Reading Political Cartoons about Italy


A cartoon from 1861 showing Cavour and Garibaldi making ‘the boot’ of Italy.

Cartoons are excellent sources for historians. They can help us understand what happened but they tell us more about how people felt about events and ideas.  This is because cartoons show the artist’s opinions – how people saw their world and the events that they witnessed, read or heard about. This in turn helps us understand why people acted the way that they did.  This is a two way street – the more we understand what was happening at the time the cartoon was drawn, the events, people and ideas that were active in people’s minds, the more we understand their attitudes towards those events, and vice-versa.

So, because political cartoons are about opinion, we have to learn to read them in a particular way and place them in context. Our aim should always to be to understand the point of view of the cartoonist and how and why he or she came to that view. Fortunately, cartoonists help us to grasp their point of view by using a set of techniques which are often repeated:

Captions and labels – If an object is supposed to represent something in the real world, like a treaty, battle, country or idea, the object will often have a label naming it.

Speech bubbles – As in modern day comic books, cartoonists often used speech bubbles, sometimes looking like scrolls of paper or banners.

Sizes of people and objects – This is often used to make us compare things. A big person next to a small person might indicate that one is more powerful than another.

Facial expressions and posture – Cartoonists use faces when trying to persuade us, because they know that we will focus on a face in a cartoon. Anger, cruelty, honour, wisdom, drunkenness, greed and other emotions will be presented and used to persuade us to agree with the cartoonist’s point of view.

Distortion or caricature – If a person is being criticised then they will be made to look less attractive. On the other hand, ideas and people that the cartoonist wants us to support or to be attracted to will be made to look handsome or beautiful. Italy, for instance, is often represented as a beautiful woman who needs protection.

Shading and colour – Most of the cartoons that we will see when studying this period are black and white ink sketches or engravings, though a few may be in colour. Shade and colour are used in similar ways. Sometimes light and dark moves our eye around the picture. An important, brave, kind or wise person might be shown in a pool of light or in rays of light from a sun. Dark shadows and corners often hide cruel, or cunning evil-doers or symbols of oppression.

Arrangement of objects – Like the use of dark and shade, sometimes the position of objects is used to help the cartoonist get his or her view across. Important things might be above less important things. Things being pressed or squashed represent oppression. Something that is overshadowing or threatening another thing is often put at the top of a picture.

Cartoons like this one of Garibaldi helping Victor Emmanuel II (via @cartoonstock)  use some of these techniques.  Take a look at it, and see if you can spot them, and perhaps discuss with a learning partner what the cartoon’s meanings might be.   In our next post we’ll find out about the specific symbols that cartoonists used to communicate their ideas about Italy.

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