Inside Support: The representation of patriotic women in the visual art of the Risorgimento

by Eugenio F. BIAGINI

The following excerpt is Part Two of a three-part essay, entitled “Women and the Risorgimento.”

The surviving written evidence, for both patriots and reactionaries, predominantly concerns upper-class women. Of course, this reflects the nature of the evidence studied so far, and the interests of the historians who have examined it. Both are likely to change in years to come. One primary source increasingly used by historians is provided by contemporary paintings and prints. Although Banti has devoted considerable attention to “historical” paintings as an expression of the Nazione del Risorgimento in its making, he has restricted his attention to early Romantic artists such as Francesco Hayez (1791-1881). Hayez specialized in portraits and “heroic” paintings of medieval and Renaissance episodes, and appropriated for nationalistic purposes themes from the older regional patriotisms. Such is the case for I Vespri Siciliani (1844-6), which celebrated a Medieval rising of the Sicilians against the French invaders.

Here women are presented as the priestesses of the violated patria: they suffer, die and incite their men to avenge the national honour. The construction of femininity in Hayez’s paintings reproduces classical notions of maternity and “national sacrality.” To Hayez, women were the custodians of the heart and the honor of the “nation.” Together with the priests – equally idealized by this artist, and generally perceived as a sort of “third sex” – women represented the link between the nation’s historic and biological past and its future. Action, however, was the prerogative of men.

A later generation of radical painters, collectively known as the Macchiaioli, took a different approach. Born in the 1820s and “30s and predominantly Tuscan, the Macchiaioli approached Risorgimento themes with youthful irreverence and eagerness to experiment and discover reality “in its essence.” A more complete contrast with Hayez’ lyrical solemnity is hard to imagine. Yet, it is important to bear in mind that their irreverence did not originate from lack of ideological sympathy with the “national cause”: indeed, many of them served in the campaigns of 1848-66, often in the Garibaldian armies, which, as Lucy Riall has shown, were more open to female participation.1 Their radical departure from classical canons reflected a new sensitivity to social realities and life, an approach influenced by French Positivism and Impressionism. They developed new manners of figurative representation, continually striving to refine the results they had already achieved, without any presumption of “definitive truths.” This is the main reason why their work can provide the historian with such a rich and sophisticated survey of social and political responses to the Risorgimento, or lack thereof, among both men and women. While theirs was merely one of many possible perceptions of female attitudes – a quintessentially male middle-class reflection on reality – it was an interesting one. They abhorred the rhetorical constructions and stereotypes which then dominated official nationalist rhetoric.

The Macchiaioli devoted a surprising number of their paintings to women – all classes of women, from aristocrats to prostitutes. Some of these paintings are portraits, others represent groups at work or leisure. Their subjects include intellectuals – surrounded by books and art works – but also unsophisticated women enjoying simple feminine pastimes. At least one represents an illiterate woman dictating a letter to a friend, who writes it up for her. Fattori’s celebrated Italian camp at the battle of Magenta  focuses on the ambulance service: nuns nurse the wounded on a wagon. One of them instructs the soldiers assembled around the wagon – perhaps she needs more water or bandages. This painting is a powerful remainder of the crucial role played by women – not only nuns, but also many local, predominantly middle-class (2),  volunteers – in mid-19th century formal warfare.

There are three Macchiaioli paintings representing obviously patriotic women. In 1861 Odoardo Borrani painted Il 26 aprile 1859  – the eve of Florence’s bloodless revolution. A young woman sits at a table, on the top floor of what must be a prosperous city home. She is sewing the tricolour flag. One half of the window is open, the other half is closed, and so is the shutter – obviously to prevent neighbours from seeing this woman intent on her revolutionary preparations. A halbard with a tricolor can be seen in the corner – perhaps to symbolize the continuity between the ancient Florentine freedom (the halbard of the militia of Machiavelli’s republic) and the new national liberty. The woman is well dressed and sits on an ornate Renaissance-style armchair.

