In the Footsteps of Garibaldi: Tim Parks Traverses Italy—and Two Centuries of History

Encounters With a Nation, Then and Now

For three weeks we’ve been following a band of desperate men: the garibaldini. When the liberal Roman Republic fell to French troops in July 1849, the legendary Giuseppe Garibaldi refused to surrender and took 4,000 volunteers out of the city at night. They were hoping to take their revolution into the provinces, or, failing that, to join up with the rebel republic in Venice, 400 away.

In July 2019 we—my partner Eleonora and I—decided to follow, step by step, day by day. It’s been grueling, exhilarating. Through the rugged hills of Lazio and Umbria, where the garibaldini eluded the French. Then, zigzagging through prettier Tuscany before climbing east and north through the Apennine mountains—Bocca Trabaria, Mercatello, Sant’Angelo in Vado, Macerata Feltria.

So 24 days have gone by, days of intense uninterrupted contact with the land, in the cool of the dawn, in the scorching heat of noon. With the growing feeling you would like to go on forever, and the melancholy awareness that you can’t, you won’t. The garibaldini couldn’t because they were almost completely surrounded now. Their only hope was to reach the tiny neutral mountain state of San Marino before the Austrians caught them. We couldn’t because we were simply exhausted. But for today at least, onward! We must follow them to the end of the story.

*

There we are, then, on the road at 5:45. Dawn comes later than at the beginning of our journey. It’s still dark. Or rather, the road is moonlit. There’s a full moon high ahead, over the hills. Then the cool beauty of it is shattered by a tractor dragging some kind of heavy clanking device to destroy the vegetation on the verge. The big vehicle has a couple of spotlights and proceeds slowly and steadily, with menacing military precision.

The road here is a long straight climb. Proceeding steadily and slowly behind the garibaldini, the Austrians mopped up the stragglers. Four men resting in a shed were betrayed to the enemy by the local peasants. One escaped, jumping from a window. Three were shot. Six garibaldini were pulled from houses in Mercato Vecchio. “They showed me the point in the road where they were shot,” says Belluzzi. “One dragged himself to a barn and howled all night, but the people were too scared to help.”

Garibaldi knew now that the chances of fighting his way to the sea were minimal. He was between a rock and a hard place.

The bodies were burned in lime. The priest refused Christian burial. However, in Pietrarubbia another priest offered Austrian soldiers six scudi to spare a man’s life. That’s about two week’s wages. The redeemed garibaldino gave the priest his horse. Forty years on, these stories had become fable. The peasants who betrayed the four men in their barn had stolen money from the corpses. Despised by the community, they all died miserable deaths.

So they say.

*

The sun, behind us this morning, brought a golden glow to a high rock face beyond fields of stubble. Pietrarubbia. It’s a large monastery beneath a ruined fortress on a crest overlooking the valley that leads from Mercato Vecchio—a half-mile ahead of us now—to Carpegna three miles to the southwest. Occupying the complex during the night, Garibaldi was 600 feet above his enemies and had a panoramic view. An ambush set on the road behind was already in place when Hoffstetter passed after keeping the fires going in Macerata Feltria. Cavalry parties were sent off in the dark to Carpegna, but also northwards, as far as San Marino, and even Verucchio beyond, the main nodal point on the descent to the coast. At 4 a.m. the scouts heading to Carpegna encountered advancing Austrians.

This was one of Paumgartten’s battalions under the command of Major Holzer. It had been on Garibaldi’s trail since Todi. If readers are struggling with the sheer number of imperial armies marching across the Italian landscape, here is Generale De Rossi’s summary of the position on 30 July.

Behind him and to the east Garibaldi now had 17 battalions, 2 artillery batteries and 3 cavalry squadrons. These were the forces of General Stadion and Archduke Ernst, now under the overall command of the archduke. On his left flank, to the west, he had 1 battalion commanded by Major Holzer, while up ahead, to the north and east, beyond San Marino there was General Hahne, with 6 battalions, 1 artillery battery and 7 cavalry squadrons.

