The battle of Solferino and San Martino was fought on 24th June 1859 between the Austrian and the French-Sardinian armies, thus ending the second Italian War of Independence.
Since over 230,000 soldiers took part in it, this battle is the most important after Leipzig in 1813. In Italy it is still remembered because it was the first concrete step towards Italian national unity, and around the world because it led Henry Dunant to found the International Red Cross.
In the French-Sardinian army fought the group of Zouaves, put together in 1830, shortly after the conquest of Algiers by the French army. The group was originally composed by a single regiment of mercenaries, who largely came from the Berber tribe of zouaoua. Later on, the soldiers of French origins (generally volunteers) became the majority, whereas the indigenous troops were integrated in the “tiralleurs algeriéns” (1841), also called “turcos”. Until 1962 they both kept wearing the elaborated Arabian-Algerian style uniforms. As part of the colonial infantry, the Zouaves proved excellent in facing the most difficult and risky situations, also thanks to their strong “group spirit”, emphasized by the informal presence of squads (tribus) inside every army, guided by a veteran of renowned authority (the débrouillard), who distributed roles during breaks or transfers.
The Zouaves distinguished themselves also in the Crimean war (1854 – 1855), especially in the battle of the Alma and the conquest of Malakoff. In the following “campaign of Italy” (1859) the three regiments, together with the one included in the Imperial Guard, decidedly contributed to the successful result of the Palestro (30th May), Magenta (4th June), and Melegnano (10th June) battles. On the dawn of the 24th June, the Zouaves on reconnaissance mission were the first to engage in a fight with the Austrians and, later on, participated in the assault and the conquest of Solferino hill.
Few day before the great battle of Solferino (24th June 1859), the French-Piedmont army swarmed in Brescia (from the 18th to the 21st June), as temporary headquarters of the king Vittorio Emanuele II (welcomed in Valotti palace, in Corso Magenta) and Napoleon III (in Fenaroli palace, Via Marsala). The Imperial Guard armies settled on the city walls together with a Zouave regiment.
The presence of the allied armies in Brescia is widely witnessed in newspapers chronicles as well as in memoirs, in illustrations published on French reviews and in a few drawings and paintings by Angelo Inganni who, in a sort of pictorial record of very strong impact, described the Zouave camps visited by a large number of curious citizens in those days. Such sketches, drawn on the spot and generally of small size, anticipated the large canvas commissioned by the nobleman Paolo Richiedei from Gussago, together with the Veduta del giardino con la Santissima sullo sfondo (Landscape with the Santissima on the background). The latter, dated 1859, also explicitly recalls the annexation of Brescia to the Kingdom of Savoy. In both canvases the Risorgimento (Italian unification) is still fresh in the memory of people and could not be celebrated as joyous event yet. As it happened in Inganni’s well-known landscapes, views captured along the crowded streets of Milan or Brescia, the same descriptive objectivity is dedicated to the setting: the disappeared Viale del Pubblico Passeggio between San Giovanni and San Nazaro gates, with the neoclassical gazebo, and the fountain that was later moved to Piazza del Duomo. In this canvas, the Zouaves appear in their exotic colonial uniforms and seem to maintain their proverbial pride despite their relaxed pose and the almost menial chores they are carrying out. In the centre of the composition there are Inganni himself and his wife, acting as direct witnesses and recognizable by the cylinder hat and the parasol, whereas on the right there is a sutler in her typical uniform. On a more general tone, the painting reveals a notable originality in the composition, due especially to the interference of different painting genres: the narrative trend of “modern style” and the precision in the perspective are sided with the panoramic openness and luminosity that are typical of a landscape. Thanks to the large size and the precision in portraying figures, the composition reaches a figurative ‘dignity’ that is similar to the one that is traditionally dedicated to history painting.
Accampamento degli Zuavi sugli spalti di Brescia nel giugno del 1859
Zouave camp on Brescia city walls in June 1859
Oil on canvas, 214 x 249 cm
Signed and dated in the lower right corner: “A. Inganni 1859”
Origin: inherited from Paolo Richiedei, 1870; inv. 1585
Brescia, Castello, Museo del Risorgimento