Roma o’ Morte, Rome or death, proclaimed General Giuseppe Garibaldi in typical ‘psycho-nationalist’ parlance in the late nineteenth century, at once linking the ‘eternal city’ to notions of blood and sacrifice in order to consolidate the risorgimento or unification of Italy in the face of foreign invasion and internal strife. Similarly dramatic emotions were expressed by his contemporaries, in particular Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72), probably Italy's most famous nationalist. Sceptical of communist calls for a worker's revolution in Italy – Karl Marx referred to him as a middle-class reactionary – the discourse used by Mazzini is typically emotional, imbued with themes such as God, sacrifice, love, death, blood, kinship and unity. ‘Love your country’, he demanded from his listeners during a speech in 1848 in protest of the killing of Italian soldiers by Austrian forces. ‘Your country is the land where your parents sleep, where is spoken that language in which the chosen of your heart blushing whispered the first word of love’. This romantic, almost poetic reference, which seems rather innocent at first sight, is immediately followed by a prescription to give blood for the nation: ‘It is your name, your glory, your sign among the peoples. Give to it your thought, your counsel, your blood … Let it be one, as the thought of God’.
Mazzini was certainly not a fascist, despite the appropriation of his thought by Benito Mussolini and some recent scholarship linking his ideas to the latter. His nationalism was tempered given that he embedded it in a humanitarian discourse. But his constant reference to Europe as the pinnacle of civilisation and his repeated emphasis on blood sacrifice as a necessary ingredient in the making of nations, lent itself to abuse in post-unification Italy, including by the fascist movement. The mobilisation of the masses to safeguard the honour of the nation, his intense emphasis on the role of God, transmuted into a secular form of theo-politics. As a consequence, the national narrative was given a sacrosanct status which was readily exploited by those who claimed to work in the name of the nation and as its chaperone. Mazzini believed that Italy could only be adequately united through heroism, sacrifice and martyrdom, symbols and imagery that were very central to his dramatic reading of national regeneration. Once this task was accomplished, Mazzini promised, Italy would lead Europe to civilisational greatness.