Garibaldi decided that if the Austrians from Carpegna wanted to attack, he was ready for a fight. He knew this force was relatively small. He was in a perfect position. The cannon was placed high on the ridge and looked guaranteed to cause havoc. The infantry were deployed in lines. The cavalry were covering the flanks. A short sharp victory would get his men’s tails up.

Dawn brought mist and cloud. There was rain in the air. The enemy backed off. Aside from skirmishes, the Austrian strategy throughout this campaign was to accept battle only if they had an overwhelming advantage in numbers. Both sides knew that General Stadion couldn’t be far away. Around midday Garibaldi launched a fake attack, under cover of which, on the other side of the hill, the baggage train was sent back north, down through Mercato Vecchio, then on up the steep slopes towards Montecopiolo and Villagrande. A fog came down, then heavy rain, and very soon the whole column was on the move again. Rather than following the rebels, Major Holzer chose to wait for Stadion. Further east, the archduke was approaching San Marino on the far side of the Apennines.

We marched into Mercato Vecchio at seven. Four uphill miles in an hour and fifteen. Not bad. The scattered houses had that shabby weathered look that seems inevitable in poorer mountain villages. There was no sign of a center or anything resembling a monument, but the Bar Bracci was open for business.

I pushed through a bead curtain over the door. Serving at the counter was an ancient, wizened woman, who I quickly understood must be deaf. Her one customer was yelling at her. The place was tiny. I ordered coffees, then ordered again in a louder voice. “Due caffè! Due paste!” Under wispy grey hair, deep wrinkles relaxed in a smile of welcome. “How nice to see a strange face in my shop,” her voice quavered. “And so early in the morning!” I said we were walking and how thankful we would be if she could rustle us up a couple of sandwiches.

“He said he’d like a couple of sandwiches!” the customer beside me shouted. She was a handsome, severe, smartly dressed woman with a strong local accent. When I smiled my thanks at her, she didn’t smile back.

I took the coffees and pastries to one of three tables outside. Looking around, we saw that we were in Via Garibaldi.

Ten minutes later, when I went back in to pay, the old lady had the sandwiches stacked and wrapped. She looked me in the eye and held the contact for a few seconds. “I want to thank you, signore,” she said, “for visiting our village. I wish you a lovely day and I hope you will come back some time in the future.”

It seemed excessive. But she meant it. “And I thank you, signora,” I said, “for being open for us when we needed you.”

The other woman, who seemed a fixture, shook her head.

*

We should really have climbed to Pietrarubbia. The road snakes up the hill to the monastery due south. A half-hour walk, Google said. Photos showed grey stone cloisters, steep grassy paths, a derelict tower built into outcropping rock. But after the climb and another half an hour to explore, there would be yet another half an hour’s steep descent, to Mercato Vecchio. Then the 15 miles to San Marino, which by all accounts will be hard walking.

We wimped out. And I regret it. Because now, at the climax of this long drama, one wanted to stay as close as possible to the garibaldini’s experience. At the same time, we didn’t want to suffer. Really suffer. We had no cause to. No worthy cause. So that I wonder if my regret isn’t more a yearning for a purpose, a real reason to climb to Pietrarubbia, the way those extraordinary plaques in Macerata Feltria and elsewhere show such a longing for some noble collective enterprise and a legendary hero to take the lead.

“However, I fear we can’t really know the exact route they took,” Belluzzi observes. Descending from Pietrarubbia in heavy rain the afternoon of the 30th, many garibaldini lost their way. The paths were awash, the streams swollen. The cloud had come down and visibility was poor. There were ravines, cliffs, thick woods, waterfalls. Everything and everyone were soaked. The main body of the troops lost contact with the advance guard. The rearguard lost contact with the main column. Our various sources all give different versions. De Rossi has the main body of men spending the night of the 30th in defensive positions on Montecopiolo, just four miles north of Mercato Vecchio and a mile short of the borgo of  Villagrande. But with more than a third of the men missing, he says.

Ruggeri doesn’t seem to know where they were, but speaks of wandering about in a vast beech wood, like children in a fairy tale. The rain had stopped. Garibaldi and some other horsemen, he says, rode tirelessly back and forth to gather stragglers and point the way. Hoffstetter talks about entering the Conca valley at nightfall. That would be north and east of Montecopiolo. Towards eleven the men rested in a high clearing, he says, in an endless forest, while he rode off in search of the baggage train, which he located towards midnight, leading the mules back in the dark. There was hay, he tells us, in a peasant’s barn. But no food. No water. “The march resumed around one o’clock, in the most splendid moonlight, and strict silence.”

If they did get lost, the men now knew that they were heading for San Marino. This tiny independent state of just 23 square miles was politically neutral. Theoretically neither the Austrians nor the garibaldini could enter it. The plan, as Sacchi understood, was to use the territory as a shield, passing quickly to the west of the city itself, so that the Archduke Ernst, to the east, on the coast side, couldn’t get at them; then to turn sharply right, through Verucchio and dive down to the sea. However, a message brought during the night changed everything.

Garibaldi still had about 500 horsemen at his service. He was still asking them to perform miracles of reconnaissance and subterfuge. And diplomacy. A party of 13 horsemen under the 23-year-old Francesco Nullo had been sent direct from Macerata Feltria on the night of the 29th to ask the Captains Regent, the two leaders of San Marino, to grant the garibaldini safe and rapid passage. The Sammarinesi had a tradition of sheltering Risorgimento patriots from the Austrian police. However, in the chaos that was the afternoon and evening of the 30th none of the cavalry parties managed to find their way back to the column. So Nullo, who was to be a hero of the Sicilian campaign in 1860, didn’t manage to bring the Regents’ refusal. Any incursion from Garibaldi, wrote Captain Regent Domenico Maria Belzoppi, would offer the Austrians the excuse for an invasion and very likely end San Marino’s independent status once and for all.

Having heard nothing from Nullo, during the afternoon of the 30th, Garibaldi sent Ugo Bassi to San Marino to make the same request. Again, the order was to ride as swiftly as possible and bring back a positive response. Again, no answer had arrived as the column climbed the steep slopes north and east from Villagrande in the dark.

But one cavalry party did get through. And Luigi Migliazza’s name comes up again. Barely 24 hours after stripping him of his command, on the morning of July 30, Garibaldi had sent Migliazza beyond San Marino to check out the town of Verucchio and warn the locals to prepare rations for them. Somehow, in the night, in the endless forest, Migliazza found the resting garibaldini and told the General that Verucchio was already occupied by a large force of Austrians. These were the six battalions of General Hahne. Their encirclement was complete.

As if this wasn’t enough, some hours later another messenger intercepted the column on the slopes of Monte San Paolo. But not a garibaldino. Consoling himself with a glass of wine after the Captains Regent had once again refused the General’s request to pass through their territory, Ugo Bassi looked out of the windows of the Caffè Simoncini, high up on the western side of the city, and saw in the plain below what could only be the campfires of a considerable army. Marching from Verucchio, the Austrians were already in San Marino. With or without permission. Bassi begged the café’s proprietor to find a man capable of reaching the column in the dark, to warn Garibaldi not to approach the state, as planned, from the west.

The messenger’s name was Francesco della Balda. When he finally found the rebels, he was taken for a spy and could easily have been shot. But eventually his message got through. Garibaldi does not seem to have given Hoffstetter any inkling of all this bad news. He did not need to know.

The garibaldini must have felt they were simultaneously in a dream and a nightmare.

Belluzzi made the trip from Macerata Feltria to San Marino on a donkey, during a summer holiday in the 1890s. He gives his route as Mercato Vecchio, Pietrarubbia, Ca’ dei Nanni, Montecopiolo, Serra Bruciata, Monte San Paolo. He had a guide, he says, and it took ten hours. Or rather they had a guide; it’s one of the rare occasions when Belluzzi mentions his travelling companion, and the only time he names him. He tells us that the beech forest Ruggeri speaks of must have been, according to their guide, the oak forest of Serra Bruciata, Burned Mountain. And he was determined to visit it.

