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Notes From Italy: Some Old Envoys

Posted By Peter Bridges On November 29, 2007 @ 3:19 pm In History,Italy,Non-Fiction Reviews | 4 Comments

George Perkins Marsh

American contact with Italy goes back a long way. True, that probable native of Genoa named Columbus came to the New World not for Italy but as a captain for Spain, and Giovanni da Verrazzano was in the service of Francis I of France when he sailed into New York Harbor in 1524. But in 1610, only three years after Jamestown was founded, a settler named Albiano Lupo landed there and, unlike many other new Virginians, survived and prospered. The Taliaferros, a family of Genoese origin, arrived in Virginia by 1647 and became prominent in my family’s home county, Gloucester; one Taliaferro became a Confederate major general. (My great-grandfather made sergeant.)

The number of Italian Americans however remained small for centuries. As late as 1850 the census showed only 3,645 Italians among the more than two million American residents born abroad. Nor were the Americans who visited Italy at first very numerous. One early visitor was Thomas Jefferson, who went down to Piedmont from Paris in 1786-1787, seeking seeds for American farmers of the superior Piedmont rice.

The question arose whether the new American republic should send official representatives–though not to “Italy,” which politically did not exist. In the early 1800s the Italian peninsula was divided into seven pieces, of which one was under the Popes and another under the Austrians. In the northwest, the Savoy family ruled over the misnamed Kingdom of Sardinia. Their holdings included that island but their kingdom’s center was Piedmont, Turin was their handsome capital, and Genoa was their biggest port. Trade with the American republic began to develop–the Piedmontese liked American tobacco to smoke and American cotton to weave–and an American consulate opened at Genoa in 1798. The Savoys were unsure whether they wanted to open diplomatic as well as consular relations. Consuls were supposed to concentrate on trade and shipping problems; diplomats were involved with political questions. Whether American democracy was contagious or not, it was something an autocratic monarchy needed to think about.

In 1838 the two countries finally agreed to exchange diplomatic representatives, and the first American envoy arrived in Turin in 1840. His name was Hezekiah Gold Rogers, and it soon became clear that he was seriously unbalanced. The Sardinian authorities told the chief nurse of Turin’s insane asylum to do his best to help him. Then it turned out that the consul at Genoa, John Bailey, was a notorious bankrupt. The new Sardinian envoy in Washington was instructed to say politely to the State Department that his government believed it wrong to leave a madman and a bankrupt as America’s chief representatives in the kingdom. Eventually they were replaced.

American envoys were also sent to the Papal States in Rome and to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which despite its confusing name was Sicily plus southern Italy and was ruled by despotic Bourbon kings in Naples. Those were different days in diplomacy. It was not just that Americans were dealing with European kings rather than democrats; for our diplomats those were halcyon days of independence. The trans-Atlantic telegraph did not begin to function until 1866. Before that, an American envoy was sent to a post in Europe armed with general instructions from the State Department. Further correspondence between him and headquarters would take two to three weeks in either direction. When a crisis arose he must deal with it as he thought best, without Washington dictating every move. True, there were no world wars back in the 1800s; but there were critical moments.

One day in April 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi called on John Moncure Daniel, the American envoy in Turin. The previous year Garibaldi’s corps of volunteers had done wondrous service in the war that took Lombardy from Austria and added it to the Savoy kingdom. Victory was won with the help of a large French army, and now Napoleon III was asking Vittorio Emanuele II for the reward the Savoy king had agreed to: the hand of the king’s 15-year-old daughter for the emperor’s much older, dissolute cousin, and the cession to France of the duchy of Savoy and the city of Nice. Garibaldi, a native of Nice, was enraged, and was not mollified when the king told him that if he was losing the cradle of his own family, Savoy, Garibaldi could bear to see Nice go.

If Nice declares independence, Garibaldi asked Daniel, will the United States provide it protection (from France, he did not need to say) and assistance?

Daniel thought fast. He was a democrat as well as a Democrat and he did not care for the self-made French emperor. But the United States was not looking to go to war with France. If he consulted Washington it could take six weeks for an answer.

Daniel told Garibaldi that the United States would have nothing to do with the matter. American policy was to recognize all governments that succeeded in establishing themselves, but there was no chance that little Nice could prevail against big France.

Garibaldi said, no doubt with a sigh, that he had anticipated Daniel’s reply. He left his home town to its fate, and instead sailed out of Genoa the next month with a thousand volunteers, bound for Sicily. Daniel wrote to the State Department that if Garibaldi succeeded in landing on the island he would succeed in his plans. Few if any others thought so; the plans were grandiose; but they succeeded. Garibaldi and his famous Thousand captured Sicily, marched north to Naples, put an end to the Bourbon kingdom, and then handed it all to Vittorio Emanuele II, who proclaimed that he was no longer king of Sardinia but of Italy. Just as well, I always thought, that Minister Daniel had not waited to hear from Washington what he should tell il Liberatore about Nice.

There was, however, a later case when Washington had to be consulted about Garibaldi. In January 1861 a Republican named Lincoln won the White House. He would obviously replace all Democrats, including John Daniel. More importantly, Southern states began to secede from the Union–and Daniel was a proslavery Virginian. He resigned his commission and went home to Richmond to become a fiery Confederate editor. He was replaced by an abolitionist from Vermont named George Perkins Marsh, who arrived in Turin just as Confederate and Union armies met at Bull Run.

