior and masculine attire in women has been often
ambivalently coded in public opinion across Europe: in some accounts women like
Luigia are represented as perfect examples of patriotic involvement. Some authors
of narratives questioned the virtue of such women. Often, one of the most common
associations made vis-à-vis women who engage in violent acts is with “amazons,”
women who reside outside of “normal parameters of life-style and achievement.” 34
During the French Revolution, as well as in monarchic Prussia years later, the memory
of female “amazons” claiming the right to bear and use arms became “one of the most
obvious symbols of the violent and dangerous radicalism of the Jacobins.” 35 First, as
a “woman of the people” Luigia was a prime illustration of an “inclusive” national
unification project. As Cattaneo argues, the process of national unification had to
involve every able person regardless of sex, age, and social class.36 Second, Luigia’s
violence is not chastised because it came from a woman whose presence among the
insurgents was characterized by the exceptionality of the circumstances; in other
words Luigia felt compelled to act out of necessity.
Luigia’s participation in the “five days” was remarkably violent. She held five soldiers at gunpoint walking them to the nearest military quarter, patrolled the streets
Lorna Hardwick, “Ancient Amazons - Heroes, Outsiders or Women?” Greece & Rome xxxvii.1 (1990):
Karen Hagemann, “’Heroic Virgins’ and ’Bellicose Amazons’: Armed Women, the Gender Order and
the German Public during and after the Anti-Napoleonic Wars,” European History Quarterly 37.4
(2007): 509.
Indeed, the other person who was granted the same privileges after the Austrians abandoned Milan
had been identified as an almost indigent shoemaker.
of her neighborhood while commanding a sizable group of men, rallied and incited onlookers to join her, and finally killed a number of Croat hussars. So far, in this project,
I have been preoccupied with emphasizing the difficulty of recognizing women’s contribution to the making of the nation; if we were to see particular representational
history as exemplary, though, this preoccupation would seem unfounded. Luigia was
so celebrated that she was one of only two people to assist at the celebratory Mass and
was granted the privilege of a pension in recognition of her courage and contribution.
Despite all the praise give to Luigia and the numerous accounts of her life, her
cross-dressing has been largely dismissed. Yet, Luigia’s own deposition clearly associated different attires with different actions, “vestita da donna avere fermato 5 soldati
nemici, ed averli condotti nella caserma de’ finanzieri [. . . ] vestita da uomo, avere
uccisi 3 ussari” [dressed as a hussar she stopped 5 enemy soldiers and brought them
to the military’s barracks [. . . ] dressed as a men she killed 3 hussars].37 While Luigia
performed as a woman when she secured five enemy soldiers, she transformed into a
man when she engaged in more violent actions and in killing. It seems that only by
wearing a male soldier’s uniform could a woman like Luigia be legitimized as a warrior. Nevertheless, she never tried to disguise her own sex; rather, she often showed
off her strong female features, despite her male clothing.
Writer Luigi Ronchi, for example, described how Luigia rallied and guided a sizable
group of men against Austrian and Croatians infantrymen and horsemen:
Strappata di mano una pistola ad un soldato, intimò ad altri cinque d’arrendersi
Archivio triennale delle cose d’Italia dall’avvenimento di Pio IX all’abbandono di Venezia, vol. II. Le
Cinque Giornate di Milano riferite al moto generale d’Italia (Capolago: Tipografia Elevetica, 1851)
[. . . ] Fattasi conduttrice di circa cento uomini, inseguì una mano di fanti e
cavallieri, e questo sotto una pioggia di palle [. . . ] Recatasi nel borgo della
Fontana sostenne, unita a vari Pompieri, una lunga fucilata contro i Croati colà
stanziati. . . 38
Wrenching a pistol from a soldier’s hands, she ordered five others to surrender
[. . . ] Leading about one hundred men, chased a handful of infantrymen and
horsemen under a fierce attack [. . . ] When she reached borgo della Fontana,
along with some firemen, she engaged in a long gun battle against the Croats
stationed there. . .
Felice Venosta, who as a young man participated in the “five days,” offered an even
more detailed description of her strength and courage, both fueled by the patriotic
dedication for freedom and independence:
Ella’era ardente alla zuffa, e mostrava forza insuperabile di braccio, e maravigliosa intrepidezza d’animo. L’amore alla libertà e l’odio all’Austriaco le
moltiplicavano le forze. Si avventava furiosamente contro il nemico, e colla sua
carabina in modo terribile lo fulminava: era sempre in prima fila, ove maggiore
appariva il pericolo. Per cinque giorni non lasciò mai le armi e fu instancabile
nel ferire, nell’incoraggiare e nel correre a portar soccorso di viveri a quelli de’
suoi che, chiusi dal nemico, erano a rischio di morire di fame. A quanto ella
stessa ne disse, pare che i soldati morti dalla sua vittoriosa carabina siano da
dieci ai dodici.39
She was always ready to take part in scuffle, showed an incredible arm strength,
and formidable intrepidness. Her love for freedom and hatred for the Austrian
multiplied her strength. She would throw herself against the enemy and with
her rifle she would kill him in a memorable way: she was always in the frontline,
where most was the danger. For five days she never put down her weapons and
she was never tired to injure the enemy, she encourage everybody and brought
relief when needed to those who, surrounded by the enemy, were starving to
death. According to her own account, it seems that she killed ten or twelve
Antonio Monti recorded the testimony of an eyewitness, one Giuseppe Bollini:
[. . . ] Sortì una donna brunetta vestita da uomo (fustagno scuro) che andò a
sedersi accanto all’uomo che la stava aspettando. A un tratto si sentì gridare
il solito: “Arme da fuoco su Borgo Santa Croce!” La brunetta, che seppi poi
Ronchi 92.
Felice Venosta, I martiri della rivoluzione lombarda (dal settembre 1847 al febbraio 1853) (Milano:
Gernia e Gianuzzi, 1861) 92.
essere la Sassi, scattò in piedi, tolse il fucile di mano al suo compagno e passò
ridendo nella barricata di Santa Croce. La vidi poi sopra un ballatoio di legno,
dirigere colpi di fucile sul bastione.40
[. . . ] A brunette came out dressed as a men (dark corduroy) who sat by the man
who was waiting for her. Suddenly, a scream was heard: “Firearms in Borgo
Santa Croce!” The brunette, who I later learned was Sassi, jumped up took
the rifle from her companion’s hand and smiling ran towards the Santa Croce
barricade. I saw her later on top of a wooden landing pointing her rifle towards
the bastion.
Bollini caught Luigia in the moment of transformation from a woman dressed in
female clothing to a woman donning a soldier’s uniform; this moment signaled the
legitimization of the use of violence. In Monti’s narration, as in others, violent acts
by women were tolerated as long as they were performed while dressed as soldiers.
Women’s participation in revolts and war was a fact that, in the nineteenth-century,
contradicted attempts to construct a new gender order in which clearly defined roles
for men and women would guarantee social stability. Allowing women on the battlefield could be tolerated only under specific circumstances: the behavior could occur
within the strict confine of an exceptional moment, it could be framed as patriotic
engagement required by the struggle for national unification, or it could be accompanied by frequent references to otherwise virtuous behavior, or it could occur when
the battling women were disguised as men.41
Antonio Monti, Il 1848 e le cinque giornate di Milano dalle memorie inedite dei combattenti sulle
barricate (Milano: Hoepli, 1948).
Historians and literary scholars have engaged with the active participation of women in war across
centuries, and in different geographical, and political contexts and they all seem to agree on the fact
that, regardless of temporal, cultural, and political differences, such mechanisms of tolerace were
commonly in place. See, for instance, Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650–
1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), Julie Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids:
At the end of the “five days,” Luigia testified in front of the war committee,
arriving dressed in man’s clothes: “si presenta vestita da uomo, e depone” [appeared
dressed as a man, and testified].42 The emphasis in the original document signals
Luigia’s unconventional attire. Hers is a strong stance; she wore her soldier’s uniform
to participate in the public proceeding as if she were still patrolling the streets.43 Just
as she had to cross-dress while killing, Luigia could participate in Milan’s official life
only when dressed as a man. Apparently, then, Luigia did not obey one of the rules
that regulated the cross-dressing during battle: she wore her male clothes after the
moment of emergency passed. Cross-dressing was tolerated and legitimized in the
context of violent warfare In fact, according to the reconstruction of the events made
by Vittore Ottolini, Luigia’s choice to cross-dress was interpreted as a necessity that
would give her the comfort to kill Austrian soldiers:
Vestitasi da uomo per essere meno impacciata ne’ movimenti [. . . ] e se tutti i
combattenti avessero uccisi nemici quanto lei, forse non ne sarebbe tornato a
casa uno solo.44
[She] dressed as a man to be freer in her movements [. . . ] and if every fighter
would have killed as many enemies as she did, maybe none of them would have
returned home.
Outside of these circumstances, though, cross-dressing was a subversion not to be
Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness. (London: Pandora Press,
1990), Sylvie Steinberg, La confusion des sexes. Le travestissement de la Renaissance à la Révolution
(Paris: Fayard, 2001), David Hopkin, “Female Soldiers and the Battle of the Sexes in France: The
Mobilization of a Folk Motif,” History Workshop Journal 56 (2003): 79–104, and Hagemann.
Archivio triennale delle cose d’Italia dall’avvenimento di Pio IX all’abbandono di Venezia, vol. II. Le
Cinque Giornate di Milano riferite al moto generale d’Italia (Capolago: Tipografia Elevetica, 1851)
Unfortunately, I was not able to find the police record of Luigia’s imprisonment; given the custom
prohibiting women from wearing clothes of the opposite sex, it would be interesting to learn the
reason for her detention.
Ottolini 146.
tolerated. As if to defend Luigia’s violent actions, Ottolini emphasized the masculine
traits of her physical appearance, essentially “cross-dressing” her in his narrative to
justify her masculine deeds:
Fattasi poi ostessa nel piazzaletto davanti la basilica di S. Ambrogio, a chi le
chiedeva come, lei donna, aveva trovata la forza di distinguersi anche tra gli
uomini, per tutta risposta mostrava le sue braccia formose e nerborute.45
She then became hostess in the square in front of the basilica of S. Ambrogio,
and to those who asked how, as a woman, she found the strength to distinguish
herself among the men, she showed them her shapely and brawny arms.
Writer Virginio Inzaghi narrated Luigia’s transformative moment:
Presso la caserma vi è già il capitano Bolognini che sta arruolando gente per
costruire una compagnia di fucilieri volontari dando loro le uniformi che ha
requisito in quel momento. La Sassi accompagna dentro i prigionieri e quando
esce è un fuciliere. Deposte le gonne, nascoste le trecce sotto il berretto, il
suo viso mascolino e le mascelle quadrate tradiscono l’ufficiale. Ritorna con
alcuni in via Vettabbia, chiama fuori per nome la gente, fa far loro le barricate,
mentre coloro ammirati, commossi e sbalorditi guardano con curiosità la donna
Captain Bolognini is at the barracks and is enlisting people to form a platoon
of volunteer riflemen and gives them the confiscated uniforms. Sassi accompanies the prisoners inside and comes out a rifleman. [She] left behind her
garments, hid her braids under the cap, her masculine features and the squared
jaw deceived the officer. [She] comes back to via Vettabbia, calls by name its
inhabitants who, moved and stunned, look with curiosity the soldier woman.
And again Felice Venosta: “Quindi, deposti gli abiti femminili, si vestì dell’assisa della
compagnia de’ fucilieri volontari sotto il comando di Bolognini. Dapprima niuno
sospettò che sotto quelle vesti si nascondesse una donna” [Then, left her women
clothes behind, [she] wore the volunteer riflemen’s uniform of the platoon headed
by captain Bolognini. At the beginning, nobody suspected that under those clothes
Ottolini 146.
Qtd. in Brondoni 18–19.
there was a woman].47 Venosta acknowledged the possibility that Luigia may have
wanted to pass as a men. Similarly, Atto Vannucci described her cross-dressing as
accurate and believable, arguing that she could be mistaken for a man, due to her
clothes, character and indomitable spirit.48 When we look at all of the accounts, we
see that Luigia’s transvestitism has been largely read as a choice made for the sake of
practicality. This way, Luigia’s potential disruption of the gender order is rendered
non-threatening, since it is coded only as a functional necessity, not a desired choice.
In all these accounts, however, Luigia’s appearance is still not described in very
flattering terms. The acceptance of the figure of the female warrior was predicated
upon the idea that she was either a virgin or a sexless individual.49 Luigia’s virginity
was impossible since she was married, but her sexlessness was not: in the majority of
her representations she is masculinized, written with muscular arms, and strong facial
features. In all these depictions, Luigia is portrayed more of a brawny man than a
member of the “gentle sex.” Cross-dressing was actually quite common within women
of the lower classes, who dressed in masculine clothes for “occupational purposes,” that
is to be more comfortable while working.50 Similarly, because of the harder conditions
of their life and demanding working habits, these women were often more similar to
men in physical appearance and stronger than their bourgeoise counterparts.
Venosta, I martiri della rivoluzione lombarda (dal settembre 1847 al febbraio 1853) 92.
Atto Vannucci, I martiri della libertà italiana dal 1794 al 1848. Memorie raccolte da Atto Vannucci.
Vol. 2 (Milano: Tipografia Bortolotti, 1887) 331.
Few women warriors had been able to conflate successfully both qualities; Joan of Arc is one of them,
see Marina Warner, Joan of Arc. The Image of Female Heroism (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1981).
Fraser Easton, “Gender ’s Two Bodies: Women Warriors, Female Husbands an Plebeian Life,” Past
& Present 180 (2003): 131–174.
Luigia, then, never really “camouflaged” her sex: she simply did not wear a skirt
because the garment was not practical. Yet her cross-dressing also served the ideological purposes of the accounts of her life: only dressed as a man, Luigia could perform
the ultimate violent act of killing, without shockingly disrupting gender norms. In all
the narrative accounts, Luigia is written as a masculine woman wearing trousers. In
the few images depicting her, she is, however, always shown wearing a skirt.[Fig. 3.1]
Since Luigia is never visually depicted killing soldiers, she can be portrayed wearing
a skirt. The decision to represent Luigia in a skirt holding a rifle rather than wearing trousers suggests that holding a weapon is less disruptive of gender norms than
wearing pants.
Instead of expressing judgment on Luigia’s choice, Giuseppe Bollini, the eyewitness mentioned in Antonio Monti’s work, took notice of the trousers’s fabric rather
than of its wearer. The particularity of wearing corduroy trousers indicates Luigia’s
affiliation with the battalion of volunteers guided by commander Bolognini. Historian
Leopoldo Marchetti describes the uniform:
[. . . ] avevano persino trovato una specie di uniforme, composta da una lunga
tunica in velluto di fustagno, attillata ai fianchi e stretta alla vita da una cintura
in pelle da cui pendeva una daga o una spada; colletto bianco, alto, rovesciato
sulle spalle o annodato con una cravatta tricolore; calzoni di velluto lunghi o
corti, nel qual caso venivano usati stivali alti fino al ginocchio; cappello in panno
nero, alla calabrese, con pennacchio e piccolo fiocco tricolore.51
[. . . ] [they] even fashioned some sort of uniform, made of a long corduroy tunic,
close-fitting at the hips and tight at the waist by a leather belt from which a
dagger or sword hung; a white high collar, thrown over the shoulders or tied with
the three-colored tie; long or short corduroy trousers, in case of short trousers
one should have used knee-high boots; a black cloth hat, calabrese style, with
plume and three-colored bow.
Leopoldo Marchetti, Il quarantotto milanese, nelle immagini, nei documenti, nelle vicende e negli
uomini (Novara: Istituto Geografico de Agostini, 1948).
Figure 3.1: Luigia Battistotti Sassi. Lithography, Museo del Risorgimento, Torino.
In a print that represents all the uniforms worn by soldiers and volunteers during the
battle, Luigia, the only woman among men, wears a long skirt, and a dark-colored
jacket adorned with a tricolored sash. Her hand is firm on the rifle and the image is
accompanied by a caption reading: “il sesso gentile si mosse a difesa della patria” [the
gentle sex moved to defend the fatherland]. There seems to be nothing “gentle” in
Luigia’s demeanor aside from the expectation that, after the battle, she would change
back into women’s clothes and reprise her domestic role. The choices Luigia made
after the Austrians eventually conquered Milan, however, do not cohere with these
expectations. The celebrated heroine of the “Glorious Five Days” sought political
asylum in Piedmont from which she embarked on a steamer to the West Coast of
the United States. There it seems that she was able to build a comfortable life as an
entrepreneur with a man who was not her husband, whom she had left in Italy.52
Luigia’s building of the barricades, participation in the tumults, and her heroic status served the important ideological purpose of demonstrating the nature of popular
participation in the Risorgimento; the convergence of people from different economic
classes, sex, and age emphasized the active re-appropriation of independence. Her
physical prowess, courage, and accomplishments were celebrated rather than problematized as one might have expected, given her gender-bending and the count of
dead bodies she left in her wake. In the following section, I investigate a woman who
fought on the barricades of the Roman Republic and whose representations followed
a different trajectory.
Carlo Cattaneo and Margherita Cancarini Petroboni, Carteggi di Carlo Cattaneo 2, Serie 1, Lettere
di Carlo Cattaneo 1848–1851 , ed. Margherita Cancarini Petroboni (Firenze: Le Monnier, 2005) 341.
Colomba Antonietti and the “Roman Republic”
In this section, I investigate how the life and death of the Umbrian-born patriot
Colomba Antonietti have been represented in popular media and historical accounts
quite unanimously as heroic. Her character, despite an almost absolute lack of primary
sources, was often depicted as an example of purity and chastity. Despite these
glowing representations, Colomba married against the advice of both her parents and
her husband’s family. She ran away and, dressed as a man, followed her husband
throughout Italy in their common quest of the Risorgimento ideals. Why did her
story resonate positively for so long? What made Colomba Antonietti such a popular
figure? What can we learn about gender politics in the Risorgimento battlefield from
the way she has been read?
Antonietti’s deeds, death, and valor were always cast in a positive light: her
actions become heroic, her death sacrificial, and her character valiant. In fact, she
chose to pass as a man, and cut her hair short, in order to share with her husband the
experience of fighting for the unification of Italy. The patriot poet Luigi Mercantini
wrote an ode to her memory in which he states that “Non sa quanto una donna in
arme possa/Chi lei non vide allora in campo entrar [He does not know what a woman
in arms can do/if he had not seen her enter the field].” 53 After her death, Colomba’s
body was “re-dressed:” on top of her bloody soldier’s uniform was placed a woman’s
dress and a bouquet of white roses. Colomba’s purity came from within; her otherwise
Qtd. in Claudia Minciotti-Tsoukas, La trasgressione e la regola: due modi di essere donna nella
società umbra dell’Ottocento (Ellera Umbra, Perugia: Edizioni Era Nuova, 1997) 32. The original
poem was composed by Mercantini in the Greek island of Corfù in 1849 and published in Luigi
Mercantini, Canti (Milano: Oreste Ferrario, 1885).
subversive behavior was cleansed by her own death.
In almost all of the biographical catalogues and accounts of the events of the Roman Republic published since its end, the name of Colomba Antonietti undoubtedly
figures among the most commonly cited. She died on June 13th, 1849 as a result
of injuries sustained from a cannon ball attack while she was trying to defend Rome
against the French artillery. She was wearing a soldier’s uniform that had belonged
to her husband, Lieutenant Luigi Porzi, who was a few steps away when she lost her
life. Her death transformed her into a heroine, so much so that her name appears
alongside those of patriots Luciano Manara and Goffredo Mameli. On the same day,
according to the reports made by the “Monitore Romano” another woman, Marta
della Vedova, found her death.54 Aside from this brief mention, Marta’s name has
disappeared from all accounts of the Roman Republic.
Colomba Antonietti was born on October 19, 1826 in Bastia Umbria in the province of
Perugia. She was the daughter of a baker, Michele Antonietti, and Diana Trabalza.55
Her future husband, Count Luigi Porzi, at the time a cadet with in the Papal army,
resided in the nearby town of Foligno. According to a letter written by Luigi, Colomba
must have been fourteen or fifteen years old when the two met and fell in love.56 In the
same letter, Luigi recalls how Colomba’s family opposed their relationship because of
“Notizie del giorno,” Il Monitore Romano 131 (14 June 1849): 584.
Minciotti-Tsoukas 35.
Claudio Sforza, “Ricordo della vita di Luigi Porzi marito di Colomba Antonietti,” Archivio storico
del Risorgimento Umbro IV.II (1908): 124.
the difference in social class.
Luigi was born in the Ancona aristocratic family of Porzi on December 15th,
1822.57 When the love between Luigi and Colomba was first discovered, Colomba’s
family requested that Luigi be transferred to another battalion, a request which was
granted by his commander. Despite Colomba’s family opposition and the separation,
Luigi came back to Foligno and the two married in secret on December 13th, 1846.
They left that same night for Bologna, where Porzi’s mother lived.58 In the meantime,
Luigi’s battalion was transferred to Rome, where the couple moved in 1847. Upon
their arrival in Rome, Luigi was imprisoned for two months in Castel Sant’ Angelo,
because he had gotten married without proper authorization.59 While Luigi was in
prison, Colomba lived with relatives in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, one
of the most politically enganged areas of the city. Presumably, it was during these
months that Colomba developed her patriotic consciousness. Colomba’s cousin, Luigi
Masi, a scientist and pedagogue who fought in Veneto in 1848, also lived in Rome,
and the couple maintained contact with him.60 Masi was also a member of the
“Civic Guard”: at the beginning of the first war of independence, before issuing the
“Allocution” that signaled his change in alliance, Pius IX had favored the creation
of this Guard. The Civic Guard was promptly mobilized when news of the Milan
insurgence reached Rome. Troops started to leave Rome to march towards the north.
Sforza 122.
Minciotti-Tsoukas 40.
Minciotti-Tsoukas 41.
Luigi Masi was also a close collaborator of famous French-Italian naturalist Carlo Luciano Bonaparte
who in 1849 founded the “Società Italiana per il Progresso delle Scienze.”
