If you mention the word ‘Garibaldi’ to most people (in the UK at least) they will quite probably think of a curranty biscuit. But in the Victorian period everyone knew that Giuseppe Garibaldi was the freedom fighter who with his intrepid band of red shirted volunteers had united Italy. Garibaldimania spread far from his home and soon reached Britain.
When the dust settled after the Napoleonic Wars, Italy consisted of a number of states with their own laws and traditions. Decades of diplomacy, political manoeuvring, and armed conflict were needed before they were welded into a single kingdom in 1861. But it was the dashing and romantic figure of Garibaldi, leading an army of volunteers that captured the imagination. So short of funds that the troops wore red blousy shirts instead of a uniform, Garibaldi’s men were disciplined and fearsome. He became a hero not just for helping to unite Italy but particularly for fighting against the autocratic kingdom of Naples and the papal oppression of Rome.
The British loved this and vied to celebrate Garibaldi. A racehorse was named after him. All manner of Garibaldi merchandise was available to the public. Of course there was the Garibaldi currant biscuit, devised by the virtuoso biscuit maker Jonathan Carr; the idea was soon taken up by Huntley & Palmer. A Garibaldi Sauce was produced in Scotland. There were Staffordshire porcelain figurines of Garibaldi, together with mugs, plates and tankards. Red Garibaldi shirts became fashionable amongst women as well as men.
When Garibaldi came to visit England in 1864, everyone wanted to meet the Italian hero. Aristocrats and politicians vied to meet him, workers’ groups around the country invited him to their cities. When he arrived in London half a million people were there to see. Not everyone was so keen. Queen Victoria failed to see what the fuss was about. She thought Garibaldimania was undignified and wrote to the Prime Minister that ‘brave and honest though he is, he has ever been a revolutionist leader’. Karl Marx, who might have been expected to warm to such a radical figure, dismissed Garibaldi as ‘a pitiful donkey’.
In spite of receiving a range of invitations from workers to visit cities across Britain, the government had no intention of letting Garibaldi out of London. The last thing it needed was to let such a notorious radical free amongst the people. Garibaldi was encouraged to leave under a confusion of excuses from ill-health to the impossibility of doing justice to all his invitations.
Even after his visit to Britain, Garibaldi’s influence continued to be felt. One of the most famous examples was Nottingham Forest Football Club. In 1865 a group of enthusiastic amateurs founded the club, resolving that the team colour would be ‘Garibaldi red’. Initially they ordered a supply of caps in that colour before moving onto football shirts. In the early years reports of them might refer to the ‘Foresters’ but just as often to the ‘Garibaldi Reds’.
The colour did not just endure for Nottingham Forest (they wear it to this day), but due to them it spread around the world. The red shirts worn at times by Arsenal, Sparta Prague, Ajax, and Sporting Braga all have their origins in the Foresters’ attachment to Garibaldi’s red shirts.
Jeremy Goldsmith, 7 November 2018
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