Cavour, Count (Camillo Benso)

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politics and public affairs
toward unification

CAVOUR, COUNT (CAMILLO BENSO) (1810–1861), first prime minister of Italy.

The future first prime minister of Italy and chief architect of its unification was born in Turin on 10 August 1810 to a family of the Piedmontese aristocracy. The second son of the marquis Michele Benso of Cavour and the Swiss Protestant Adèle de Sellon, he was always close to his maternal relatives, and Protestant influences are thought to have influenced his character development. Piedmont, the central region of the Kingdom of Sardinia, was a department of the Napoleonic Empire at the time of Camillo's birth. While the legitimate ruling House of Savoy was holding out against Napoleon on the island of Sardinia protected by the British navy, the Cavour family supported Napoleonic rule on the mainland. The young Cavour was held at baptism by Napoleon's sister, Pauline Bonaparte, and her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese, after whom the child was named. The family regained royal favor and was reinstated at the Savoyard court after the defeat of Napoleon. Rebellious, headstrong, and impulsive, the young Cavour manifested liberal tendencies that did not sit well with his conservative father and older brother Gustavo. With Gustavo first in line to inherit the family fortune and title, the family followed the custom of the Piedmontese nobility of destining the second-born male for a career in the army. In military academy, which Camillo attended from age nine to sixteen, he showed his temperamental dislike for military discipline and was considered politically suspect because of his liberal views. Army routine bored him. A stint as court page to Carlo Alberto soured him permanently on the future king and on court life in general.

Cavour left the army in 1831 and for the next four years traveled extensively in England, France, and Switzerland; observed and developed an admiration for British liberal government; indulged his passion for gambling; played on the stock exchange; and was rescued from the verge of bankruptcy by his father after some unfortunate ventures in stocks. Cavour carried on several affairs and never married, but he did settle down to manage the family estates. In that role he found success and achieved financial independence. He was an attentive manager, put in long hours, demanded much of his workers, introduced new crops, and experimented successfully with the latest farming methods. Although partial to agriculture, Cavour also took an interest in industrial manufacturing and railroad construction. In an article published in 1846 in the French Revue Nouvelle he argued that railroad construction would create a single market in the Italian peninsula, link it to the rest of Europe, and revive the Italian economy. A national system of railroads would enable Italians to take advantage of opportunities offered by the building of the Suez Canal and restore Italy to its historical role as the commercial middleman of Europe. Cavour thus approached the question of Italian unification as an economist and businessman. At heart a laissez-faire liberal, he favored private initiative and free trade, but made exceptions for government protection and encouragement of developing industries.

politics and public affairs

Politics and public affairs began to absorb Cavour's attention in the late 1840s, when he had attained financial independence. In 1847 in partnership with Count Cesare Balbo (1789–1853) and other Piedmontese aristocrats, he founded the journal Il Risorgimento. The journal gave Cavour an entry into politics and a name to the movement for Italian independence and unity. Cavour's views were those of a moderate liberal of his time: he was opposed to absolute monarchy and republicanism; was an admirer of the juste milieu (the middle course), constitutional monarchy, and British parliamentary government; and was a believer in voting rights limited to property owners and the educated. The constitution that Carlo Alberto granted in 1848 met with his approval, as did Piedmont's declaration of war against Austria in March of that same year, but Austria's decisive military victory a year later convinced him that Italians could not win their independence without outside help. Such help was to be obtained by diplomacy, by the traditional strategy of balancing Austrian and French ambitions in Italy to Piedmont's advantage. Italian independence under Piedmontese leadership would come with the defeat of Austria. The more difficult goal of Italian unity would be achieved later.