In an Italian now strongly influenced by the Spanish language, after many years spent
in South America, Luigi recalled the march in this words:
Colomba sempre marciava al mio fianco, vestida con la mia uniforme di ufficiale;
in quanto a Venezia marcia fino a Ferrara; ma il colonnello Luigi Masi, che era
di Colomba cugino, si oppose e non voleva affatto, ma ella insistiò; Masi con
Garibaldi mi mandò a Roma.61
Colomba always marched by my side, dressed with one of my uniforms; from
Venice, we marched all the way to Ferrara; colonel Luigi Masi, her cousin,
opposed her decision, but she insisted; Masi with Garibaldi sent me to Rome.
After having fought in Northern Italy, Colomba and her husband returned to Rome,
where the atmosphere must have been quite electrifying, due to Pius IX’s recent
escape to Gaeta and the proclamation of the Republic. While in Rome, the two
joined Garibaldi in the battle of Velletri, where the volunteers secured an important
victory against the troops of King Ferdinand II of Naples. Again, in the words of
A Velletri [Colomba] espose coraggiosamente por la patria la vita. Tu vedrai
nelle memorie di Garibaldi, che la moglie di Garibaldi le disse: “Vedi quella
Donna come si bate al fianco di suo marito?” 62
In Velletri [Colomba] risked her life in the name of the fatherland. You will see
that in Garibaldi’s memoirs, his wife said: “Do you see how that woman fights
by her husband’s side?”
Garibaldi recalled Colomba’s valor in the memoirs gathered by Alexander Dumas.63
Qtd. in Sforza 125.
Qtd. in Sforza 125.
“Le meme boulet [. . . ] avait brisé d’un jeune soldat. Le jeune soldat, placé sur une civière avait
croisé les mains sur sa poitrine, avait levé les yeux au ciel et avait rendu le dernier soupir. On
allait le porter à l’ambulance, lorsqu’un officier s’était précipité sur le cadavre et l’avait couvert de
baisers. Cet officier était Porzi. Le jeune soldat était Colomba Antonietti sa femme, qui, l’avait suivi
á Velletri et avait combattu a ses cotés le 3 juin. Cela me rappela ma pauvre Anita, qui, elle aussi,
était si calme au milieu du feu [. . . ].” Alexandre Dumas, ed., Mémoires de Garibaldi (Paris: Michel
Lévy Frères, 1860) 214 [The cannon ball [. . . ] broke a young soldier’s back. This young soldier,
laying on the stretcher, had his hands crossed, rose his eyes to the Heavens and breathed his last
breath. They were about to put him on the ambulance, when an officer throw himself on the body
covering it in kisses. That officer was Porzi. The young soldier Colomba Antonietti, his wife, who
Before she took part in the defense of Rome, Colomba was among the many women
who, guided by Cristina di Belgiojoso, tended to the injured as nurses in the Trastevere
hospital Fatebenefratelli.64 On June 3rd, the French troops commanded by General
Oudinot occupied Villa Pamphili and Villa Corsini, behind Porta San Pancrazio. Ten
days later, Colomba died there. Again, Luigi’s words:
En quanto all’assedio di Roma del 1849, steve giunta al mio fianco sui bastioni,
e vestiò sempre il mio uniforme di ufficiale e così spirò il 13 giugno vestida da
ufficiale. Dopo morta mi mandarono pedire un vestido di siniora. Colomba si
era cortato i capelli.65
Regarding the siege of Rome of 1849, she was sitting by me on the bastions, and
she always dressed with one of my uniforms and she died on June 13 dressed as
an officer. After she died, they sent me a woman’s dress. Colomba cut her hair
The day after Colomba’s death, “Il Monitore Romano” published her obituary:
Colomba Antonietti di Foligno seguì da due anni il marito Luigi Porzio (sic),
tenente del secondo di Linea, dividendo con lui le fatiche ed i pericoli, le lunghe
marce e il fuoco amico. Giovinetta d’anni 21, di cuore generosissimo, di sentimenti altamente italiani, pugnò come un uomo, anzi come eroe, nella battaglia
di Velletri, degna del marito, degna del suo cugino, il colonnello Luigi Masi. Jeri
(13 giugno) si trovava presso alle mura di S. Pancrazio, minacciata dal cannone
francese. Ivi, mentre porgeva al marito sotto il fuoco incessante le sacca e gli
altri oggetti per riparare alla breccia, una palla di cannone la colse nel fianco.
Ella giunse le mani, volse gli occhi al cielo, e morì gridando: Viva l’Italia, novella
Gildippe66 della nostra sublime epopea.67
followed him in Velletri and fought by him side on 3 June. That woman reminds me of my poor
Anita: she, too, so calm and courageous in the midst of fire].
Minciotti-Tsoukas 49.
Qtd. in Sforza 126.
In Torquato Tasso’s epic“Gerusalemme Liberata,” Gildippe and her husband Odoardo participated
in the Crusades, where both died.
“Notizie del giorno,” Il Monitore Romano 131 (14 June 1849): 584.
Colomba Antonietti from Foligno followed her husband Luigi Porzio (sic), lieutenant of the second Line, for two years, sharing with him difficulties and dangers, long marches and friendly fire. She was 21 years old, of a very generous
heart, of high Italian sentiment. She fought like a man, like a hero. In the battle of Velletri, worthy of her husband, worthy of her cousin, the colonel Luigi
Masi. Yesterday (June 13) she was by the walls of S. Pancrazio, threatened by
French cannons. There, under assiduous enemy fire, while she was handing her
husband his sack and other instruments to fix the breach, a cannon-ball hit her
on her side. She closed her hands, looked at the sky, and died crying: Viva
l’Italia, new Gildippe of our sublime epic.
All subsequent accounts were based on this first report of her death that were
published in the newspaper of the Roman Republic.
Already in 1850, one of the protagonists of the Republic, Carlo Rusconi, published
his own accounts of the events. In it, Rusconi details Colomba’s death; his description
merits attention because of he includes certain details that contributed to the creation
of the “Colomba myth.” As in the “Monitore” report, Rusconi writes of the moment
before Colomba’s death. Despite recommendations to retreat, Colomba was said to
have stood on the walls of S. Pancrazio. When she realized that her husband needed
certain “utensils,” she ran to fetch them and, in this moment, was killed by a cannonball.68
In Rusconi’s recollection, Colomba’s motivations to join the battle are described
as the superimposition of patriotic ardor and a desire to follow her husband, “[. . . ] con
“[. . . ]Pregata dai circostanti ad allontarsi [. . . ] sulle mura era pure voluta accorrere, [e] rispondeva
con dignità che la sua vita era consacrata da gran tempo, e che prezzo non avea per lei se non
in quanto poteva giovare alla sua patria sventurata. Serena, tranquilla, impavida ella rimaneva al
suo posto. [. . . ] Vi fu un momento anzi in cui ella fe’ un passo verso il marito per fornirlo degli
strumenti che aveva addimandati, e una palla di cannone la percorsse adempiente quell’atto di amore
coniugale.” [The people around prayed for her to step away [. . . ] she wanted to get on the walls
[and] answered with dignity that her life had been consecrated for a long time, and it had no price
if she could not help her unfortunate country. Serene, calm, courageous she stood her ground. [. . . ]
Indeed, there was a moment when she stepped towards her husband to hand him some instruments
that she had in front of her, and a cannon-ball hit in fulfilling an act of conjugal love.] See Carlo
Rusconi, La Repubblica Romana (del 1849) (Torino: Giannini e Fiore, 1850) 311.
ardore s’adoperava là, dove più ferveva il pericolo, lasciando incerto il riguardante se
in lei potesse più l’amore che al suo sposo l’avvinceva o quello fortissimo che alla sua
patria la legava” [with ardor, she worked there, where the danger was higher, leaving
uncertain the judgment whether in her there was more love for her husband or for
the country].69 There is a tendency, on Rusconi’s part, to favor Colomba’s patriotic
motivation to go and fight for the unification of Italy, rather than to simply follow her
husband. This framework is confirmed by Colomba’s last words as, again reported
by Rusconi on the basis of the “Monitore” article:
Quella giovane cadde inginocchiata, levò le mani e gli occhi al cielo, e spirò
dopo un minuto gridando Viva l’Italia. I suoi leggiadri lineamenti si copersero
del pallore della morte, ma il sorriso non si scompagnò dalle sue labbra, che
anche in quell’eterno silenzio esprimer pareano l’amore e la fede che collegata
l’aveano in vita alla sua famiglia e alla sua patria.” 70
That young woman kneeled down, raised her hands and eyes directed heavenwards and died soon thereafter crying “Viva l’Italia.” Her delicate lineaments
took on the pallor of death, but her smile did not depart her lips, which even
in this eternal silence seemed to express the love and faith that had connected
her in life to her family and country.
Here, in comparison to the more “surgical” description that appeared in the newspaper, Rusconi adds a religious connotation that should not be underestimated. It
is precisely in this juxtaposition of marital devotion and patriotic fervor, republican
“religion” and sacred imagery, that the enduring power of Colomba’s image resides.
The image of Colomba kneeling down, her hands and eyes directed heavenwards,
resembles many pictorial images of warrior saints who, like those depicting Joan of
Arc, lost their lives in obeying divine orders; her last patriotic lament transforms
Rusconi 310.
Rusconi 312.
her death into the ultimate sacrifice.71 In this sense, the religious undertones that
pervade Colomba’s last minutes normalize her otherwise subversive behavior. Belief
in the Nation-State is equivalent to a religion, in the sense that much of the rhetoric
of regeneration is imprinted with strong religious metaphors. Therefore “republican
religion” offers a way to disguise a woman’s decision to fight as one not of her volition
but, rather, as a call from a “divine” entity, in this case the Republic. If seen with these
eyes, Colomba’s actions are thus authorized precisely by a supreme will; Colomba, like
every perfect woman, obeyed. By sacrificing her life, she cleansed herself of the sin
of cross-dressing. Moreover, Rusconi dwells on the fact that she died while “fulfilling
an act of conjugal love,” a phrase through which he transforms Colomba into the
perfect companion of the fighting patriot. The fact that she was on the barricades
fighting becomes almost irrelevant: what matters is that she was helping her husband
by preparing ammunition much like the women that Simonetta Soldani describes as
normative participants in war.
In Rusconi’s account appears another important element that has since figured in
almost every subsequent narrative of Colomba’s death. After the fatal cannon-ball
attack, Colomba’s body was carried through the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome,
one of the most politically engaged and republican areas of the city, where bystanders
waved at the carriage, and threw her flowers in a last homage to the patriot heroine.
Anne Eriksen, “Etre ou agir our le dilemme de l’héroïne,” La fabrique des héros, ed. Pierre Centlivres,
Daniel Fabre, and Françoise Zonabend (Paris: Édition de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1998)
The “Monitore” article inspired Luigi Mercantini to write his ode to Colomba
titled “Una madre romana alla tomba di Colomba Antonietti Porzio.” 72 The poem’s
narrator is a Roman mother who visits Colomba’s grave with her daughter; with the
intention of impressing the importance of Colomba’s story on her child’s mind.
Mercantini recalls the moment when Colomba decided to follow her husband and
he describes how she transformed herself into a soldier:
No, dic’ella, tu solo non andrai
Sarai più forte se n’andrai con me.
Dammi un fucil, Luigi, e tu vedrai
Com’io saprò pugnar vicino a te.
Cinta i capei del tricolor berretto,
La daga al fianco ed il moschetto in man,
Ponsi in fila da costa al suo diletto;
Suona allegro il tamburo e se ne van.73
No, says she, you will not go alone/You will be stronger with me by your
side/Give me a rifle, Luigi, and you will see/How good I will be in battle at
your side/She encloses her hair enclosed in a tricolored hat/The sword on her
side, and the musket in her hand/She joins her beloved/And while drums gayly
played they both departed.
Colomba is firm in her refusal to let Luigi go to war without her; she argues that with
her at his side, he will be stronger. Here Mercantini employs the rhetorical device
of using a woman to persuade a man to go to battle but, instead of convincing her
husband to go war alone, she accompanies him. The poem successfully reconciles
the trope of a woman following her man to battle for love, and that of a woman
following her husband because of a shared passion for a common political cause. The
quartina closes with the sound of drums accompanying the two lovers into battle.
For Colomba’s marital last name, Mercantini follows the same spelling used in the “Monitore” which,
in fact, is an error of spelling. Indeed, Colomba’s husband last name was Porzi, and not Porzio.
Mercantini 19.
Finally, Luigi and Colomba arrive at the site of the battle, and Colomba reassures
her husband of the importance of fighting: “O mio Luigi, e questa è l’ora nostra/Viva
chi porge alle ferite il sen [O my Luigi, this is our time/Long live she who offers the
breast to injuries].” 74 Mercantini’s choice of the word “sen [breast]” seems indicative
of the acknowledgement that women, too, are engaged participants in the patriotic
Mercantini’s respect and admiration for the choices made by Colomba is similar
to that expressed by Dall’Ongaro in his ode to Tonina Marinelli; indeed, read in
conjunction with one another, the poems dedicated to Colomba and Tonina Marinelli
show the poets’s awe vis-à-vis the choices made by these two women. In Mercantini’s
work, Colomba shows her courage during the most heated phases of the battle and
demonstrates an exemplary precision in fighting:
Dov’è più vivo il foco ella si aggira,
Ma di un passo non lascia il suo fedel:
Or grida: avanti! or l’arme imposta e tira,
Or guarda in atto di preghiera il ciel.75
Where the battle is more fierce, she goes/But she never walks too far from her
beloved:/She cries: Let’s go! Now the weapon she charges and shoots,/Now she
prays to the heaven.
In this account, Colomba is not a passive onlooker. Mercantini uses one of the most
explicit descriptions of a woman engaged in battle seen in Risorgimento narratives
(“l’arme imposta e tira”). This image is particularly interesting because, in all of the
various representations of women waging war, the actual act of drawing a weapon
and using it in battle is rather exceptional. Normally, women are placed in the midst
Mercantini 19.
Mercantini 19.
of battle, but they are rarely given the agency commanded by the active use of a
deadly weapon. Another significant image is that of Colomba seemingly engaged in a
spiritual dialogue with the heaven. There seems to be no religious connotation in this
depiction; rather, her invocation seems to be secular patriotism. She has successfully
embodied the “religion of the Republic.” The same image will return moments before
her death, when she will offer her gaze to the heavens and take her last breath.
Once the battle has ceased, Colomba returned to a role traditionally more conducive to women, that of caring for injured soldiers. As she comforts dying soldiers,
Colomba reminds everyone of the reasons for their ultimate sacrifice: Italy’s unification.
Cessa il foco: va intorno ella cercando,
E l’anima raccoglie di chi muor:
Corre ai feriti, e il sangue rasciugando,
Della patria ricorda il santo amor.76
The battle has ended: she goes around looking,/Reassuring the dying:/Running
towards the injured, and cleaning the blood,/Remembering the Fatherland’s
holy love.
Mercantini goes on to narrate Colomba’s participation in the battle of Velletri, following “l’Eroe dall’armatura rossa [the Hero with the red armor],” Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The last quartine are dedicated to the moment of Colomba’s death. Here Mercantini
dresses Colomba in a short skirt (“la succinta gonna”), and represents her as dying in
Luigi’s arms:
Fa croce al petto delle mani e dice:
- Luigi addio! ricordati di me!
io muoio per la patria! assai felice!
Mercantini 19.
A lei rendo la vita che mi dié77
She crosses her hands on her breast and says:/- Farewell, Luigi! Remember
me!/I die for the Motherland! Very happy!/And to her who gave me life, I give
it back.
Again, the significance of a secular religion of the Nation-State resonates with Colomba’s
last words and posture. Colomba gives back her life to the motherland, establishing
for women the same visceral connection that drives men to the ultimate sacrifice.
The poem closes with an invitation, as the maternal narrating voice encourages her daughter to share the story with her young friends, with the hope that
Colomba’s life and choices may inspire and teach others (“Dell’altre bimbe all compagna schiera/T’affretta il mio racconto ad insegnar” [For the other girls of the
group/Would my story quickly serve as example]).78
As Dianne Dugaw has illustrated in the case of Anglo-American popular balladry,
“Female Warriors” have always aroused interests and curiosity and have worked to
interrogate notions of gender identity and heroism.79 Italy does not posses a repertoire
of popular balladry that is of comparable size to that of the Anglo-American tradition,
and its absence could be connected with the substantial lack in powerful images of
women in arms. This consideration makes Luigi Mercantini’s poem, “Una madre
romana alla sepoltura di Colomba Antonietti Porzio (sic)” particularly interesting,
precisely because it intersects with a folkloric tradition that has typically presented an
image of women quite diverse from the ordinary; even though, in Mercantini’s version,
Mercantini 21.
Mercantini 21.
Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1996).
Colomba does not cross-dress. In Dugaw’s analysis, the majority of the ballads present
a relatively fixed narrative structure of heterosexual order: the protagonist sets off
from her father’s household and lands, at the end of her adventures, on her husband’s
threshold. This “immutability” is temporarily questioned in the middle of the poem
where the woman is left to experiment with masquerading and fighting.80 Similarly,
in Mercantini’s poem Colomba’s most subversive moment occurs in the middle of the
work, when she is actively engaging in battle by charging and shooting her musket.
Colomba’s assertiveness in battle parallels that shown in her romantic life, when she
did not refuse Luigi’s courtship despite their families’ oppositions.
If ballads of the past do offer an image of womanhood and femininity that question
and challenge the gender order, as Margaret Tomalin has argued in the context of
Italian literature of the Renaissance,81 it becomes possible to argue that the sanitizing
that occurs at the end of Mercantini’s poem and other representations is part of a
larger project of the bourgeoisation of Italian society, in which women needed to
play a certain role without disturbing the status quo. We can see this sanitization
especially clearly in the visual representations of Colomba.
The visual iconography of Colomba is very limited. As far as it is possible to know,
there exists only one lithograph and two busts, one in the Gianicolo, and the other one
in a small niche in a square adjacent Bastia Umbra’s city hall, Colomba’s birthplace.
The lithographic image mirrors the representation of Colomba as a composed and
bourgeoise woman, her attire appropriate and unassuming. [Fig. 3.2]
Dugaw 4.
Margaret Tomalin, The Fortunes of the Warrior Heroine in Italian Literature (Ravenna [Italy]:
Longo Editore, 1982).
Figure 3.2: Colomba Antonietti. Lithography, Museo Centrale del Risorgimento,
Colomba Antonietti’s bust on the Gianicolo sits among other eighty-three similar
marble figures. [Fig. 3.3] She is the only woman represented and she is surrounded
by the patriotic men that courageously fought during the Roman Republic. The
Gianicolo’s patriotic promenade is interesting not only because of Colomba’s inclusion,
but also because of the “trans-national” flair that pervades it.82 It was Rome’s mayor
Ernesto Nathan, son of Sara Nathan, one of the most prominent Mazzinian women of
her time, who encouraged the installation of the marble bust commissioned to sculptor
Giovanni Nicolini and unveiled it in 1911.83 The bust is the only public representation
of Colomba in uniform.
The bust in her native Bastia represents an older woman, a wise and poised matron with nothing to suggest an assertive character or adventurous life.[Fig. 3.4] The
unveiling of the statue in 1910 was accompanied by an article in the local newspaper
in which Colomba’s choices were reduced to that of a loyal and virtuous wife:
Fu vittima, ma del suo amore allo sposo, fu eroina, ma della fedeltà coniugale.
L’epopea garibaldina vi ha intrecciato un fatto brillante, vi ha scritto una pagina
geniale, ha confermato una leggenda, ma non una storia.84
She was a victim, but of her husband’s love, [she] was a heroine, but of conjugal
fidelity. The Garibaldian epic has woven a brilliant fact, has written a genial
page, has confirmed a legend, but not a story.
Here, in the words of the anonymous journalist, the reader finds an illustrative summary of the containment and sanitization that Colomba’s life story has suffered. She
is a victim of love, but for Luigi, not for Italy; she is a heroine of domesticity, and not
Indeed, among the busts, the observer can admire those dedicated to the “garibaldini stranieri:” the
Englishman John Peard (Giovanni Paganucci, 1860, placed there in 1904), Finnish Herman Lijkanen
(Bino Bini, 1961), Hungarian Istvàn Türr (Róbert Csíkszentmihályi, 1998–1999), and Bulgarian
Petko Voivoda (Valentin Starcev, 2004).
Minciotti-Tsoukas 94–95.
Minciotti-Tsoukas 87.
Figure 3.3: Colomba Antonietti. Bust, Gianicolo, Roma.
Figure 3.4: Colomba Antonietti. Bust, Bastia Umbra.
of patriotism. According to the journalist, it was the Garibaldian myth and epic of
courage that transformed Colomba into something she had never been: an active and
willing protagonist of her days. The article, published in 1910, effectively tapped into
a widespread return to bourgeois morality that was also encouraged by the growing
influence of Catholic politicians on Italian political and cultural life. The monument
was unveiled just two years before Giolitti’s government denied the expansion of voting rights to women.85
Colomba’s legacy seems to mirror what a group of Tuscan mothers wrote to Vincenzo Gioberti in 1848: “Di madri imbelli e di mogli timide e paurose noi siamo
divenute cittadine magnanime, deliberate a mostrarci in tutto degne di questa Italia,
in cui il senno non fu mai scompagnato dalla virtù” [From weak mothers and shy
and fearful wives we became noble citizens, whose courage was never detached from
virtue].86 The manner in which Colomba’s life has been manipulated fits well with
the image that these Tuscan mothers wanted to give of themselves. The desire not to
have to forgo courage, intelligence, and virtue in order to demonstrate their Italianness was a preoccupation that Italian women shared with those men who became
in charge of molding, in post-Unification Italy, a still nebulous “Italian character.”
The “Italian-ness” of women could not be separated from images of domesticity and
virtue, even in the midst of battle. Colomba’s example is particularly interesting
because it demonstrate how subversive behaviors can be co-opted into normalizing
The electoral law passed by Giovanni Giolitti extended the right to vote to all literate men older
than twenty-one years old; illiterate men were allowed to vote only after having turned thirty or to
all those who had served in the military. Women’s right to vote was passed into law only in 1946.
