Caprera, Maddalena Islands, Sardinia
“Entrance is allowed only to those who are properly clothed and have the correct attitude to the importance and sacredness of this place” reads tour regulation number three, while number four threatens to bar access to those “wearing only a swimsuit or flimsy garments”. The regulations, displayed prominently at the entrance to the museum, make it clear that this is less a visitor attraction than a shrine. “You should dress and behave as though you were in a church”, said the guide of a private tour party sotto voce to his clients while we were standing in line to go in.
Once we were inside, this was confirmed by darkened rooms in which pictures and artefacts had been left in situ for the past century or more, culminating in the muslin-draped, iron-railinged bed in which he died – the bedroom also contained a calendar displaying the date and a clock stopped at the moment of his death. The veneration with which his story was related by our tour guide was notable as well. Her voice almost broke as she described his final moments, impressive for someone who probably led the same tour three or four times a day. As tour regulation number two says, “this is a sacred place for guarding the tomb of the Hero and his family.”
All of which came as an unwelcome surprise to the middle-aged German couple in our party who made clear their unhappiness at not being allowed to wander at will, instead being constrained to one room at a time, forced to follow the tour in Italian (each visitor is given a written transcript of the tour in their own language and encouraged to read it before the tour starts). As the tour progressed, they vented their annoyance through sideways mutterings, deep sighs and the occasional fit of giggles, which only goaded the tour guide, a fierce woman with jet-black hair pulled back tidily into a bun, to single them out for attention. “Per favore non toccare! (please don’t touch things!)” she snapped when they pawed innocently at implements hanging in the old kitchen, forcing me to desist from doing so myself. Then in clipped English she added, “thenk yew so veery much!”
It was something of a relief when the doors to the side of the deathbed were opened, flooding the sepulchral gloom with light from the garden. We walked out blinking, as though from winter into sudden spring, to be greeted by the sight of the bleached-stone headlands of La Maddalena straight ahead, white-sailed yachts catching the sun in the straits below and Corsica shimmering in the distance: the view which must have persuaded Guiseppe Garibaldi, soldier, adventurer and the catalyst for Italy’s unification, to buy this land as a bolt-hole from his travels when he visited the island in 1855.
The farmhouse that Garibaldi evenually built for himself on the island has an elevated position, overlooking La Maddalena to the west and another large island, Santo Stefano, below that. Painted white, it is, conversely, easily spotted from any decent viewpoint on La Maddalena as well, a fact we had appreciated while out walking over the last couple of days. On a clear day the white cliffs and mountainous outline of Corsica are visible to the north, the view that he enjoyed from the confinement of his bed for the last few months of his life.
It is an unexpectedly large house, built originally around a central atrium on the west side of a wide, cobbled and walled courtyard, and later extended to the north and south. With its white walls and dark wood furniture it was more akin, I thought, to a hacienda of the Agentinian or Uruguyan pampas from which, of course, Garibaldi drew his inspiration – as he did for elements of his flamboyant dress, such as his jeans and boots, his ponchos and his famous, gaucho-like red shirt, also on display inside.
I then remembered that we were seeing the finished article, the home that Garibaldi developed over more than twenty-five years, rather than the small stone cottage that he originally built and which figures in the legend of the simple soldier of fortune. Similar to the 150-year old pine tree which dominates the courtyard, its sprawling branches held up by iron props, it has all the appearances of comfortable old age rather than a struggling, pioneering spirit.
With the help of donations from his supporters, Garibaldi bought most of the northern half of the island for a total price that was the equivalent of £360 at the time. It was put together from parcels of land belonging to two men: a resident goatherd named Battista Ferraciolo and an Englishman named Collins who lived on La Maddalena and hardly ever visited, leaving the management of his land to another local goatherd. The island at the time was thinly populated, the domain of a handful of families descended from Corsican settlers in the eighteenth century, while the narrow straits between it and La Maddalena still necessitated a treacherous passage across shallow, rock-infested waters.
Garibaldi initially lived in a tent while he and his companions started to build a wooden hut and to till enough soil, between the rocky crags of the island, to plant crops. He also had a flock of goats, a special breed brought over from Malta, which he used for milk, cheese and meat, plus sheep, some cows and donkeys. However, the goats’ habit of wandering onto the better established crops of his neighbours became a bone of contention for both. The Englishman, Collins, had retained other land, coterminous with the plots he sold Garibaldi, and over the years developed a belligerent attitude to his neighbour as a result. Garibaldi had eventually to build a wall across the island to demarcate his land.