In 1849 Cavour entered parliament as a supporter of the moderate liberal government headed by Massimo d'Azeglio (1798–1866). He served d'Azeglio as minister of agriculture and commerce and minister of finance, and made his mark in parliament speaking in support of bills to curb clerical influence. His often caustic speeches made him enemies and earned him a reputation as a formidable and dangerous debater of high ambition destined to replace the more moderate and gentlemanly d'Azeglio, whom he did replace in November 1852. The infighting preceding his appointment showed Cavour at his best and worst. Faced by the prospect that conservatives inimical to constitutional government might gain power and clamp down on freedom of the press, Cavour reached out to democratic legislators. Critics denounced this turnaround as unprincipled political opportunism and an illegitimate union (connubio). Some historians see it as a precedent for political trasformismo, the practice whereby sordid party politics supposedly triumph over principles and drain moral content out of public life. For Cavour and his defenders the connubio was an act of statesmanship that brought together moderate democrats and moderate conservatives, formed a viable political center, preserved civil rights and parliamentary government, and reflected Cavour's uncanny talent for political improvisation.

Cavour held the post of prime minister from November 1852 until his death, with only one brief interruption. He worked with King Victor Emmanuel II (r. 1849–1861), who succeeded Carlo Alberto to the throne in 1849, with some friction and mutual dislike, in defense of constitutional government and parliamentary prerogatives, which the king was not always willing to respect. Cavour's energetic leadership transformed the Kingdom of Sardinia into the most economically and politically progressive Italian state, marginalized conservatives and radicals, made him the arbiter of Italian politics, and gave him international stature. Patriots and exiles from other Italian states were attracted to Piedmont by government subsidies and opportunities for employment in government and education. Cavour excelled at building bridges toward potential collaborators, ostracizing only the diehard republican followers of Giuseppe Mazzini, while winning over more moderate republicans like the respected Daniele Manin and the charismatic Giuseppe Garibaldi. Building bridges between monarchists and republicans, liberals and democrats, was the task of the Italian National Society founded in 1857 with Cavour's tacit support. Its slogan was "Italy and Victor Emmanuel" and its program was to fight for Italian independence and unity under Piedmontese leadership.

Republicans were probably right in charging that Cavour had no commitment to Italian unity. Italian identity was for him a cultural construct that he shared with many other educated Italians, but it was not in his character to use politics in pursuit of cultural ideals. He regarded politics as the art of the possible and believed in taking advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves one at a time. He followed Piedmont's traditional policy of using the ambitions of greater powers to state advantage. The Crimean War (1853–1856) gave him an opportunity to do so when Austria hesitated to join the anti-Russian coalition led by England and France. Cavour yielded to English and French pressures and sent a Piedmontese contingent of fifteen thousand troops to fight in the Crimean peninsula. The move isolated Austria, burnished Piedmont's image as a liberal state, and improved its relations with England and France. It was Cavour's ability to improvise that made the difference, for he decided to intervene when pressured to do so by the two powers whose support he knew he needed to challenge Austria.

France offered the most promising prospects because Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) had a long-standing personal interest in Italian affairs, wanted France to replace Austria as the dominant Continental power, needed success abroad to live up to the Napoleonic image at home, and practiced personal diplomacy. Their interests and ambitions converged in the secret agreement of Plombières of July 1858: France was to provide two hundred thousand troops and Piedmont one hundred thousand for a war against Austria in northern Italy. Piedmont would gain the Austrian regions of Lombardy and Venetia, and the Po Valley provinces of the Papal States. Central Italy would become an autonomous kingdom ruled by a relative of the French emperor, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would remain unchanged territorially, but the governing Bourbons might be replaced by pro-French royalty. The pope would retain Rome and receive the honorary title of president of a symbolic Italian confederation, as a gesture of respect for his authority and a sop to the sentiment for national unity. In return, Piedmont would pay for the war and turn over to France the territories of Nice and Savoy.

