A woman whose story, through all the attempts of erasing her nonconformism, of trying to put her in a box, is louder than a thousand words.
On the Janiculum there is an unusual statue, a woman riding a reared up horse, holding her child while brandishing a gun. It is Ana Maria Ribeiro da Silva, better known as Anita Garibaldi. Amongst all the women that played a role in the Risorgimento, Anita is probably the most famous, the most talked about. But what do we actually know about her? Her persona gets lost between history and myth. Like most poor women of the time, Anita could neither read nor write, at most she could sign her name. She certainly is not the only woman that left nothing written about herself behind. Many other stories have been reconstructed with less. But it is impossible to talk about Anita, without mentioning Garibaldi, without considering Italy’s unification or the Brazilian national identity. Anita is not only a historical figure, she became a symbol for many political parties.
Anita was probably born in 1821, in the province of Rio Grande do Sul, her mother was a seamstress, her father a herdsman and of her first 18 years we know next to nothing. She was the third daughter in a poor family, she probably took care of her siblings and learned her mother’s trade. When she was 14 her father died and she had to marry a cobbler out of necessity. It was not a happy marriage and he was a violent husband. Anita and Garibaldi probably first met in the Laguna harbor. Garibaldi was part of the Rio Grande Republic military forces and actively fighting against the Brazilian Empire. There are many versions of this first encounter. The first sentence uttered by Garibaldi remains iconic: “You have to be mine.” He said it in Italian but Anita understood nevertheless. It was the beginning of an immediate and deep passion that conquered all social norms. We do not know what happened to her husband, but from that moment on it did not realy matter. She sailed with him and soon had her first taste of battle. On board the Rio Pardo, while trying to escape the imperial troops, they had to abandon the ship and set it alight.
Their life together was made of adventures, rebellion and difficult circumstances. Garibaldi would then write about his perfect companion, always his peer, courageous, strong, tireless, always by his side in battle, a warrior or a nurse depending on the occasion, who was fully capable of handling the troops. Even though Anita might not have been this perfect, she had those qualities. She had found her place at his side as she proved many times over. Iconic became the story of when she had to escape just a few days after having given birth to her first child, Menotti. They were being chased by the imperial troops, when Menotti was born. Attacked during the night, while Garibaldi was away, Anita took her child and fled on a horse into the woods. It took Garibaldi several days to find her. This is the episode that inspired the statue.
There were also a few peaceful moments, like the time they spent in Uruguay during which Garibaldi taught mathematics and Anita learnt Italian. They even got married. But the call to battle and revolution was too strong and Garibaldi left once again. Their second daughter was also born in quite unusual circumstances: during the siege of Montevideo in 1843. Anita and Garibaldi had four children together. And since the missions and warfare never seemed to end, he decided to send the whole family to Nice where his mother lived. Awaiting for his own return to Italy, to fight for its unification.
Garibaldi came back to Italy on the 21 of June 1848, after 14 years of exile. Waiting for him at the harbour was Anita, the children, his mother and a huge crowd. At this point, he was already famous. Anita and the children went towards him in a small boat and the crowd roared when they hugged. The following period was full of trips, sometimes together, sometimes Anita stayed behind in Nice to look after the kids. Garibaldi’s health got worse, and more than once Anita decided to go to him and would then refuse to go back home, knowing her children were safe in Nice. But when she secretly arrived in Rome, under siege by the French, it was her health that was waning. Pregnant and ill, it is improbable that she could take an active part in the fight to defend the Roman Republic. But we know for sure that she vehemently refused to go back to Nice and escaped with Garibaldi and what was left of his men. The march, with little water and food, was the beginning of the end. Anita never reached a safe haven, she died on the run, due to a malarial fever and in the arms of her husband at the age of 28.
As long as Garibaldi was alive, he controlled the narrative around his late wife. His memories are the first and most complete source on her life. Furthermore, an informal rule vetoed his entourage from speaking about his private life; they even avoided mentioning Anita out of respect for their leaders’ loss. In fact, there is only one portrait of Anita. Garibaldi depicted a very idealised woman and the many editions of his memories embellish the story further. Especially the one written by Dumas who made a romantic heroine out of her. What grasped public attention was the circumstances around her death. A precise narrative, in part influenced by Garibaldi himself, made her a martyr of the Risorgimento. She became a relic, an idea, a lost love to mourn, a sacrifice that dignifies Garibaldi and his fight. He barely talked about her, even with his own children. He protected her memory also because he feared it may be used against him – at the time some rumours suggested that he was the one that killed her. Like a modern Antigone, in 1859 Garibaldi finally managed to transfer her remains to Nice,finally giving her a respectable burial.
After his death, Anita stopped being a taboo subject, her story started to be explored, though with some attention so as to not damage Garibaldi’s reputation. Anita’s first marriage is especially not mentioned. As we see how public opinion changes Anita’s persona, we have to consider how the revolution of the media during this period influenced the Risorgimento, and was a key feature in the formation of the Italian Nation. Anita’s story was not only explored and looked at through a historical lens, or out of a pure need to spread it; it became entertainment, propaganda, and the story of the hero couple was already pretty spectacular, as it was more than enough to make them an icon. While after Garibaldi’s death she became more of a historical figure, her narrative split between the warrior-woman, rebellious and combative, and the woman completely subjected to her husband. Also, her being a mother started to become a topic of discussion. Similar is the narrative surrounding her figure in the figurative South-American culture.
Amply discussed in all of the literature about Garibaldi, she is barely mentioned by the female writers of the time. Maybe because even though she played a part in the Risorgimento, she remained a stranger, or maybe because the androgynous image depicted by Garibaldi was in contrast with the feminine sentiment of the time. As time changes, so does Anita’s persona, she is less and less the martyr and more a pawn in pedagogic politics, a model to propose to Italian women. Fascism wanted to create an ideological alignment between themselves and the Garibaldini, to appropriate the Risorgimento as their founding myth. Anita changes once again, she becomes the heroine of love. To try and take away her strong and independent character, they turned her into a devoted wife and mother, ready to sacrifice herself for her husband. During the same period, another dictator in Brazil looked into her story to gain political suppor from this country . The two dictators fought over Anita’s body and Mussolini won. Her remains were once again moved, this time to Rome, into the pedestal of her statue, becoming a relic.
But if we were to look at this statue with today’s eyes, at this woman brandishing a pistol and holding a child, I doubt that we would just see a woman and her sacrifice. She looks way more like a brave, untamed and independent woman. We may know nothing of her true nature but we know about her story and the choices she made. For example, between staying at home safe with her children she decided to assist her husband in battle. For this reason, we may see her as a woman that made her own choices, with a prominent place in the patriotic mythology; a woman whose story, through all the attempts of erasing her nonconformism, of trying to put her in a box, is louder than a thousand words.
Cavicchioli, Silvia: “Anita, storia e mito di Anita Garibaldi”, Einaudi Storia (2017)