Interpreting the Risorgimento: Blasetti's 1860 and the Legacy of Motherly Love

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Alessandro Blasetti's 1860 has recently been the focus of literary and film criticism, which analyzed various aspects of the film, including the didactic and ideological nature of the director's interpretation of the Risorgimento. (1) For his reading of this memorable Italian past, Blasetti used both domestic and foreign sources of artistic inspiration. Critics have traced, for example, the origin of his cinematic narrative to Soviet realist films and to Macchiaioli painters (Dalle Vacche 105; Landy 184; Hill "The Art of History"). An additional domestic source of influence may be found in the Risorgimento female iconography produced by nineteenth-century patriotic writers and artists, which sprang from what later in the century came to be known as "questione femminile." (2) Both during the Risorgimento period and the first decades of the twentieth century, the question of women's education and role in society constituted a central theme in the public discourse on the social transformation and modernization of Italy. From Giuseppe Mazzini's enthralling call to women to fulfill their specific mission in the process of moral regeneration of Italy to the Fascist regime's "cult of motherhood in the name of building nation-state power" (De Grazia xi), the female figure represented a commonly used rhetorical strategy for the projection of an idealized image of a renewed Italy.

Blasetti's representation of gender identities and, more specifically, of the female protagonist in 1860 can be viewed within this project of cultural renovation of Italy. Gesuzza, as well as the other more marginal female characters in the film, exemplify the director's intent to find in the glorified Italian past of the Risorgimento viable autochthonous models of behavior to be promoted in the fast-changing urban Italian society, seen as too open to foreign paradigms of modernity. For these portrayals, Blasetti relied on the iconography of Risorgimento heroines, and on popular images of nineteenth-century female representations. The patriotic literature, music, and visual art produced during the Risorgimento often represented Italy allegorically as a woman, sometimes portrayed in chains (as a symbol of her oppression) and other times as a mother--a unifying force for the progeny of Italian brothers and sisters. "Cara Italia," Alessandro Manzoni wrote in his ode Marzo 1821, "Ecco alfin dal tuo seno sbocciati / Stretti intorno a' tuoi santi colori / Forti, armati de' propri dolori / I tuoi figli son sorti a pugnar!" (73, 85-88) And Francesco Hayez, a prominent Romantic painter, beginning in 1882 created several versions of I Vespri siciliani, a story that was particularly popular in patriotic hagiography: a French soldier's molestation of a young married woman that supposedly sparked the 1282 Sicilian insurrections against the Angevins' domination. Hayez's paintings prominently featured the figure of the Sicilian woman, represented as the symbol of Italian honor violated by foreign powers (Banti 66-69; 84). As Risorgimento writers and artists infused their works with a fundamental call for liberation from foreign corruption and political occupation, the portrayal of Italy as woman served the moral and political claim for unification--a claim rhetorically presented as a need to re-establish and protect the Italian national honor. Blasetti drew from this tradition of allegorical female representations as he cinematically invoked a cultural rebirth of Italy and Italian cinema, battered by the disastrous economic outcome of World War I and by the inundation of foreign cultural products.

Whereas both protagonists, Gesuzza and Carminiddu, can be viewed as symbolizing fascist efforts of ruralization and restoration of traditional patriarchal values, it is the role of the female protagonist to synthesize cinematically the fascist desire to reconcile the demands of modernity with the will to maintain a fundamentally traditional society. (3) Such synthesis rests upon what, in fascist, and, more generally nationalistic policies, is considered a pillar of social life: motherhood. …