Skip to main content


ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Massini: Portrait of an Exile, By Stringfellow Barr. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.75.

Only those who have had occasion to pick their way through the tangled bush and backwoods of Risorgimento documents and chronicles can fully appreciate the patient thoroughness with which Professor String-fellow Barr, as the latest biographer of Mazzini, has equipped himself for his task: but the general reader will not miss the sense of being led through the maze of a difficult and intricate story by a guide who, in all matters of historical detail, is sure of his ground. “I have attempted,” says Mr. Barr, “a portrait of the man, not a ‘Life and Times’ “; nevertheless it is safe to say that no study of its kind exists, either in Italian or English, which sets before us so clear and concise a conspectus of Mazzini’s times in relation to his own career.

The limits of a shortish book have precluded any expansive-ness of treatment, but Mr. Barr has been able to syncopate his narrative without marring its rhythm. Indeed it is possible that the success and value of his study lie in the lucidity with which he presents Mazzini to us as one of the “master-masons” of Italian Unity rather than in any full-length, rounded-out portraiture of the man himself. Who has ever succeeded in giving us that?

For Mazzini, when all is said and done, remains the most fascinating and baffling figure in the Risorgimento drama. He did not often hold the centre of the stage, and when the curtain was finally rung down he did not “take the call” and gather in the triumphant applause. But the more closely we study the working of the plot the more we are engaged by the role (one has to say the roles) of this strange and elusive figure, whose interventions were sometimes, apparently, so farcical, but without whom the play would have lost incalculably in meaning and power. And indeed he baffles us at every turn. He is the hero of one scene, the “villain” of the next; at times we are prepared to believe him the author-actor who has conceived the whole prodigious design— and suffered at the hands of the producers—and at times he is simply the marplot. Yet wherever he appears and whatever his role, we are aware of a strange heightening of the moral tension of the play, as if he lifted the whole movement to a higher, tragic level of significance.

For without Mazzini the Risorgimento would have been hardly more than a splendid and moving Italian production, beginning and ending, so to say, between Italian covers, set up in Turin and published in Rome. With Mazzini it becomes world-drama and takes on new profundities of implication. For while (to change the figure) Garibaldi’s passion was to tear the patchwork Italian States free from the tangle of tyrannies in which they were held, and Cavour’s to see that they were stitched together, piece by piece, Mazzini’s passion was to make of the whole an emblazoned flag for the guidance of the pilgrimage of Humanity. He dreamed of Italy as the initiatrix of a United Europe, a new religious synthesis and, ultimately, of world-unity. The mind staggers at a conception so grandiose, and the cynic may make merry with it, but the fact remains that in Mazzini these ideals were embodied in a personality of genuine impressive-ness and power. John (Lord) Morley, the English statesman and biographer of Gladstone, declared of the great exile that he was “the most morally impressive man” he had ever known or that his age knew. Alexander Herzen called him “the Calvin of modern Europe.”

Yet, as Mr. Barr has not failed to note, he was certainly no paragon. Most of his infirmities were lovable; one or two were sadly disfiguring, and he had that touch of anti-nomianism which is the besetment of apostles. No one could wear the robe of immaculate political rectitude with a grander air, yet when it suited him, and to secure some “righteous” end, he could be as disingenuous and Jesuitical as Cavour. Like Gladstone, he had the dangerous faculty of moral self-hypnotism. Nevertheless, self-deceived and arrogant as he could sometimes be, he remains a towering figure, with something of the elements of a Dante, a Hamlet, a Don Quixote, a St. Francis, and a Calvin in his complex personality. It is easy to revere and love him, easy to dislike and disparage him, hard to be entirely fair to him, and harder still to do full justice to the many Mazzinis which existed under that one broad-brimmed republican hat.

It is one of the conspicuous qualities of Mr. Barr’s study that it suggests the lucidity of the class-room rather than the stuffy heat of the popular lecture-hall. This is not to say, however, that the book lacks popular interest; it is fascinating from beginning to end. But it cannot completely escape the defects of its qualities. Mr. Barr quotes Jessie White Mario as saying “I knew Mazzini, I consider him the Christ of his century.” Such testimonies, in varying degrees of hyperbole, could be multiplied from the recollections of those who knew him. And however extravagant they may have been, belonging, as they did, to an age in which men and women still worshiped their heroes, instead of psycho-analysing or “debunking” them, they have a certain historical significance and they have to be explained. And one half suspects that after reading Mr. Barr’s book the student may still be left wondering how men and women could ever have felt like that. Therefore one is tempted to recommend the reader, after he has assimilated Mr. Barr’s book, to turn for dessert to Emilie Ashurst Venturi’s memoir. He will find it valueless as a political estimate of Mazzini’s influence but authentic in its reflection of the impression made by a unique personality upon the mind and soul of one who knew and revered him. And to this fare may be added the three volumes of Mazzini’s own incomparable “Letters to an English Family,” edited by the late Mrs. E. F. Richards.

The fact remains that Professor Barr’s study is a permanent contribution to Mazzinian literature; and for the rest, let us reflect that Mazzini, perhaps above all his European contemporaries, has earned his “second life.” His true monument is in the future, in that democratic world commonwealth for which he labored and without which our age must move onward to a tragic anticlimax. But when will that monument be raised?


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading