In his latest non-fiction book, the British author Tim Parks (“Europe”, “Italian Ways”) provides a historical investigation in the form of a nearly 400-mile hike through the backbone of Italy. He took this arduous walk with his romantic companion, the translator Eleonora Gallitelli, in the summer of 2019 before COVID-19. Their route was determined by the month-long retreat of Giuseppe Garibaldi with 4,000 volunteer fighters and his pregnant young wife in 1849, the collapse of the short-lived Roman Republic.
“The Heroes’ Way: With Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna“Is not primarily the story of how Garibaldi and several other Italian patriots united the Italian peninsula into a single country. (That did not happen until 1860.) Instead, it is a chronicle of the arbitrariness in defeat and the improbable flight of a shrinking, mixed-up volunteer army from military personnel who far outnumbered them.
Parks necessarily begins with a little background. Spurred on by the liberal popular uprisings that swept across Europe in 1848, the people of the Papal States of Italy declared themselves a republic in February 1849 and sent the ruler Pope Pius IX. into exile in the nearby Kingdom of Naples.
“The hope was to make Rome the capital of a united Italy, since the country was then severely fragmented and largely ruled by foreign or despotic powers,” explains Parks. “In response, Pius called on four Catholic powers – Austria, France, Spain and Naples – to recapture his empire by force.”
The Austrians had already suppressed aspirations for independence from other small Italian states, and the chances that Garibaldi and his crew would escape their well-funded forces were next to nonexistent. But this chapter did not turn out to be a source of shame. The “Garibaldini” as Garibaldi’s followers were called might not have prevailed – but neither had they lost face. Garibaldi escaped capture. His supporters, who fought for Italian unification, “forced people to think, to take sides and unsettled the mental landscape as they marched over the physical”.
Parks and Gallitelli really wanted to experience the Garibaldini Retreat as they had done – on foot, in the summer. It is true they did not have armies to pursue them. But getting up before sunrise each day to retrace Garibaldi’s route had its own dangers, mostly 21st-Century traffic.
“Headlights are rushing towards you. Trucks rumble. It’s scary and certainly a lot more dangerous to march through the countryside than it was 170 years ago, ”writes Parks. “We run on rubble: broken glass, street killers, syringes and plastic.”
With the help of navigation apps, he and Gallitelli found detours, which they mostly avoided bypassing highways. Trying to imagine what the 1849 retreat was like has been challenging, but Parks has done his research and readers will learn a lot.
One advantage Garibaldi and his followers had was their zigzag route. Her pursuers were constantly amazed at exactly where Garibaldi and his men were. Their goal was clear: Venice, the last city-state to maintain its independence. But the deliberate turns of the garibaldini could seem nonsensical.
Parks is open about his own journey and shares details like his gratitude for wearing “elastic underwear for athletes against rashes”. In a typical phrase, this leads him to the question: “Do Garibaldi’s men even have underwear? I am afraid not. The more vigilantly I observe all the places where the skin rubs, the shoes pinch and pain lurks, the more extraordinary their determination seems. ”
Park’s temporary, panicked loss of his cell phone also amazed him at how diligently the Garibaldini leaders “watched their diaries on this march, kept them in safe, dry places and never abandoned them even under extreme circumstances”.
Boards and places named after Garibaldi and his crew show the way. Memories of the Roman Empire and World War II also emerge. “Italian street signs,” notes Parks, “will often tell you not only what a street is called today, but also what it was called twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years ago. Whether this is a form of nostalgia for the older names or should be useful for someone who returns home after a long absence, even a ghost, I don’t know. ”
Other prominent sights include a freshwater spring written by the poet Horace some 2,000 years earlier, and a flock of sheep followed by a young shepherd who “talks on a quad, who talks on his smartphone”. The depopulation in rural Italy is even more sobering, as younger generations leave in search of work and the remaining locals often find that survival means catering for tourism to make them feel like strangers in their own home.
“The Hero’s Way” is not going very smoothly. Keeping the names of all the military skirmishes and personnel involved can be challenging, Parks admits. Parks and Garritelli’s daily search for acceptable accommodation and food (they are vegetarians) can also be repetitive.
But the central point of how an apparent military debacle was gradually being viewed as a “glorious act of resistance” is made haunted.