Written by Luca Oluic & Claire Ping, under the supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang.

Mazzini’s Exile

Giuseppe Mazzini was born in Genoa in 1805, and died in Pisa in 1872. Despite the fact that he was born in the Italian Peninsula, he spent almost all his life in exile, from 1831 until 1871, with some brief periods during which he was able to go back to Italy (e.g. during the Roman Republic: February to April 1849).

Mazzini’s life was an almost continuous wandering through different places and countries. The breadth of his geographical mobility had two causes: escaping the police (especially during his French period, in the year 1831) and meeting, organizing, or mobilizing people ready to fight for the independence of Italy.

In his writings Mazzini didn’t mention his experiences as an exile very much, since he preferred to focus on political and economic themes, leaving anecdotes and autobiographical information to the bare minimum, and usually when required by the context, as he was convinced that any news about the “frequent sorrows and rare joys” (Scritti politici, 10) of his private life, as well as his private thoughts, were insignificant but for the few that truly shared an emotional bond with him.

Nevertheless, some significant facts emerge from his texts about the gravity and relevance of his exile. In Scritti politici he affirms that he chose exile to extend his freedom of action (20). As an exile, he was able to participate more actively within the environment of the conspirators, free from the constant vigilance of the Piedmontese policemen. In the same page, he admits to have thought that his exile would have been very short, making his decision at that moment not extremely painful. Despite this, Mazzini’s exile would turn out to be long and sorrowful. This can be deduced by the words that he uses to describe exile in general associating it to the concepts of persecution, scorn (50), and agony (458). Furthermore, he describes exile with the significant Christological metaphor of the bitter cup (100), which assumes even more weight if we link this metaphor to the adjective he used to describe exile as something saintly (99), continuously related to the figure of the suffering Christ and his Passion.

Even when he found people abroad who treated him with care and affection, his condition of exile comes to the fore, since the memories of family members having had died without him by their side, tormented him. Even so, his exile proved to be fruitful: it was the only way Mazzini could maintain his freedom of speech and travel to many European countries. While in exile, Mazzini could claim to be among the first to hold the flag of freedom (193) since his condition became an instrument to reach conspirators from different countries, creating a network of people and therefore strengthening an agency of rebellion.

[Please check the Museo centrale del Risorgimento/Central national museum of the Italian Risorgimento in Rome for more information.  ]

The exiled conspirators are “priests of a prohibited religion, that will surely triumph one day” (211): Mazzini considered himself a priest and martyr of the Italian independence. His martyrdom was in his eyes a better destiny that the one that belongs to the oppressors, because he could keep a “serene calm given by a pure conscience” (382). This awareness helped him bear the status of exiled individual, which was the price he pays for not betraying his ideals and conspirators, to the point of living among them with a feeling of brotherhood (394) LINK: [Associazione Mazziniana. Association that promotes studies on Mazzini and his ideas. In the website there is an archive of the journal Il pensiero mazziniano, published since 1944 to 2015.

Beside other fellow conspirators, Mazzini feels a communion of destiny with other exiled men from the past, such as Dante and Ugo Foscolo. Being in London gives Mazzini the chance to collect works that were hidden in some of the libraries of the English Capital: these works were especially important for him since they consisted of a study that Foscolo did on Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, closing a circle of the three exiled patriots.

To conclude, Mazzini chose his exile more as an instrument to accomplish what he considered as a religious mission: to liberate Italy, as well as Poland and Germany among others, from external domination or interference, transferring the power from the kings to the people through democratic Republics. He moved through France, Switzerland and England not to lead a quiet life but to keep himself free to operate and conspire, since he already understood that European state politics depended on one another.


Statue of Mazzini in Rome

Early 20th-century Chinese reformer-exiles

Chinese reformer-exiles in the early-20th century drew profound influences and inspirations from the Italian Unification. Their exilic condition allowed them to physically travel to Italy as well as made them mentally more perceptive to an idealized vision of Italian nationalism and nationhood. The trend is most clearly found in the writings of two key Chinese reformer-exiles, Kang Youwei (康有为) and Liang Qichao (梁启超). Both authors drew close connections between Italy and China. They saw the Italian Unification as a model for China to follow on its route to a modern and independent nation.

