Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Italian unification

This post owes a considerable debt to Robert Gildea's textbook, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2003) and to David Gilmour's very revisionist The Pursuit of Italy: A History of the Land, its Regions and their Peoples (Allen Lane, 2011.) I have also learned a lot from Giuseppe de Lampedusa's famous novel of the Risorgimento, The Leopard. You might be interested to learn more about the wonderfully operatic Italian national anthem, Fratelli d'Italia. Here is its history. You can hear it on youtube.   
Camillo Benso, Count di Cavour
one of the architects of Italian

In 1847 Metternich had famously called Italy 'a geographical expression'. Yet by 1861 the Kingdom of Italy had been created under King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont. In 1870 Rome was established as the capital. 

Cavour and Napoleon III

With Austria weakened by the Crimean War, Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedmont,  aimed at expelling the Austrians from Italy and annexing the northern provinces of Lombardy and Venetia under Victor Emmanuel II. But neither he nor the king wanted a united Italy, which would be harder to control and might fall prey to democrats and nationalists. The man they most feared was Mazzini who commanded a revolutionary corps of conspirators, organizing a National Party in London in 1850. Nationalists increasingly recognized that Austria still remained a great power and could only be removed from Italy by military force, and that this would have to be under Piedmontese leadership with French assistance. In 1857 the veteran nationalists Garibaldi and Manin established the Italian National Society which cut itself off from Mazzini’s doctrinaire republicans.

In January 1858 the Italian patriot (terrorist?) Felice Orsini tried to kill Napoleon III by hurling a bomb at his carriage outside the Opéra. Eight people were killed and 152 wounded. In spite of this Napoleon was moved by Orsini's plea on the scaffold for  the emperor to liberate his country. In July 1858 Cavour had a secret meeting with Napoleon III at the spa town of Plombières.
Here they drew up a secret treaty. The details were only made known with the publication of Cavour's correspondence after his death.
  1. Italy would be split into four different states
  2. Piedmont would dominate a Kingdom of Upper Italy
  3. most of the Papal States and Tuscany would form a central Italian kingdom under Piedmontese influence
  4. the Pope would hold onto Rome and its surroundings
  5. the Kingdom of Naples would remain untouched unless overthrown by a popular revolt
  6. all four states would join an Italian confederation on the German model but under the presidency of the Pope. 
These arrangements would forestall a unitary state with the potential to challenge France. The pact was sealed by the marriage of Victor Emmanuel’s daughter, Clotilde to Napoleon’s dissolute cousin, Prince Jérôme.  What was in this for Napoleon III? His motives were very mixed. It was partly a sentimental regard for Italy, partly his incessant desire to make his dynasty respectable though a successful war.  As with the Crimean war, it gave the lie to his assertion 'L'Empire, c'est la paix'. He had also secured the promise of Nice and Savoy from Cavour in return for the 200,000 troops who would join Piedmont against Austria. Cavour then provoked Austria into a war by mobilising the Piedmontese army. 

The Austro-Sardinian War 

The war that followed is also known as the Second Italian Independence War or the Franco-Austrian War. But it is misleading to see it in straightforward terms of Italian nationalism. In the ensuing war 70,000 Lombards and Venetians fought in the Austrian army, while most of the fighting against Austria was undertaken by the French, led personally by Napoleon III. Austria found herself without allies. The Tsar offered France a benevolent neutrality and Prussia was ready to challenge Austria for hegemony within the German Confederation. Britain, under the short-lived premiership of the Conservative Lord Derby, was sympathetic to Austria but not prepared to intervene. 

 On 27 April 1859 the Austrians invaded Piedmont and were repulsed by French and Piedmontese forces back into Lombardy and defeated them at Magenta (4 June) and Solferino (24 June). After the triumphal French entry into Milan (a dramatic undermining of the Vienna settlement), the Austrians withdrew to the four northern fortresses of the 'Quadrilateral', from which they could not be dislodged. (The carnage at Solferino so appalled the Swiss doctor Jean Henri Dunant that he helped to establish the Red Cross at the Geneva Convention in 1864.) 

The defeat of the Austrians had a knock-on effect on the rest of Italy. On 27 April (the day of the Austrian invasion) Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany was overthrown by Mazzinian democrats. In June liberals seized power in Parma and Modena and the city of Bologna in the papal province of Romagna and called for their annexation by Piedmont. 

