Birth of a nation

The first ever Italian film had an exceptional premiere: on a giant screen outside of Rome’s Aurealian Walls, on 20 September of 1905, that is to say on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the capture of the city by the army of King Vittorio Emanuele II that completed the decades-long process of liberation and unification of the country. The subject of the film was that epic event: La Presa di Roma, the capture of Rome. Only a few fragments survive, including an establishing scene at the Milvian bridge; the meeting between the King’s envoy and Herman Kanzler, supreme commander of the Papal army, which failed to secure the Pope’s surrender; and the irruption of the bersaglieri through the breach opened by the artillery in the city’s walls. The screen was erected next to the location of the breach.

We can only speculate on the effect that seeing those events recreated on precisely the site in which they occurred, and in a radically new medium, would have had on an audience that was likely to have lived through them. This was recent history, and still hotly contested. The Holy See was yet to formally recognise the Italian State, and wouldn’t for more than two decades, until the Treaty signed by Pius XI and Mussolini in 1929. And so to assert its own legitimacy and counter the immense moral influence of the church, the state printed booklets, financed films and staged grandiose public events on the anniversaries of the key events that led to the unification. This was a populist propaganda designed to appeal primarily to the less well-educated, and whose methods and language would later be co-opted and refined by Fascism. Its aim was to foster a secular religion based around the cult of the fledgling nation, and so the film ended in the apotheosis of Italy’s four founding figures: Mazzini, Garibaldi, King Vittorio Emanuele II and Cavour, standing on either side of the personification of Italy, ‘Italia turrita’ (so named because of the mural crown on her head), who graces Garibaldi with the palm branch, symbol of victory.


The image above is a reconstruction of what that final tableau is thought to have looked like, for the original is lost. Its symbolism, it seems to me, is closer to the medieval allegory than to the modern codes for signifying heroism and renewal. The mythology appears so distant in time also because that cult has gradually vanished.

Take Garibaldi. The name of this blog refers to a passage from ‘Horses of a Different Colour’, a story by one of my favourite writers, Giovanni Guareschi. The passage reads as follows:

When they start a new town in Romagna, they first throw up a monument to Garibaldi and then build a church, because there’s no fun in a civil funeral unless it spites the parish priest. The whole history of the province is concerned with spite of this kind.

Guareschi, who was profoundly religious and fiercely conservative, was complaining here, around the year 1950, about the last vestiges of that secular cult, which in the figure of Garibaldi found a symbol not just of nationalism but also for the revolutionary aspirations of the popular classes. That pantheon of four was a strange one to begin with – seeing as it included a republican, Mazzini, alongside the King – but Garibaldi was the most beloved and at the same time the most atypical of the founding fathers. With him, some people might still feel that they had a shot at overthrowing the State; that he would look down favourably upon such endeavours. And so the task of the propaganda at the turn of the twentieth century was to use Garibaldi for his still immense popular appeal, and at the same time to domesticate him.

Hence films like Il piccolo garibaldino (The Little Garibaldinian Boy, 1909), a 15-minute tear-jerker about a young boy of twelve who stows away on one of Garibaldi’s ships during the Expedition of the Thousand to Sicily in order to fight alongside his father, a volunteer. Here he is dreaming about his hero, thanks to a rather nifty matte effect.


Once in Sicily, the boy scarcely has time to greet his proud and exultant father that he finds himself in the thick of battle and is promptly shot through the heart. He will die, but not before having had a chance to kiss the sword of a rather inconvenienced-looking Garibaldi.


There! There! To die near him!


Finally the boy returns to visit his grieving mother in a dream, forming another allegorical tableau alongside Italia turrita.



There is naïve strangeness about these images. The crude emotional manipulation is on a par with other texts of this era, notably the novels of Edmondo De Amicis, but these cinematic beginnings preserve something else, a sense almost of innocence. They were experiments in how to instil patriotism and civic values in a country that struggled to see not just the benefits but even the tangible signs of its recent unification; a country that barely had a language in common, let alone a coherent sense of who or what it was. Its ruling class would soon learn to fear the spectre of socialism more than the spiteful rivalry of the church, preparing the ground for the advent of Fascism. But here, in this freeze frame, it was still busy crafting a quite different myth. One that now seems as immature and pathetically, almost tenderly misguided as that little Garibaldinian boy.

The classic complaint of intellectuals and politicians of our republican era is that Italians don’t have a sense of the state, that they put their own interests ahead of all intersecting and overarching collective interests. They may be some truth in that, although it begs the question of what kind of state one should make sacrifices to: the state that murders its citizens? The state that treats its immigrants like criminals or slaves? The state that pursues modernity without democracy or rules? And so forth. In my lifetime there have been few coherent pictures, few appealing allegories, or possibly too many, all competing with one another. To this day, it makes questions such as ‘where are you from’ and ‘why are you here’ very difficult to answer. I honestly don’t know. I struggle more and more to think of Italy as a place, as a social and political whole to which I belong, yet I wish to be of nowhere else. In this I suspect I am no different to many of my compatriots from one century ago. But I also think this: that the idea of Italy wasn’t always wrong, and that caught somewhere between the history and the mythmaking there have been attempts to forge a sense of shared past and common purpose worth struggling for. More on these in future instalments.

[For the background to the two films discussed in this post I relied primarily on Giovanni Lasi’s Garibaldi e l’epopea garibaldina nel cinema muto italiano. Dalle origini alla Prima guerra mondiale, to which I was guided by my friend Giacomo Lichtner.]

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

More by


  1. Thank you for putting into words how I feel about our country. I always thought that the image of the bersaglieri going through the breach was a photograph I didn’t known it’s from a film. I still remember it from my first history book in school when I was 8, apparently the propaganda didn’t th

  2. Fascinating piece. Makes a really interesting comparison with the first Australian film, released a year later — which was, of course, ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’. As with the film you describe, it was a feature about contested recent history.
    This from Wikipedia: ‘The first showing was in Melbourne at the Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906 to much controversy. Many groups at the time, including some politicians and the police interpreted the film as glorifying criminals and in Benalla and Wangaratta the film was banned in 1907, and then again in Victoria in 1912. The film toured Australia for over 20 years and was also shown in New Zealand and Britain. The backers and exhibitors made “a fortune” from the film, perhaps in excess of £25,000.’

  3. I never thought I’d hear another writer of the Left admit a liking for Guareschi. I have always kept my Guareschi attachment secret and unspoken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.