Marsh’s main job when he reached Turin was to dissuade the Italian government from recognizing the Confederacy. He succeeded; these Italians might be autocrats, but they did not like slaveowners. Four years before the Civil War began, in 1857, Marsh’s racist predecessor Daniel had been angered by a ballet he saw in Genoa called Bianchi e Negri. The ballet was said to have been inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been translated into Italian soon after its appearance in America and had sold well in Piedmont. The ballet’s first scene was at a plantation in the American South, where white ladies danced with white gentlemen. In the last scene the ladies were dancing with liberated black slaves.

A difficult problem for Marsh came when Giuseppe Garibaldi grandly told the Americans that he was willing to come back to America–he had once lived on Staten Island–to become commander-in-chief of the Union forces. The answer to that obviously had to come from Washington, and soon enough it did: an offer to the Liberator of a commission, but only as major general. Garibaldi refused. Marsh wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward that he was relieved; it would be difficult to employ a general who thought himself on a par with governments and sovereigns.

It took me a long time to gain a full appreciation of George Perkins Marsh. Often, in the years I worked at the Rome embassy, I would pass through the protocol office just off the top of the grand staircase in the Palazzo Margherita and, in passing, I would glance at the photographs of our old envoys to Italy. The one with the best beard and longest term of service (21 years!) was someone named Marsh. He was not Ambassador, but Minister, to Italy. Until 1893 America had ministers who headed legations instead of ambassadors heading embassies, the latter being, it was thought, too high-level for a republic that avoided (or said it avoided) entangling relationships abroad.

I eventually retired from the Foreign Service. The next year my search for a new profession found me walking across a meadow outside Craftsbury Common, in what Vermonters call their Northeast Kingdom. I was with the dean of a small college that needed a new president, and we talked about environmental problems, relatively few of which plague that Kingdom. The dean mentioned George Perkins Marsh. Not, I said, our old envoy to Italy? Well, he said, he was a diplomat, but the really important thing about Marsh is that he wrote Man and Nature which, if you don’t know (and I didn’t), was the first important American work on the environment and, incidentally, is still in print. I hurried to Marsh’s great work, one of many books and articles that he wrote, and the college hired the man they needed, not a diplomat but a fundraiser.

Both Marsh and his predecessor Daniel suffered from leaks, of a sort perhaps not very different from the ones we read about in today’s papers.

Daniel arrived in Turin in 1853 when he was twenty-seven, unmarried, unwell, and homesick. He wrote to Arthur Peticolas, a close friend back home in Richmond, that the Piedmontese were simply not as good as the Americans, and the girls were uglier. Counts who stank of garlic–as did the whole country–had sponged on him for seats in his box at the opera. He was meeting diplomats who had “titles as long as a flagstaff, and heads as empty as their hearts.” These were strictly private comments, Daniel told Peticolas, and none of it should get into the papers. All of it did, in Richmond and soon in Turin. Now it was not garlic but what people called “the garlic letter” that caused a stink. Daniel offered to resign. Secretary of State William Marcy wrote back to him that the matter had been discussed by President Franklin Pierce and his cabinet; no one thought Daniel should give up his post. He stayed, for seven years, and became arguably America’s ablest diplomat in Europe. He saw himself becoming envoy not just to part but to all of a new, reunited Italy–until Lincoln and secession came on the scene.

Marsh’s leak was different. The State Department carelessly published in one of its annual volumes on Foreign Relations of the United States a secret dispatch from Marsh commenting (not incorrectly) that Italy followed the dictates of Napoleon III. Marsh was much admired in Italy, and although there was a small storm he weathered it. He was fortunate that the press never learned of a letter that he wrote in 1865 to his friend Spencer Baird, the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The new Kingdom of Italy had moved its capital from Turin to Florence. Foreign embassies and legations necessarily moved, too, and Marsh did not like his new home one whit. Florence, he wrote Baird, was a place of “Vile climate, detestably corrupt society, infinite frivolity.”

In 1871 the capital moved to Rome. Marsh liked that better, and spent his final eleven years there. He died in Italy, aged eighty-one, in 1882, full of honors and accomplishments both large and small. Whenever I go into Washington and gaze at the Washington Monument I recall that it was George Marsh who pressed, successfully, for an obelisk–without the plan that had been urged, to surround the obelisk with 100-foot marble columns.

Marsh’s successor in Rome, William Waldorf Astor, had a different fate. Astor was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, a boy from a German village called Waldorf who built a fur-trading empire in America. Like Marsh, Astor never returned to America from Italy; but while Marsh always remained a democrat and an American, Astor moved from Italy to England, became a British citizen, and after applying some of his immense wealth to public causes was made a baron.

One’s fate is really unknowable…which reminds me that once, on a visit to Palermo, my wife went to see the Capuchin cemetery and catacombs. This is, in the view of many, a weird place. One finds on display the embalmed and mummified remains of almost a thousand persons, lay as well as religious, that were placed there between 1600 and 1920. One of the gentlemen is, or was, an American vice consul named Paterniti who died in Palermo in 1911.

Paterniti was not, one might say, the only American consular officer to go underground in Italy. During World War II the young consul at Nice, Walter Orebaugh, was taken prisoner by the Italians. He escaped, and joined the Italian partisans for a harrowing year and a half in Tuscany and the Marche. Decades later, Orebaugh told his rather heroic story in a memoir called Guerrilla in Striped Pants.

I can sometimes wish to have lived in older times–though not in order to lie mummified under Palermo, or to present diplomatic credentials to cruel kings. The question is, what will the future bring diplomacy? That great Italian Giuseppe Mazzini–true patriot if failed republican–warned his countrymen, “Slumber not in the tents of your fathers. The world is advancing.”


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