Sunday lunch seemed as good a time as any to test one of my pet theories: people will pass by monuments or statues for years without ever really looking at them or knowing anything about them. Of the 12 of us sitting around the table, 9 were Italians (5 of them native Florentines) and 3 foreigners, all of us long-time residents in the city. I asked if anyone could tell me the name of the person represented in the statue standing in the middle of piazza San Marco. Nobody could. This was surprising, as San Marco is a major bus hub and one of the busiest squares in town, through which thousands of people transit every day. It was also surprising as this is a very elaborate and handsome statue of one of the major figures of Italian unification.
General Manfredo Fanti was a hero of the Italian Resurgence and the man who reorganised the armed forces in the newly founded Kingdom of Italy. Not long after unification, the city of Florence commissioned realist sculptor Pio Fedi (1816-1892), whose studio was in via dei Serragli, to create a bronze monument to Fanti. Once completed in 1873, it was erected where it stands today, facing what was then the headquarters of the Royal Military Command, on the corner of via Arazzieri.
The inscription (in Italian) on the front of a narrow marble plinth reads, ?Manfredo Fanti born in Carpi on 25 February 1806, for the love of liberty, exiled in 1831. Learned the art of war in Spain and in the Italian Wars of Independence. Hastened with valour and intelligence the independence and unification of his homeland. Died in Florence on 15 April 1865.' Symbolic figures on the sides of the plinth represent politics, strategy, tactics and fortifications. A bas-relief depicts a scene from the decisive 1859 Battle of San Martino.
The Florentines were quick to draw a comparison. In his masterpiece, The Rape of Polyxena (1865), which stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in piazza Signoria, Fedi had given the figure of the warrior Achilles a flamboyant helmet. However, he had left Fanti bareheaded. Wits that they are, they soon were singing a satirical ditty suggesting that whenever the wind blew, to avoid catching cold, the general should ask the Greek warrior if he could borrow his headgear.
It is unlikely the pertinacious Fanti would have found this amusing. Or that he would have felt the need for a hat. In 1825, after spending his childhood in Carpi, in the Emilia-Romagna region, Fanti joined the Pioneer Cadet Corps of the Duchy of Modena. He graduated in mathematics and civil engineering and became an officer in the Engineer Corps. In 1831, he joined insurrectionist Ciro Menotti in an attempt to overthrow the dictatorial Duke Francesco IV of Modena, but was captured and imprisoned. Because the Austrians refused to come to his aid against the rebels, the duke was forced to flee and so Fanti was released.
Fanti, however, continued to participate in the revolt that spread throughout northern and central Italy. But once the Austrians intervened and the city of Ancona capitulated to them on March 29, 1831, to avoid capture and execution, he sought exile in France. With the assistance of the astronomer D. J. F. Arago (1786-1853), he enlisted in the French Engineer Corps and designed the fortifications of the city of Lyon.
Fanti next joined Giuseppe Mazzini's revolutionary uprising known as the Invasion of Savoy. In 1835, following its failure, Fanti left France for Spain, remaining there for the next 13 years, joining the Spanish army. Through a series of promotions, in 1847 he became a colonel, about the time he married Carlotta Tio de Valencia.
During the first war of independence in Italy, in 1848, Fanti returned home to fight against the Austrian occupation, first for the king of Piedmont and Sardinia and then for the provisional government in Lombardy, where he was elected a deputy. Following the defeat at Novara in 1849, he was court-martialled for his association with the unfortunate general, Gerolamo Ramorino. Acquitted, in 1855 he fought as commander of the Second Piedmont Provisional Brigade during the Crimean War, receiving from the English the Crimean War Medal for his heroism.
In 1859, he saw combat in the second war of independence. That same year, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, the prime minister and his political patron, instructed Fanti to re-organise the army in central Italy and to set up the Military School of Modena. In 1860, the king appointed him a senator, and in 1861, he became minister of war and the navy and commander in chief in central and southern Italy, taking part in the victory at Gaeta.
Once the war was over, his task was to re-organise the army of the recently unified country, which involved integrating 7,000 officers from Garibaldi's Army of the South. They expected to hold the same ranks in the new Royal Army, and Fanti became very unpopular when he opposed this.
In 1863, Fanti retired. His protector, Cavour, had died in 1861, and the lung disease from which Fanti was suffering had worsened. Two years later, after a brief sojourn in France and Egypt, he died in Florence.
Now that you know more about Fanti, next time you pass his statue in piazza San Marco, give him a wink and tell him he has not been completely forgotten.