Christina Belgiojoso-Trivulzio was an Italian noblewoman of the 19th century. She was a free thinking, independent woman determined to live her life as she thought fit, irrespective of any of the conventions that constrained other women of her time. Italy was occupied by Austria and the Italian people were desperate for freedom and nationhood. Christina took an active and often personally dangerous role in the struggle for Italian independence. Her associations with revolutionaries meant she was forced to flee the country on more than one occasion. In Paris she associated with Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt and Honore de Balzac among others. In the 1848 revolution she organised and financed troops and fought in the Milanese Uprising. Its failure again forcing her to flee, but she returned to support the short lived Roman Republic. Once again forced to flee Christina became a nomad, travelling through the near east and living for a time in Turkey. During this period she became a prolific journalist and author. This is an account of the extraordinary courage and conviction of an indomitable feminist.
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It was in the Bourbon capital, therefore, that news of the amazing events in Milan surprised her. With characteristic promptitude she chartered a steamer to convey her to Genoa, whence she could more rapidly proceed to the scene of action. No sooner had the rumour of her imminent departure become bruited through the city than she found herself besieged by patriots of all social grades, clamouring for permission to accompany her.
It is well-nigh impossible to disentangle the threads of such circumstantial evidence as we possess concerning the original motive which prompted the princess to secure this costly means of rapid transport to Milan. There is valid reason for the belief, however, that the revolutionary enthusiast never intended the vessel for her own private and exclusive conveyance. It is much more probable that the sensational project of an armed expedition germed in her fertile brain with the earliest tidings of the successful rising, and the certainty that Piedmont must become officially involved in the struggle to cast off the foreign yoke.
Knowing the princess’s love of sensational effect, we can readily appreciate how this opportunity of playing the role of a modern Joan of Arc must have appealed to her. Although she could hardly issue a call for volunteers on an expedition directed against a government with which the Neapolitan sovereign was at peace, the peculiar political conditions of the moment made it tolerably sure that the local authorities would be conveniently blind to the filibustering character of the escapade. And so, it proved. King “Bomba,” who, despite his newly fledged Constitutionalism, concealed with difficulty his undying hatred of the Liberals, must have writhed in impotent rage while following with the tail of his eye the launching of an expedition which the insecurity of his own throne alone prevented his frustrating.
In an article published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, entitled “L’Italic et la Revolution Italienne,” (October 1, 1848), the Princess Belgiojoso furnishes us with many curious details of this most sensational episode of her eventful career. The strange and challenging personality of the heroine is brought conspicuously before the reader, who hesitates whether to smile at the incongruity of the picture presented by this frail and sickly intellectualist, surrounded by a heterogeneous horde of raw enthusiasts, or endorse with sincere admiration the real nobility of purpose underlying the theatrical aspect of the fantastic pageant.
Princess Belgiojoso thus picturesquely describes the stirring scenes attending her departure from Naples:—
Hardly had the news of my project become noised abroad than I had occasion to learn how great and fervent was the sympathy which the Lombard cause excited in Naples. Volunteers of all social grades came to beg me to conduct them to Lombardy. During the forty-eight hours which preceded my sailing my house was never empty; ten thousand Neapolitans were ready to follow me; but my steamer could carry but two hundred passengers. I consented, therefore, to accept that number, and the little column was instantly completed.
Rarely has a whole population been seen to awake unexpectedly from a long lethargy, aroused by the sole incentives of war and devotion. Among the volunteers who craved following me to Lombardy some belonged to the highest society of Naples: abandoning by stealth the paternal roof, they insisted on accompanying me, carrying in their pockets but a few coins. Others, employees in modest circumstances, exchanged without regret the positions on which they depended for a livelihood for the hardships of camp life.
Several officers risked the punishment meted out to deserters in order to bear arms against Austria: many fathers of families left behind them wife and children; and one young man, whose long-awaited marriage was to have been celebrated on the morrow, postponed his dearest hopes in his eagerness to defend his country. Never shall I forget the moment of my departure. The day was glorious. We were to embark that evening at five. When I reached the steamer the sea was covered with little boats which had put out from all directions to wish us God-speed.
Our vessel was readily distinguishable from the many others at anchor in the port by the shimmer of the arms piled on its decks. My volunteers awaited me. During the short delay occasioned by the last preparations we were assailed by innumerable supplicants: from all the skiffs surrounding our steamer arose voices of entreaty urging us to inscribe one more name on the already overflowing list. We could, unfortunately, but reiteratedly refuse these inopportune appeals, and when our steamer cast off, one single shout went up from a hundred thousand mouths, speeding us with these words: ‘We shall follow you!’—(The responsibility for these figures rests with the princess.
Fortunately, the sea was calm and the voyage uneventful. Of military discipline, there was no pretence.
Alone amidst the turbulent throng, this fragile woman, not yet forty years of age and still marvellously beautiful, ruled supreme by virtue of a patriotic exaltation, which enshrined her in the hearts of her followers as a being apart—a goddess of Liberty—inviolate, sacred. The cause she championed was a holy one. Like some knight crusader of old, this descendant of a warlike race wielded despotic authority over her motley band. She distributed brevets of rank to her battalion, the curious commissions reading, “We, Princess Christina di Belgiojoso, do hereby name and appoint,” &c., &c. That this action excited no ridicule will convey some idea of the intensity of the passionate and romantic fervour which reigned among her followers, who unhesitatingly placed their destinies in her eccentric keeping.
The princess joined in the universal cry of “Viva l’Italia!” “Viva Pio Nono!” “Viva l’Indipendenza!” and that she did so in all sincerity we do not question. Whatever scepticism she may have entertained concerning the supremacy of a theocratic government in a politically and nationally regenerated Italy was buried deep until the all-important task of effectually and permanently expelling the hated foreigner should be accomplished. Nevertheless, for one reason or another, the impression prevailing with the Provisional Government at Milan would seem to have been that the princess’s volunteers were distinctly Republican in their sympathies and aspirations, and, as a consequence, their arrival caused considerable embarrassment in official circles.
The princess herself writes:
The population of Milan prepared to salute our arrival with marks of sympathy, with which the Provisional Government judged prudent to associate itself. My two hundred volunteers were, after the Piedmontese, the first Italians who came to Lombardy to take part in what was then styled the ‘Crusade’ and the ‘Holy War.’ The presence in Milan of the first corps of Neapolitan volunteers seemed to warrant the belief that the war against Austria would become an Italian, rather than a Lombard-Piedmontese, war. The consecutive departures of four other Neapolitan legions soon added to the feeling of confidence which the arrival of the first volunteers had already inspired. Several of our authorities, however, refused to share this confidence.