Qtd. in Soldani, “Donne e nazione nella rivoluzione italiana del 1848” 76.
narratives precisely because of their exceptionality. Colomba’s choice to accompany
her husband to war, her cross-dressing, her ability to use weapons and her untimely
and courageous death all underline the possibility of a subversive behavior that only
occurs during times of emergency and can be rendered normative both thematically
(through Colomba’s death) and representationally (by coding her behavior as a sign
of wifely devotion). The subversive potential of undermining a gender order that
declines patriotic heroism in the masculine, is contained, re-narrated, and literally redressed, as when Colomba’s lifeless body was covered with a white dress and adorned
with white roses in a last attempt at recuperating purity and virtue. Colomba’s patriotic drive was hidden by subsequent operations of narrative and representational
containment, as in the case of the lithography or the Bastia bust. The only exception, the bust at the Gianicolo, is a marble monument to a woman whose subversive
behavior has become exemplary of “safe” virtues.
Luigia’s and Colomba’s choices were seen as temporary interruptions to a normative order caused by the necessity of mobilizing the entire population for a common
cause; their participation in the “five glorious days” and the Roman Republic were typically cast as episodes rather than life-long orientations. It is precisely this distinction
that allowed their survival and recuperation as images of true Risorgimento heroines,
since their stories ultimately reinforced, rather than questioned, gender discourses.
In the next chapter, we will see what happened to a woman who decided to
participate in the battles for Italian unification while publicly expressing her position
and explaining her choices, unlike Luigia and Colomba. Her voice prohibited her
choices to be viewed as necessary and temporary deviations. Maria della Torre’s case
demonstrates how difficult it is for narrators to reconcile deviant engagement in battle
with normative structures when the transgressor leaves extensive written record of
the motivations behind her choices.
Contessa Della Torre
When I started researching the participation of women in the Risorgimento, I kept
stumbling upon a name: Countess Maria Della Torre. As I will show in the course of
this chapter, many of the accounts of the Expedition of the Thousand, and many of the
subsequent military operations organized and led by Giuseppe Garibaldi mentioned
her name and attested to her presence. My curiosity was piqued by the detailed
descriptions of her attire, one made of plumed hats, swords, and hussars jackets. I
started to research and collect all I could on this flamboyant Countess. Maria Della
Torre was a Piedmontese aristocrat who joined the cause of the Risorgimento early in
life, followed Garibaldi during the Expedition of the Thousand, when she got injured
while crossing the river Volturno, organized camp hospitals, fought when needed, and
participated in the failed attempt at conquering Rome in 1867. Besides her presence
on the battlefield, she also wrote polemical pamphlets, a short novel, and some public
calls to join the Risorgimento cause by either enlisting in the army of volunteers or
by donating money.
The portrait of the woman that emerged from my archival research shows a much
more complicated, contradictory, and elusive personality than those hastily sketched
in books and memories of the Risorgimento. In this chapter, I will look at the life
and writings of Countess Maria Martini Della Torre with two objectives in mind.
First, I intend on deepening our knowledge of her life and writings: in doing so, I
hope to offer the tale of a woman who defied social conventions and expectations.
Only recently Italian historians have began to uncover and publish private correspondence, memoirs, and diaries of Italian women who lived and participated in the
Risorgimento:1 these books are all trying to fill an important void in the reconstruction of the experiences of Italian people in the nineteenth century by providing the
testimony of women whose role during the movement for national independence has
been fundamental but, until recently, overlooked. In this sense, this chapter posits
to contribute to the renewed interest in bringing to the larger public women’s own
voice. Secondly, I wish to employ the Countess as a historical “device” 2 in order to
discuss the reactions elicited by her participation in the Risorgimento and her patriotic and political engagement to complicate the predominant model embodied by the
sacrificial “Mother” of the Risorgimento. Anticlerical, divorcee, and republican, the
Countess also intervened in the debate on the opportunity of educating women while
Recent examples of such publications are: Maurogonato; De Orchi; and Anna de Cadilhac, A corte
e in guerra. Il memoriale segreto di Anna de Cadilhac, ed. Roberta De Simone and Giuseppe Monsagrati (Roma: Viella, 2007).
When historian Jill Lepore published her reflections on the practice of microhistory applied to the
genre of biography, she proposed four ways in which the life of an individual may become a “device”
to understand the complexities of the culture and society of origin. In particular, she posits to look
at a person’s life, however singular it may be, “as an allegory for the culture as a whole.” Jill Lepore,
“Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory,” The Journal of American History
88.1 (2001): 141–144.
preserving their maternal and domestic role. As we will see, her masculine attire was
admired but also condemned as a clear sign of an unstable personality.
The posthumous narrative treatment reserved to the Countess resembles in many
ways that of Luigia Battistotti and Colomba Antonietti, in the sense that her actions
and choices have been often cast in a negative light. How this negativity has been
folded into Maria’s life will be one of the objectives of this chapter. There are important differences between the experiences of the women of 1848 and the Countess’s.
First of all, the time frame: 1848–49 and post-Unification years offer very different
political, social, and military contexts that are important to understand the ways in
which the participation of women in the Risorgimento changed and was changed by
those who observed them in action. Whereas 1848 was a revolutionary year permeated
by enthusiasm that quickly turned into bitter disappointment leaving, in the memory
and political consciousness of those who participated in it, a mixture of melancholy,
defeat, and hope; 1860 closed the so-called “decade of preparation,” during which the
treaty of Plombières, to the Countess’s dismay, was signed and Piedmont was left in
control of Northern Italy.3
Secondly, these women belonged to different social classes: Luigia was a woman
of the people, who apparently became a self-made woman upon her arrival in the
New World after the defeat suffered in 1848; Colomba, daughter of an Umbrian
baker, married a Count and enlisted in the army; Maria came from an illustrious and
well-connected aristocratic Piedmontese family and married a cosmopolitan Count,
See, for example, Alberto M. Banti, Il Risorgimento italiano (Laterza, 2007) and Lucy Riall, Risorgimento. The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation State (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
member of the diplomatic corps.
Finally, whereas Luigia and Colomba apparently did not leave anything in writing,
Maria Della Torre left plenty. In this sense, the Countess’s subversion was not limited
to picking up a bayonet, nor was it exclusively identifiable with her political positions.
An investigation into the choices made by Maria Della Torre helps illuminate an
alternative path for women’s participation in the Risorgimento, one that contrasts
the depiction given by historian Franca Pieroni Bortolotti. Pieroni Bortolotti posits
that many nineteenth-century women preferred to focus on education, aware, as they
were, of the limits imposed by their gender:
[. . . ] la figura da poco considerata creatrice del costume, consapevole della
nuova dignità e intenta, nella impossibilità di oltrepassarne il limite, a promuovere negli altri, speranze e convinzioni che essa non porta avanti in prima
[. . . ] the figure now considered creator of manners, aware of her new dignity and
focused, in the impossibility of doing it herself, in promoting in others, hopes
and habits that she cannot do herself.
Women like Luigia, Colomba and Maria, however, navigated the nineteenth century
and its defining moments by balancing tradition with innovation; unhappy with the
limited sphere of action imposed on women by Restoration society, they pushed for
more visibility and participation. We shall see how the tension between tradition and
subversion came to terms in the Countess Maria Della Torre’s life.
Bortolotti 20.
A Full Life
In this section, I reconstruct the life and deeds of the Countess both to provide the
fullest biographical account to date and also to set the stage for a better understanding of her writings and the reactions she elicited from contemporaries and later
commentators alike. The life of an individual can hardly be considered as the linear
development of a unidimensional personality; reconfigurations, disassociations, contradictions, and merging of different character traits all make up and articulate the
process of identity formation.5 A woman’s experience and personality can never be
disjoined from the particular time and place in which she lived and acted; the contradictions expressed in Maria’s writing and the often edgy personality that emerges from
documents and accounts are also the mirror of an equally restless century during which
many political, societal, and gender balances were tipped over and re-articulated.
Countess Maria Martini Della Torre rode through the nineteenth century and
the Risorgimento following a winding and adventurous path that brought her from
her native Piedmont to London, Paris, Crimea, Sicily, Rome, Poland, and finally to
Switzerland. She was garibaldina and camp nurse, writer and polemicist, taking on as
many roles and appellatives as the changing circumstances required.6 Among many
For an illuminating discussion on the tensions between history and biography, see David Nasaw,
“AHR Roundtable: Historians and Biography. Introduction,” American Historical Review 114.3
(2009): 573–578. In this essay, Nasaw quotes historian’s Jo Burr Margadant who writes, “a narrative strategy designed to project a unified persona has become for the new biographer nearly as
suspect as claims to a ’definitive’ biography. The subject of biography is no longer on the coherent
self but rather a self that is performed to create an impression of coherence or an individual with
multiple selves whose different manifestations reflect the passage of time, the demands and options
of different settings, or the varieties of ways that others seek to represent that person.” Qtd. in
Nasaw 576.
It is difficult to compile a full list of all the different names used to refer to the Countess in the
literature (and such complication may account for the laboriousness of finding her in the archives
of the most famous Italian men of the nineteenth century, she befriended Giuseppe
Garibaldi, Bettino Ricasoli, and Tommaso Villa; she was also acquainted with Camillo
Benso Count of Cavour and Giuseppe Mazzini. Maria Della Torre lived an aristocratic
life; she never ceased actively to engage politics, and she never sat quietly when
the path towards Italian national unification was threatened by foreign and internal
forces. She was also notorious for flaunting military uniforms. As one of Garibaldi’s
biographers describes her, “[. . . ] the Countess Della Torre, a strange woman whom
Garibaldi had met in London in 1854 and who had now come out to join him on the
field of battle wearing a hussar tunic, a big plumed hat and a sword of improbable
length.” 7 Her choice of men’s clothing attracted curiosity and public criticism; indeed,
her cross-dressing might have been one of the reasons for her internment in the Swiss
mental hospital of Mendrisio where she died in 1919. [Fig. 4.1]
Maria Luisa Flavia was born in 1835 in the small hamlet of San Bernardino,
in the Lombardy province of Cremona, the fourth and last child of Carlo Felice
Canera Count of Salasco and Marianna, Marquess Pallavicino.8 Her father signed
the infamous treaty that ended the first Italian war of independence and determined
as well). Unless otherwise noted, I have chosen to use “Maria Della Torre,” because this is how she
signed most of her letters. Once in a while, she referred to herself using a translated version of her
name (e.g. Mary Della Torre, or La Tour); this was not an infrequent occurrence especially among
the most traveled women of the nineteenth century. For more on this, see Priscilla S. Robertson, An
Experience of Women: Pattern and Change in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1982) 7.
Christopher Hibbert, Garibaldi and His Enemies: The Clash of Arms and Personalities in the Making
of Italy (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1966) 253.
Much later in life, the Countess described her parents with words of admiration and praise: “Nata da
un padre Lombardo e Volterriano e cavalleresco, da una madre di nobiltà antica genovese, Darwiniana
di fede, io ebbi dalla culla nobili esempi ” [I was born from a Lombardo and Voltairian and chivalrous
father, and from a mother of old Genovese ancestry and Darwinian faith, I had from the cradle noble
examples]. Maria Della Torre, Conferenza Morale-Sociale (Lugano, 1902).
Figure 4.1: Anon., Countess Maria Martini Della Torre.
the abdication of King Carlo Alberto.9 Maria’s political involvement started early,
probably in 1848 when she was fourteen. Shortly after the conclusion of the war,
she married count Enrico Martini Della Torre di Crema, a Lombardy patriot and
political escapee who found asylum in Turin at the end of the forties.10 The couple
settled in Turin and frequently participated in the social life of the capital. If we
believe accounts made by their contemporaries, the marriage between Maria and
Enrico must have been punctuated by frequent and reciprocal extra-marital affairs.
A curious testimony is reported by republican politician Giorgio Asproni who, in his
private diary wrote:
Più tardi Pipo Mojon mi ha detto [. . . ] che la Contessa Martini, figlia del Generale Salasco, con la quale ebbe amorose relazioni, gli raccontò essa stessa che
di buon accordo coricava col Conte di San Marzano, mentre il marito dormiva
con la balia, che aveva preso dopo celebrate le nozze per la prole futura. Che
allo stesso tempo era trattenuta dal Conte Camillo Cavour, dal nipote figlio del
Marchese Gustavo, dal Duca di Grammont, Ambasciatore di Francia e da Hudson, Ambasciatore d’Inghilterra. La Martini però prediligeva il San Marzano,
che poi morì in Crimea. Per disfarsi degli altri diede a tutti l’appuntamento
quasi alla medesima ora, e ordinò alla serva che li facesse entrare in una sala
al buio e in silenzio. Arrivati uno dopo l’altro, la Martini entrò nella sala e,
accesa la candeletta fosforica, poterono tutti vedersi e bene riconoscersi. Tutti
restarono avviliti; lei sola rideva. Così diede loro congedo per rimanere al suo
On the Countess’s father, General Canera, weighted Cavour’s unforgiving judgement. In a letter to
Emilie De La Rue, the future prime minister wrote: “I nostri disastri militari e politici mi hanno
inebetito. Non ho più la forza di scrivere un rigo. Quanti errori gran Dio! È impossibile una più
funesta mescolanza di incapacità di ogni genere, sia nell’esercito sia nel governo” [Our military and
political defeats have stunned me. I cannot even write one more line. God, how many mistakes! It
is impossible [to find] a more pernicious mixture of incapability at all levels, both in the army and
in the government]. Maria never betrayed her father’s memory, constantly seeking to reinstate his
name and prestige. Qtd. in Giuseppe Talamo, “Stampa e vita politica dal 1848 al 1864,” Storia di
Torino, ed. Umberto Levra, vol. VI. La città nel Risorgimento (1798–864) (Torino: Einaudi, 2000)
Count Enrico’s mother, Virginia Giovio Della Torre, came from a prestigious Milanese ancestry.
According to Francesco Orestano Virginia was among the patriots who participated in the 1820–
21 failed conspiration against the Austrian, see Francesco Orestano, “Virginia Giovio Della Torre,”
Eroine, ispiratrici e donne d’eccezione, vol. VII (Milano: Istituto Editoriale Italiano, 1940). Francesco
Hayez painted a beautiful portrait of the Countess as the Greek goddess Diana.
Later, Pipo Mojon told me [. . . ] that the Countess Martini, daughter of General
Salasco, with whom he had amorous exchanges, told him that she was sleeping
with the Count of San Marzano, while her husband was sleeping with the wetnurse, whom he had hired after the marriage in preparation for the birth of
their future children. [The Countess told him] that she was entertained by
Count Camillo Cavour, by his nephew, the son of Marquis Gustavo, by the
Duke of Grammont, ambassador of France, and by Hudson, ambassador of
England. Countess Martini, however, favored Count San Marzano, who later
died in Crimea. To get rid of all the others, she gathered them all at the same
time, and ordered the maid to let them in a darkened room, in silence. When
they all arrived, Countess Martini entered the room and, lit the phosphoric
candle, so that the men could all look and recognized one another. They were
all humiliated; only she was laughing. Later, she sent them all away to remain
with her lover.
If this account is to be trusted, it is not difficult to imagine the Countess’s amusement at the sight of all her lovers gathered in one room only to have their identity
shamelessly unveiled. The practice of having lovers was certainly not unusual,12 and
it is clear that the Countess enjoyed the company of men. This passage, however,
is interesting also because it points to Maria’s resolute personality and to her taste
for theatrical exploits. As it will become clear later, her inclination to theatricality
became one her most characteristic traits and the one that would endure in many
recollections of her. “Donna Maria,” as she was known in Cavourian circles,13 was a
familiar presence in the moderate circles of post-1848 Turin, but her frequentations
and political acumen soon favored the revolutionary and republican alternative, thus
Giorgio Asproni, Diario politico 1855–1870 , ed. Bruno Josto Anedda, vol. 1. 1855–1857 (Milano:
Giuffrè, 1974) 545.
Indeed, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed at the incidence of extra-marital affairs
to polemicize against the aristocratic practice of arranged marriages.
According to historian Rosario Romeo, Maria became also the lover of King Vittorio Emanuele. In
his view, the sentimental transition from Vittorio Emanuele to Garibaldi was accompanied by the
parallel political transformation from moderatism to revolutionism, see Rosario Romeo, Cavour e il
suo tempo (1842–1854), vol. 2 (Bari: Laterza, 1977) 817.
distancing from the moderate Piedmontese political circles.
When Maria and Enrico moved to Paris, in 1852, their daughter Virginia was born.
A year later, the Count and Countess separated.14 The end of the marriage resulted
in financial turmoil for the Countess and initiated a series of legal proceedings that
occupied a large part of her life in and outside of Italy. In a letter to Baron Ricasoli,
Maria wrote:
In Italia le leggi sono solo per chi è potente e ricco. Io non ho potuto ottenere
da vivere ed Ella capirà, signor Barone, ch’io sono uno di quei caratteri che si
possono spezzare, non piegare. Fatalista, in massima, credo che l’uomo deve
lottare: pure, in date circostanze, dopo molti anni di dolori e di lotta bisogna
cadere. La divisa dei miei antenati è “fato prudentia minor”:15 ed io lo credo.
D’altronde io son donna, gentildonna: che mezzo ho di guadagnare la mia vita?
[. . . ] I processi durano un’eternità, costano danari infiniti: ed io sono affranta
moralmente e fisicamente.16
In Italy laws are only for the powerful and rich. I could not have enough to
survive and you, Mr. Baron, will understand that I am one of those types who
can break but not bend. For the most part, I am a fatalist and I believe that
men should fight; nevertheless after years of pain and battles one has to give
up. My ancestors’s motto is “fato prudentia minor,” and I stand by it. After all,
I am a woman, a lady: how can I provide for myself? Trials last for an eternity
and are really expensive: I am distraught both morally and physically.
In 1854, after the separation, the Countess reached the British shores. It was
on May 10th of the same year that Maria met Giuseppe Garibaldi.17 Garibaldi was
“Nel 1853 il conte è a Parigi quando gli giunge la notizia che l’Austria ha sequestrato i suoi beni.
[. . . ] Cavour e Rattazzi gli scrivono per confortarlo, assicurandolo che gli si darà una posizione
degna di lui. Martini allora rientra in Lombardia lasciando moglie e una cara bambina nella capitale
francese” [In 1853 the Count is in Paris when he is reached by the news that Austria has sequestered
his possessions. [. . . ] Cavour and Rattazzi wrote to comfort him, reassuring him about a suitable
position. Martini then goes back to Lombardy, leaving behind in Paris his wife and dear daughter].
Carlo Pagani, Uomini e cose in Milano dal marzo all’agosto del 1848 (Milano: Editore Cogliati,
1906) 11.
The motto “Fato prudentia minor” actually belonged to Enrico Martini’s ancestor, the famous Renaissance historian Paolo Giovio who coined the motto in the sixteenth century.
Maria Della Torre, letter to Bettino Ricasoli, 7 april 1865, Armando Sapori, “Due gentildonne
piemontesi e Bettino Ricasoli, lettere inedite della contessa Maria Martini della Torre e della
principessa Aurelia La Tour d’Auvergne,” Il Risorgimento Italiano 21.1 (1928): 20.
“Fu appunto a Londra, nel maggio 1854, che Maria Martini s’incontrò per la prima volta con
an able crafter of his public image, and his fame and charm did not leave women
unmoved.18 In October, Maria was in Geneva, Switzerland, where she frequented
Madame Solms, a niece of the Bonaparte family, and lived high, probably with the
help of her current lover, Marquis Guglielmo Bevilacqua.19
Between 1856 and 1859 she divided her time between Versailles and London,
where she got acquainted with the Mazzinian contingent of expatriates.20 In 1859
Maria wrote “Episode politique en Italie de 1848 à 1858” and “L’Italie en regard à la
France, l’Angleterre, la Russie et l’Autriche” both published by two London publishing
houses; we will return to these works later in the chapter. In 1860 Maria Della Torre
was with Garibaldi and his volunteers during the convulsive phases of the Expedition
Garibaldi; il quale, reduce dal secondo esilio, erasi fermato a New-Castle on Tyne e poi a Londra,
accolto con grande entusiasmo, e dove la Maria, andata a riceverlo con gli altri profughi italiani, gli
profferse amore” [It was in London, in May 1854, that Maria Martini first met Garibaldi; he was
coming back form his second exile and was staying in Newcastle on Tyne and then in London, where
he was greeted with enthusiasm by the crowds and where Maria, who welcomed him along with
other Italian exiles, confessed her love]. Giuseppe Garibaldi, Lettere ad Anita e ad altre donne, ed.
Giuseppe Curatulo (Roma: A. F. Formiggini Editore, 1926) 21.
See Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007).
In a letter to Cavour (October 10th, 1854), Urbano Rattazzi recalled running into the Countess on
the streets of the Swiss city: “La contessa Martini è qui [. . . ]. Ella vive da gran signora, senza che
si sappia come faccia: ora deve esser sola, sta poco lungi dal marchese Bevilacqua, il quale [. . . ]
si suppone esser quello che attualmente paga le spese. È quasi sempre in compagnia di Madame
Solms: la coppia, come Ella vede, non può essere più bella” [The Countess Martini is here [. . . ]. She
is living high, and nobody knows how: she must be on her own now, and she is often accompanied
by Marquis Bevilacqua, who [. . . ] seems to be the one providing for her. She is almost always with
Madame Solms: as you may imagine, the couple could not be more beautiful]. Urbano Rattazzi,
Epistolario di Urbano Rattazzi. 1846–1861 , ed. Rosanna Roccia, vol. 1 (Roma: Gangemi, 2009) 215.
The Countess’s presence in Geneva is also confirmed by a letter sent to French writer and politician
Alphonse de Lamartine by Eugène Sue on November 1st, 1854. In it, the French writer introduced
the Countess as “L’une de vos admiratrices les plus intelligentes et les plus éclairées” [One of the
most intelligent and enlighten among your admirers]. Alphonse De Lamartine, Correspondance
D’Alphonse De Lamartine (1830–1867), ed. Christian Croisille, vol. VI: 1850–1855 (Paris: Honoré
Champion, 2003) 583.
