Benedetta Gennaro

Mothers in/at War: The Use of the Maternal to Normalize Unruly Behaviors in the Risorgimento.

The Mazzinian ideal of the relationship between mother and her son, epitomized in the visceral and totalizing sentiment connecting Maria Drago with her famous son Giuseppe, influenced both the ways in which Risorgimento mothers articulated their patriotism, and how commentators and historians looked at the participation of women in the unification process. Virtually absent from the front, mothers lived the battles for the Italian unification through the experience of their sons.; as a result, the national-patriotic canon resonates with narratives of heroic mothers offering their sons to the Risorgimento cause. In virtue of this association, the space of action for those women who drifted away from the canonical representation of the suffering, yet domestic, mother were met with skepticism and openly reprimanded.


There were also instance in which the use of the maternal aura was employed to recuperate otherwise disorderly biographies, such as in the case of Colomba Antonietti.  The young Umbrian lost her life fighting dressed in a soldier’s uniform on the barricades of the Gianicolo in 1849; indeed, some commentators writing of her death hinted at the natural possibility (rather, certainty) of future motherhood to normalize an unnatural behavior, framing her death as a consequence of love rather than political passion.  In 1867 Rome the fate of two mothers intertwined. On the hills of Villa Glori, the most famously celebrated Italian mother, Adelaide Bono Cairoli, lost her son Enrico, while her youngest Giovanni suffered critical injures that lead to his death two years after. Adelaide’s maternal sacrifice was transformed in example that dominated the Risorgimento rhetoric, and her heroic strength celebrated and made into myth.[1] In the meanwhile, in the popular Trastevere neighborhood, Giuditta Tavani Arquati and her family were brutally killed by a legion of Zouaves. The murder of Giuditta Tavani Arquati was commented as ferocious and heinous because the savagery of the papal army had been unleashed on a pregnant body. Indeed, in the iconography of the slaughter, Giuditta’s body is represented in all her maternal essence. In a drawing stored in the iconographical section of the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento in Rome, Giuditta is shown embracing two of her children while attempting at fending off the papal soldiers with a small pistol. In this image, the emphasis is placed on a mother desperately defending her brood, rather than on a woman dying for a political cause.


In this paper I wish to investigate how the maternal was used to normalize the unruly behaviors of those women who chose to actively participating in the Risorgimento. In doing so, I offer a preliminary explanation of the absence, peculiarly Italian, of a strong national allegory akin to Marianne/Liberty. In particular, I suggest that the preponderance given to the maternal body and its connections with the idea of giving life has hindered the possibility of representing the Italian nation as a strong and independent woman, ready, if needed, to take life in order to achieve freedom.

[1] D’Amelia, Marina. La mamma. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2005, pp. 77-82.