The War of 1859 (Second War of National Independence) did not go as planned, for the French decided to pull out after fighting the two bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino. Their decision to seek an early armistice may have been motivated by fear of a Prussian attack from the Rhineland and by the knowledge that Cavour was plotting to annex Tuscany against the understanding of Plombie'res. The French and Austrians signed the armistice of Villafranca behind Cavour's back on 11 July 1859. Piedmont received Lombardy but not Venetia or the papal provinces. Chagrined beyond measure, Cavour insulted the king who was sensible enough to accept the armistice, resigned as prime minister, and threatened to go to America and expose everyone else's duplicity.

toward unification

None of what happened in the six months that Cavour was out of office was scripted in advance. Patriots in the central duchies of Tuscany, Modena, Parma, and the papal provinces staged uprisings, set up provisional governments, and demanded union with Piedmont. Cavour was called back into office in January 1860 to deal with these developments, gain international approval for these annexations, and organize the fusion of old and new territories. He won French approval for this territorial bonanza by agreeing to cede Nice and Savoy and assuring the other powers that Piedmont must step in to keep dangerous radicals out of power. But the dangerous radicals were not so easily foiled, for no sooner was the question of central Italy settled than emissaries of Giuseppe Mazzini stirred up an insurrection in Sicily and trouble began to brew in the entire South.

Garibaldi's legendary Expedition of the Thousand that sailed from Piedmontese territory in May 1860 in support of the Sicilian insurgents presented Cavour with the most serious challenge of his political career. He opposed the expedition, but did not dare prevent it for fear of offending patriotic sentiment, losing control of parliament, antagonizing the popular Garibaldi, and crossing Victor Emmanuel, whom Cavour suspected of secretly backing Garibaldi. The government therefore adopted an ambiguous policy that allowed volunteers to sail for Sicily and avoid interception at sea. Garibaldi's unexpected battlefield victories changed Cavour's mind: he allowed reinforcements to go to Sicily, but also tried, unsuccessfully, to wrest control of the island from Garibaldi to prevent him from invading the mainland. When his attempt failed and Garibaldi marched triumphantly into Naples, Cavour sent the Piedmontese army to finish the fight against the Neapolitans, and to disarm and disband Garibaldi's. The papal territory that the Piedmontese army occupied on its way to Naples was added to the rest of the booty and became part of the Kingdom of Italy that was formally proclaimed on 17 March 1861.

Cavour had a few months left to live in which to organize the affairs of the Kingdom of Italy, which did not yet include Rome and Venetia. Putting the state on a sound financial footing, regulating relations between church and state, and forming a unified whole out of disparate regions were pressing issues. The southern regions were of particular concern, for their customs, laws, and economy struck most northerners as antiquated and out of step with the rest of the country, and Cavour had not contemplated their quick acquisition. Fear that the fledgling Italian state might succumb to its enemies at home and abroad may have predisposed him to rush matters, adopt a centralized form of government, deny republican calls for a national assembly that would deliberate the terms of union, and extend the laws of Piedmont to the rest of the country. Relations of church and state were another troublesome issue, for the pope regarded unification as an act of robbery, urged Catholics to boycott the government, and excommunicated the leaders of the national movement, including Cavour. Cavour proposed financial compensation for the church and regular relations on the basis of "A Free Church in a Free State," but the Vatican rejected the formula as a secular aberration. Little time was left for Cavour to agonize over the future of Italy. In poor health since at least the fall of 1860, his condition worsened rapidly in spring 1861. He died of natural causes on 6 June 1861, after receiving the last sacraments of the Catholic Church administered by a clergyman in disregard of Cavour's excommunication, wanting it known that he died a good Catholic.

See alsoGaribaldi, Giuseppe; Italy; Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; Mazzini, Giuseppe; Piedmont-Savoy; Revolutions of 1848.


Coppa, Frank J. Camillo di Cavour. New York, 1973.

Mack Smith, Denis. Cavour. New York, 1985.

Whyte, Arthur J. B. The Early Life and Letters of Cavour, 1810–1848. London, 1925.

——. The Political Life and Letters of Cavour, 1848–1861. London, 1930.

Roland Sarti