The 20th century saw China in turmoil. Political crisis arose as the power of the Qing Dynasty began to shutter. During the period, Chinese intellectuals looked to the West for a solution to China’s own internal problems. Italy stood out as a suitable model when Chinese intellectuals discovered connections between Italy’s culture, history and landscape and that of their own country. In particular, Chinese reformers in exile increasingly sympathized with the Italian Unification movement and its leading patriotic heroes. Liang Qichao, a key Chinese intellectual and reformer of the early Republican period, published Biographies of the Three Masters of the Italian Unification while in exile in Japan in 1902. The book introduces three leaders of the Italian Unification: Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour. In his book, Liang presents the three men as patriotic and masculine heroes whom reformers fighting for a strong and independent China should aim to emulate. He highlights the mobility of the three masters through recounting their exile and travels in the more developed and democratic nations of Europe where, according to Liang, the three masters continued to build diplomacy and their thoughts. In Liang’s writings, the exilic experiences of the three Italian Unification leaders are idealized to inspire patriotism and serve as a model for Chinese reformers.

Liang also draws multiple comparisons between China in the early-20th century and Italy in the 1800s. For Liang, China was incomparable to Britain of the 17th century, the United States and France in the 18th century, or Japan in the 19th century when these modern nation-stations came into being. Nonetheless, he found pre-Unification Italy similar and even inferior in many ways to early Republican China. Liang’s ideas are shared by his mentor, late-Qing thinker and reformist Kang Youwei. In Voyage to Italy, Kang discovers parallels between China and Italy in many ways, ranging from history to art and architecture. Similar to Liang, Kang saw the two countries as comparable since both were relatively impoverished and backwards when compared to more developed countries in Europe. In the eyes of the two Chinese reformists, Italy was also similar to their own country as a result of its glorious past as well as its decline in recent centuries. Kang believed that Italy’s reforms could be applied to China. He particularly focused on the idea of a religious rejuvenation through promoting Confucianism as a “state religion”. Through readings of Buddhist texts and the Bible, Kang came to the conclusion that Christianity comes out of Buddhism and Confucianism is superior to both. He hoped to revive Confucian traditions through a better understanding of Christianity, which played an important role in the unification of smaller states on the Italian peninsula.

Exile and mobility come out as strong themes in the writings of both reformists as they idealize the Italian Unification to serve as a model for 20th century China. In particular, Kang highlights the role modern transportation plays in facilitating his travels in Europe. Trains and boats with modern engines are described as “magical devices” that shorten geographical distances and connect civilizations. The Chinese reformist saw this new mobility as providing the opportunity to seek solutions to China’s problem through physically and virtually exploring the West. Kang also notes the lack of public systems that provide mobility and circulation, such as transportation and banking, as the main reason for China’s weakness vis-a-vis Europe.

Liang’s and Kang’s experiences show that exilic conditions had allowed Chinese reformists to look to the West for answers to modern China’s problems. In particular, they saw Italy as the country that most closely resembles China. Both authors emphasized the impression of Italy as a country that is relatively backwards and less industrialized, with a long history, and bound by old habits. They idealized the images of the three heroes of the Italian Unification as role models for modern Chinese reformists. Italy’s reform and unification was seen both as a model for China and a source of encouragement. Exile and mobility played an important and crucial role in the formation of this ideal.



Sources and further reading:

Domus Mazziniana, the most comprehensive museum on Giuseppe Mazzini in Pisa. http://www.domusmazziniana.it/.

Museum located in the house where Mazzini was born. Genoa. http://www.visitgenoa.it/en/museo-del-risorgimento-casa-mazzini 

Kang, Youwei (2007). 欧洲十一国游记. 社会科学文献出版社.

Liang, Qichao (1902). Biographies of the Three Masters of the Italian Unification 意大利建国三杰传 (饮冰室专集). 中华书局.

Mazzini, Giuseppe. Scritti politici editi ed inediti. Imola (BO): Galeati, 1907

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