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Dmitry Moiseev explores the early career of Mazzini, the famous Italian revolutionary-republican nationalist.

Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) is one of the most prominent Italian thinkers of the nineteenth century. In his time, Mazzini was seen as a figure of European stature, comparable in influence to John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is no better way to honour the memory of a great thinker than to contextualise his ideas in space and time, giving them, in this way, new life and resonance. Within the scope of this article, which is the first of three articles for Arktos Journal dedicated to Mazzini’s legacy, I wish to discuss the youth and emergence of the famous Italian nationalist and his understanding of the significance of the national idea.

Giuseppe Mazzini was born in 1805 in Genoa. This city, from 1005 to 1796, was the capital of its namesake independent republic and an important centre for Mediterranean trade. In 1797, Genoa succumbed to Napoleon Bonaparte and was incorporated by him into the Ligurian Republic. In 1805, the year of Mazzini’s birth, Genoa became a French department. During the early nineteenth century under French rule, Genoa’s fate was quite typical – Italy was, in Metternich’s phrase, a ‘geographical expression’, and was fragmented into numerous states – after Napoleon’s ultimate defeat there were as many as eight.

Napoleon played a crucial role in Italy’s unification – on 26 May 1805, among his other titles, he assumed the title ‘King of Italy’, being crowned in the famous Milan Cathedral with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, and his stepson and field marshal of the Grand Army, Eugène de Beauharnais, was proclaimed Viceroy. French rule in Italy lasted until 1814 and extended over all northern lands – Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, South Tyrol, Tuscany, Liguria, Aosta, and Umbria. The significance of the French rule is well recognised by contemporary Italians – it awakened patriotic forces, of which our subject, Giuseppe Mazzini, was a prominent representative. After Napoleon’s fall in 1814, according to the terms of the Congress of Vienna, Genoa became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which in turn became the cornerstone for building a united Italian nation.

Mazzini was a member of the Genoese intelligentsia, coming from the middle class. His father, Giacomo Mazzini, was originally from Liguria. Giacomo graduated from the University of Pavia – one of the oldest in Europe and the most prestigious of that era – with degrees in both medicine and philosophy. During the time of the Genoese Republic, besides his primary medical work, he held a minor administrative position. In his younger years, he also contributed to a Genoese democratic newspaper of an anticlerical nature. Later, during the French rule and subsequent times, he decisively moved away from politics and in 1822 assumed the position of professor of anatomy at the University of Genoa.

Mother Mazzini, Maria Drago Mazzini, was also a well-educated woman, possessing a substantial library. She devoted herself to her household and children – besides Giuseppe Mazzini, who was the third child in the family, the parents of the future political thinker had three daughters – Maria Rosa Caterina, Antonietta, and Francesca. The fates of all of them were rather complex – Maria Rosa entered a convent at a young age and soon passed away, Antonietta struggled to marry, and once she did, exhibited strong religious restraint – Gaetano Salvemini described her as a ‘stern and ideologically narrow-minded prude’. The youngest sister, Francesca, was born disabled, but she was an exceptionally talented and witty girl, Giuseppe Mazzini’s favourite, and the true heart of the family until her early death in 1838. Thus, the Mazzini household faced considerable tragedy, but Giuseppe’s parents managed to overcome all challenges, largely due to a strong spiritual foundation.

This foundation, passed down from the parents and significantly influencing the spiritual and ethical formation of Mazzini himself, can be termed the ‘Jansenism of morality’. To clarify for the reader, one must remember Cornelius Jansen and his teachings. Jansen was a Dutch Catholic bishop who became the head of the Catholic College of the University of Leuven in 1617. He developed teachings within the doctrine of the Catholic Church concerning the church debate on free will, which became even more pertinent due to the church schism. Jansenists believed that divine grace, through which salvation is possible, could only descend upon those who genuinely deserved it – through sincere faith and diligent work. Thus, although the Jansenists identified as Catholics, their beliefs largely overlapped with several Protestant ideas, primarily with Calvinism. Jansenism was officially condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653, but remained relatively widespread in Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It can be inferred from Mazzini’s article that art should be utilitarian for politics, delivering tangible political benefits.

The young Mazzini, having just graduated from university, was primarily a publicist and literary critic, publishing in the periodical L’Indicatore Genovese. It was in this capacity that he became known to the Genoese public. The first issue of this newspaper was released on 10 May 1828. In this same issue, Mazzini’s first published piece of writing appeared – a note on Carlo Varese’s novel The Genoese Bride. Mazzini’s publications in the Genoese press paint a rather intriguing portrait of the young author. Many ideas that the young Mazzini carefully, cautiously, and often covertly introduces into his philological writings, we can later recognise in the mature philosophy of duty.

