Garibaldi: Is his body still in its tomb?

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Garibaldi's grave in CapreraImage source, Richard Matthews/Flickr

Italy marked the 150th anniversary of its unification in 2011, but there is some doubt about the exact resting place of Giuseppe Garibaldi - one of the leaders who helped bring the country together. One person, more than any other, wishes to resolve that puzzle, and for her it is a quest that goes back decades.

It is a scene from a day many years ago, way back in the 1930s.

There is a parade ground, filled with Italian soldiers, and standing in front of them on a table is a little girl only about three years old.

In her arms is the Italian flag, which she is about to present to the regiment - and to the troops she would have seemed like just the right person for the job.

Because this was Anita Garibaldi - the great-granddaughter of Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The little girl was a living link with one of the heroes of Italy's struggle for unification. She was even dressed in a tiny red shirt, like the 1,000 red-shirted, volunteer fighters who followed the general into battle.

Today, decades on, that parade remains one of Anita's earliest memories.

Image caption,
Anita is pressing for her great-grandfather's tomb to be opened

She is 80 now and it is easy to imagine that she has a look about the eyes that you have seen before in the faces of the statues of her famous relative.

Anita is now the head of the Giuseppe Garibaldi Foundation, which aims to promote the great man's legacy.

But right now she is not only concerned with the story of his life, she is also very interested in what happened after his death.

He died in 1882, at the age of 74, at his home on a small island off Sardinia. An engraving shows the General's body lying in a four-poster bed, his long, thick beard almost as white as the sheets around him.

A soldier and a sailor stand guard. And there is a queue at the door of those who are waiting to pay their respects.

Image source, Bridgeman Art Library

It is a deeply sombre, ordered scene, but actually events at that moment were not unfolding as Garibaldi had instructed.

He had made very clear that he wanted to be cremated.

He had written that it should be done on a spot near his house, overlooking the sea - and had even specified which type of Sardinian wood should be used.

He had said that his coffin should be open, so he would have his face to the sun as his pyre was set ablaze.

He hoped ordinary Italians would take away his ashes and mix them with the earth of the motherland, and that from them gardens might grow that would symbolise a new and better Italy. But all these last wishes were ignored.

It seems to have been decided that the national hero's body could not just be burned. Instead, he was buried in a tomb in the grounds of his home.

But Anita believes that may not have been the end of the story.

She believes that the general may no longer lie in his tomb. That some of his most devoted followers might just have felt compelled to carry out his last orders. That perhaps one night long ago, they removed him from his grave, and somewhere gave him the cremation he had wanted.

Anita says locals on the island used to tell her something like that had happened. Her late father - who took a huge interest in these matters - felt sure that the general had vacated his grave.

Although the evidence for any spiriting away of the body may sound decidedly thin, the Giuseppe Garibaldi Foundation believed it had managed to persuade the Italian government to allow an inspection of the tomb.

But before the grave could be opened, there was a change of administration and the new authorities at the Ministry of Culture seem less than enthusiastic about this hunt for Garibaldi's bones.

His great-granddaughter is frustrated, but she is pressing on with her campaign. She is as determined as ever to secure permission to open the tomb and clear up the mystery.

Anita argues that if the national hero is not where he is supposed to lie, then Italians should know that.

And if he is still in his tomb, then work should be done to preserve his remains properly.

Anita says the original embalming of the body was a badly delayed and shoddy affair.

She argues too that if the tomb is opened, and the general is there, then perhaps he should be moved to Rome and given an honourable resting place in the capital of the nation that he did so much to bring into being.

On the other hand, perhaps Italians might decide that the time had at last come to grant their hero the funeral rites that he had desired.

They might decide that it was time to cremate him at that place he had chosen, just down from his house overlooking the sea.

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