On August 4th, 1856 the Countess wrote a letter to Garibaldi from Pont Colbert, Versailles; evidence
of her British sojourn comes from yet another letter to Garibaldi, dated 1858 and sent from the
Clarendon Hotel, 19 Albermarle Street, London. See, respectively, Curatulo 199 and Giuseppe
Garibaldi, “Letter to Maria Della Torre,” M.C.R.R. b. 547 n. 87/1.
of the Thousand. Before leaving Milan for Palermo, she successfully fundraised for
the volunteers and earned praised for her dedication:
La illustre signora Maria Giovio Contessa della Torre da Cremona, appena arrivata a Palermo, avendo saputo il disegno di quei generosi, spinta da quell’ardente
patriottismo che la guidava ne’ campi di Crimea per confortare e sollecitare cure
i feriti, spontaneamente vollesi mettere a capo della questua già iniziata, interessando i benemeriti cittadini a largheggiare di loro soccorsi. Una parte delle
collette fu con effetto impiegata nella compra di camice, calze e cravatte [. . . ];
l’altra parte del denaro raccolto dalla Signora della Torre si versò a beneficio
dell’ambulanza, della quale la nobil donna si mise a capo.21
The illustrious Mrs. Maria Giovio Contesa della Torre from Cremona upon her
arrival in Palermo, learnt of those generous people’s plans, and motivated by
the most profound patriotism that guided her in Crimea to alleviate the pain
and urge the care for the injured, decided spontaneously to head the collection
of money, soliciting the most affluent among the citizens to support the rescue
efforts. A part of the money was used to buy shirts, socks, and ties [. . . ]; some
more money collected by Mrs. della Torre was used to finance the ambulance,
which the noblewoman decided to guide.
Her presence did not go unnoticed as she divided her time and energy between
tending the injured and taking part in military actions, always not too far from
Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The Countess and Garibaldi
The romantic relationship between the Countess and the legendary General did not
last long, but their friendship would endure.22 In her letters to Garibaldi, the Countess
never shied away from her feelings:
Giuseppe da Forio, Storia di Giuseppe Garibaldi , vol. II - documenti (Napoli: Giannini, 1870) 268–
The exchanges between the Countess and Garibaldi were undoubtedly marked by a certain romantic
vein; for example, in a letter from 1864, Garibaldi wrote: “[. . . ] non dimenticherò mai chi vidi per
la prima nel porto di Genova. In quel tempo io potevo rimanere uno schiavo di quella bellissima
creatura” [I will never forget who I saw first in the Genova harbor. At the time, I could have been
enslaved by such a beautiful creature]. Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Letter to Maria Della Torre,” M.C.R.R.
b.45 n.26.
Se avete fede in me sarete felice! Io vi sarò compagna indivisibile nella gloria
e nella sventura e quest’ultima non sarà! Il cuore me lo dice. Accetto ogni
responsabilità per il futuro e sarò cosa vostra ve lo giuro.23
If you trust me, you will be happy! I will be your inseparable companion in
glory and adversity, but the latter won’t be! My heart tells me so. I accept
every responsibility for the future and I will belong to you, I vow to you.
In a letter from 1864, Maria scolded the General for not using a more intimate form
of address in writing her, lamenting that for him she had done some things of which
she would have never thought herself capable, and still others about which she felt a
bit ashamed:
M’avete maltrattata senza motivo, eppure io fui sempre la stessa, sempre sarò
la stessa - vostra. Credete che non ve ne abbia date prove bastanti? Per voi feci
cose che manco Dio m’avrebbe fatto fare - e non vi diedi forse prova di fiducia
incredibili mandandovi per nostro governo lettere che non avrei fatto leggere a
mio Padre? [. . . ] Amatemi - perché pochi meritano al pari di me l’amor vostro
e la vostra stima.24
You have mistreated me without reasons, and I have always been the same, I
will always be the same - yours. Haven’t I given you enough proof of that? For
you, I have done things that not even God would have made me do - didn’t I
give you proof of my trust in sending you letters that I would have not asked
my Father to read? [. . . ] Love me - because few deserve your love and respect
more than me.
One is left to wonder what “things that not even God would have made me done”
could have been. The Countess, like many of her comrades during the Expedition of
the Thousand, fell into depression and, at one point, threatened suicide.25 At this
point, Garibaldi wrote letters full of sincere concern:
Maria Della Torre, “Letter to Giuseppe Garibaldi,” Giuseppe Curatulo Papers, M.R.M.
Maria Della Torre, “Letter to Giuseppe Garibaldi,” M.C.R.R. b.45 n.26.
In modern medical terms we could speculate that the depression registered in many Garibaldini
following 1861 and the dismantling of the “Esercito Meridionale” is now referred to as post-traumatic
syndrome. For a detailed analysis of the ways in which the Garibaldini coped with military discharge,
ingratitude of some of the members of the newly unified Parliament, and what they perceived as
betrayal of the spirit of the Risorgimento see Eva Cecchinato, Camicie rosse: i garibaldini dall’unità
alla Grande Guerra (Roma: Laterza, 2007).
Contessa amatissima, ma voi m’avete disperato con le due ultime lettere. Perché
avete deciso di morire? Ditemelo e ditemi ciocché io posso fare sollievo vostro,
perché io vi amo sempre, bella ed infelice donna!26
My beloved Countess, you worried me to desperation with your last two letters!
Why have you decided to die? Tell me and tell me so that I can relieve you,
because I still love you, beautiful and unhappy woman!
Maria, at the height of her desperation entrusted to Garibaldi her daughter’s
Generale! Amico! Ricordatevi che molti cercarono sempre di dividerci. Ne
soffrirei . . . tanto ve lo giuro! Oggi sono affranta di morale e di fisico. Domando
alla morte la pace, la quiete! A voi lego sacre parole di affetto. Vi lego, per
testamento, mia figlia. Amatela, fate per lei una buona cittadina [. . . ]. Povera
bambina! È così in cattive e disoneste mani! Addio, Generale! Fate per l’Italia
ciò che il vostro cuore v’ispira. Quando saprete molte cose di me, forse sentirete
di avermi amato meno di quanto meritavo. Però mi avete amato! Morrò e
l’ultimo pensiero mio sarà per voi.28
General! Friend! Remember that many always tried to come between us. I
would suffer . . . so greatly, I promise! Today, I am grief-stricken both morally
and physically. I ask death for peace and quiet! I leave you with sacred words
of affection. I leave you, following my will, my daughter. Love her, and make
of her a good citizen [. . . ]. Poor child! She is in such bad and dishonest hands!
Farewell, General! Do for Italy what your heart inspires you. When you will
learn things about me, you may realized that you loved me less than what I
deserved. But you did love me! I will die, and my last thought will be for you.
Once the Countess abandoned her suicidal thoughts, Garibaldi wrote:
Maria carissima, ebbi i vostri due ritratti e ve ne ringrazio. Il bellissimo vostro
volto è pieno di mestizia e mi diveniste più cara. Voi siete una vittima della perversità umana. In questi tempi, in cui la parte eletta della nazione si millanta di
vergogne, che volete? Però voi, giovane ricca e bella, paragonandovi colle infelici
creature, che vi circondano, non dovete affliggervi e in una prossima vostra mi
invierete un ritratto, che mi confermi non essere vane le mie ammonizioni.29
Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Letter to Maria Della Torre,” Giuseppe Curatulo Papers. M.R.M.
The education of young women was an issue very close to the Countess’s heart and became the
subject of an article published in La civilità italiana, where Maria Della Torre advocates for a
secular education for girls, see Maria Della Torre, “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della Donna,” La
civiltà italiana 6 (20 Aug. 1865): 83–84.
Maria Della Torre, “Letter to Giuseppe Garibaldi,” Giuseppe Curatulo Papers. M.R.M.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Letter to Maria Della Torre,” Giuseppe Curatulo Papers. M.R.M.
Dearest Maria, I received your two portraits and I would like to thank you.
Your beautiful face is so full of melancholy that you grew even dearer. You are
a victim of human perversion. These days, when the chosen part of the nation
is boasting of shameful acts, what do you want? You, young, rich and beautiful,
comparing yourself to the unhappy creatures surrounding you, should not afflict
yourself, and in your next letter you will send me a portrait of you that will
confirm how my admonitions did not go unheard.
This is one among the last known letters exchanged between Maria and Giuseppe.
As historian Marta Bonsanti has argued, one of the most common moves for a Romantic lover was that of sublimating passionate love for love of one’s country. The
Countess eventually sublimated her love for Garibaldi for an equally strong passion
for Italy.30 After 1866, a few years away from the annexation of Rome, Maria’s epistolary partners changed: her letters to Garibaldi, full of passion, were substituted
with exchanges with politicians such as Ricasoli, in which she focused on politics and
in which she repeatedly asked for financial assistance.
The impossibility of finding tangible happiness in her private life was translated
into an unabashed love for the country. The Countess’ love for Italy transformed
her into an indefatigable patriot: she collected conspicuous amounts of money for
the cause, nursed suffering soldiers, and wrote pamphlets on the current political
situation. Paul Ginsborg has posited that the sublimating move from lover to country
is initially perceived as the safest choice inasmuch as the new object of passion does
not abandon or betray one’s trust.31 This may be true for some, but as it will become
clear in my analysis of some of her public writings, at times the Countess felt deeply
For a very interesting discussion on the intersections between amor romantico and amor di patria
see Marta Bonsanti, “Amore familiare, amore romantico e amor di patria,” Il Risorgimento, ed.
Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg (Torino: Einaudi, 2007) 127–152.
Paul Ginsborg, “Romanticismo e Risorgimento: l’io, l’amore e la nazione,” Il Risorgimento, ed.
Alberto M. Banti and Paul Ginsborg (Torino: Einaudi, 2007) 24–25.
betrayed by the way the process of unification was conducted. Her outrage at the lack
of sensible policies for the veterans of the Second War of Independence is expressed
in a letter to Lombard politician Federico Bellazzi:
Vedendo i generosi mille ridotti a dover mendicare il mio cuore si spezza e io
arrossisco per l’Italia di doverli soccorrere!. . . è tale ingratitudine da inorridire.32
Seeing the generous Thousand driven to beg, my heart is broken and I feel
ashamed for Italy to have to rescue them. . . it is such ingratitude to horrify.
Two months later, in a letter by Giuseppe Mazzini to the Countess, the exiled
politician expressed his doubts regarding the successful outcome of the Risorgimento:
Gentile Signora, Accetto, dubitando, l’augurio. Dico dubitando, perché un moto
nazionale che potrebbe collocare d’un balzo l’Italia a capo, per la prima volta,
delle Nazioni, è caduto in mano d’uomini inetti, raggiratori meschini, senza fede
nel popolo, nell’altrui lealtà e nell’unità per la quale non hanno mai lavorato
né patito [. . . ] Che cosa gli costa il dire a Garibaldi “andate, pacificate Napoli
e intimate la crociata pel Veneto, moveremo poi uniti, in Roma”? che costa
ai Ministri di serbar l’esercito attuale com’è, decretare la coscrizione abolita
nell’avvenire e armar la Nazione com’è nella Svizzera? Uno o due atti farebbero
grande e invincibile l’Italia; grandi ed amati qui che li facessero. E non ne
hanno il coraggio né il genio. Lo spettacolo de’ pigmei ai quali è fidato in oggi
il destino d’Italia è dolore per me più acerbo assai dell’esilio.33
Dear Lady, I accept, with reservation, your best wishes. I say with reservations
because a national uprising which could place Italy, for the first time, at the
head of the Nations, has fallen in the hands of vile men, wretched tricksters
with no faith in the people, in their own loyalty and in the national unification
for which they have never worked nor suffered for [. . . ] Why does not Garibaldi
say “go, bring peace to Naples and encourage the crusade for the Veneto, then
we will shall move united to Rome”? Why would not the Ministers of the State
keep the army as it is now, order conscription that was abolished and arm the
Nation like it happens in Switzerland? One or two deeds would render Italy
great and invincible; great and loved. Nevertheless, they do not posses neither
the courage nor the intelligence. The spectacle of Italy’s fate in the hands of
such pygmies causes me more pain that the exile.
Maria Della Torre, “Letter to Federico Bellazzi,” M.C.R.R., b. 254 n. 85.
Giuseppe Mazzini, “Letter to Maria Della Torre,” M.C.R.R. b. 549 n. 52.
Unfortunately, I could not locate the letter that inspired Mazzini to answer the
Countess, but from the tone and content of the epistle, it is possible to evince that
Mazzini regarded Maria a capable and informed interlocutor. The same disenchantment felt by Mazzini was shared by many in the Garibaldini’s ranks who got discharged after the annexation of Southern Italy.34 After the exhilarating moments
following the second war for Independence, Maria Della Torre, like many of her comrades, hoped to be able to participate in new military expeditions. The excitement
transpiring from the Countess’s words was echoed, as historian Eva Cecchinato has
shown, among many Garibaldini.35 As the Countess wrote to her friend, Tuscan politician Baron Ricasoli, despite the disappointment felt after 1860 because of the decision
not to try to conquest Rome, the enthusiasm and dedication to the Risorgimento cause
had not waned:
Barone. Forse questa lettera è l’ultima che Ella riceverà da me, perché sarò coi
miei amici a dividere gloria o sventura fra poche ore. [. . . ] Io sarò, come nel
1860, un seguace fedele a principi politici che nulla potrà mai cambiare, ed a
cari amici che rispetto ed amo. [. . . ] Se saremo vinti, avremo almeno cercato di
lavare col nostro sangue un trattato ignominioso per l’Italia. Il disarmo è viltà:
meglio la guerra. Se vinti, ripeto, non assisteremo alle sventure, alle sciagure
che Napoleone III ha l’infamia di proporre all’Italia. [. . . ] Chi sa! Finiremo
forse a Josephstad; meglio così: però preferirei morire sul campo.36
Baron. This may be the last letter You will receive from me, because in a
few hours I will be with my friends to share glory or misfortune. [. . . ] As in
1860, I will be a trustworthy follower of those unwavering political principles
and of those dear friends that I respect and love. [. . . ] If defeated, we will have
At the end of 1860 the “Esercito Meridionale,” or the army organized by Giuseppe Garibaldi during
the Expedition of the Thousand, counted about 50,000 men, 7,000 of whom with the rank of officer.
With the royal decree of November 11th, 1860 the volunteers were asked to form a separate battalion
within the regular army whereas the higher ranks could have entered the army if approved by an
ad hoc commission composed by members of the largely Piedmontese royal Army. See Piero Pieri,
Storia militare del Risorgimento; guerre e insurrezioni (Torino: Einaudi, 1962) 734–744.
Eva Cecchinato, Camicie rosse: i garibaldini dall’unità alla Grande Guerra (Roma: Laterza, 2007).
Maria Della Torre, Letter to Bettino Ricasoli, 21 October 1864 Sapori.
tried to wash with our blood an ignominious treaty for Italy. The disarm is
cowardice: better the war. If defeated, again, we will not witness the atrocities
that Napoleon III has the shame of proposing Italy. [. . . ] Who knows! We may
end up in Josephstad; it would be better: I’d rather die on the battlefield.
It seems that Maria’s only moments of true happiness were directly connected with
active involvement in the national cause. As time progressed, the Countess’MoraleSociales involvement in political action did not diminish.37 Between 1867 and 1873,
the Countess spent her time between Florence38 (at the time Italy’s capital) and Paris,
where she allegedly took part in the Franco-Prussian war as a spy for the Germans.39
After the conclusion of the war, the Countess incurred in some financial and legal
Giuseppe Curatulo mentions the Countess also on the field in Bezzecca, during the Third War
for Independence: “Durante la guerra per la Venezia la contessa della Torre ritornò sul campo di
battaglia coi garibaldini; i volontari la videro cavalcare, in camicia rossa, oltre Bezzecca accanto al
colonnello Bruzzesi” [During the war for Venice, the Countess returned to the battlefield with the
Garibaldini; the volunteers saw her riding, wearing a red shirt, behind Bezzecca along with colonel
Bruzzesi]. Curatulo 209.
The Countess’s presence in Florence is documented in this note by journalist Ugo Pesci:
Nella tribuna della stampa erano frequenti i sommessi battibecchi, ma tutti finivano poi per
andare d’amore e d’accordo, da don Medicina che faceva il resoconto per l’Armonia, ai redattori di giornaletti radicali, che non avevano allora alcuna importanza. I resocontisti, appena
preso posto, guardavano se era arrivata "la contessa" - una contessa Martini della Torre - non
più avvenente ma assidua frequentatrice delle sedute, con la quale Paolo Fambri, quando fu
questore della Camera, dovette sostenere una lunga ed accanita lotta per impedirle l’accesso
alla tribuna diplomatica nella quale, secondo lui, essa non aveva alcun diritto d’entrare; e
"la contessa" se n’era vendicata domiciliandosi permanentemente nella tribuna presidenziale.
Nella tribuna di corte si vedeva spesso qualche componente della casa civile o militare di Sua
Maestà: mai signore, per la semplicissima ragione che non ve n’erano a corte.
The press gallery was often the theatre for quiet quarrels, which were always resolved : from
Don Medicina who reported for the Armonia, to the radical journals’s writers who did not
have any influence. The reporters, as soon as they settled in their seats, looked to see if “the
countess” had arrived - a countess Martini della Torre - no longer beautiful but a regular of
the sessions, with whom Paolo Fambri, when he was the Chamber’s commissioner, engaged
in a long quarrel to prevent her from accessing the diplomatic gallery in which, he believed,
she had no right to enter; and “the countess” took her revenge by permanently sitting in the
presidential gallery. In the royal gallery one could often see a member of the court or His
Majesty: never ladies, for the simple reason that there were no women there.
Ugo Pesci, Firenze Capitale (1865–1870) dagli appunti di un ex-cronista (Firenze: R. Bemporad &
Figlio, 1904) 284.
In the “Rubrique Judiciare” appeared on the Parisian newpaper “Le Figaro,” the Countess is said to
have lived in Versailles “dans l’intimité de l’état-major prussien.” “Rubrique Judiciare,” Le Figaro
(30 Mar. 1874): 3.
troubles and was summoned to pay a fine and condemned to some days in jail by a
Parisian tribunal.40
Shortly after 1900, when she was already sixty-five years old, the Countess moved
to the Swiss city of Lugano, in the canton of Ticino,41 In 1902 Maria Della Torre was
still quite active as shown by a manifesto advertising one “Conferenza Morale-Sociale.”
It is probably to this public speaking engagement that she referred to in a telegram
to politician Arcangelo Ghisleri dated April 26th, 1902.42 In the advertisement for
the conference, the Countess anticipated her plans to speak about her experience as
a camp nurse in Mentana where:
[. . . ] Garibaldi colle lacrime agli occhi mi tese le mani e mi disse: “È la prima
volta che devo lasciare i miei feriti dietro di me! Non ho bisogno di raccomandarveli!” Ed io partii per Roma ed appoggiata dalla lealtà cavalleresca del
Generale Dumon, amico di mio padre, cominciai il triste pellegrinaggio per gli
[. . . ] Garibaldi, with tears in his eyes, extended a hand and told me: “It is
the first time that I leave my injured soldiers behind! I do not need to entrust
them to you!” So I left for Rome and, aided by the chivalrous loyalty of General
Dumon, a friend of my father, I began my sad pilgrimage from hospital to
She also did not miss the opportunity to accuse the clergy of unethical conduct
towards the injured and to celebrate the heroism of the young patriots:
Monaci, preti, frati e suore, dimenticando l’opera sublime del loro ministero,
erano come belve, disputandosi il triste privilegio del loro vestito per tormentare
“Rubrique Judiciare,” Le Figaro (30 Mar. 1874): 3.
The Canton Ticino and its principal town Lugano had a long-standing tradition of welcoming Italian
political exiles since 1848; among the most famous was the Milanese patriot and political theorist
Carlo Cattaneo to whom Maria Della Torre sent a copy of her 1860 historical analysis 1849 et 1860.
Alors et aujourd’hui.
In it, Maria wrote “Grazie! Siamo pochi ma buoni e fedeli all’ideale che fu fede e relazione nostro”
[Thank you! We are few but good and loyal to that ideal that was our religion and relation]. Maria
Della Torre, “Telegram to Arcangelo Ghisleri,” Archivio Ghisleri IV g 22–4. Pisa, Domus Mazziniana.
M. Della Torre, Conferenza Morale-Sociale.
i nostri giovani caduti eroi che, armati per la più parte di bastoni, offrivano il
petto alle micidiali palle dei chassepots.44
Monks, priests, friars, and nuns forgetting the sublime work of their ministry
behaved like beasts, competing in the sad privilege associated with their uniform
to torment our young fallen heroes who, armed for the most part with sticks,
offering their bodies to the deadly bullets coming from the chassepots.
The Countess must have upset the clergy during her stay in Rome, because, as
reported by the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1867 she was expelled from the city. As will become clear in the following section, the Countess’s adamant anti-clericalism informed
much of her most passionate public writing.
The last known letter written by the Countess expresses, in the act of remembering the glorious days of 1860, a melancholy that may perfectly summarize her
dedication to the Risorgimento and the feeling of camaraderie she felt towards her
fellow Garibaldini:
Fui ferita da una palla di moschetto [. . . ] persi molto sangue e zoppicai per una
quindicina di giorni al passaggio del Volturno – erano bei giorni quelli!! Pieni
di sole d’ideale di virtù di lealtà. Non si aveva spesso da mangiare si dormiva
per terra ma si era lieti se si sentiva animati da quel sol grido “Libertà”!! Ah!
quello è grido magico!! [. . . ] Ah! quanti ricordi tristi gloriosi dolci. . . [. . . ]45
I was wounded by a musket’s bullet [. . . ] I lost a lot of blood and limped for
about fifteen days at the crossing of the Volturno – those were such beautiful
days!! Full of sun, idealism, virtue, and loyalty. We often did not have to eat
and we slept on the ground but we were happy to be moved by that only cry,
“Freedom”!! Ah, such a magical cry!! [. . . ] Ah, so many sad and glorious and
sweet memories. . . [. . . ]
As it will become clear later in the chapter, the opinion expressed by some of
the Countess’s comrades were not always flattering; regardless of the tensions her
presence may have provoked, it is clear from this letter that the Countess always felt
M. Della Torre, Conferenza Morale-Sociale.
Maria Della Torre, “Letter to Tommaso Villa,” Tommaso Villa Papers. M.R.T.
to be a part of the band of brothers who made Italy.