Construction of the wooden hut was finished by the summer and gave him and his daughter somewhere to stay while work started on a larger, stone house. Enough of the latter was habitable by the autumn of 1857 for him to move into this as well, along with a houseservant called Battistina Ravello, who quickly became his mistress. Space continued to be at a premium given the number of people with whom Garibaldi shared the house and the regular train of visitors – invited and uninvited – who came to stay. It was also built over a cistern, for easy access to fresh water, but this meant that the floors were often damp.
The layout of the core of the house which now stands was largely complete by 1860-61, although how much of this was directly attributable to Garibaldi is open to debate. He was involved in most practical and physical activities on the estate but was better at some, such as gardening, than others, such as stonemasonry and carpentry which more expert friends had often to review and repair. There was also the question of how much time he actually spent on the island.
After the initial honeymoon period, it became evident from his notes and letters that Garibaldi felt lonely, ignored and cut off from the world while on Caprera; hence his need for constant news, letters and companions and, eventually, his regular attempts to sally forth on new adventures.
As early as August 1856, his first summer on Caprera, he returned to the mainland to make the acquaintance of the new prime minister, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, in Turin. The two men came to develop a total antipathy for one another but, for the next few years, they found their respective roles mutually convenient – Cavour for his political intriguing and Garibaldi for his ability to make things happen on the ground – in their common desire for Italian unification.
Thereafter, from his involvement in the Piedmont-Austrian War of 1859 until his return from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Garibaldi was more often absent from Caprera than attending to his responsibilities at home. On the occasions that he did return it was usually reluctantly, in a fit of pique because a military campaign had gone badly or his allies – he felt – had let him down, or due to injury or, in later years, under escort from his own government, fed up with his interference in affairs of state.
His defining moment, and the one that has cemented his place in Italian and European history, was a prime example of this pattern of behaviour. It involved, of course, his leadership in 1860 of the so-called i Mille (the Thousand), with whom he sailed to Sicily and, with popular support, took the island from its Bourbon ruler. He then took Naples with little resistance and, although the fiercely fought Battle of Volturno, against the remaining Neapolitan forces, was inconclusive, with the help of the Piedmontese Army he effectively united northern and southern Italy, ceding his conquests to the Piedmontese king, Vittorio Emmanuel II, on 26 October.
However, Rome, part of the Papal States and protected by France, remained out of his grasp and the refusal of the Piedmontese forces to risk its involvement led Garibaldi to resign his commission and slip quietly back to Caprera, refusing any reward for his services. His modesty was probably not disingenuous: part of Garibaldi’s popularity lay in his preference for a simpler lifestyle, shunning luxuries that were offered and often giving away his army salary to others. But the desire to incorporate Rome into the new Italian state was a theme to which he would constantly return, leading hastily thrown together armies into the region three more times during the 1860s; and each time he was resisted by his own government, arrested and returned under military escort to his farm and his family. “I am a prisoner on Caprera”, he complained when writing to his son-in-law in 1870.
Garibaldi fought briefly as part of an Italian government campaign to capture Venice from the Austrians in 1866 and even as late as 1871, at the age of sixty-four, was fighting for Republican French forces against what he saw as an over-mighty Prussia. On both occasions he equipped himself well, leading his men in successful, if minor, skirmishes and adding another chapter to the legend. By 1871, however, he was visibly suffering from a series of injuries incurred over the years, adding to the arthritic attacks to which he was notoriously prone, and often had to resort to being carried about the battlefield on a stretcher.
Garibaldi returned to Caprera in 1872 and thereafter rarely left the island, being restricted for much of the rest of his life to a wheelchair. Despite this, he kept up a busy schedule of reading documents and responding to letters which arrived daily on the steamer to La Maddalena.
He often rose in the early hours of the morning to carry on with documents he had been working on till late the night before, inevitably waking others about the house to help him marshall his thoughts in how to respond. As we noticed on the tour of the house, before being moved into a new extension towards the end of his life, Garibaldi’s own room was cramped, with a cast iron bedstead, desk and chairs plus piles and piles of documents and letters on which he was constantly working. Letters came from a wide range of friends, politicians, and general hangers on, including several cranks and many from female admirers, often asking for a letter in response with a lock of his hair – which he usually provided.
At a decent hour, he would repair to the garden to attend to or supervise tasks in the cool of the day, before breakfast. After that, he would allot tasks to the family and whoever was staying with him at the time, such as hoeing, pruning, wall building and stone carrying, or simply helping him with his letter writing. The main meal was taken at midday, but there was usually also a gathering in the evening, when simple but filling meals were served, including pasta followed by meat, fish and cheese from the estate and finished with wild figs and honey from his own bees. His garden also furnished his table with olives, almonds and wine.
