The statue of the Battle of Mentana

A cry for freedom

Deirdre Pirro
November 8, 2012

A man in dishevelled military dress and gaiters, his outstretched right arm pointing his revolver, ready to fire at the enemy as he struggles, with his left arm, to support the fallen comrade in arms who, with his dying breaths, is clinging to the company's tattered flag-the statue commemorating the battle of Mentana may be the most dramatic twentieth-century outdoor monument in Florence. Standing in the square on the north bank of the Arno river that takes its name, piazza Mentana, from the subject of the monument, the dramatic sculpture is dedicated to 150 of Giuseppe Garibaldi's volunteer freedom fighters who fell near the village of Mentana, about 23 kilometres from Rome, on November 3, 1867. On the two side panels of the tall pedestal on which the statue stands, are high reliefs in bronze, one portraying Garibaldi's troops leaving Monterotondo, the other, the battle of Mentana itself. The dedication on the front panel translates, ‘To the brave men who fell at Mentana, consecrating Rome to free Italy.' (Sadly, like so many of the city's outdoor monuments, this statue has been vandalised several times over the years, the latest, on January 2, 2008, when the pistol held by the lionhearted hero was badly damaged.)


In the aftermath of the Third Italian War of Independence, the then-aging Garibaldi, with the secret complicity of the Italian government, led another private expedition, this time into the Papal States. No great admirer of the papacy, on September 9, 1867, at a congress in Geneva, he had called it ‘that pestilential institution,' saying he hoped to give ‘the final blow to the monster' by liberating Rome, the ancient capital and the one remaining major city on the peninsula that was still not part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. With about 8,100 men, he reached the outskirts of Rome, occupying Tivoli, Acquapendente and Monterotondo. There he halted the march, believing he would be assisted by a popular insurrection from within Rome. However, apart from some isolated skirmishes, this never happened. Instead, the delay gave the French the time to come to the Pope's aid. Equipped with their superior Chassepot bolt-action breech-loading rifles, the French expeditionary corps were also better-trained than Garibaldi's volunteers. Together with the papal troops, the French routed Garibaldi's forces, killing 150, wounding 220, and taking 1,057 prisoner. With what remained of his volunteer fighters, Garibaldi was forced to retreat, once again, into the Kingdom of Italy. Rome, in fact, was not liberated until three years later, captured by the Italian Army on September 20, 1870.


Inaugurated on April 27, 1902, the monument of the Battle of Mentana in Florence was sculpted by Oreste Calzolari. Born in Borgo San Lorenzo, in the Mugello valley, on February 3, 1852, Calzolari studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence between 1879 and 1882 and then completed his studies at the Raffaello Sanzio University in Urbino. Although he had already shown his work in Italy and abroad, it was this statue in piazza Mentana that made a name for him in Florence. Calzolari become even more renowned for his fine bronze equestrian statue situated in piazza Mino da Fiesole, the main piazza of Fiesole (see TF 164). That monument represents the meeting between Garibaldi and King Vittorio Emanuele II at Teano, in the province of Caserta, on October 26, 1860. Standing 3.2 metres high by 3.7 metres long, it depicts the two men on horseback, greeting each other face to face. It symbolises the end of Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand that ousted the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, thereby permitting the union of southern Italy and Sicily with the north. Because the citizens of Teano, for which the monument was originally intended, could not afford to pay the 3,625 lire it cost, a committee in Fiesole collected the funds to buy it and placed it in their midst.


It was solemnly inaugurated on September 17, 1906, scarcely more than four decades after the historic event, in the presence of the Count of Turin, representing King Vittorio Emanuele III. In 1904, Calzolari was appointed artistic director of the Manifattura di Signa, established by brothers Camillo and Angelo Bondi in 1895. There, he not only had considerable influence on the factory's production of artistic ceramics in terracotta but also mentored such younger artists as Mario Moschi, Renato Bertelli and Bruno Catarzi. Oreste Calzolari died in Mestre on October 7, 1920. For more about Garibaldi and the many others who led (or resisted) the struggle to unite Italy, see TF 138, a special issue commemorating 150 years of Italian unity.

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