Garibaldi, the iconic Italian hero, was born French or Italian?

Nov 13, 2020

This article is written by Marco Mazzeschi and contributed to our publication on

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Can you obtain Italian citizenship if your ancestors were born before 1861?


Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian iconic hero, was one of the main contributors to the country’s unification. He was dubbed the “Hero of Two Worlds,” due to his military exploits in Brazil and Uruguay, as well as in Europe. There are also speculations that President Lincoln wanted him to lead the Union’s Army but the attempt failed because Garibaldi wanted assurances that the Union was fighting to end slavery. (1)

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During the American Civil War there was also a regiment known as the “Garibaldi Guard”. Italian immigrants, in fact, wanted to be represented in the Union with a regiment of their own.

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The Italian community in New York was tiny and therefore the organizers decided to form a legion of exiled liberals. The idea was to form a unit based on allegiance to Garibaldi’s ideas of republican democracy and opposition to slavery that would attract men who immigrated to America to seek freedom. The regiment was therefore divided into eleven companies of men of different national heritage: three German, three Hungarian, one Swiss, one Italian, one French, one Spanish, and one Portuguese. (2)


Garibaldi’s icon became so famous to influence also sectors such as fashion. The eldest jeans of the world belonged to Garibaldi and are exhibited at the Museum of Risorgimento in Rome (3). In England, the ladies sported blouses modelled on the Red Shirts used by Garibaldi and his soldiers, which were called Garibaldis.

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There are also raisin-studded “Garibaldi” biscuits which are still enjoyed throughout Europe today.


Garibaldi was born in Nice on July 4, 1807, when Nice was ruled by France. Only in 1815, after Napoleon I’s defeat and the Congress of Vienna, the city returned to the Kingdom of Sardinia.

Garibaldi’s parents were actually “Italians” (even though Italy did not exist yet as a State). In fact, they were subjects (i.e. citizens) of the Kingdom of Sardinia and they moved from Chiavari to Nice in 1770, when the city was still part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.

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The 1804 Napoleonic Code, applicable in Nice in 1807 (when Garibaldi was born), did not grant French citizenship “ius soli” (i.e. the citizenship of a child is determined by the place of its birth) but set forth that:

every individual born in France of a foreigner, may, during the year which shall succeed the period of his majority, cliam the quality of Frenchman; provided, that if he shall reside in France he declares his intention to fix his domicile in that country and that in case he shall reside in a foreign country, he give security to become domiciled in France and establish himsellf there within a year, to be computed from the date of that undertaking.” (art. 9)

Accordingly, and differently from what many sources allege, Garibaldi maintained his status as subject/citizen of the Kingdom of Sardinia and never became a French citizen.

He became Italian only in 1861, after Italy’s unification.


In 1860, with the informal backing of the King of Sardinia and the initial support of only 1,000 volunteers (the solo called “Red Shirts” for the colour of their uniforms), Garibaldi’s army conquered Sicily and Naples.

After his victory, he held plebiscites in the conquered territories, which allowed him to hand over the whole of southern Italy to King Victor Emmanuel. At the same time, also other Italian territories (Ducato di Toscana, Ducato di Parma, Marche, Umbria) held plebiscites to join the Kingdom of Sardinia and the new Kingdom of Italy was officially established on March 17, 1861. (4)

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At the moment of the unification it was difficult to establish who should be considered an Italian citizen. The States which were annexed or adhered (5) to the Kingdom of Italy had their own civil codes with specific laws: the Austrian Code (1815), the code of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1819), the Parma Code (1820), the Modena Code (1831) and the Subalpine Code (1837). Tuscany did not have a civil code, since common law prevailed. (6)

The initial solution was to adopt the 1848 Albertine Statute for the new Kingdom of Italy. Citizenship, however, was not specifically defined in the Statute (7). Therefore, the issue of Italian citizenship was defined only with the approval of the 1865 Civil Code, which adopted the ius sanguinis principle, stating that:

A citizen is the child of a father who is a citizen” (Libro Primo, Titolo I, 4)

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Italian citizenship was automatically extended to all individuals born in the territories which were annexed or have adhered to the new Kingdom.

This principle was attenuated through some concessions to ius soli or to the mother’s citizenship in some specific cases. (8)


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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

To prove your right to Italian citizenship it is necessary that your ancestor was or has been an Italian citizen for a certain period of his life. Therefore, it is required to:

(i) obtain a death certificate proving ancestor’s death occurred after 1861 (1866 if the ancestor was born in the Veneto and north-eastern regions, and 1920 if the ancestor is from Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia); and

(ii) a certificate confirming that the ancestor did not acquire a foreign citizenship before July 1, 1912.

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(1) Andrews E. , 2018— Why Lincoln wanted an Italian Freedom Fighter to lead his army

(2) Young P. , 2011, — The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

(3) A NY Times correspondent who met Garibaldi on September 13, 1860 wrote: “I had my first interview with this disinterested and brave liberator of Italy in his red shirt, a dirty pair of jean trousers

(4) The north-eastern region of Veneto joined the Kingdom in 1866, while Rome and the territories formerly belonging to the Popes, became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.

(5) Marchisio S., 2017, L’utilizzo delle categorie giuridiche del diritto internazionale nel processo d’unificazione italiana

(6) Bussotti L., 2016, A history of Italian Citizenship laws during the era of the Monarchy (1861–1946)

(7) Calabrò V., 2018, Cittadini o stranieri? Diritti riconosciuti e libertà negate nel Regno d’Italia (1865–1922)

(8) Bussotti, id.


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Photo by Lena Koval on Unsplash

The information provided on this article (i) does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; (ii) are for general informational purposes only and may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information (iii) this website may contain links to other third-party websites. Such links are only for the convenience of the reader; (iv) readers should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.

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