The Countess’ passionate friendship with Garibaldi, commitment to the Italian
cause, and political activism are all aspects of her biography that require further investigation and archival research. What seems clear is that her path to happiness,
as for many of her contemporaries, was never a completely successful journey. Moreover, for women like her, who broke the pattern of long established behavioral norms
and codes, happiness was even harder to reach. Her late-romantic sensibility, while
it contributed to the rhetorical construction of the Risorgimento discourse, also prevented her from ever feeling satisfied and at peace with the political outcome of the
From Sword to Pen
Historian Laura Guidi, in her introduction to Scritture femminili e storia, a collection
of essays on women as writers of history, writes:
Sarebbe fuorviante immaginare un processo a senso unico, nel quale siano sempre e solo gli uomini a condannare le donne all’invisibilità. Quest’ultima appare, piuttosto, come il risultato di un sistema di rappresentazioni al quale le
donne contribuiscono attivamente. Penso a figure femminili che hanno vissuto,
durante il Risorgimento, vite densissime di militanza, relazioni internazionali,
viaggi, percorsi di trasformazione personale, ma che molto di rado ci hanno lasciato libri di memorie, diari, autobiografie, a differenza dei loro compagni, consapevoli del valore della propria esperienza sia come testimoni che come attori
di un’epoca straordinaria. Di fronte all’abbondanza e molteplicità di “scritture
dell’io” maschili, le donne lasciano dietro di sé, piuttosto che rappresentazioni
intenzionali delle proprie vite, tracce di queste: soprattutto cumuli di lettere
inedite, testimonianza di un sé prevalentemente relazionale.46
It would be misleading to imagine a one-way process in which only and always
men condemn women to invisibility. It seems, instead, that [invisibility] is the
Laura Guidi, ed., Scritture femminili e storia (Napoli: Cliopress, 2004) 20.
result of a system of representation to which women contributed actively. I am
thinking of women who have lived, during the Risorgimento, lives full of militancy, international relations, travels, personal journeys, but who seldom have
left behind memoirs, diaries, autobiographies unlike their male companions who
were well aware of the value of their experiences and the role as witnesses and
actors of an extraordinary epoch. Faced with the abundance and multiplicity
of masculine “self-writings,” women leave behind, instead of intentional representations of their lives, traces of them: in particular an incredible number of
unpublished letters, evidence of a mainly relational “self.”
Countess Della Torre is an exception: she did not leave behind only epistolary traces. While not brandishing her Garibaldinian sword, Maria engaged with
more perseverance and equal dedication to writing. My archival and bibliographical
research have uncovered the following monographic works penned by Maria Della
Torre: L’Italie en regard à la France, l’Angleterre, la Russie et l’Autriche (London:
P.Rolandi, 1859), Dangers créés par le papisme (Torino: Giannini e Fiore, 1860),
Non si venda Savoia e Nizza. Appello agli Italiani della signora contessa M. M. G.
Della-Torre (Firenze: Andrea Bettini, 1860), Episode politique en Italie de 1848 à
1858 (Torino: Gianini and Fiori, 1860), 1849 et 1860, alors et aujourd’hui (Firenze:
Andrea Bettini, 1860), and Danni recati all’Italia dal Papato. Dedicato agli operai
genovesi (Firenze: Andrea Bettini, 1861). She also authored an address to young
Italians urging them to run to Garibaldi’s aid (Appello ai giovani d’Italia [per il soccorso a Garibaldi], 1861). Many of the Countess’s writings are concerned with current
events, international relations; in this sense, her marriage to Count Martini and her
frequentation with the Cavourian circle provided her with an intimate knowledge of
the diplomatic world and its players. Let us analyze the works belonging to this
Immediately after Unification, the new Italian State took steps to define its population through occupational statistics commissioned by the General Statistical Office.47 The results of a series of censuses (1861, 1871, 1881, and 1900) showed the
marked decline of women as active members of the workforce. Historian Silvana Patriarca explains this progressive disappearance from the fabric of society as part of
the institutional effort to construct the modern nation. After the tumultuous events
leading to the conquest of Rome in 1871, Italy needed internal stability and economic
growth. For a liberal society, an effective way to curb women’s demands for increased
participation in politics and public life was to persuade of the natural call of maternity.
Women’s contribution to the national economy was overstated as part of an explicit
imposition of domestic ideology that was also responsible for the withdrawal of the
family into the private sphere.48 Maternity was defined in its private and domestic dimensions; therefore, women found themselves excluded from public life because
motherhood defined their biological and social role. Silvana Patriarca warns how this
exclusion from active population was not only “the result of intervention from above
- women [. . . ] must have contributed to the change too [. . . ]. Although no planning
was involved, the change fitted well within a process of regendering society taking
place if not in reality certainly in its representations.” 49
Silvana Patriarca, “Gender Trouble: Women and the Making of Italy’s ’Active Population,’ 1861–
1936,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 3 (1998): 144–163.
For an extensive account of the retreat into privacy as reaction to the aggrandizement of the public
space, especially within French and British society, see Michelle Perrot, ed., A History of Private
Life. From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War , trans. Arthur Goldhammer, vol. IV (Cambridge,
Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990).
Patriarca, “Gender Trouble: Women and the Making of Italy’s ’Active Population,’ 1861–1936” 147.
Maria della Torre’s efforts at negotiating her role and place in society were often
accompanied by her attempts at conforming to social expectations of how an Italian
woman and mother, albeit an active patriot, should behave. Indeed, some of her
most passionately political letters also show a contrived eagerness to be read as a
woman like any other. In the letter to Baron Ricasoli dated 1865 and quoted above,
the Countess showed a keen eye for politics and a certain amount of consciousness
regarding the limits imposed to her gender: “D’altronde io son donna, gentildonna:
che mezzo ho di guadagnare la mia vita?” [After all, I am a woman, a lady: what kind
of means do I have to earna living?] In 1866 Maria wrote to Ricasoli again urging
him to answer the call of the country to lead it:50
Non badi a nomi o partiti: stenda la mano a tutti. Nella concordia sta la forza.
Barone, io faccio, come donna, ciò che posso.51
You should not care about names or party affiliations: reach out to everybody.
In peace there is strength. Baron, I do, as a woman, what I can.
The Countess was neither a pioneer of women’s rights nor women’s emancipation,
but she firmly believed in education and in active involvement in the Risorgimento. In
this section, I also analyze her writings on the importance of education and the role of
the Church and its moral and political influence in Italy. Hers were hardly uncommon
positions to have in nineteenth century Italy; indeed, from Napoleon I’s descent into
Italy to 1860 women of the intellectual élite firmly believed in the crucial role that
education plays both in the construction of a new State and in their advancement
in society.52 Undoubtedly Maria’s positions are not devoid of contradictions, indeed
Ricasoli became Prime Minister 20 June 1866 but left the post after the elections of 4 April 1867.
Maria Della Torre, letter to Bettino Ricasoli, 17 May 1866, Sapori 22.
Laura Pisano notes how:
it is precisely these inconsistencies that allow for an examination of the complicated
situation in which women of the nineteenth century found themselves.
Starting in the second half of the century, women progressively gained more access
to the world of literature and journalism, one of the consequences of the expansion
of secondary schooling and the emergence of a more organized and active publishing industry.53 Nevertheless, “the woman writer was perceived as nothing less than
a trespasser invading a masculine domain, unless she confined herself to pedagogical
writing which the dominant culture had designated as the only appropriate vehicle
for the female voice.” 54 Maria Della Torre, like Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso before
her, trespassed conventions by choosing to write about politics, history, and current
events.55 Despite what can be considered at times as fairly uncontroversial pieces of
political commentaries that did not concede or hint at any vindication of women’s
right and role in society; the Countess never questioned the prohibition against women
voting or against their participation in political life as members of parliament; nevertheless her writings often show impatience and frustration towards the limitations
Esse faranno di questa idea il concetto basilare della lotta femminile risorgimentale e nel porsi
il problema della costruzione dello Stato-nazione in Italia, si interrogano sulla collocazione
che la donna dovrebbe avere nella nuova forma dello Stato nazionale e unitario, avvicinandosi
più o meno consapevolmente ad affrontare il tema del rapporto donne-istituzioni politiche.
They made of this idea the basic concept of women’s Risorgimento fight and in problematizing
the construction of the Nation-State in Italy, they interrogated themselves on the place that
a woman would have in the newly unified Nation State. In doing so, they came closer, consciously or not, to face the question of the relation between women and political institutions.
Pisano 25
Silvana Patriarca, “Journalists and Essayists, 1850–1915,” A History of Women’s Writing in Italy,
ed. Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Lucienne Kroha, The Woman Writer in Late Nineteenth Century Italy: Gender and the Formation
of Literary Identity (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1992) 17.
For an exhaustive panoramic on women writers of history see Casalena.
imposed by her sex. The writings of the Countess still deserve to be read for their
novelty, and complexity, as they add another voice to the debate on education, the
role of the Church in the new State, and the institutional and political structure Italy
should have chosen. Maria’s views on the political situation in Italy, if largely ignored
in her country, were noted by the British press and praised for their acumen. Indeed,
when in 1859 Maria Della Torre published Episode Politique, an enthusiastic reviewer
for the weekly newspaper John Bull and Britannia wrote:
At a time when all Europe turns with anxious expectations towards Italy and
Sardinia, when the hearts of our countrymen are beating with sympathy, and
their purses are opening in aid of the Italian exiles, the Countess della Torre
has published this little work to show us possibly, how sad must be the history
of the country when the episodes resemble this. It is a graceful production,
written with subdued vigor and calmness (emphasis mine). The scenes so curtly
depicted in each chapter have had, and still have, a European interest - the
King Carlo Alberto, the revolution at Milan in 1848, the campaign of 1849, are
reproduced in her pages. The story forms a sad little family romance, appended
to the stirring history of the times, and which will be read with interest all the
more vivid, as that history will re-act on the present. Moreover, the Countess
who give us this little episode is a warm admirer of English institutions, and
loves England, blaming Piedmont for her last political errors in separating from
a country “qui est grand parce qu’il est libre et parceque chaque Anglais sent la
valeur de ce mot et sait l’apprécier.” In return for such a sentence, what can
we say, or do, but warmly recommend the book to such of our readers as are
interested in Italian matters?56
The Countess liked to engage in political actuality and never shied away from
expressing her own political opinions. She was suspicious of what she interpreted as
“politica della timidità,” that is the enslavement to French’s diplomatic action and the
strategic alliance with the Kingdom of Sardinia, and on the contrary cherished loyalty
and honesty, qualities that she found in men like Garibaldi, Cattaneo, and De Boni.
“Episode Politique en Italie. Par Madame la Comtesse M. M. G. della Torre. - London: W. Jeffs,”
John Bull and Britannia (18 Apr. 1859): 251.
Her indignation is particularly adamant when discussing the cession of the provinces
of Savoy and Nice, planned by Count Cavour and Napoleon III as compensation
for French involvement in the war against Austria, which led to the annexation of
Lombardy and most of central Italy.57
The Countess’s disgust is amplified by the fact that Nice was the birthplace of
her commander and friend Giuseppe Garibaldi and that Savoy was the land of origin
of the ruling House of Piedmont, the House of Savoy. The pamphlet in which the
Countess expresses her heart felt outrage at the terms of the Plombièrs Treaty was
written in Italian to signal the Countess’s will to make this “appello agli italiani”
available to as many people as possible. The Countess first reminded the reader that
the cession of Savoy had already happened twice, in 1536 and 1543, but in 1557 Duke
Emanuele Filiberto, fighting alongside the Spanish army, was able to win the province
back during the battle of San Quintino. The loss of Savoy would be a shame for the
yet to be unified Italy:
Cavour and Napoleon met secretly in the French thermal town of Plombières in the summer of 1858.
According to the stipulations, Piedmont would have provoked Austria and forced it to declare war in
which case France would have intervened on Piedmont’s side. Once defeated, Lombardy and Veneto
would have passed under the Kingdom of Sardinia. France would obtain Nice and Savoy and the
states of Central Italy would unite under the supervision of a French prince; the Kingdom of the
Two Sicily and the Papal State would remain intact. As historian Paolo Viola remarks,
Non si parlava affatto di unità d’Italia, alla quale Cavour ancora non credeva. [. . . ] Si sarebbe
fatto un enorme passo avanti verso una semplificazione della carta geografica della penisola
e una benevola preponderanza francese si sarebbe sostituita a quella austriaca, nemica della
libertà italiana. Qualunque forma di rivoluzione o di guerra di popolo sarebbe stata esclusa.
Nobody was talking about Unification, and Cavour did not believe in it. [. . . ] The geographical map of the peninsula would have been simplified and a benevolent French preponderance
would have substituted the Austrian one, which was hostile to Italian freedom. Whatever
form of revolution or popular war would have been excluded.
Paolo Viola, L’Ottocento, vol. 3, Storia moderna e contemporanea (Torino: Einaudi, 2000)
Of course, things did not proceed exactly as planned, but Nice and the Savoy province did pass
under French jurisdiction.
Sarebbe orribile, atroce ingratitudine. . . [. . . ] Non si può sperare nulla per
l’avvenire di una dinastia che coll’innalzarsi rinnega le tombe dei suoi avi, e
ne sperde al vento le ceneri!. . . Nulla, nulla, io dico, può tornar più doloroso al
cuore dei veri Italiani che questo esempio di ingratitudine e di obblio!. . . 58
It would be an horrible and atrocious ingratitude. . . [. . . ] It is impossible to
hope for the future of a dynasty that disowns its ancestors’s tombs and spreads
its ashes to the wind!. . . Nothing, I say, nothing is more painful to the hearts of
true Italians than [to see] such an ungrateful and oblivious example!. . .
Maria Della Torre could not hide her disdain for the Plombièrs treaty:
Dapprima l’Idea di Napoleone III si formulò col domandare 50 milioni di franchi!
cosa meschina: avessimo inteso meglio s’ei si fosse fatto pagare l’indennità
dell’intiera guerra. . . Ora l’Idea si va sviluppando, ed è alla Savoia e a Nizza che
agogna l’Imperatore! Se fossero pretese nuove, lo intenderessimo meglio. . . ma
quando, interpellando il passato, ci vediamo, in modo da non poterne avere
ombra di dubbio, che fra un pranzo ed una cena a Plombièrs si trattò senza
fremere della vendita di due popoli, allora ci alziamo frementi a domandare in
nome della giustizia, e della dignità, che queste provincie rimangano come per lo
passato unite al Piemonte. - Saremo noi lasciati in balia ai quattro venti senza
frontiere né a ponente né a levante? - Terribile alleato quello che si mostra così
geloso della nostra futura grandezza, da volere abortita prima di nascere la nostra esistenza come nazione! Perché si vuol condannare due libere provincie ad
andare sotto lo scettro di assoluto signore? E tutte queste minacce e condizioni
ed ostacoli, che ci oppone giornalmente l’Imperatore, non danno chiaramente a
vedere qual geloso alleato abbiamo?59
First, Napoleon III’s Idea was to ask 50 million franks! such a wretched thing:
it would have been better had he asked to receive the indemnity for the entire
war. . . Now the Idea was forming: it is Savoy and Nice that the Emperor desires!
If these were new demands, we would understand better . . . but when, consulting
the past, we see, without doubt, that between a lunch and a dinner in Plombièrs
they negotiated without shudder at the idea of selling two people, then we stand
up quivering and ask in the name of justice, dignity that these provinces remain
united to Piedmont, like in the past. Shall we be left at the mercy of the winds,
from east and west, without borders? - It is a terrible ally that which shows to
be jealous of our future greatness so much that it want to abort our birth as a
nation! Why would somebody want to condemn two free provinces to be ruled
by an absolute lord? Don’t all these threats, conditions, and obstacles to which
the Emperor challenges us daily, show clearly what a jealous ally we have?
The shame and outrage felt for this unjust agreement lead the Countess to write:
Maria Martini Giovio Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza (Firenze: Andrea Bettini, 1860) 6.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 7–8.
Alla minaccia, che i Francesi per ordine dell’Imperatore ripassano le Alpi,
risponderemo tutte noi che abbiamo figli e mariti e fratelli nell’armata:“Ripassino
pure le Alpi, se la nostra risurrezione sarà più difficile e laboriosa, più grande
ne sarà la gloria!” 60
To the threat, ordered by the Emperor, that the French cross the Alps, we
will answer, we who have sons and husbands, and brothers in the army: “Let
them cross the Alps, the more difficult and arduous our resurrection will be,
the greater the glory!”
The only possible response to the inadmissible French threat was to reply with dignity
and fierceness because “chi non le risponderà, sarà privo di dignità e fierezza” [who
will not answer its call, will be without dignity and pride] and therefore “non sarà
degno di dirsi Italiano” [will not be worth being called Italian].61 The Countess’s
words echoed those that Garibaldi was often heard pronouncing to excite the crowds,
“Venite! Chi rimane a casa è un vile! Io non vi prometto che fatiche, stenti, e fucilate.
Ma vinceremo o moriremo!” [Let’s go! Who stays behind is vile! I will promise you
only difficulties, hardships, and executions. We will win or die!].62 The Italian people
admired and respected their French brothers and sisters, but would never idly witness
an invasion or occupation without responding with courage and bravery. Prudence
is not the virtue of the brave but, rather, it belongs to the weak and fearful; if the
King would show such traits, he would betray the people’s trust. His supreme and
only objective is that of reuniting Rome to the rest of the country:
[. . . ] la sua divisa non può essere che una: Avanti. . . a Roma! perché Roma è
la sola capitale, la vera, la grande! quella città per tradizione è e deve essere
quella della nazione Italiana. Chi dice Italia senza Roma è, come chi dicesse un
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 8.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 8.
Visconti Venosta 604.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 8.
[. . . ] his motto cannot be but To Rome! because Rome is the only, true, great
capital! the city that traditionally is and must be the Italian nation’s capital.
Whoever says that Italy can exist without Rome, is saying an absurdity.
As Italian patriot Giovanni Visconti Venosta recollected in his famous memoir Ricordi
when the news of the treaty broke,
L’attività affacendata di tutti, dei giorni prima si fermò di colpo. Cittadini e
soldati si affollavano per le strade interrogandosi come colpiti da una improvvisa
sciagura, discutendo, imprecando. [. . . ] Quel sentimento di disciplina e quel
mirabile accordo che guidava gli animi da alcuni mesi, erano a un tratto rotti e
sconvolti: la luna di miele della concordia era finita. Ciascuno si sentiva libero
di sragionare a proprio modo [. . . ]64
The feverish activity of the past days came to a sudden halt. Citizens and
soldiers crowded the streets, as if they had been struck by an unexpected catastrophe, talking, quarreling, cursing. [. . . ] Such a sentiment of discipline and
that admirable agreement that guided the spirits the last few months were broken and upset: the honeymoon of peace was over. Each felt the freedom to rave
as he pleased [. . . ]
The Countess is particularly annoyed by Cavour’s stubborn refusal to look at England
as potential ally, since British diplomacy had supported the plebiscites that united
central Italy to the Kingdom of Sardinia, and British public opinion had been always
seduced by and supportive of every Garibaldi’s campaign. The most dangerous consequence of the cession of Nice and Savoy would be that of strengthening France’s
expansionistic designs. The Countess is sure that such scheming would not go unnoticed by the rest of Europe. It would be a pity, she exclaims, if the nascent Italian
state favored European disequilibrium, “No, non è possibile che l’Italia dia col primo
atto un segno di ingratitudine così orribile, così mostruosa in faccia all’Europa” [No,
it is not possible that Italy gives as its first act such a sign on ingratitude, so horrible,
so monstruous to Europe].65 Maria deemed it impossible for Cavour to restore his
Visconti Venosta 612.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 10.
own credibility, and she accused him of not granting the people of Nice and Savoy
the right to call for plebiscite, as it had been done in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna.
Quale potrà essere la scusa di questo atto così impolitico, così strano? Nessuna!
Poichè egli cedette volontariamente, senza rimorsi, queste provincie; le vendette
come cosa da mercato, senza fare per loro il plebiscito che si adottò per le altre
provincie d’Italia, - il plebiscito al quale Napoleone III non aveva diritto né
possibilità di ricusarsi, poiché portato sul trono dal voto popolare!66
What could be the excuse behind such a strange, unpolitical act? None! Because
voluntarily, without remorse, he ceded these provinces; he sold them like they
were market goods, without calling for the plebiscite that was adopted for the
other Italian provinces, - the plebiscite to which Napoleon III did not have
neither the right nor the possibility to say no, because he had been voted in by
the people!
The politics of the moderate party equaled betrayal, “perché quando si tratta della
vita o della morte d’una nazione è delitto il dileggiare. - Sono dessi ben descritti i
moderati con queste parole: “Gente di mezzo e castrato intelletto, di mezza scienza
e nessun core!” [because when one talks about the life or death of a nation, the act
of making fun of it is a crime. The moderates are well described with the following
words: “People of half and inhibited intellect, with half science and without heart!”].67
She pressed even more hardly:
[. . . ] essi sono esciti da quel fango che crea insetti o rettili senza nome, la cui
vita non guarda al di là dell’ora che fugge. - Essi vollero provare che moralità e
virtù non esistono in politica, ed ebbero sempre per guida e per teoria quella dei
delitti utili e della menzogna opportune [. . . ] Secondo e presso i moderati, questa
sarà politica grande . . . per noi è schifosa perché risuona slealtà” [emphasis in
[. . . ] they came out from the same mud which creates nameless insects and
reptiles, whose life does not look beyond the passing hour. - They wanted to
prove that morality and virtue do not exist in politics, and they always had as
guide and theory that of the useful crimes and favorable lies [. . . ] According to
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 10.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 11.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 11.
the moderates, this will not be great politics . . . for us this is disgusting because
it resonates as disloyal.
The only way to demonstrate to Europe and the Sardinian government that the Italian
people did not accept the compromises set forth by the moderate cabinet presided
over by Count Cavour was to complete the process of unification by marching into
Rome and to proclaim it capital. Only by completing what many young martyrs had
died for, would their sacrifices not be futile. The urgency of action is well expressed
by the Countess, “Credete pure che una nazione che domanda permesso per costituirsi
non lo ottiene mai - le nazioni si fanno e poi si impongono da loro stesse colla loro
forza morale e materiale” [Believe, as you wish, that a nation asking permission to
become one will never be granted it - nations are made and then impose themselves
with their moral and material strength].69 In these few lines, the Countess was able
to summarize the uncompromising and often scornful rhetoric of the young patriots
who desired to fight and die for the ideal of a united Italy with Rome as its capital.
The appeal concludes with an invocation to God,
Iddio possente! [. . . ] Benedici alle nostre armi, ai nostri generosi anelanti di
nuove battaglie! . . . dà gloria eterna ai nostri morti, dacci la corona dei prodi
noi li piangeremo, perché lontani un momento da noi persuasi di ritrovarli nella
vita immortale; infondi loro la fede acciocché morti e vivi siano tutti uniti in te
nella fede e nella speranza [emphasis in original].70
God Almighty! [. . . ] Bless our weapons, our generous [men] longing for new
battles! . . . give our dead eternal glory, give us the crown of the brave who we
will mourn, because we imagined for a moment to find them in the eternal life;
give them faith so that both the dead and the alive will be united in faith and
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 13.
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 13.
Non si venda Savoia e Nizza. Appello agli italiani invokes all the familiar tropes
of the nineteenth-century rhetoric, mixing Mazzinian and Garibaldinian references.
Therefore, the reader is called upon to respect the dead and their ultimate sacrifices
in the name of national unification, and is reminded that Italy had be one country
because of its geographical conformation and its beauty (all God’s gifts):
Tu [Dio] che hai sorriso all’Italia dotandola del cielo più bello fra tutti quelli del
creato, che assegnandole per limiti naturali le Alpi e il mare, le hai indicato la
sua nazionalità.71
You [God] who smiled at Italy giving it the most beautiful sky among all creation, and giving it its natural borders of Alps and sea, has given it its nationality.
The Countess believes in the self-determination of the Italian people and in their
right to claim a territory illegitimately occupied by foreign governments; she appeals
to tradition and history to justify the campaigns to conquer Rome; and, finally, she
harshly condemns any diplomatic subterfuge that may threaten unity and call for
military and diplomatic prudence.
Two rhetorical strategies are at work: the first one is to draw from the extensive
repertoire of nineteenth century nationalism to frame patriotic fighting in the tradition of the bravest and most courageous; the second is to assign agency to “the people”
as the only formation capable of legitimately and gloriously achieving national unification. The Countess never explicitly frames herself as a woman writer; hers is a very
gender-neutral style that never uses the first subject pronoun but prefers becoming
part of a larger community who mourns cowardice but will resurge in triumph,
[. . . ] noi piangemmo quei poveri traviati [. . . ] maledimmo a quelli che abusandoli li traviavano per tradire l’Italia. Piangevamo lagrime che ci bagnavano ed
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 14.
inaridivano le gote perché vedevamo che non si poteva così fare una nazione.
[. . . ] Ma non durò. . . pieni di fede, di speranza [. . . ] ci alzammo tutti concordi
per smascherare quelli che grandi - e davvero dicemmo non vi sono e non vi
devono essere tanti indugi, tante difficoltà [. . . ] [emphasis in original].72
[. . . ] we mourned those poor corrupted [. . . ] cursed those who abused and
corrupted them to betray Italy. We cried tears that wet and dried our cheeks
because we realized that it was not this the way to make a nation. [. . . ] It did
not last. . . we rose all together full of faith and hope to unmask those great ones
- and surely we said that there are not and should not be so many delays, so
many difficulties [. . . ]
The act of crying should not to be associated with feminine weakness or the symptomatic writing of a woman; at the news of the Villafranca treaty, many volunteers
were seen throwing their weapons to the ground and crying in desperation.73 Here,
as for Visconti Venosta, crying denotes frustration and disappointment, not feelings
of weakness or defeat.
In 1860, the Countess published a small pamphlet titled Dangers créés par le
papisme in which she expounded her views on the perils of allying with the papal
state and in which she urges Napoleon III to distance France from the Vatican’s
machinations. Pope Pius IX’s betrayal of the Risorgimento’s ideals, following the
1848–1849 debacle, had left a profound mark in the hearts and minds of many patriots.
In this incendiary piece, the Countess wished to warn against the worst of plagues:
the papacy. The papacy had transformed religion into politics:
Comment peut-on au 19me siècle se laisser imposer par cette institution qui
démoralise tout ce qui l’approche, qui a réduit la Religion a n’etre plus qu’un
jouet du caprice ou de l’ambition papale?74
How, in the nineteenth century, can anyone let themselves be awed by this
institution that has demoralized all that has come near it, that has reduced
M. M. G. Della Torre, Non si venda Savoia e Nizza 12.
Visconti Venosta 612.
Maria Martini Giovio Della Torre, Dangers créés par le papisme (Firenze: Andrea Bettini, 1860) 3.
religion to nothing more than a toy for the pope’s whim and ambition?
Instead of providing relief for the weak and reassurance to the uneducated, it operated
in the exact opposite way, reinforcing the impression that the pope was not infallible
and was prey to the very human desire to control and command. A unified Italy
needed a reformed Church: once the Holy See and its political intriguing were gone,
the real Christian spirit, modeled after the British reformation, would emerge once
L’Italie au culte reforme se retrempera aux idées religieuses, à ces idées inséparables de la vie privée, de la vie de famille, de laquelle l’Angleterre nous donne
l’exemple et le modèle; ce peuple si grand à cause de ses libertés politiques et
religieuses! Les unes ne peuvent exister sans le autres.75
Italy under reform worship will once again fool itself with religious ideas, ideas
inseparable from private life and family life, of which England provides an example and a model, a people so great because of their political and religious
freedoms! One set of liberties can’t exist without the other.
The pamphlet closed on a hopeful note, deeming King Vittorio Emanuele as the only
one able to bring the Risorgimento to its completion and to the House of Savoy as
the legitimate dynasty to rule over a unified Italy. Shortly after the publication of the
French edition, an Italian one followed, Danni creati dal papismo, this one specifically
addressed to the Genovese workers and their women.76 This pamphlet intended to
educate its readers on the Church’s political, cultural, and moral strategies responsible
for the enslavement of the Italian people to foreign powers. Italy necessitated moral
and not only physical redemption, and the only obstacle to national unification was
“[. . . ] quel nido di profanazione, di empietà che si domanda Corte Romana” [that nest
M. M. G. Della Torre, Dangers créés par le papisme 14.
Maria Martini Giovio Della Torre, Danni recati all’Italia dal papato. Dedicato agli operai genovesi
(Torino: Tipografia Derossi e Dusso, 1861).
of profanation, impiety called the Papacy] where dominate “passioni anticristiane ed
antinazionali” [anti-Christian and anti-national passions].77 As in the French version,
the Countess wanted to see the establishment of an Italian Reformed Church, modeled
after the English one. This church would become the just companion of the Italian
people and its Risorgimento. The papacy was not religion but, rather, politics; as
such, the Papal State had never been preoccupied with the good of the country and,
on the contrary, it had facilitated foreign occupation.78
My analysis of the Countess’s writing ends by looking at a piece she wrote for a
Turinese periodical, La civiltà italiana, in which she shared her views on the education
of women. The aspect that most irritated Maria and prompted her to take a public
stance was that concerning the Church’s influence on the debate. In 1865, right
around the time when she threatened suicide, Maria asked Garibaldi to oversee her
daughter’s education knowing that the General would have imparted a secular and
patriotic education to the young girl. Very interested in the topic, the Countess sent a
letter to La civiltà italiana, a magazine directed by Turinese man of letter, Angelo de
Gubernatis, titled “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della donna.” 79 In it, the Countess
adamantly opposes the long-standing tradition of entrusting the education of women
M. M. G. Della Torre, Danni recati all’Italia dal papato. Dedicato agli operai genovesi 4.
As I have already mentioned, it was probably because of her staunch anticlericalism that the Countess
was ordered to leave Rome in 1867. According to the Pall Mall Gazette:
The Countess della Torre has been ordered by the police to leave Rome. The Countess is the
daughter of the Piedmontese General Pelasco [sic], who signed the truce with the Austrians
after the battle of Novara, and is intimate friend of Garibaldi. She came here from Monte
Rotondo to attend the wounded Garibaldians, and has been led into this difficulty by making
patriotic speeches in the hospitals.
“The Papal Army,” The Pall Mall Gazette (10 Dec. 1867): 5
M. Della Torre, “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della Donna”.
to primary institutions which based their curriculum on the Bible and its “assurde
favole del mondo creato in 7 giorni e cose simili” [absurd tales of a world created in 7
days and such things].80 Resorting to the Bible and its stories also impeded the study
of “tutto il meraviglioso libro della natura coi suoi tesori minerali, vegetali, animali,
da metter sott’occhio ai bimbi senza andare a rivangare il lezzo dei costumi di quei
tempi – che nei nostri, conducono diritto ai Tribunali Criminiali” [the wonderful book
of nature with its treasures of minerals, plants, animals for the children to observe,
without having to resort to ancient ways – which, in our time, lead you directly to the
Criminal Court].81 Not only is the Bible telling false stories about human evolution,82
but religion also corrupts children’s morality with its tales of incest and cult of images
and relics. Italian society needs to be purified from this depraved influence, “sia colla
scienza che solleva l’animo e lo spirito dalla pozzanghera sociale – sia colla forza
delle rivoluzioni, col sangue dei martiri e sempre ed ovunque suonano alte le parole di
rigenerazione” 83 [both with science that raises the soul and spirit from the social mud
– and with revolutionary force, with the martyrs’s blood and always and everywhere
the resounding words of regeneration].84
At this point, the Countess appealed to Italian mothers to take back into their
own hands their children’s education,
M. Della Torre, “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della Donna”.
M. Della Torre, “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della Donna”.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in England in 1859 when Maria was probably
still in England.
Emphasis in original.
It is important to remember that in 1865 the process of Italian unification was not concluded: Venice
and Rome were still in the hands of the Hapsburg Empire and the Papal State respectively, therefore
one of the main objectives of the Risorgimento was still to be achieved.
Come in America, come in Germania, la donna, la madre Italiana ripigli nella
educazione de’ figli il suo posto, ne sia la prima guida, la prima consigliatrice e
maestra. Una madre può tutto [. . . ]! Chè, io non divido punto le idee di quanti
vorrebbero far partecipare la donna alle brighe sociali ed al governo - una donna
ministro o deputato mi fa sorridere - Io voglio la donna in una sfera più alta, al
di sopra di tutte le ambizioni personali; e le sia pur concesso di alternar le cure
della famiglia con quelle della scienza; mad.lle Girardin, la Sand, mad.lle Rose
Bonheur sono ammirabili tipi di Donna.85 Ora in Italia, perché non potremmo
noi averne di queste stampe? Manca forse l’ingegno? No - ma lo studio e
la volontà. [. . . ] La modestia le ha vinte; ma questo nobile sentimento può
nuocere quando si tratta d’un bene universale, d’un bene comune com’è quello
della patria e dell’umanità [emphasis in original].86
Like it happens in America and in Germany, the woman, the Italian mother
should go back to educating her children, being their first guide, firs counselor,
first teacher. A mother can do anything [. . . ]! I do not agree with those who
would like women to participate in social questions and in the government - a
woman minister or member of parliament makes me smile - I want the woman
in an even higher sphere, above all personal ambitions; and she could still divide
herself between taking care of her family and learning science; mad.lle Girardin,
Sand, mad.lle rose Bonheur are admirable Women. Now, why cannot we follow
these models in Italy? Do we lack wit? Certainly not - but we do not have
preparation or will. [. . . ] Modesty has won them over; nevertheless, this noble
sentiment can harm when it embraces a universal good, a common good like
that represented by the fatherland and humanity.
In line with much of the discourse surrounding nation-building in the nineteenthcentury, Maria proposed a model of secular morality upon which to build the national
character; mothers still reigned over the domestic realm but did so while imparting an
education free of religious suggestions. The tension between the maternal educational
role and that of the more emancipated woman scientist/artist/novelist makes evident
a more nuanced argument in favor of the role of women in the family unit as the true
advocates of a secular and modern education.87 The Countess’s seemingly traditional
The choice of these three women as examples to follow is particularly interesting because it points
to women who chose to defy political, literary, and artistic conventions and who, in the cases of
George Sand and Rose Bonheur also chose masculine attire and financial independence.
M. Della Torre, “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della Donna”.
On the Countess’s positions on education it is possible to sense the influence of the British debate
on the “woman’s mission,” intended as the balance between philanthropy and education; indeed, as
position about the role and place that women should have in society is the product of
a negotiation in which objective impediments to the participation of women in public
life (i.e. the prohibition on voting) are evaded by transgressing the expectations of the
most natural of the roles a woman may have. By imparting a scientific, cosmopolitan,
and secular education mothers would compensate for the educational void left by a
very weak Italian state, still prey to the moral authority of a very corrupted Church.
The reaction to this piece by the Catholic periodical Il Mediatore is telling. Responding to Maria’s call for a more secular and scientific education, it reads:
[. . . ] E senza religione, che sarà la donna? Che le sostituirà? Come combatterà
coi sensi? Dovrà forse in questi riporre la sua religione? [. . . ] Povero buon senso,
ove te ne sei andato! [. . . ] E sono donne italiane che parlano questo linguaggio;
donne nate nella città delle cinque giornate!88 [. . . ] L’ateismo non è certamente
quello che dee servir di base all’educazione degl’Italiani. [. . . ] il perseverare in
questi propositi le sarebbero proprio utopie da manicomio. [emph. in original]89
[. . . ] And without religion, what will happen to woman? Who will take her
place? How will she fight the senses? Will she have to trust the senses as
they were her religion? [. . . ] Poor common sense, where have you gone! [. . . ]
These are Italian women who talk like this; women born in the city of the “five
glorious days!” [. . . ] Atheism is certainly not what constitutes a good base for
the education of Italians. [. . . ] The preservation of such beliefs equals them to
madhouse’s utopias.
In 1866, a year after the Countess published her piece, Princess Belgiojoso, from
the pages of Nuova Antologia di scienze, lettere ed arti wrote “Della presente condizione delle donne e del loro avvenire,” in which she advocates for women’s instruc-
Mabel Crawford argued in the pages of the feminist periodical Englishwomen’s Review, upper-class
Italian women needed to set the example by “instill[ing] ’civilizing habits and values’ in other Italians,
and compel mothers to teach these habits and values of ’truth, honor, and virtue’ to their children”
see Maura O’Connor, “Civilizing Southern Italy: British and Italian Women and the Cultural Politics
of European Nation Building,” Women’s Writing 10.2 (2003): 256.
As far as the record shows, the Countess was not born in Milan. Neverthless, her inclination to
change her birth place may have confused the journalist writing the piece.
B., “Sull’educazione della donna,” Il mediatore 1 (1866).
tion within an otherwise conservative domestic frame. In it, the Princess cautions
against demanding too much freedom, “Sia libera la donna di istruirsi solidamente e
non puerilmente; sia libera di avere il giusto compenso delle sue fatiche, il premio del
suo buon successo, ma meglio è il non chiedere altre libertà” [The woman should be
free to learn like an adult and not like a child; she should have the freedom to be
justly compensated for her efforts, the prize of her good success, but it is better not
to ask for more freedoms].90 At least, she argued, this was the case for the moment
when the general preoccupation was and must have been, that of completing the
process of national unification. The young State is open to social advancement but,
warns Cristina, “in questo momento ogni cura che non si riferisca direttamente al suo
ordinamento e assetto politico, ogni riforma che non tenda a tutelarla da un imminente pericolo, deve essere rimandata a giorni più sicuri e tranquilli” [At the present
moment every consideration that does not refer directly to its organization and political structure, and each reform that is not designed to protect [the Nation] from
present danger, should be postponed to safer and calmer times].91 Here it is possible
to hear a reference to the Countess’s opposition to women’s vote as an unnecessary
distraction from the pressing issue of completing unification. When the Countess
argued that a woman should not participate in the government (“[. . . ] io non divido
punto le idee di quanti vorrebbereo la donna alle brighe sociali ed al governo” [I do
not agree with those who would like women to participate in social questions and
Trivulzio di Belgiojoso 182.
Trivulzio di Belgiojoso 184.
in the government]),92 she stressed the importance of women’s contribution to the
regeneration of Italy. If Maria Della Torre categorically expresses herself against it,
Cristina di Belgiojoso does not even acknowledge the issue of women’s voting rights
choosing, instead, to conclude her piece with the celebration of past women for the
benefit of future generations:
Vogliano le donne felici ed onorate dei tempi avvenire rivolgere tratto il pensiero
ai dolori ed alle umiliazioni che le precedettero nella vita, e ricordare con qualche
gratitudine i nomi di quelle che loro apersero e prepararono la via alla non mai
prima goduta, forse appena sognata, felicità.93
The happy and celebrated women in acting for the future should also think back
to the pains and humiliations that happened before them, and remember with
gratitude the name of those who paved and prepared the road to an happiness
never enjoyed before, and maybe not even dreamed.
Both Maria and Cristina shared the same contempt for religious authority. Princess
Belgiojoso, for example, believes that the reason why husbands and wives grow apart
with the years is to be found in the spiritual advice offered by priests who encourage
women to rebel against their husbands to obtain more attention; in reality, men distance themselves even more from their spouses. Cristina maintained that men were
interested in women only when the latter were in their youth: “La condizione della
donna non è tollerabile se non nella gioventù. Gli uomini che decisero della di lei
sorte, non mirarono che alla donna giovane; la età matura di lei, né la vecchiaia non
furono considerate né a queste si provvede” [Woman’s condition is tolerated only in
her youth. The men who chose her fate considered only the young woman; they never
M. Della Torre, “Alcuni pensieri sull’Educazione della Donna”.
Trivulzio di Belgiojoso 185.
considered, nor provide for, adult or older women].94 Once women realized the progressive disinterest men felt, they sought spiritual comfort in religion. Unfortunately,
Cristina claimed: “la divozione ed i conforti che questa [religione] prodiga alle infelici, sarebbero in vero un dono celeste, se il clero cattolico fosse estraneo alle umane
passioni, agli interessi di casta” [the devotion and comfort that it [religion] offers to
the unhappy ones, should be a gift from God if the clergy were extraneous to human
passions and caste’s interests].95 Priests, according to the Princess, know exactly how
to entice women into divulging the most intimate and private secrets of their domestic
lives (“[. . . ] si fa ad un tempo svelare tutti i dolori domestici, le abitudini, le opinioni,
la condotta del marito e dei figli” [he makes her confess her domestic troubles, her
habits, opinions, her husband’s and children’s behaviors]).96 In doing so they also
teach women how to judge, condemn and blame men’s behaviors and conducts while,
at the same time, encouraging them to rebel against their husbands (“[la condotta del
marito e dei figli] insegna alla donna a giudicarle, biasimarle, detestarle” [husband’s
and children’s behavior] teaches woman to judge, blame and detest]);97 men’s reaction against this new behavior is to avoid their wives and spend progressively more
time outside of the household. The priest’s counsel ended up bringing more discord
than peace: “Per questa porta entra la discordia sotto al tetto famigliare, e ne fugge
quella qualsiasi pace” [For this door, disharmony enters the household and whatever
Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, “Della presente condizione delle donne e del loro avvenire,” Il 1848
a Milano e a Venezia. Con uno scritto sulla condizione delle donne, ed. Sandro Bortone (Milano:
Feltrinelli, 1977) 175.
Di Belgiojoso 176.
Di Belgiojoso 176.
Di Belgiojoso 176.
peace was there before disappears].98 The real reason behind this advice, Cristina
maintains, is to keep women firmly under the Church’s influence. The Church, then,
is not the champion of family values that it pretends to be; rather, it champions its
own interests by forcing women to grow dependent on priests and nuns.99
Maria Della Torre’s writings offer a precious original testimony on the political
and social positions of an aristocratic woman who divided her time between the
battlefield and the writing desk. In this section, I have discussed how Maria Della
Torre negotiated her activism with what she perceived were the limits imposed by
her sex; in the next section I explore the various ways in which she was described
both by her contemporaries and by later commentators.
Recasting the Countess
Maria Della Torre’s name appears only in secondary accounts of the Risorgimento, and
she is most often remembered as one of the many women who fell in love with Giuseppe
Garibaldi. Unfortunately, her affiliation with one of the most famous and charismatic
men of the nineteenth century has made it difficult for both her contemporaries and
Di Belgiojoso 176.
There is no evidence of any frequentation between the Countess and Princess Belgiojoso; it is certain,
on the other hand, that Maria Della Torre crossed path with another famous risorgimentale, British
patriot Jessie White Mario. Already in 1860, Jessie White and Maria Della Torre shared duties
during the Expedition of the Thousands as organizers of camp hospitals. See Hibbert 253. Maria and
Jessie would meet again during the Battle of Mentana in 1867 when, as a witness observed: “Alla cura
de’ feriti soprantendevano la Jessie White Mario, e la Salasco Martini della Torre, fatate Angeliche di
cotesti paladini. Esse, talor col moschetto ad armacollo si traevano in giro cercando bende, filacce,
materasse e lenitivi pe’ lor feriti” [Jessie White Mario and Salasco Martini della Torre tended to
the injured, like fatal Angeliche to those paladins. Sometimes, they would go around searching
for bandages, linen threads, mattresses and medicines for the injured, holding their muskets]. See
Antonio Vitali, Le dieci giornate di Monte Rotondo. Racconto storico (Tipografia di G. Aureli, 1868)
later scholars to render an assessment of her legacy and role. Her dress code and
unconventional life style obscured in historiography her keen political eye, her staunch
anti-clericalism, and her contribution to the unification of Italy.100
As I have already noted in chapters two and three, whereas post-Unification commentators were influenced by moralizing attitudes towards women, eye-witnesses were
more likely to absolve the behaviors of the women in arms. This position was in part
influenced by the exceptional circumstances of the Risorgimento: in order to expel
the foreign invaders and claim the right to a unified Italy everybody was asked and
expected to participate. Among the tasks that women were expected to perform,
nursing was the most common.101 When Maria arrived on the Sicilian shore, in 1860,
a local newspaper reported:
La contessa Maria Giovio della Torre, che in Crimea prestò tante cure ai feriti
con la celebre signora Nightingale, appena arrivata in Sicilia si è messa a capo
di un’eletta schiera di giovani donne a raccogliere collette per i nostri feriti.
Le madri di questi valorosi verseranno lagrime di gioia, vedendo che i loro figli
trovano le più care mostre di affetto, e noi siamo nel dovere di contribuire a
quest’opera di paterna benevolenza.102
Countess Maria Giovio della Torre, who in Crimea tended so lovingly to the
injured with the famous Mrs. Nightingale, as soon as arrived in Sicily decided
to head a noble group of young women to collect money to cure the injured.
The mothers of those valiant soldiers will shed tears of joy, knowing that their
sons are in the best and most loving hands, and it is our duty to contribute to
such a work of paternal benevolence.
