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Francesco Crispi (1819-1901)


The Big Four of Italian unification are Garibaldi, Mazzini, Cavour and Victor Emanuel II—respectively, the soldier, the philosopher, the statesman, and the first king of united Italy. If even one of those four had not existed, Italy would have come about—if at all—much differently. Yet, those four were responsible for the creation of the state, not for its continued survival, not for the citizens’ perception of themselves as a single people, and not for the nation’s acceptance by the community of nations as an equal.

For all that, you needed a “politician,” a pragmatist who, by is own example, could go from republicanism to supporting the monarchy and from advocating separatism to supporting the unity of Italy, and who said, “…we must raise the cry of concord and force both parties to extend hands and embrace.” The pragmatic Italian politician who spoke those words was Francesco Crispi. He lived through and participated in most important episodes first to unify Italy, then to sustain her as a nation. He outlived Garibaldi, Mazzini, Cavour, the king and, indeed, most other major players in the Risorgimento (the historical name given to the movement to unify the nation). [*note 1 below]

Crispi was born in 1818 in Ribera, a town in the province of Agrigento on the southern coast of Sicily. He took a law degree in 1845 and moved to Naples to practice law and serve as a go-between for liberal elements in Sicily and Naples. (“Liberal,” here, should be understood in the context of the times; roughly, it was the Left, standing for parliamentary government and against the rule of absolutism, which prevailed in the kingdom of Naples at the time. It is contrasted with “conservatism” or “legitimism,” which favored the status quo reinstalled in Europe after Napoleon by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

As a young Sicilian, Crispi participated in the rebellion against his kingdom when it broke out in Palermo on January, 12 1848 (eventually put down by the heavy tactics of Ferdinand II, the “bomber king”). Crispi was part of the war council and was among the extreme leftist revolutionaries advocating autonomy for Sicily. After the failed revolution, he fled Sicily for Piedmont, then Malta, Paris and London. London is where he and Mazzini, the exiled philosopher of Italian unity, hatched the plan to free Sicily and then all of the Kingdom of Naples.

Crispi helped organize Garibaldi’s invasion and was Garibaldi's main political advisor. After the unification, Crispi was part of the first pan-Italian parliament in 1861. Though by inclination part of the historical Left and a republican, he saw the utility of the king as a symbol of nationhood and said, famously, “the monarchy unites us; a republic would divide us.”  He was the first southerner to rise to political prominence in the new Italy during his forty years of political life he held many posts: President of the Chamber of Deputies, Minister of the Interior, Prime Minister, and Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He went from revolutionary to critic of revolution because it interfered with the normal functioning of a modern state. He rejected Garibaldi’s plan, for example, to simply invade Rome in 1867 in order to finish the unification of the nation. (As it turned out, Crispi was right. Garibaldi was routed by Papal defenders at the Battle of Mentana.) [*note 2 below

Crispi was on friendly terms with the great European statesmen of his day—Gladstone in Britain and Bismark in Germany. His most important diplomatic feat in forging “new nationhood” was to secure a Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1882. Domestically, he was responsible for the adoption of new sanitary and commercial codes, and for legal reform.

Caricature after the  Italian defeat at
Adwa when Crispi was Prime Minister

Like a few other politicians, he survived an assassination attempt, and like many politicians, he had to deal with scandal, one of which was the accusation of bigamy upon his third marriage. Queen Margherita took the charge so seriously that she snubbed him for the rest of his life. Crispi’s defense was somewhat less than what you might expect from a top-flight lawyer—“Gee, I didn’t know I was still legally married to that other woman…my lawyer friends told me…”  As it turned out, he really wasn’t a bigamist because —ready?—when he married his second wife, his first wife was still alive, thus invalidating that second marriage, the one upon which the charge of bigamy was based when he married for the third time. Thus, he was not legally married to his second wife when he married the third time—and his first wife had died in the meantime; thus, no bigamy. (Sure, the affair lost him the queen’s friendship, but in Italy this kind of stuff picks up lots of points with the Common Man. “Mamma mia, that Crispi is some stud, huh? He’s got my vote!” Common Woman, of course, couldn’t vote yet.)

The end of his career was darkened by the Italian defeat at the Battle of Adwa in Ethiopia in 1896 (image, above). Crispi had supported his nation’s colonial expansion. (After all, that’s what modern nation states were doing in the late 1800s in Africa. As it turns out, the defeat of a European army by a native African force stunned not just Italy but Europe in general. Colonialism was on the way out.

Crispi’s relative obscurity today—and not just internationally—is strange given the front-page space dedicated to him throughout Europe and America when he died in 1901. In Naples, where he chose to live and die, there is a street, via Crispi, but no statue as far as I know. (There is also no statue or bust of Cavour, not even at the square, Piazza Cavour. Mazzini has a few, as does Garibaldi, of course. Who knows? —sculptors and historical memory move in mysterious ways.)

I had heard that Crispi was entombed in the church of San Domenico Maggiore I asked a woman in charge of answering inquiries in the church.

“Who?” she said.

Francesco Crispi, the politician.”

Uh...was he a saint?”

Indeed, history is not kind. In any event, Francesco Crispi refused the last rites of Roman Catholicism; ever the anti-cleric, he said on his death-bed, “I’ll handle Christ, myself.”


[*note 1: Among minor players, the last soldier of the army of unification, the last of Garibaldi’s famous army of One Thousand—1089, to be exact—to pass away was Egisto Sivelli of Genoa in 1934. He was born in 1843.] [back up to text]

*[note 2: In a letter dated September 27, 1867, Garibaldi wrote: “After giving due consideration to the situation, I see only one remedy that will satisfy the nation and the government—invade Rome immediately.” Garibaldi, as he had done on other occasions, didn’t wait for the return mail. He invaded Lazio in October and lost at Mentana in November. (Letters of Garibaldi, Arnoldo Mondadori ed. 1967. Milan. [back up to text]

Bibliographic note:

A fine, recent biography of Crispi in English is Francesco Crispi, 1818-1901 : From Nation to Nationalism by Christopher Duggan. (Pub. Oxford University Press, 2002.)

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