All this caused Cavour to rethink his aims and to go beyond the relatively modest programme of Plombières. He now aimed at the annexation of these territories by Piedmont. Franz Joseph was now eager for peace (there was danger of an insurrection in Hungary). Napoleon did not believe he had the resources to take on the Austrians. He was embarrassed at the anti-clericalism of the Italian popular movements, was worried about Prussia’s intentions on the Rhine and fearful of a European coalition against him. (The British Prime Minister, Palmerston, stated that he was very anti-Austrian south of the Alps, but pro-Austrian north of the Alps.) Napoleon therefore tried to derail Cavour’s plans by making a unilateral peace with Austria at Villafranca (near Verona) on 11 July. 

Franz Joseph agreed to cede Lombardy (except for the Quadrilateral) to Piedmont; but there would be no further changes of rule and the deposed rulers would be restored. Villafranca was seen by many Italians as a betrayal in which Italian unification was sacrificed to French dynastic ambitions. When Victor Emmanuel accepted the terms, Cavour resigned angrily.
PEACE, peace, peace, do you say?
  What!—with the enemy’s guns in our ears?
  With the country’s wrong not rendered back?
What!—while Austria stands at bay
  In Mantua, and our Venice bears         
  The cursed flag of the yellow and black? 
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, First News from Villafranca.

Garibaldi and the Thousand

Giuseppe Garibaldi

But events had now slipped out of the hands of the rulers. Ignoring Villafranca, the provisional governments in central Italy elected assemblies which persisted in demanding their annexation by Piedmont. In this they were supported by Britain, who regarded Piedmont as a useful bulwark against an expansionist France. 

Under pressure from Palmerston, Cavour was restored to office on 21 January 1860. He immediately set about making arrangements to annexe central Italy, including Tuscany. Skilfully organized plebiscites held in March in Tuscany and the Papal Legations, overwhelmingly backed annexation by Piedmont, though the French annexation of Savoy and Nice alarmed those who feared an expansionist France. All this was a snub to the conservative powers, Austria, Russia and the Papacy, which excommunicated Victor Emmanuel. But Cavour’s diplomacy of give and take disgusted many left-wing nationalists, most notably Mazzini and Garibaldi (a native of Nice). 

On 4 April 1860 there was a peasant insurrection in Palermo. Though this was put down, it inspired Garibaldi to force the issue of unification by invading the south. He gathered a force of 1,000 ‘Red Shirts’ and in May they sailed from Genoa.
'Garibaldi’s enterprise was indeed heroic but it was also illegal. ‘He was making an unprovoked attack on a recognised state with which his country was not at war. History may have forgiven him the deed, but it was piracy all the same.' (Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy)
Garibaldi landed at Marsala in Sicily on 11 May and entered Palermo on 2 June. The Sicilian landowners decided to support him. These events are brilliantly described in di Lampedusa's The Leopard

 This alarmed Cavour who saw that events were slipping out of his control: did he want Italian unification under the aegis of a radical democrat? What would happen to the House of Savoy? Trying to forestall a republican Italy, he sent agents to Naples to provoke a liberal insurrection and establish a pre-Piedmontese government. But on 18 August Garibaldi landed in Calabria, where he was greeted as a liberator by the peasants. On 6 September King Francesco II and his German-born wife, Maria Sophie, fled Naples, and the following day, Garibaldi entered the city to a messianic welcome. Cavour now recognized that
‘once the Bourbons have fallen, the choice is between annexation [by Piedmont] and revolution’.
A repetition of 1848 would turn all the European states against Piedmont. He therefore secured Napoleon III’s consent to send Piedmontese troops into the middle zone of the Papal States (Umbria and the Marches) in order to forestall Garibaldi. 

On 18 September 1860 Piedmontese troops defeated a papal army reinforced by Catholic volunteers at Castelfidardo. On 2 October Cavour told the Parliament at Turin that the revolution was at an end. This statement was a gamble as the former kingdom of Naples was in turmoil as the peasants turned to brigandage. Faced with the threats of disorder, Garibaldi’s radicals and Bourbon reaction, the notables of Naples and Sicily agreed to annexation by Piedmont. On 25 October 1860 Garibaldi surrendered his conquests to Victor Emmanuel in the famous 'handshake of Teano' (a town between Naples and Rome) and hailed him as King of Italy. 

A romanticised fresco depicting the
'handshake of Teano'
Pietro Aldi, Palazzo Pubblico of Siena

 In October-November a plebiscite (open ballot) produced a suspiciously overwhelming result in favour of 
‘a single indivisible Italy with Victor Emmanuel as constitutional king’. 
The word 'annexation' was not in the ballot paper. Did the people of the south really want to be ruled by alien northerners? 

Victor Emmanuel: King of Italy

Victor Emmanuel II
the first king of
united Italy

On 17 March 1861 the new Italian parliament met at Turin and proclaimed Victor Emmanuel as King of Italy. The losers were the Pope and Napoleon III. Austria, Russia and Prussia – and French conservatives - were incensed by what they saw as a revolution. In response, Napoleon strengthened the garrison at Rome. On 25 March 1861 Cavour told Parliament that one day Rome would be the capital of a united Italy, although not without negotiations with the pope and France. 

However, the death of Cavour on 6 June 1861 and the continued presence of French troops in Rome paralysed the situation. In 1862 Garibaldi launched a madcap expedition of Sicilian volunteers to take Rome by force (‘Roma o morte!’). He was checked by government forces at Aspromonte on 30 August. Under a convention signed with France in September 1864 the capital of Italy was moved from Turin to Florence on the understanding that there would be no invasion of the Papal States. On 3 October 1866 Venice was added to the Kingdom of Italy as a reward for Italy’s alliance with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War. 

The ‘20 September’ 

In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War began. In early August, Napoleon III recalled his garrison from Rome and could no longer protect the Papal State. Widespread public demonstrations demanded that the Italian government take Rome. The Italian government took no direct action until the French defeat at Sedan. King Victor Emmanuel II sent Count Ponza di San Martino to Pius IX with a personal letter offering a face-saving proposal that would have allowed the peaceful entry of the Italian Army into Rome, under the guise of offering protection to the pope. The Pope’s reception of San Martino on 10 September 1870 was unfriendly. Pius IX allowed violent outbursts to escape him. Throwing the King’s letter upon the table he exclaimed,
‘Fine loyalty! You are all a set of vipers, of whited sepulchres, and wanting in faith.’
He was perhaps alluding to other letters received from the King. After, growing calmer, he exclaimed:
‘I am no prophet, nor son of a prophet, but I tell you, you will never enter Rome!’
San Martino was so mortified that he left the next day. The Italian Army, commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna, crossed the papal frontier on 11 September and advanced slowly toward Rome, hoping that a peaceful entry could be negotiated. The Italian Army reached the Aurelian Walls on 19 September and placed Rome under a state of siege. Pius IX remained intransigent to the bitter end and forced his Zouaves (right) to put up a token resistance. 

On September 20, after a cannonade of three hours had breached the Aurelian Walls at Porta Pia, the Bersaglieri entered Rome and marched down Via Pia, which was subsequently renamed Via XX Settembre. 49 Italian soldiers and 19 papal Zouaves died. Rome and Latium were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy after a plebiscite. Initially the Italian government had offered to let the pope keep the Leonine City (the walled part of Rome on the opposite side of the Tiber from the Seven Hills of Rome). But the pope rejected the offer because acceptance would have been an implied endorsement of the legitimacy of the Italian kingdom's rule over his former domain. Pius declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican. In July 1871 the capital was moved from Florence to Rome. 

After 1870 

The manner in which Italy had been united was disheartening for many patriots. Apart from Garibaldi’s achievement in Sicily, unity had been achieved without Italian victories. Bismarck declared that the nation was made by three battles beginning with S – Solferino, Sadowa, and Sedan. The new Italian state had many flaws. The former Kingdom of Naples remained disorderly – with martial law, executions and hostage taking – until 1865, and after that date was poorly reconciled to rule by the Piedmontese. Yet the government believed that because the south – the mezzogiorno - was so backward and ungovernable there was no alternative to centralized rule on the French model. The secession of the southern states from the USA in 1861 did not make a happy precedent. Just before his death Mazzini wrote, 
‘Italy has been put together just like a mosaic, piece by piece, and the battle for this cause have been won on our behalf by foreigners who were fighting for their own reasons of dynastic egoism, foreigners we should properly regard as our enemies’.
Was Mazzini’s mosaic coherent? Italy’s history and geography meant that the forces of localism continued to be strong. It has been calculated that in 1861 only one Italian in forty spoke Italian. For the 80 per cent of the population classed as illiterate, Italian remained a foreign language. The first Italian text to be widely understood was Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s novel, Pinocchio. Many Italians did not hear Italian spoken until the invention of the wireless.
Following the Risorgimento Italians had a desperate need to show that they were as great and glorious as Garibaldi had made them believe they were. But the result was the humiliation of Adowa in 1896.


  1. The older histories treat the unification of Italy as a straightforward story of Italian patriotism overcoming foreign rulers in the north an the corrupt and despotic Bourbon dynasty in the south. Cavour was represented as the wily statesman, Garibaldi as the romantic idealist.
  2. The modern interpretation is more nuanced. It is now recognised that not all Italians wanted to be ruled by the House of Savoy and that some of the methods used to achieve unification had a very dubious legitimacy. By the end of the nineteenth century Italy remained work in progress. 

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