What are these ideas? The young Mazzini writes about the vital role literature should play in national unity, an educative role. Literature, unlike history, establishes and demonstrates cultural commonality based on simple images familiar to every reader. The heroes of historical novels, as with Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, are ordinary people against whose personal dramas historical events unfold. This, in Mazzini’s words, ‘lively allure of the fictional’, is a powerful tool in arsenal of literature. It can be inferred from Mazzini’s article that art should be utilitarian for politics, delivering tangible political benefits. The Italian historical novel should reveal Italy’s past and spur Italians to think of a shared history – and the need for unification.

The Genoese government shut down the newspaper L’Indicatore Genovese at the end of 1828. The cause was a plan penned by Mazzini titled ‘Newspaper Programme for 1829’, in which new objectives and ambitions were set that went far beyond mere literary criticism. Between 1829 and 1830, Giuseppe Mazzini collaborated with another newspaper, L’Indicatore Livornese, which was published in the Tuscan city of Livorno. Here, Mazzini made his debut with a review of Goethe’s Faust, in which he broached the topic of the role of genius in history. In this, Mazzini outlined progressive views on history, clearly influenced by Enlightenment philosophy.

The young thinker wrote about the significance of progress and the need for the continued advancement of civilisation, a call echoed by the trajectory of history itself. He also wrote about the universality of global laws and the absence of meaningful distinctions between national cultures. However, Mazzini did not reject Christian values or advocate anti-religious sentiments. This marks a key distinction of his texts from this period compared to the general tenor of the Enlightenment era.

It is worth noting that Enlightenment-era political thought is characterised by universalism, Eurocentrism, and progressivism. Enlightenment philosophy, in general, leans towards ontological materialism, a conviction in the material nature of the world and a staunch denial of anything transcendental. In his youth, as previously mentioned, Mazzini was inclined towards these beliefs, but he subsequently altered his perspective. Nonetheless, the influence of Enlightenment political thought on Mazzini’s work is evident even in his later writings.

In one of his articles, he first used the term risorgimento, specifically in the sense that later became the name for the entire epoch – that is, the realisation of the political dream of a unified state, which Mazzini believed to be the dream of all Italians.

…to overthrow bad governance, one must be willing to make sacrifices, incite uprisings, sacrifice oneself, and demonstrate valour, and that this readiness exists in everyone. People are simply waiting for the moment to fight for freedom.

At the turn of the 1820s and 1830s, Mazzini was a member of one of the Carbonari organisations. The Carbonari, or ‘coalmen’, were a secret revolutionary movement that began its activities in Italy from 1807. The Carbonari fought against the monarchy (primarily against the Neapolitan Bourbons who ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Austrian dominance), advocating a constitutional political system and the unity of Italian territories. The Carbonari were not revolutionary in the sense we typically associate with that term. They had little in common, for instance, with the Russian narodniks. Often, members of the Carbonari were aristocrats, the elite of society, rather than the ‘outcasts’. Furthermore, the Carbonari’s tactics were geared towards working with the elites and the military, organising elite groups to prepare for a takeover of power. The Carbonari were liberals, often viewing the common masses with disdain and showing little interest in engaging with them. In addition, the Carbonari followed a series of mystical rituals, and the leader of a lodge bore the title of Grand Master, suggesting some influence from Freemasonry.

Mazzini was a member of the Genoese High Lodge Speranza (Hope). During his time with the Carbonari, Mazzini developed a conviction that would later be reflected in his philosophy of duty. It held that to overthrow bad governance, one must be willing to make sacrifices, incite uprisings, sacrifice oneself, and demonstrate valour, and that this readiness exists in everyone. People are simply waiting for the moment to fight for freedom. Revealing this desire en masse will facilitate significant transformations for the ‘betterment of humanity’.

Quite soon, in 1830, the Carbonari cell Mazzini was part of was dismantled, and the young publicist fled to Switzerland. Mazzini’s exile would last for decades, and his conflict with various Italian authorities persisted throughout his life.

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Translated by Constantin von Hoffmeister

Dmitry Moiseev

Dmitry Moiseev was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1987. He received his PhD in history of philosophy from the National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow. He also holds an MSc in philosophical anthropology from HSE, a BSc in economics and management from the London School of Economics and a BSc in economics from HSE. He is a senior lecturer at HSE, a member of the Russian Philosophical Society and the Russian Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

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