The light of the evening sun reflects purple and orange colours onto this woman’s face and white blouse: this adds to the tension of the patriotic moment, already emphasized by the woman’s total absorption in her service to the cause. In 1863 (one year after Garibaldi was wounded at Aspromonte, in his unsuccessful attempt to liberate Rome from the papal monarchy) Borrani painted another scene of patriotic women, the Cucitrici di camicie rosse. Four ladies sit in an elegant room, silently sewing red shirts for the volunteers. The revolution is now being fought elsewhere: obviously, in Tuscany there is now no longer any need to seek refuge in the attic. Instead, these ladies sit comfortably in their drawing room. There is a Biedermeier desk, rich white linen curtains let in the light of the sun through a long window – typical of bourgeois city homes – and a portrait of Garibaldi adorns the wall next to the desk. The elegance of the interior contrasts with the almost religious austerity on the faces of the women, who have eyes only for their patriotic work. It is a typical feminine operation, but is full of political connotations and prescriptions: these women know what they are doing, and do it with zeal, commitment and devotion. Garibaldi looks down on them from the picture on the wall, like a sort of democratic icon: it is almost as if his spiritual presence inspires and comforts the ladies in their labours.

Another interesting painting of “political” women is also by Borrani: Il bollettino del 9 gennaio del 1878 (1880). Three women – representing the classical theme of the three ages – sit around a table. It is dark, but an oil lamp reveals the sorrow on their faces, as the youngest of the three reads to the others from the newspaper of the day. The “bulletin” concerns the death of Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of Italy. A large book lies open in front of the eldest of the three. She has put down her reading glasses and listens intently to her granddaughter. Her daughter sits in between, leaning on the table. Other lamps on the walls cast a dim light over the rest of the room, revealing a few comfortable armchairs, shelves full of books and a globe. These are educated, middle-class women who participate in the nation’s mourning with intense but dignified grief: no tears in their eyes, but a deep pain borne with stoicism. They sit in sad contemplation, as if at prayer. There are, however, no religious symbols in the room – except perhaps the books (the one which lies open on the table could be a Bible). The books and the globe, together with the newspaper in the hands of the youngest of the three, symbolize the patriotic women’s new mental universe, shaped by education, political information, and a more scientific vision of the world. These Italians are emancipated from the habits of the “superstitious” past.

Though Borrani and his colleagues loved to paint women “of the people,” there is no working-class equivalent of the above political women. The many scenes of peasant women painted by the Macchiaioli show them at work or play with their children. Like their bourgeois sisters, they seem to be in control of their “world.” In most of the relevant paintings there are no men; or, if there are, they are represented at the margins of the painting, outnumbered by women and children, and often fading into the background and the blinding light of the summer sun. However, none of these paintings gives any hint of political consciousness among peasant or working-class women. The only possible exception is Odoardo Borrani’s Il richiamo del contingente (1869).

It shows a group of Tuscan peasants: men, women and children bid farewell to a relative, a reservist is being recalled for national service. He is already wearing his uniform, ready to go. On his tunic a military medal is visible, indicating service during previous campaigns: however, neither he nor any of the other characters show any signs of patriotic or warlike demeanour. Some of the women are in tears, but there is much dignity in their behavior: in this at least they are not dissimilar from their upper-class sisters pictured in Borrani’s other patriotic paintings. The most important consideration is perhaps that now the historical context is different: Italy has been unified, the most important battles of the Risorgimento are over, and so is the enthusiasm of 1848-61. This man is not a volunteer, but a conscript. The reality of the new Italy is less exciting than the events that brought it about, but the people, both men and women, face the new challenge with equanimity and fortitude.


(1) Lucy Riall, ‘Eroi maschili, virilità, forme della guerra’, in Banti and Ginsburg, Storia d’Italia, Annali 22, p.279.

(2) Many working-class women served as vivandiere: usually the wives or partners of non-commissioned officers, sometimes uniformed, they followed the armies and helped with the distribution of supplies (hence their name), doubling-up as nurses when necessary.

About the Author


Eugenio Biagini teaches modern European history at Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College. His work include The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy (2000, with Derek Belaes) and Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalization of Democratic Nationalism (2008, edited with Chris Bayly) and British Democracy and Irish Nationalism 1876-1906 (2011, paperback edition).