Custoza 1866


Two battles were fought at Custoza near Verona during the Italian wars of the Risorgimento. In the first in 1848 the Austrian Marshal Radetzky triumphed over the forces of King Carlo Alberto of Piedmonte, following up his advantage the next year at Novara on that principality's border, bringing about the abdication of Carlo Alberto and the renunciation of nationalist aspirations for a generation. Indeed it was said the king had courted defeat on his own account rather than encourage the radical uprising in Milan which had broken out at the news of the democratic rising in Vienna, an historical view which Gramsci maintained in prison and which circulated on the left down to Fantin's day and beyond. Incidents such as this gave rise to the theory of `passive revolution' to describe incomplete conservative political mobilisation of nationalism to prevent its radicalisation.

In the Second Battle of Custoza of 1866 during the Third War of Independence, Italian commanders threw away their advantages through lack of coordination and were defeated by the Austrian Archduke Albert, much to the disgust of Bismark, who had to face the redeployed Austrian forces, which he did comprehensively at Sadowa, thus establishing Prussian hegemony in Germany. Italy, having lost her battle, thereby won her war courtesy of her ally, the Veneto being united to the Kingdom of Italy, but not before the political mania for an Italian victory had provoked a naval defeat off the island of Lissa in the Adriatic.

Here conscript Piedmontese infantry are shown at bay by the realist artist Giovanni Fattori [1825-1908] in an image idealising honourable defeat, not dissimilar to that embodied in the later Australian ANZAC legend. Fattori's interest in the lives of the common people in war and peace expressed a populist intellectual strain in late nineteenth century Italian culture, which issued in idealistic petty bourgeois involvement in socialism. Fattori emphasises here the stolid courage of Italian infantry at their grim work under fire, in tacit contrast with the lack of nerve of their commanders.

Most nationalist military enthusiasm was reserved however for the bourgeois volunteers, the Red Shirts, lead by The Hero of Two Worlds, Giuseppe Garibaldi. He was a Republican ship's captain from the then italian city of Nizza, subsequently traded to Napoleon III as Nice in return for his military support at Magenta and Solferino in 1859 during the Second War of Independence. These bloody and indecisive battles heralded the industrialisation of modern war and gave rise to the establishment of the International Red Cross to provide medical care for wounded combattants on humanitarian grounds regardless of partisan considerations. Garibaldi had fled Genoa in 1834 after the abortive antiSavoyard Young Italy uprising and graduated from commanding a trading vessel to commanding irregulars on behalf of the breakaway Brazilian Republic do Rio Grande do Sul. He returned to Italy to assume command of the defence of Rome against French forces in the service of the Pope in 1848, and in 1860 invaded the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with his Thousand, overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy and uniting the bulk of the Italian peninsular under the rule of King Vittorio Emmanuale II of Piedmonte. But as Gramsci noted, the voluntaristic associations of the Risorgimento camouflaged a lack of popular participation both politically and militarily, given the exclusivist liberal aims of middle class nationalism, which failed to address the agrarian aims of the peasantry and poor livings standards of urban artisans and the emerging working class.

Photo from De Micheli `Giovanni Fattori'

 

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