Article abstract: Mazzini was the most influential leader of the Risorgimento—the Italian national unification movement. His political activities and philosophy were carried beyond Italy and inspired fledgling nationalist and democratic reform movements throughout the world.
Giuseppe Mazzini was born in 1805, the son of a well-to-do Genoese family. A sickly but precocious child, he could scarcely walk until the age of six. His mother, Maria Drago, practiced the morally rigorous Catholic doctrine of Jansenism and provided the young Mazzini with Jansenist tutors. His political education began at home under the influence of his father, Giacomo—a renowned physician and a professor at the University of Genoa. Mazzini’s father, like many educated Italians, had embraced the nationalist and democratic ideas of the French Revolution. These ideas endured even after the Napoleonic Wars, when authoritarian rule had been restored to the various Italian states. Giacomo and other Italian patriots nurtured hopes for democratic reform, independence from foreign rule, and ultimately a united Italy.
As a young man, Mazzini was deeply moved by the suffering of others and was recklessly generous in his charity. He tended to be melancholy, always dressed in black—as if in mourning—and enjoyed long, solitary walks. At the University of Genoa, he studied law, but his real interest was in history and literature. He organized a student group to study censored books and wrote provocative essays for several literary journals. The Italian universities in the 1820’s were a conduit for subversive political organizations. During his student years, Mazzini became involved with a secret revolutionary society—the Carbonari. The July Revolution of 1830 in France inspired the Carbonari to plot insurrections in Piedmont and other Italian states. Government officials uncovered the conspiracy and arrested hundreds of suspects, including Mazzini. He defended himself successfully in court, but the Piedmontese authorities forced him into exile. At the age of twenty-six, he left Genoa for France.
The failure of the Carbonari insurrections during 1830-1831 led Mazzini to organize his own secret society, Young Italy. Through this group, he hoped to bring a youthful energy and idealism to the movement for Italian independence and unification. His sincerity and the quiet strength of his convictions won for him a devout following. His agents distributed the newspaper Young Italy and established affiliated societies throughout the Italian peninsula. In 1833, Mazzini joined with nationalists from other countries to found Young Europe. This organization embodied the aspirations of many European nationalities seeking to break free of the Austrian and Russian empires and to establish their own independent states with democratic institutions. Mazzini’s European network of secret societies made him a notorious figure. The Austrian government considered him an international terrorist, a threat to the entire European order. Yet to the peoples of Europe who chafed under authoritarian rule, he appeared as a symbol of liberty.
The insurrections organized in the 1830’s by Mazzini and his followers failed to ignite a popular uprising in Italy. For his subversive activity, he received the death sentence in absentia from a Piedmontese court in 1833. His life in exile took him from France to Switzerland to Great Britain. He traveled like a fugitive—under the constant threat of arrest and imprisonment. To survive these difficult years in exile, he relied on the loyalty of his followers and the generous financial support from his mother. Once in London, he devoted his time to writing for popular journals and to publishing his own newspaper. His most notable work during his years in exile was Doveri dell’uomo (1860; The Duties of Man, 1862). Through his many editorials, essays, commentaries, and correspondence, he shaped and refined his political philosophy. He became a celebrated figure among intellectuals and reformers in Great Britain and the United States. At the same time, he generated international sympathy for the Italian cause.
Mazzini based his philosophy on a profound belief in God, in human progress, and in the fundamental unity and cooperation of mankind. The banner of Young Italy best summarized his thought: “Liberty, Equality, Humanity,...
(The entire section is 1826 words.)