I couldn’t find Serra Bruciata on any map, but eventually I hunted down a use of the name on a local website. It was 3,000 feet up on a ridge above the Conca valley, four miles east of Montecopiolo. Which made sense. A place that now went by the name of Cuccagna, Cockaigne. Belluzzi writes, “So the column rested in the immense forest, where I too, together with my young travelling companion, Engineer Nerio Pancerasi, whose sudden death in Constantinople I still mourn, enjoyed an hour of the most sweet repose.”

Postponing our repose until our B & B in San Marino, we followed the road from Mercato Vecchio to Ponte Cappuccini, then began the steep climb to Villagrande. I remember a magnificent mimosa tree and an ancient man propped on his hoe in a vegetable garden that seemed tropically dense. He raised his wrinkled face for a moment at the click of our poles but did not return our greeting. Further on, in red paint on an ugly prefab that bore the legend road services, provincia di pesaro e urbino, someone had scrawled the mountains are partisans! It was an idea we instinctively understood. In the mountains, there you feel free.

Moments later our hearts were lifted again by the first sight of the sea. Far, far away to the right, across twenty miles of wooded hills, a long sunny sparkle lit the horizon. We stopped and gazed in thrall to powerful emotions of achievement and arrival: on foot, all the way from Rome, and now the northern Adriatic was in sight. We embraced. And Eleonora reflected that it really was too bad that, with the weather so grim that afternoon, the garibaldini weren’t able to see it. They would have to wait for the following dawn. Hoffstetter:

We had crossed several high open fields, then, always in silence, followed a paved road in a long gully, from which we emerged, as the sun rose, to find ourselves on the eastern slopes of the Apennines.

Magnificent view! Stretching away beneath us was an endless plain, and beyond it the sea, in all its majesty. Like proud swans, gilded in sunshine, a multitude of ships ploughed a surface that shone like a mirror, while dark blue waves gently greeted the long green shore where, in a generous scatter, we could see Pesaro, Rimini, Cesenatico… Everyone’s eyes moved anxiously across the redeeming deep towards the same goal, and in our souls we saw, rising from the blueness, our last star, last hope, the city of lagoons!

One surely can’t see Venice from this position. But it was cheering to imagine it. He does say, “in our souls.” And writing a year or so after the event, without the benefit of digital photographs, which so usefully indicate the exact time they were taken, he is probably conflating moments that must have been some distance apart. The next paragraph opens, “Between the mountains and Rimini, rising perpendicular from the plain is an immense rocky crag. The Republic of San Marino. The city covers just a small part of it, built above a sheer rock wall, while the summit is crowned with two ancient castles . . . Everyone, officers and men, pushed forward in astonishment to admire this splendid picture.”

So near and yet so far. Garibaldi knew now that the chances of fighting his way to the sea were minimal. He was between a rock and a hard place. He had left Rome swearing never to surrender to a foreign power on Italian soil. But now if he did not surrender, around 2000 tired men would very likely be massacred and shot. Not to mention his wife and himself. Once again, he organized his troops for the four hours’ march that remained: first a 1000-foot dive into the deep gorge, at the bottom of which was the border, then 800 feet up the precipitous rocky slopes to the eastern gate of San Marino. They must arrive, he ordered, as soon as possible, before the Austrians completely surrounded the state. Then, taking just a small escort, he rode on ahead to plead with the Captains Regent himself. So he was not present when disaster struck.

Everything ends. Of course. So just walk. Without hope or fear. Just enjoy.

Towards Villagrande, having used the road to cross all the deep little ravines that slowed the garibaldini down, we left Montecopiolo to our left and struck up northeast on a path that eventually leads to Serra Bruciata, now Cuccagna. It was surely the most spectacular of all our walks, a Lord of the Rings landscape of mountain, crag and forest, everywhere gorse and blackberries, heath and heather. The garibaldini must have felt they were simultaneously in a dream and a nightmare.