Garibaldi’s personal life was also notoriously complicated, something to which the tour guide briefly alluded – it is difficult to avoid when referring to the various portraits about the house and the paternity of some of the children displayed in them. He was married three times, his first wife, Anita, the companion of his South American adventures and, it was said, the one true love of his life, dying in childbirth while fleeing from Austrian forces in 1849. It was their daughter, Teresa, who moved with Garibaldi to Caprera in 1856.
His second marriage was an unfortunate and embarrassing affair, involving a woman one-third his age whom he left the same day after discovering that she had another lover and had already lost a child from another relationship. He had three more children with his second housekeeper, Francesca Armosino, also many years his junior when they first met, who was originally engaged as a childminder for his daughter and her husband. For a while the relationship therefore became a difficult issue for the family.
Francesca was nonetheless his final lover and it is significant that he decided to do the right thing by her as soon as he was legally able – they eventually married in 1880, following the annulment of his second marriage. The love, or at least respect, on his part for Francesca was apparently reciprocated and she chose, at the end of her life – more than forty years after her husband’s and after as many years away from Caprera – to be buried on the island. Their son, Manlio, became an officer in the Italian navy but died in his twenties – his bedroom is on the tour route and is treated as a shrine within a shrine.
In between these formal relationships were several others that were less so, or whose exact nature can only be guessed at. Garibaldi also had a daughter with his first housekeeper, Battistina Ravello, who was persuaded to return to the mainland with an allowance, though he continued to care for the child, named Anita, himself.
This side of his character was at one with his forceful and energetic personality generally but did not mean that he pushed himself on women. The indications from his correspondence, or other records of his relationships, with significant women in his life are that he acted at all times as a gentleman. Indeed, the evidence of these, and the letters and attentions of many other women – some of whom simply turned up on his doorstep – was that the character popularly portrayed by his exploits and his own personality just made him attractive to the opposite sex.
In the garden we were given some brief latitude to wander about, admire the scenery and take pictures, possibly to allow us to acclimatise to the newly bright conditions outside. On a raised platform to the left were two odd little monuments: the first was the reconstructed remains of one of Garibaldi’s failed projects, to build a corn mill for the farm. Set at a slight lean on its little hill, it seemed more like a toy or scale model of a mill. The other was a huge, Stalinesque bust of the General with wild hair, as though caught in one of the Mediterranean storms that sweep the islands.
Except for the cultivated land about Garibaldi’s farmhouse, much of the rest of Caprera has reverted to maquis, or macchia in the Italian: thorny, drought-bearing shrubland and bushes that survive on the thin soils and between the rocky outcrops of the island. Crushed underfoot, the plants give off a wonderful aroma of herbs but they also scratch and cut the ankles of the unwary.
Unlike the other islands of the Maddalena Archipelego, however, Caprera retains one other legacy of the Hero’s time here – the pine forests that cover the island, lending much-needed shade to visitors and providing a cooler environment for walking. We benefited from them for our subsequent trek to the beaches at the southern end of Caprera, only emerging into full sun as the path occasionally crested the rocky spine of the island. It criss-crossed from one side to the other on its way down to one of a number of azure-fringed crescents of white sand that these days form the main attraction for summer visitors.
But beyond the orchards and olive groves through which we were whisked next were several more interesting monuments – more interesting for the story they tell of Garibaldi’s resurrection and subsequent prominence in Italian history rather than for their appearance. Against a long stone wall, under the shade of several pine trees, was Garibaldi’s granite-encased tomb, a giant, roughly carved vault that contrasted with the row of white marble graves to either side, those of Francesca and several of his children.
Before he died, Garibaldi asked that his body be burnt and the ashes scattered about Italy. Burnt, he said, rather than cremated, in the manner of poets and martyrs, specifying the type of wood to be used and envisaging that those in attendance might take a handful each of the ashes back to their individual corners of the country. Pompous though it sounded, it was the old man’s only remaining way of re-establishing contact, he thought, with the disparate elements of the country he had helped to bring together.
Francesca was prepared to honour her husband’s wishes but the powers that be, including his eldest son and several former companions in arms, treated her as the servant she once was and stepped in to make other arrangements, including the establishment of a fund to pay for Garibaldi’s body to be embalmed and laid to rest in a suitably-sized stone vault. He was buried with full honours in the presence of members of the Italian royal family, several government and military figures and representatives of foreign states. The World, from which Garibaldi felt separated, even banished, for so much of his life, finally came to him, and to Caprera.