Had she been an operatic heroine, the Countess would have been a “second woman,” or the secondary
female character that loves the hero but is loved less in return. Indeed, the performer would also
have sung en travesti in other operas. Unlike the “first woman,” who is loved by the hero but dies
at the end, the “second woman” resists such fate and survives until the end. Maria Della Torre’s
biography is one of survival; she endured an unhappy marriage, perilous journeys, war wounds, and
post-humous allegations of mental insanity. For definitions of these two operatic types, see André.
John A. Lynn, Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press,
“Notizie della guerra. Contribuzione pe’ feriti della guerra,” Il Precursore (21 July 1861).
Though the short piece struggles with notions of gender appropriateness as it shifts
from maternal to paternal, the message is clear: the maternal role of the woman is to
cure and worry, while it is left to the man to find the financial means to support his
family. The paternal benevolence is thus exercised only by men, while the tangible
help is maternally delivered by the women. Had the Countess decided not to trespass
the boundaries of the hospital, she would have probably joined the ranks of the
celebrated nurses who aided the revolutionaries during the Roman Republic of eleven
years before.103 As military historian John Lynn observes, it was not uncommon
for women nurses embedded with battalions to pick up arms and fight if needed.104
Indeed, Maria decided to take on an even more active role than that of tending
the injured. Garibaldian volunteer and writer Giuseppe Cesare Abba remembers the
Countess wandering around camp, looked with a mixture of amazement and contempt:
Ho veduto un ufficiale delle Guide camminare lesto lesto, lungo la spiaggia, senza
sciabola, proprio una donna, fianchi e seno. Bella, faceva l’aria da bambina, ma
si guardava dietro con una cosa d’occhio così serpentina!. . . Gli ufficiali delle
brigate ne chiacchieravano; il colonnello Bassini, scuotendo la testa e il frustino,
brontolava sordamente dietro quella figura. È una contessa piemontese che corre
la ventura.105
I saw an officer of the Guide walking swiftly, along the beach, without saber,
The Countess’s contribution to the care of the injured, however, was not always met with the
same favor. See for instance the comments allegedly made by Pietro Ripari, Garibaldi’s trusted
physician and army doctor: “Il dottore Pietro Ripari capo-medico delle truppe garibaldine, con
avviso riportato in vari giornali, avverte il municipio di Messina di non aver affatto fiducia in una
tale contessa Della Torre, o Martini, la quale, senza aver nessuna qualità legale, nè officiale, intriga
per raccogliere soccorsi, onde formare un ambulanza pe’ feriti futuri delle truppe di Garibaldi”
[Doctor Pietro Ripari, head-medic of the Garibaldinian troops, alerted the Messina municipality,
with a note published in various newspapers, to distrust a certain Countess Della Torre, or Martini,
who, without having any legal or official qualification, intrigues to gather the necessary goods to
organize an ambulance for the future injured]. See Cronaca degli avvenimenti di Sicilia da aprile
1860 a marzo 1861: estratta da documenti (Italia: S.N., 1863) 264.
Giuseppe Cesare Abba, Da Quarto al Faro: Noterelle d’uno dei Mille (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli,
1882) 264–265.
really a woman with hips and breast. Beautiful, she looked like a child, but she
would look behind her like a snake!. . . The officers of the brigades would talk
about her; Colonel Bassini, shaking his head and his whip, mumbled behind
her. She is a Piedmontese Countess, a soldier of fortune.
Her deeds were more fondly remembered by volunteer and Garibaldi’s close friend
Giuseppe Bandi, in his memoirs I Mille da Genova a Capua where he refers to her
as his “friend from the days of the battlefield”:
La contessa Martini, donna elegante, battagliera e amica della vita dei campi,
colla sciabola in mano, aiutata da diversi ufficiali e soldati del mio battaglione,
ricondusse ai pezzi gli artiglieri della batteria da ventiquattro, che era dinanzi
alla chiesa [. . . ].106
Countess Martini, elegant woman, a fighter and friend from the life on the camp,
with her sabre in hand, aided by many officers and soldiers from my battalion,
brought back the artillery pieces which were in front of the church [. . . ].
An example of the kind of positive reaction that the Countess’s behavior elicited is
associated with the so called “episodio del Faro” as narrated by Bandi. His testimony
is important because he was one of the few chroniclers who participated in the same
actions and campaigns as the Countess. At the end of August 1860, Garibaldi and
his troops were ready to cross the Messina strait to reach Calabria and the mainland.
Battalions were scattered along the road between Milazzo and Messina waiting to hear
new orders from Garibaldi and his generals. During a lazy afternoon, one battalion
was surprised by the arrival of Bourbon troops. The sudden attack disoriented the
lunching volunteers; the artillery was stunned and sought refuge from the enemy
bullets. The Countess displays more courage and resourcefulness than her comrades.
Bandi’s tone is quite neutral; he doesn’t incense the Countess nor condemns his fellow
soldiers’s cowardice. Within the clamor of the ambush and generalized panic, Bandi
Bandi, I Mille da Genova a Capua 259.
praises Maria’s cold blood and initiative. In another occasion, Bandi celebrated the
Countess’s strength and sets it as an example, rare but not exceptional in women, of
Colei seppe gastigarli e fermarli e ricondurli al dovere loro, con esempio raro,
ma non unico in una donna; avendo io che scrivo veduto co’ miei occhi alla
Torre di Faro, presso Messina, la contessa Martini da Crema ricondurre, a suon
di piattonate, ai pezzi, certi artiglieri che se l’erano svignata, atterriti dal fuoco
vivissimo della fregata Borbona.107
She was able to punish them, stop and bring them back to their duties: as a
woman she set a rare, albeit not quite unique, example. Since I have witnessed
it with my own eyes, at the Torre del Faro near Messina, Countess Martini da
Crema brought back to the cannon pieces, her sword stroking, some gunmen
who escaped, terrorized by the frigate’s blows.
One last interesting testimony to the Countess’s participation in the campaign of 1860
comes from her British attendant, Francis:
The Contessa della Torre was exceedingly handsome. She wore a hat and plume,
trousers, boots, and a long jacket. She was foolhardy brave. When a shell
exploded by her, instead of falling on the ground like the soldiers she would
stand looking at it, making a cigarette all the time. The hospital was a building
surrounding a large courtyard, and in the centre of the court was a table where
the amputations took place. By the side of the surgeon who operated stood the
Contessa Della Torre, who held the arms and legs while they were being cut off,
and when they were severed, chucked away to join others on a heap close by.
There were so many, that she had a heap of arms on one side of her and a heap
of legs on the other. The soldiers, animated by her example, often sang the
Garibaldian hymn while their limbs were being taken off, though they fainted
away afterwards. When the war was over, the Contessa della Torre retired to
Milan [. . . ].108
The Countess’ behavior forced the men to show courage and bravery amidst terrible
physical suffering. Her almost casual attitude and extraordinary personality must
have inspired in the volunteers a mixture of admiration, curiosity, and impatience.
Giuseppe Bandi, Anita Garibaldi (Firenze: R. Bemporad & Figlio, n.d.) 68.
Augustus J. C. Hare, The Story of My Life (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1896) 155–156.
Aside from these positive depictions, her decision to participate in the war was interpreted the result of an unstable personality often motivated by the Countess’s
infatuation for Garibaldi. Maria Della Torre’s outspoken and unconventional personality led many compilers of history to focus only on those subversions that set her
apart from the image of sacrifice and motherly love associated with the Risorgimento
woman. As I have already noted, the presence of the Countess in the battlefield was
observed by her contemporaries and was either viewed as a curiosity or seen as a
In order to understand the rhetorical mechanisms that influenced some of the least
flattering readings of the Countess’s presence and participation in the Expedition, it
may prove useful to offer Giuseppe Garibaldi’s own vision of women’s place in society.
While Maria was caught in the midst of military operations, presenting an image of
herself that was decidedly unconventional, Giuseppe Garibaldi was busy constructing
a model of womanhood quite different from that embodied by the Countess. In his
first Sicilian proclamation specifically addressed to women (“Proclamation to Sicilian
Women”), Garibaldi appealed to the familiar trope of the compassionate mother who
would never allow an orphan to be left without care and love:
[. . . ] A voi, che conobbi nell’ora del pericolo, belle di sdegno e di patriottismo
sublimi, disprezzando, nel furor della pugna, la immane mercenaria soldatesca
ed animando i coraggiosi figli di tutte le terre italiane, stretti al patto di liberazione o di morte! [. . . ] piansi alla vista dei lattanti e degli orfani, dannati a
morire di fame! Nell’ospizio, novanta su cento dei lattanti periscono, mancanti
di alimento! Una bàlia nutre quattro di quelle creature, fatte ad immagine di
Dio! Io lascio pensare il resto all’anima vostra gentile.109
[. . . ] To you, whom I met in the hour of danger, beautiful in your rage and
Qtd. in Curatulo 41–42.
sublime patriotism, despising, in the midst of the battle, the large mercenary
army, and animating the courageous sons of all Italian lands, tied together by
the pact for freedom or death! [. . . ] I cried at the sight of infants and orphans,
condemned to starving to death! In the hospice ninety out of one hundred
breast-fed infants die of starvation! A wet-nurse feeds four of such creatures,
made in God’s image! I leave it to your gentle soul to image the rest.
The fierce patriotism of the Sicilian women is rhetorically contained by restricting
their action to that of encouraging soldiers to fight and therefore defeat the enemy oppressor. Garibaldi recognized the women’s courage (and probably witnessed episodes
in which Sicilian women were more than bystanders), but preferred to walk the safer
path of identifying the importance of women’s presence for the soldiers’ morale. In
the following proclamation issued on 3 August 1860, days after conquering Palermo,
Garibaldi addressed the Sicilian women using a mother, Adelaide Cairoli, as the perfect example of dedication to the Risorgimento cause. Historian Marina D’Amelia
has noticed how Garibaldi became “il geniale iniziatore della fama pubblica di Adelaide Cairoli” [the genial initiator of Adelaide Cairoli’s public fame], transforming the
sacrifice of her four sons into a model of motherly suffering that well fit the project
of re-making the Italian woman into the perfect mother of the nation.110 Women
In his proclamation, Garibaldi portrayed Adelaide as a mother who conscientiously sent her four
sons to sacrifice their lives for the country:
La Cairoli di Pavia, ricchissima, carissima, gentilissima matrona aveva quattro figli, uno
morto a Varese sul cadavere di un austriaco che egli aveva ammazzato; il maggiore Benedetto,
l’avete nella capitale ferito a Calatafimi e a Palermo. Il terzo Enrico vive col cranio spaccato
negli stessi combattimenti, e il quarto fa parte di questo esercito mandato da quella madre
incomparabile. (Qtd. in Marina D’Amelia, La mamma [Bologna: Il Mulino, 2005] 78)
La Cairoli of Pavia, a rich, noble, and beloved matron had four sons. One died at Varese on the
body of an Austrian whom he had killed; the eldest, Benedetto, you have at Palermo, scarred
with the wounds he received at Calatafimi and Palermo; the third Enrico, lives, though his
skull was split open in those battles; and the fourth has been sent to join the same army by
that incomparable mother.
It is precisely Garibaldi’s words, as again D’Amelia points out, that contributed to the creation of
Adelaide Cairoli’s myth, an image that loomed large and against whom women were often compared.
Her son Luigi acknowledges the resonance that Garibaldi’s proclamation had. In a letter to his
were called to participate as providers of love and support, givers of care, and collectors of financial resources. Although Countess Della Torre performed all three, her
very personal approach to the patriotic cause and her unusual participation in camp
life set her apart from conventional images of women during the Risorgimento. By
dwelling on her impulsive decision making, commentators effectively have stripped
the Countess of any agency. Yet the Countess, for example in choosing to dress like
a soldier, clearly understood the norms she was breaking and the possible impact
that her actions would have on bystanders. The way the Countess walked, the way
she dressed and carried her body, all attracted attention because of the perception of
violating gender norms.
After the conclusion of the second war of independence, Maria Della Torre returned to Paris where she kept wearing a military uniform. Maria’s cross-dressing111
is read as the ultimate act of a very egocentric and exhibitionistic personality:“Deposta
mother, he wrote:
Mammina [. . . ] Ieri sera i miei ospiti mi domandarono il mio nome. Avessi veduto quale
effetto fece sopra di loro il sentire ch’io era un Cairoli, o per dir meglio un figlio della Cairoli
di Pavia. Il proclama di Garibaldi alle donne siciliane è letto avidamente per tutta la Sicilia
e pel continente napoletano e il tuo nome è venerato da ogni buon italiano delle Due Sicilie.
(Qtd. in D’Amelia, La mamma 79)
Mommy Dearest [. . . ] Last night my guests asked my name. You should have seen the
reaction they had when they realized I was a Cairoli, or rather one of Mrs. Cairoli’s sons
from Pavia. Garibaldi’s proclamation to the Sicilian women has been avidly read all around
Sicily up to the continent to Naples, and your name is revered by every good Italian in the
Two Sicilies.
For the resonance that Adelaide Cairoli in her role as mother continued to have in the twentieth
century, see Gabriella Romani, “Interpreting the Risorgimento: Blasetti’s "1860" and the Legacy of
Motherly Love,” Italica 79.3 (2002): 391–404.
I am here referring to the act of cross-dressing as opposed to that of passing. Passing refers to
the individual’s wish not to be recognized: he or she wants to pass as a member of the opposite
sex. Cross-dressing, on the contrary, underscores a willful act of unveiling gender conventions; I
would therefore place Maria Della Torre in the category of cross-dressers. At this point in the
dissertation I hope the reader will have a clear idea of the difference between passing and crossdressing; nevertheless, it may be useful to remind of the distinction.
l’uniforme da militare, non ri rassegnava a passare inosservata, e stranamente agghindata girava pei boulevards e i teatri.” 112 Her attire did not go unnoticed and it must
have excited a Parisian magazine to write a commentary on the quirky foreigner
walking the streets of the French capital. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate the
article that produced the brief controversy, but we can read the Countess’ reply to it:
Monsieur, Ne lisant jamais les journaux, c’est par hasard, aujourd’hui seulement, que j’apprends tout ce que vous dites sur mon compte. Je ne suis pas si
misterieuse (sic) et si romanesque qu’on le pense, je ne suis ni Valaque, ni Allemande, ni Américaine. Je m’appelle la comtesse Marie Martini della Torre et
je suis née à Milan. Quant à mon masque et à mon sabre, permettez-moi de ne
rien vous dire. Est-ce que je demande à Madame Olympe Audonard, pourquoi
elle s’habille en odalisque et à Monsieur Alfred Darimon pourquoi il porte les
culottes? Au reste, la curiosité publique ne tardera guère à être satisfaite. Je
suis un peu femme de lettres et j’achève mes “Memoires” (sic) les voulez-vous
pour votre journal? Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, mes salutations empressées et
les meilleurs sentiments de ma considération. Marie Martini della Torre113
Sir, Never reading the newspapers, it is by chance that, only today, I have
learned of all you have been saying about me. I am not so mysterious or so
romantic as one might think. I am neither Valaque, nor German, nor American.
My name is Countess Marie Martini della Torre, and I was born in Milan. As
for my mask and saber, allow me to say nothing. Do I ask Madame Olympe
Aufonard why she’s dressed as an odalisk or Monsieur Alfred Darimon why
he wears breeches? Besides, public curiosity won’t have to wait long to be
satisfied. I dabble in literature and am finishing my “Memoir.” Would you
like them for your paper? Please accept my assiduous greetings and my most
esteemed wishes, Marie Martini della Torre
There is no trace of the Memoirs, although I cannot rule out the possibility of their
existence. The Countess was a prolific writer and it would not be surprising to learn of
them in the future. In this letter, Maria was probably referring to Olympe Audouard
(and not Audonard), a famous French feminist who tried to found and direct a news112
Drago 115.
Qtd. in Curatulo 205. It is interesting that she re-fashioned her birthplace from her native Turin
to the adopted city of Milan. I would speculate that the reason behind this geographical passing
resides in the profound discontent Maria felt for the Piedmontese and Cavourian diplomatic and
political trajectory commenced with the Plombiers treaty of 1858.
paper after the proclamation of the second empire but was forbidden to do so because
only full citizens had the right and privilege to own and run a magazine. She traveled
extensively and upon her return to France became actively involved in the movement
to recognize political rights for women. Interestingly enough, as a fictional and comic
short stories writer, Audouard focused extensively on the hypocrisy of gender boundaries, transforming many of her male protagonists into different kinds of animals to
show the level of exploitation inherent in the traditionally constructed romantic relationship.114 Why, wondered the Countess, did Madame Audouard’s odalisque attire
not compel the same puzzlement provoked by a woman dressed in a soldier’s uniform?
Similarly, why would Monsieur Alfred Darimond’s effeminate choice of clothing not
arouse outrage? Alfred Darimond was a French politician, historian, and Proudhonist;
his choice of wearing the emblem of aristocratic fashion despite his socialist leanings
must have kindled in the Countess curiosity for such a contradictory behavior. The
Countess perceived her clothing as “masque,” therefore displaying an important performative consciousness. Maria was thus aware of the fact that wearing a soldier’s
uniform would have provoked different reactions. She did not seem surprised by it;
what puzzled her was the incongruity of setting her apart from similarly subversive
personalities like Audouard and Darimond. Audouard’s odalisque attire, if orientalist and exotic, was certainly in line with the fashion of the time and could have also
publicized the French woman’s recent travels to Egypt and the Near East. The cultural and political anxiety aroused by the Countess was thus not comparable with
Warren Johnson, “The Veiled Laugh: Women, the Body, and the Comic in Nineteenth-Century
France,” Performing Gender and Comedy: Theories, Texts and Contexts, ed. Shannon Hengen (London: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1998) 49–50.
that provoked by the two French. By openly wearing a male uniform and carrying
a weapon,115 , the Countess, while not a feminist, defied gender norms and openly
challenged a woman’s place and role in society. I contend that it is precisely this attitude that pushed some of Maria Della Torre’s contemporaries and later biographers
to dismiss her as a creature of dubious and unstable mental health.
The negative attitude demonstrated by many vis-à-vis the Countess’s actions and
behavior seems to be taken up again by Benedetto Croce’s judgment regarding the
impact of Romanticism on the construction of Italian national identity. The Neapolitan philosopher understood Romanticism as a transitional phase to liberalism during
which the most impressionable and weak would succumb to the impetus of its “feminine spirit.” Only the bravest could survive, whereas
[. . . ] le anime femminee, impressionabili, sentimentali, incoerenti, volubili, che
stimolavano in se medesime i dubbi e le difficoltà e non sapevano poi padroneggiarli, amavano e cercavano i pericoli e vi perivano dentro.116
[. . . ] the feminine souls, impressionable, sentimental, incoherent, volatile who
stimulated in themselves doubts and difficulties and were unable to master them,
loved and sought dangers and died there.
Instead of acknowledging women’s difficulties with emerging into a newly formed
national and public space, Croce and some of his contemporaries chose to crystallize
their interpretation of women within the familiar tropes of unreliability, volatility,
It is important to keep in mind that the issue of women carrying weapons was a contentious one
since the French Revolution. Proposals for the formation of a women’s militia were rejected in
1793, after the “Amazons,” a Parisian militia, begged the National Assembly that they could "fight
with weapons other than a needle and spindle." The bibliography on the participation, role, and
impact that women had on the French Revolution is vast; some of the works that address more
specifically the relationship between women and arms are Landes, Women and the Public Sphere
in the Age of the French Revolution Darline Gay Levy and Harriet B. Applewhite, “Women and
Militant Citizenship in Revolutionary Paris,” Rebel Daugthers: Women and the French Revolution,
ed. Sara E. Melzer and Leslie W. Rabine (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992) 79–101,
Melzer and Rabine.
Benedetto Croce, Storia d’Europa nel secolo decimonono (Bari: Laterza, 1932) 51.
and weakness.
The post-Unification tendency to chastise the participation of women in arms in
the Risorgimento did not spare the Countess. In 1885, volunteer Temistocle Mariotti
remembers the presence of the Countess among the troops, his tone strikingly different
from the one used by Bandi:
La nostra piccola batteria è sconquassata, gli artiglieri fuggono; la contessa
Martini, una virago che faceva anch’essa la campagna (tutto a quell’epoca aveva
sembianze e proporzioni strane!), li riconduce a piattonate sui pezzi; grossi
proiettili grandinano in mezzo a noi, i tetti delle poche case vanno in frantumi.117
Our small battery is damaged, the gunmen flee; Countess Martini, a virago
who was campaigning as well (everything at the time had strange features and
proportions!), brings them back, her sword stroking; large bullets hailing on us,
the roofs of the few homes breaking in thousand pieces.
It is precisely the reference made to the “strangeness of those days” that helps understanding the exceptionality of the circumstances and the consequent acceptance
of non-conforming behaviors such as those performed by the Countess. Once the
unification was completed, it became much harder to justify the favorable reception
of an armed woman among the troops.
A similar attitude is noticeable in one of the profiles of the Countess sketched
after the Unification. Antonietta Drago, writer and non-professional historian whose
narrative production especially focused on the Risorgimento, offers an example of
the largely negative judgment cast upon the Maria Della Torre. It is interesting to
note how Drago framed the Countess’ remembrance of the day in which she and
Garibaldi met for the first time. Drago writes that 10 May 1854 “Era la data del
loro primo incontro a Londra, che fra le tante cose già dileguate nel nulla, rimaneva
Temistocle Mariotti, Ieri ed oggi: pagine autobiografiche di un soldato del Risorgimento italiano
(Roma: Voghera, 1885) 73.
limpida, precisa, scritta nel suo caotico cervello” [It was the date of the fated first
meeting in London, which among the many things already lost, still remained clear,
precisely written in her otherwise chaotic brain].118 In fact, both Maria and Garibaldi
remembered that 10 of May, 1854. In a letter written on 20 July, 1861 from Turin
the Countess so reminisced:
Generale! Amico carissimo, Voi mandaste il vostro ritratto con linee affettuose
ad alcuni!! . . . e vi dimenticaste di me! . . . io che per prima vi abbracciai il 10
maggio quando giungeste d’America![. . . ]119
General! Dearest friend, You sent me one of your portrait with such affectionate
words and some!! . . . and you forgot about me! . . . I, who first hug you on May
10th, when you came back from America! [. . . ]
Three years later, Giuseppe Garibaldi sent a note to Maria:
Cara Contessa, io pure ricordo il 10 maggio e non dimenticherò mai chi vidi per
la prima nel porto di Genova. In quel tempo io potevo rimanere uno schiavo di
quella bellissima creatura. Non so però se per ambi non sia meglio così. In ogni
modo voi non avete perduto la mia stima e sono ancora vostro, G. Garibaldi120
Dear Countess, I, too, remember that May 10th and I will never forget who I
saw first in the Genova harbor. At the time, I could have been enslaved by such
a beautiful creature. I am not sure if for the both of us this is better. In any
case, you have not lost my esteem and I am still yours, G. Garibaldi
Seven months later, the Countess once again:
[. . . ] Credetemi più asservente la mia condotta con voi e quella di molti sedicenti
amici vostri dovrete rendermi giustizia che sono forse la sola che dal 10 maggio
1854 ad oggi sia stata per voi un cane fedele [. . . ]121
[. . . ] Believe me more trustworthy with my conduct towards you than those of
many of your so-called friends, you will give me justice that I was the only one
who from 10 May 1854 until day has been a faithful dog [. . . ]
Finally, on the eleventh anniversary of their first encounter, the Countess wrote:
Drago 117.