We walked through deep woods and across open meadows. The path was stony and rugged and hard on the feet, or it was dusty and black and soft. Sometimes grassy. These uplands are constantly changing, fluid, as if the land shifted with the shifting cirrus, sometimes soft and rolling, but then knotting up in Gothic crags, plunging into dark ravines. Or the turfy surface of a slope breaks into deep crusty scars. You can never be sure how near or far anything is because the gorges suddenly fall away where you thought the ground was solid. In a turn of the head you move from the tame bucolic of Samuel Palmer to the wild romance of Casper Friedrich. Orchard to precipice.

Meantime, the hot sun, hazy air and a general sense of vastness induces a slow stupefaction. You are at once happy and exhausted. You want the walk to last forever and you want it to end now. Never hope, I told myself at one point, in a voice that seemed to come from some Buddhist koan, that the climb is over. There is always more. It was one of those moments when the ridge you’d set your sights on turns out to be just the beginning of an even steeper slope. The calves stiffen. On the other hand, the voice went on, never fear that the climb will go on forever. Everything ends. Of course. So just walk. Without hope or fear. Just enjoy.

Now there was a field of dazzling white flowers, now an ascent that felt like climbing a dry mountain torrent. The trees along the way were indeed oaks, small and gnarled and alive with spiders. At last, across a ploughed field full of broken roots and pecking crows, we had our first view of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. The city is arranged in parallel lines atop a high ridge running north–south, as if a huge ocean liner were beached in the plain just beyond the mountains. It looked so near. And it was only 10:00. But we would not be climbing on board till four and gone.

It was partly the heat that undid the garibaldini. And their tiredness. But above all the cannon. The cannon they’d hauled 350 miles and never fired.

Pleased to have the goal in sight, we took time out to gather blackberries. Or rather, I persuaded Eleonora to join me gathering them. She had never done this before. Italians, who love to gather herbs and mushrooms and wild asparagus, for some reason ignore blackberries. We filled our Tupperware box, scratched our wrists, and shooed away the wasps.

Now there were white long-horn cattle, which made me wonder if the garibaldini still had any oxen with them. The big animals were sprawled in full sunshine with an air of utter resignation. A man moved along a line of beehives wearing all the gear. We had reached Cuccagna.

Perhaps there was once an immense forest here. No longer. It’s a high, open plateau, with mowed pastures sloping downwards on either side of the road and a couple of ramshackle farm buildings. A woman appeared walking a dog. She took it down into one of the fields and started shouting commands. Heel. Fetch. Then came the clip-clop of three riders on horses. They had climbed up from the San Marino side and were suffering the heat. The horses too seemed sluggish and disheartened. It was partly the heat, says Belluzzi, that undid the garibaldini on the morning of the 31st. And their tiredness. But above all the cannon. The cannon they’d hauled 350 miles and never fired.

I was aware of having various things in my pack we had not used so far. Our emergency lightweight tent, for example, and five thick paper maps. Thinking of the cannon, I pulled a map out now and unfolded it on the grass to see if it was any help. We needed to decide whether to go fairly directly to San Marino, approaching from the southwest, where Hahne’s men were camped, or, as I wanted, to climb Monte San Paolo, right ahead of us. That way we would be able to approach San Marino from the south and hopefully find the very place where the cannon’s undercarriage finally snapped. And the artillerymen, so proud of their vital weapon, insisted on stopping to make repairs.

The map was no help, and our app was at a loss when it came to Monte San Paolo. The route it gave was impossibly roundabout. Google Satellite suggested that the site of the battle, at the bottom of the valley, on the very border of San Marino, was now a residential area. Eleonora said she needed an ibuprofen. Anita, I remembered, had been through hell that morning.

I looked east to where the mountain gathered itself above the plateau. A hawk was circling, gliding with wonderful grace in slow circles over the wooded slopes. Then it came down like a stone on some invisible prey.

“Let’s leave it,” I said. “We can come back some other time.”

__________________________________

The Hero's Way

Adapted from The Hero’s Way by Tim Parks. Used with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2021 by Tim Parks.

Tim Parks
Tim Parks
Born in England, Tim Parks moved to Italy in 1981 and has lived there ever since. His acclaimed books about Italy include Italian Ways, A Season with Verona, Italian Neighbors, and An Italian Education. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the John Florio Prize, and the Calvino Prize. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. He lives in Italy.





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