Walk into just about any city or town in Italy and you will inevitably bump into a statue or bust of a handsome man with flowing hair, deep-set eyes, and a thick beard, or you will see a plaque, a street, or a piazza, each of them featuring the name of Giuseppe Garibaldi, freedom fighter and hero of the Risorgimento, who helped unify Italy.
The problem, however, with Garibaldi’s ubiquity in modern-day Italy is that he is so present everywhere that he has a tendency to be overlooked. Tim Parks, the novelist, translator, and consummate chronicler of all things Italian—a Brit who has lived in Italy for decades—gives us back “the General” in his new book, The Hero’s Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna.
In a fresh, intriguing, environmentally sensitive, oddly endearing account, we join Parks and his young wife, Eleonora, as they trace Garibaldi’s footsteps across Italy, an epic march the defeated general embarked on following the French siege of Rome, in 1849. (It would take another 22 years for Rome to join the republic.)
The problem with Garibaldi’s ubiquity in modern-day Italy is that he is so present everywhere that he has a tendency to be overlooked.
On July 2, 1849, Garibaldi headed north from the Eternal City with 4,000 troops—“a band of men on the run, last survivors of a failed revolution” chased by Austrian, French, Spanish, and Neapolitan troops—with a vague plan of reaching Venice.
Parks makes a parallel journey during the pre-coronavirus summer of 2019, walking along highways, roads, and paths, and, when unavoidable, bushwhacking through scrubs and brambles, chased by no one but his own sense of adventure and a desire to get closer to a Garibaldian concept of freedom.
Early in the book, Parks writes: “This obsession with freedom is the key to understanding Garibaldi. Freedom from foreign powers dictating the laws of your country, freedom from religious institutions telling you how to behave or simply social conventions telling you how to dress.”
Walking the Walk
What adds considerable interest to this idiosyncratic twinned pilgrimage is the very colorful cast of characters, including an array of monks, nuns, B&B hosts, bar owners, soldiers, officers, diplomats, pharmacists, waiters, chefs, nobles, plebs, gypsies, dogs, horses, badgers, sheep, goats, and porcupines. “To walk, it seems,” writes Parks, “is to shed your class, to strike new alliances.”
Easily the most compelling of this crew is the extraordinary Ana Maria de Jesus Ribeiro da Silva, better known as Anita Garibaldi. At 17 she met her then 32-year-old future husband for the first time, when he came to Brazil to fight for yet another worthy cause. Anita could wield a sword and maneuver a horse better than most men, and would eventually regularly be by her husband’s side in battle.
When Garibaldi returned to Italy in 1848 to help fight against the ever increasing foreign dominance of the Italian states, Anita refused to abandon her “José.” Pregnant and leaving their four children behind, Anita followed him to Rome. Garibaldi’s genuine adoration and respect for her, nimbly emphasized in Parks’s account, palpably reveals how much of a force Anita was in the formation and drive behind the Garibaldian notion of freedom.
Parks makes a parallel journey, chased by no one but his own sense of adventure and a desire to get closer to Garibaldi.
And then there is, of course, an app. Operated with great finesse by Eleonora, this algorithm manages to find the most felicitous route to the couple’s destination day after day, adhering as closely as possible to Garibaldi’s tread.
The app becomes a character in its own right, increasingly taking on a mind of its own, suggesting daring off-road alternatives and eco-friendly detours to avoid the inevitable 21st-century roadside detritus of “broken glass, road kill, syringes and plastic; plastic in every shape and form,” not to mention the cars and trucks hurtling along, perpetually threatening pedestrians.
Eventually, even the app is confounded when they all reach the end of the road in Cesenatico, on the Adriatic Sea, where Garibaldi, a very ill Anita, and the remaining 200 men miraculously escaped the Austrians by commandeering boats and sailing up the coast.
Sometimes sauntering, sometimes marching, sometimes in places of great beauty, sometimes in industrial wastelands, we join the rhythm of the conjoined marches, sinking into their cadences, lilts, pulses, and patterns.
Midway through this Garibaldian odyssey, Parks writes: “We’ve covered all this distance on foot. For the first time I’m aware of a feeling that I can only describe as accumulation. It has been creeping up on us for some time; an awareness of the uninterrupted intensification of physical contact with the land. Perhaps immersion is a useful word. Or continuity. Even purity. It is hard to pin down new feelings.”
Jenny McPhee is a writer and translator, and the director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at New York University’s School of Professional Studies