Maria Della Torre, “Letter to Giuseppe Garibaldi,” M.C.R.R. b.54 n.1/7.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Letter to Maria Della Torre,” M.C.R.R. b.547 n.87/2.
M. Della Torre, “Letter to Giuseppe Garibaldi”.
Generale! Amico! Ecco il 10 maggio! Undici anni fa, ebbi la fortuna e l’onore di
andarvi a ricevere a Londra e di profferirvi quell’amicizia che non smentì mai.
Voi darete un mesto ricordo alla mia morte. Sovvenitevi che fui sempre degna
del vostro affetto. Fate ciò che vi chiedo di fare. Vostra Maria Contessa Della
General! Friend! Here is May 10! Eleven years ago, I was lucky and had
the honor to receive you in London and swear friendship to you that I never
betrayed. You will give me a sad eulogy. Remember that I have always been
worth your affection. Do what I ask you to do. Yours Maria Contessa Della
With Paul Ginsborg, I argue that the “generale fenomeno che portava a impregnare
determinati momenti di tempo di straordinario significato” [general phenomenon that
impregnated certain moments in time of an extraordinary significance]123 is not a
symptom of a delusional mind but, rather, another mark of the relationship between
the Countess and Garibaldi.
Though it seems almost certain that Drago had never read any of the Countess’
printed material, it is striking to linger over the tone used by the Italian writer vis-àvis that used by the British reviewer. Drago is preoccupied with depicting a woman
who has betrayed her most important call, that of being a mother. According to
the writer, one of the possible causes of the Countess’ mental derangement could be
found in a form of post-partum depression that led to the dissolution of her marriage
to Count Martini:
Qualcosa di imprevisto, di strano dovette poi accadere; [. . . ] o fu la nascita
di una bambina a provocare in lei un forte squilibrio, certo la contessa Martini
si trovò un bel momento separata dal marito, e il generale Salasco, disperando
di persuadere i coniugi ad un armistizio, si credette in dovere si chiuderla in
convento. O in manicomio? Un giorno però si venne a sapere che dal convento
Qtd. in Curatulo 207.
Ginsborg, “Romanticismo e Risorgimento: l’io, l’amore e la nazione” 9.
o manicomio Maria era fuggita per ignota destinazione.124
Something unexpected and strange must have happend; [. . . ] it may have been
the birth of a daughter which provoked in her a strong imbalance. It is sure
that Countess Martini found herself separated from her husband, and General
Salasco, desperate to convince the two spouses to an armistice, believed the
best course to close her in a monastery. Or in a madhouse? One day, however,
Maria escaped from the monastery, or madhouse, for an unknown destination.
The fact that Drago equates the convent with the madhouse is fascinating (and it
brings the reader back to the comments made by the Il Mediatore, about the possibility of sending the Countess to the manicomio), rendering them almost interchangeable
institutions where unruly women could be sent. It should be noted that Drago’s account is not an historical one, and her approach can be more fruitfully defined of
divulgation, therefore some of the details may not be necessarily true. Nevertheless,
Drago’s dismissive tone and condemnation of the Countess’ lifestyle is indicative of
a more generalized cultural position taken vis-à-vis the experience of non-conforming
women. Is it really possible that in the long military history of the Italian peninsula
there have not been bequeathed histories of women in arms? What could have set
pre- and post-Unification Italy apart from its neighbors? Without doubt women in
different capacities participated in urban and rural uprisings and wars; were they all
so successful at passing that nobody ever noticed them? Or, more plausibly, is it
possible to contend that Italian culture has resisted the presence of women in arms
because of their radical message of independence, assertion of free will, and alternative to motherhood? Further research is warranted, but one could also speculate that
such a cultural attitude inhibited women to choose to bear arms precisely because
of its tremendous subversive charge. As we have seen, this tension between follow124
Drago 112.
ing instincts while complying with cultural norms is very present in the Countess’
writings. The unusual sight of women actively participating in all phases of a battle
is naturally dismissed by a journalist writing for Civilità cattolica. It is 1870, and
Garibaldi and his troops are stationed in the outskirts Rome in the small town of
Monterotondo; Maria Della Torre is among the volunteers who joined the General in
the last phase of the process of unification. Given the clerical affiliation and conservative tendency of the journal, the description of the Countess is not surprising, but
it is worth reporting:
Il capoposto dell’Osteria [. . . ] negò di ricevere a sicurtà i sacerdoti: ma ben
seppe tenerli tutta la giornata esposti ai furori della ribaldaglia accanita e armata, che quivi formicolava. Là tornò più volte una furia dell’inferno chiamata
la contessa Martini della Torre, implorando (che fosse scherno o sete di sangue,
nol sappiamo) in grazia che alcuno dei circostanti li assassinasse: e più volte
fu sul punto di ottenere voto, degnissimo di gentildonna garibaldina, specialmente col soccorso del capitano Battista, che tutto da sè si offerse di fucilarli.
Costei è quella stessa, che impetrato avendo di visitare i feriti in Roma, veniva
strappando loro gli scapolari benedetti, e raccomandando di . . . quando loro si
portasse il divin Sacramento Viatico.125
The Inn’s master [. . . ] denied protecting the priests: he kept them all day
exposed to the fierce and armed crowd that swarmed there. Countess Martini
della Torre came back there over and over like a fury from Hell, imploring
(whether it was mockery or bloodthirstiness we do not know) that some of
those murdered the priests: and she almost got her wishes granted, especially
worthy of a Garibaldinian lady, with the assistance of Captain Battista who, all
by himself, offered to shoot them. She is the same who, forbade from visiting
the injured in Rome, tore the blessed clothes and recommended to . . . when they
carried the holy Viaticum Sacrament.
The familiar way of equating an active woman with a bewitched soul guided the reading of the journalist, and confirmed what Benedetto Croce and later commentators
wrote about the “feminine spirit” that crippled Romanticism. Moreover, the reception
given to the Countess in the anglophone world testifies to a very different attitude
“Cronaca,” La civiltà cattolica X (1870): 409.
vis-à-vis gender subversion, reinforcing my claim about the opposition manifested by
Italian culture and society towards women in arms.126 Maria Della Torre’s figure has
been trapped in the polarized judgments her contemporaries gave to her life and by
the return to domesticity and the triumph of the private dimension over the public
one. Her relationships with Garibaldi and Mazzini, Cavour and Ricasoli, along with
her writings and public appearances speak of a captivating personality who captured
the tensions and contradictions of stepping on the national political stage but that,
like many of her contemporaries, decided to make the realization of the Risorgimento
ideals the most important objective of her life.
For the British literary and cultural tradition on warrior women, see Dugaw.
One of my favorite films is “Gone with Wind.” This tale of land, war, love, careerism,
and independence has captivated my imagination since I was a child. I watched it
again recently, and the peremptory tone of one of its main characters caught my
attention, “War is a men’s business, not ladies’.” The fact that men should “see to the
fighting” while women stay behind is as old as literature: it is with these words that
Hector gendered discourse on war by drawing a clear demarcation of roles between
himself and his wife Andromache in the sixth book of the Iliad.1 The familiarity of
these words has been repeated throughout the centuries across different contexts, its
fundamental tenants surviving wars and revolutions: women stay home while men go
to war.
Nevertheless, these words never mirrored reality. The ancient world is populated
by tales of women warriors: the legendary Amazons, Camilla Queen of the Volsci
who died defending her land from the Trojans. The early modern European world
frequently offers examples of women combatants, like Eleonora d’Arborea, ruler of
Sardinia who fought in the 1383–1384 military campaigns against the Aragon dynasty,
or Caterina Segurana who in 1543 defended Nice from the Turks. The Americas, too,
Homer, The Iliad of Homer , ed. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)
have a long tradition of women in arms. One of the most famous and celebrated is
Manuela Sáenz, partner of Simón Bolívar, the leader of South America’s Independence
from Spain.2 Manuela was particularly active in the years during which Giuseppe
Garibaldi was in Brazil. When the General sailed to South America in the 1850s,
after Anita’s death, he met with Manuela in Perù.3 Garibaldi may have even been
influenced by Sáenz’s relationship with Bolivar when he crafted his own memoirs and
the character of Anita.4
In his “Memorie autobiografiche” Garibaldi describes Anita as an Amazon, a
woman “dall’aspetto imponente” [an imposing figure] who took an active part in
the battle off the shores of the Brasilian bay of Santa Caterina.5 It was there that
Garibaldi met Anita for the first time and pronounced the famous words “Tu devi
esser mia” [You must be mine]. In Jessie White Mario’s biography of Garibaldi, Anita
is portrayed as a fearless combatant, ready to take the place of Garibaldi (“Affida il
comando all’Anita [. . . ]” [He entrusted Anita with the command of operations])6 ; as
a devoted mother to their first-born child Menotti; and as a jealous wife (“[. . . ] Anita
non tollerava rivali; anzi ci ha detto Garibaldi stesso, che quando ella sospettava di
averne una ’compariva con due pistole, una da scaricarsi contro di me (lui), l’altra
For Sáenz legacy, see Sarah C. Chambers, “Republican Friendship: Manuela Sáenz Writes Women
into the Nation, 1835-1856,” Hispanic American Historical Review 81.2 (2001): 225–257 and Pamela
S. Murray, “’Loca’ or ’Libertadora’ ?: Manuela Sáenz in the Eyes of History and Historians, 1900–
c.1990,” Journal of Latin American Studies 33.2 (May 2001): 291–310.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, Edizione Nazionale degli Scritti di Giuseppe Garibaldi , vol. 2. Le Memorie di
Garibaldi nella redazione definitiva del 1872 (Cappelli, 1932) 133.
Marjan Schwegman, “In Love with Garibaldi: Romancing the Italian Risorgimento,” European Review
of History 12.2 (2005): 394.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, Memorie autobiografiche (Firenze: G. Barbèra, 1888) 59.
Jessie White Mario, Vita di Giuseppe Garibaldi , 5th ed. (Milano: Fratelli Treves, 1893) 25.
contro la rivale” [Anita did not tolerate rivals; Garibaldi himself told us that when she
suspected the presence of a rival “she appeared with two guns, one to unload against
me (him), and one against the rival”].7 As historian Lucy Riall points out, testimonies
of Anita’s military exploits in South America came from Garibaldi, although scholars remain uncertain as to the extent of Anita’s participation in warfare. In 1847
Anita and her three children preceded Garibaldi’s return to Italy by embarking on a
steamboat and arriving in Nice, where they lived with Garibaldi’s mother. Anita’s
arrival on Italian shores determined an interesting shift in the ways in which she was
depicted; in particular, the warrior Anita seems to have been left behind in South
America in favor of a tamer version of femininity, mostly characterized by her marital
and motherly devotion. As Garibaldi’s wife, however, Anita married the cause as
It is Garibaldi himself who sanctioned the transformation from fighter to unarmed
supporter of the Risorgimento:
Anita si era identificata nell’idea di redenzione del popolo italiano. Essa non
camminerà armata, non si macchierà di sangue; ma con l’intrepido suo contegno
animerà i men prodi, svergognerà i codardi.8
Anita identified with the idea of redemption of the Italian people. She will not
walk armed, she will not seek blood; but with her valiant demeanor she will
encourage the less courageous and shame the cowards.
Anita lived with her mother-in-law until she decided, against her husband’s advice, to
reunite with him in Rome, where she arrived, on June 14th, 1849 when the Republic’s
days were numbered.
Mario 29.
Felice Venosta, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Memorie sulla sua vita, 2nd (Milano: Carlo Barbini, 1882) 88.
Anita’s courage derived from her decision to follow her husband despite the danger: her devotion to Garibaldi went beyond considerations of her own safety. Before
entering Rome, Anita, probably for practical reasons, decided to cut her hair short
and dress as a man (“Giunta ad una prima casa, pregò una donna di reciderle i capelli,
si vestì da uomo e montò a cavallo” [When she reached one of the first houses, she
asked a woman to cut her hair, she dressed as a man and mounted a horse].9 ): by removing the combatant’s clothes, Anita took on the more traditional role of supporter
and inciter.
Anita died in the marshes of Ravenna either from malaria, complications of her
pregnancy, or both. The adventurous nature of her death contributed to her immortalization in the pantheon of the Risorgimento’s heroines, and the erection of a statue
capturing her character (in the Gianicolo Hill in Rome) was inaugurated in 1932 by
Benito Mussolini. Anita’s body became the centerpiece in the celebrations of the Cinquantenario garibaldino [fiftieth anniversary of Garibaldi’s death] organized by the
Fascist regime in 1932. The design and construction of the statue commemorating
Anita was closely supervised by Mussolini himself.10
The statue by sculptor Mario Rutelli depicts Anita in a rather unnatural pose: she
is fearlessly riding a horse while simultaneously holding a rifle in her right hand and
the infant Menotti in her left arm.11 [Fig. 4.2] Yet, according to all accounts, Anita
Garibaldi, Memorie autobiografiche 210.
As historian Claudio Fogu discusses, Mussolini took charge of the commemorations and personally
conceived the statue of Anita “as an artistic expression of his aesthetic politics.” Claudio Fogu, “’To
Make History’: Garibaldianism and the Formation of a Fascist Historic Imaginary,” Making and
Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento, ed. Albert Russell
Ascoli and Krystyna Von Henneberg (New York: Berg Publishers, 2001) 209.
The first version of the Anita statue did not contemplate the presence of Menotti: it was Mussolini
Figure 4.2: Anita. Rome, Italy.
never held a rifle after disembarking in Nice, two years before her premature and
dramatic death. Indeed, it seems that Mussolini’s aesthetic directives were aimed at
favoring a “work least problematic from a figurative point of view, and most likely
to have an impact on the public.” 12 The rifle in Anita’s hand denotes her courageous
motherhood, her determination to fight without ever forgetting the most important,
and natural, role of all. In Anita, the amalgamation of war and motherhood is
very convincing.13 In comparison to the Gianicolo piece, a statue representing Anita
and Giuseppe Garibaldi in Porto Alegre, Brazil tells a different story, one perhaps
influenced by Manuela Sáenz and Simon Bolivar’s partnership. In this sculpture,
Giuseppe stands erect and calm behind his companion who is depicted in a rather
dynamic pose by a cannon: she is defending him and at the same time is ready to
jump out of the statue with the same force as that released by the mounted gun
at her side. [Fig. 4.3] In the Brazilian monument no reference is made to Anita’s
The comparison between the Italian and Brazilian statues demonstrates the importance of analyzing the participation of women in nineteenth century warfare in
comparative perspective. The Risorgimento was not the only movement for national
who ordered Rutelli to add it. Claudio Fogu remarks how “In giving autotelic birth to Anita’s son,
Mussolini had forged a seductive and static icon of fascist femininity, which conjoined the campaign
against Italy’s declining birthrate and the ongoing project of fostering the formation of a warrior
culture into a well-codified image of fascist womanhood: the warrior-mother.” Fogu, “’To Make
History’: Garibaldianism and the Formation of a Fascist Historic Imaginary” 210–11.
Qtd. in Fogu, “’To Make History’: Garibaldianism and the Formation of a Fascist Historic Imaginary”
The statue of Anita functioned not only to celebrate a precise ideal of womanhood: a strong link
is also established among fascist revolution and garibaldinismo. See Claudio Fogu, “Fascism and
the Historic Representation: The 1932 Garibaldian Celebrations,” Journal of Contemporary History
31.3 (1996): 317–345 and Fogu, “’To Make History’: Garibaldianism and the Formation of a Fascist
Historic Imaginary”.
Figure 4.3: Garibaldi and Anita. Porto Alegre, Brazil.
unification during the nineteenth century; fruitful comparisons may also be made in
reading the experiences and consequent representations of Italian women in arms and
their Greek and Spanish counterparts. Greece and Spain’s movement for national independence are germane to an understanding of the attitudes and cultural reception
vis-à-vis women in arms, since their political and cultural contexts resembles that of
pre-Unification Italy.
The Spanish revolution of 1808 was important not only because it signaled the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall, but also because it was the site of an intense popular
resistance which echoed throughout Europe. In the city of Zaragoza fighting was particularly dramatic. The people of Zaragoza have for centuries venerated the so-called
“Virgin of the Pillar,” a relic of an old Marian cult according to which the Virgin Mary
flew from Palestine on a marble pillar to oversee the construction of the Cathedral
in 40 AD.14 On May 17th, 1808 the Virgin appeared to the congregated faithful in
the Cathedral and ordered them to take up arms and fight off the French army; she
was particularly influential in mounting a female contribution to the resistance, in
that she herself took up the role of “Capitana de la tropa aragonesa” [Commander
of Aragon’s troops]. Among the women who followed the Virgin’s lead was Agustina
Zaragoza.15 Initially, Agustina worked the rear lines, providing food and ammunitions
to the soldiers, and encouraging them to keep fighting, because “If you cannot go on,
we women will.” 16 When the situation began to worsen for the Spaniards, Agustina
John Lawrence Tone, “A Dangerous Amazon: Agustina Zaragoza and the Spanish Revolutionary
War, 1808–1814,” European History Quarterly 37.4 (2007): 549.
Tone 551.
took matters in her own hands and “picked up a lit fuse, climbed through the dying
and wounded men into the breach, and fired a cannon loaded with shot at point blank
range into the advancing French. The French were forced to call off the assault for
the day and would not take the city for another eight months.” 17 Agustina’s courage
was immediately recognized by the Spanish commander who made her a soldier in
the artillery, awarded her a medal, and authorized her to wear a uniform.18
It is interesting to consider the ways Agustina’s story has been recounted, compared to the fate of Colomba Antonietti. Like the young Umbrian woman, Agustina’s
actions were soon transformed into a tale of love and marital devotion. According to
such accounts, Agustina took up arms to defend her betrothed, and when he died she
swore to vindicate him. The topos of a woman who decides to go to battle in order
to follow her beloved is among the most commonly used, and it is recuperated in the
story of Colomba Antonietti, who ultimately sacrifices herself to shield her husband
from a French bullet. In this way, both Agustina and Colomba’s actions are devoid
of any individual or political connotation: they fought for their men and not for their
country, and their subversive choices are normalized and neutralized by the use of a
love story.
If we travel to the other side of the Mediterranean, we reach the shores of Greece,
where another war of independence was fought. Historian Margaret Poulos has employed the woman warrior as an analytical category in order to examine the ways in
Tone 551.
Agustina was later captured by the French; along with other prisoners of war, she was sent to a
prison in France. During the march, she managed to escape and reached Seville where she joined
the revolutionary government and rose the army ranks. It was there that she met Lord Byron who
wrote about her accomplishments in his Childe Harold. See Tone 551–552.
which Greek feminist identity developed through the ages, with a focus on the battles fought during the revolution of 1821.19 In particular, Poulos discusses the figure
of Laskarina Bouboulina, the commander of the warship “Agamemnon,” and one of
the few women to enter the heroic Olympus of Greek independence.20 Bouboulina’s
courage and heroism have subsequently been read as the product of an exceptional
and androgynous personality, the expression of a rather masculinized woman. The
use of androgyny is another common topos when narrating the deeds of women in
arms. The same narrative treatment was used to justify Luisa Battistotti’s armed
intervention during Milan’s “Five Glorious Days.” Specifically, celebrating a woman
for her masculine characteristics reaffirmed gender order: the emphasis placed on
Laskarina and Luigia’s exceptional personalities has often been contrasted with the
feminine qualities of “normal” women.
The fact that similar narrative tropes circulated throughout Europe during the
nineteenth century is at the center of Alberto Banti’s comparative volume on nationalism, sexuality, and violence from the eighteenth century to the Great War.21 Banti
amplifies his analysis of the Risorgimento’s national-patriotic discourse by placing it
in dialogue with mostly French, German, and British narratives. His volume stands
as a companion piece to “La nazione del Risorgimento” in which the same historian
sought to inaugurate a new historiography of the Risorgimento through a renewed
effort to articulate the “object” Risorgimento as an analytical category by which the
Margaret Poulos, Arms and the Woman: Just Warriors and Greek Feminist Identity (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2009).
Poulos 19–48.
Banti, L’onore della nazione. Identità sessuali e violenza nel nazionalismo europeo dal XVIII secolo
alla grande guerra.
national identity and national-patriotic narratives became a fundamental element of
the construction of the nation and its epic. Banti turns his attention to the representation of women in arms relatively late in the volume and does so in a rather cursory
way. In particular, I wish to complicate his use of gender as a category of analysis by
emphasizing the interdependency and complementarity of the masculine and feminine
within the Risorgimento’s rhetorical discourse vis-à-vis the participation of women in
This dissertation aimed to provide a more complete and nuanced articulation of the
experiences and representations of the women in arms of the Italian Risorgimento. In
particular, the preceding chapters have endeavored to address various representations
of these women in arms through national-patriotic discourse produced before, during
and after the Risorgimento, in order to bring opposing and contradictory images into
As the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Italian Unification approaches,
my hope is to supplement the counter-narratives echoing patriot and literary figure
Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel’s last words, before being hung in Naples’s Piazza del
Mercato on August 20th, 1799: “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit” [It may be
helpful one day to remember all this].
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