Companions Through Time

A writer traces the footsteps of an Italian revolutionary icon

Photomechanical print, ca. 1900, of the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, Italy (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)
Photomechanical print, ca. 1900, of the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, Italy (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hero’s Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna by Tim Parks; Norton, 352 pp., $27.95

In July 1849, the world was watching as the freedom fighter from Montevideo assembled his troops for a tactical retreat. Writing for the New-York Tribune, American journalist Margaret Fuller was among the crowds in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano to report on the event, which also featured in British and French newspapers, while American ships were sighted off the Tuscan coast, ready to take the freedom fighters to the United States.

Born in 1807 in Nice, then part of the Kingdom of Piedmont, Giuseppe Garibaldi was banished for his republicanism and ventured to South America, where he earned a reputation for his exploits on behalf of liberal causes, such as Uruguay’s resistance to incursions from neighboring Argentina. In 1848, as democratic revolutions challenged monarchical rule throughout Europe, Italy remained a checkerboard of states, kingdoms, and duchies. Garibaldi returned to join the Risorgimento movement for unification and was placed in command of troops defending the newly declared Republic of Rome. Having decamped south to Naples, the pope called on the Catholic-sympathizing states of France, Spain, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which governed large swaths of northern Italy, to help restore his territorial claim to the Papal States. After a two-month siege, Rome fell to the invading French on July 2, 1849, but a truce allowed Garibaldi to leave the city with a force of 4,000 volunteers. He had two days to prepare for the epic trek of his Garibaldini irregulars, a ragbag army of infantry, cavalry, baggage trains, munitions, and one cannon. His aim was to reinforce Venice, a newly independent republic holding out against the Austrians.

English writer Tim Parks, who has lived in Italy for many years, had long dreamed of retracing Garibaldi’s steps, crossing Italy from west to east over the stupendously rugged Apennine Mountains. Just as the General, as Garibaldi was titled, had beside him his young Brazilian wife, Anita, pregnant with their fifth child, Parks had his young partner, Eleonora, a native of Puglia. Both modern travelers had resigned their day jobs in Milan and were looking forward to a break from academic life.

They outfitted themselves with the latest high-tech trekking equipment, including poles, which they finally managed to handle correctly thanks to a friendly sports-shop owner, and familiarized themselves with the latest Internet navigation apps. Easy, then? Not at all. The apps sometimes failed to give proper directions: one of them, for example, when lacking adequate information, simply indicated a straight line. Parks also brought along old-fashioned printed maps, but as the Austrians pursuing Garibaldi had found, these too were often far from accurate. Perhaps the worst moments were when civilization loomed. Although Garibaldi had slipped out of Rome through pleasant vineyards at night, our latter-day trekkers found themselves facing the Grande Raccordo Anulare, Rome’s ring road, by day, “discouraged by heavy traffic, gritty streets and piles of uncollected rubbish.” Elsewhere they were confronted by four-lane highways, where the traffic screamed past without a halt, forcing unexpected detours to find an underpass. Then there were the ubiquitous guard dogs, most thankfully chained or held behind locked gates, although there were close encounters with hunting dogs, fortunately recalled by their owners.

But more than compensating for the hardships was the thrill of striding out over the rural uplands with 360-degree views and exploring the hilltop towns and villages. In the places where Garibaldi had pitched his tent, his men sleeping where they could in nearby fields, barns, and monasteries, Parks and his companion found more comfortable accommodations in Airbnbs and a great variety of hotels and apartments, as well as the occasional agriturismo farm, where visitors can take courses in animal husbandry, art, cuisine, or even yoga.

The pair also benefited from the literary company of various Garibaldini, such as the General’s aide-de-camp Gustav von Hoffstetter, a professional soldier from Germany, and another officer named Egidio Ruggeri, both of whom published accounts of the march. Raffaele Beluzzi gathered local recollections as he retraced the retreat in 1899, as did British historian G. M. Trevelyan in 1907. Using these and other sources that have since come to light, Parks weaves a gripping narrative of both his own path and that of Garibaldi and his men, including several larger-than-life characters, such as the popular Roman leader Ciceruacchio (“Ol’ Fats”) and a severe British colonel, Forbes, in his white top hat. Thus, as they tackle hill and slope, thick vegetation and sweltering heat, our trekkers are in constant lively dialogue not only with each other, but also with their predecessors on the path. In fact, Parks becomes “plunged so deep” in Garibaldi’s retreat that he finds it difficult to absorb the art treasures as they pass through Arezzo. He senses a patriotic “lure of martyrdom” in Cimabue’s Crucifix (c. 1267–71) and sees the recent fight for Rome in scenes from Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco.

How did Garibaldi manage the retreat? With great difficulty. He lost men to skirmishes, desertion, and fatigue and was constantly on the alert for informers, especially from the Church. He also lost his wife, who died in the marshlands south of the Po delta near Ravenna. Although the main body of troops surrendered in San Marino, his few remaining comrades slipped through the Austrian lines by again marching at night, using patriotic local guides and giving, as ever, false indications of where he might be heading. Eventually, Garibaldi made it to Nice and later boarded a ship to New York City.

Readers will eagerly follow along as the two trekkers and Garibaldi’s ragged bunch of patriot volunteers twist and dodge through the formidable countryside. We are left in no doubt as to the consequences of helping Garibaldi—often long years in prison or even summary execution (the fate of Ciceruacchio)—but our sense of relief at his success is mingled with sadness at his young wife’s death in an isolated farmhouse. Even so, it was this effort that kept the flame of the
Risorgimento alive, allowing the General to mount the Expedition of a Thousand to Sicily in 1860, which ultimately led to Italy’s unification in 1871.

But that is another story. With less trekking.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

N. S. Thompson is a poet, writer, and translator living near Oxford. His most recent poetry pamphlets are After War and Ghost Hands.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up