Conte di Cavour

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Conte di Cavour

The Italian statesman Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour (1810-1861), devoted himself to the liberation of northern Italy from Austrian domination. A brilliant and steadfast diplomat, he played a leading role in the unification of Italy.

Camillo Benso di Cavour was born on Aug. 1, 1810, at Turin. As a younger son in a noble family, he was trained to be an officer in the army. But moved by a restless dissatisfaction with Italian social and political conditions, he resigned his commission in 1831, when he was only 21 years old. He applied himself to the agricultural improvement of his family estate. Then, widening his sphere of activity, he founded the Piedmontese Agricultural Society and became one of the chief promoters of railroads and steamships in Italy. The liberal Cavour grew ever more distrustful of the reactionary politics in force throughout Europe, particularly their manifestation in the repressive rule of Austria over a large area of Italy.

The Journalist

Cavour believed that liberalism and love of country could be combined to cause a revolt against Austrian dominion in the north and then to establish an Italian constitutional monarchy. To spread his views, in 1847 at Turin he established the newspaper Il Risorgimento (the resurgence—the name given to the Italian movement for unification and freedom).

In January 1848 revolution did break out, but in Sicily, against the ancient and decadent Bourbon regime, rather than in the north. Cavour, however, saw this as an opportunity to press in public speeches and in Il Risorgimento for a constitution for the Piedmont. Charles Albert, King of the Piedmont, yielded to this pressure and on February 8 granted a charter of liberties to his kingdom. Within 6 weeks of this memorable day Cavour's principal hope was realized when the Milanese rose against the Austrians. He then threw all his journalistic power into persuading the King to enter the war. Cavour, more than anyone else, was responsible for Piedmont's March 25 declaration of war on Austria.

Elections were held during the hostilities, and Cavour became a member of Parliament, beginning a career of public service that would end only with his death. On March 23, 1849, almost exactly a year after the war had begun, the Piedmontese were decisively defeated. King Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son Victor Emmanuel II, who had no recourse but to make a loser's peace with Austria. Although the effort to throw off the foreign yoke had failed, Cavour did not slacken his efforts to achieve Italian independence.

Diplomatic Activity

By 1851 Cavour was serving as minister of agriculture, industry, commerce, and finance. On November 4 he became prime minister. He brooded over the Austrian repression of Lombardy in retribution for the abortive revolt of that possession. He waited for a situation in which he could successfully oppose Austria, and his opportunity came with the Crimean War (1853-1856). This conflict allowed the Piedmontese statesman to use diplomacy on a broad international scale and thus force the Great Powers to take cognizance of Italy's plight. He decided to enter the war against Russia, and on Jan. 10, 1855, over serious objections within the Piedmontese government, a treaty with France and England was signed. A contingent of Piedmontese soldiers was sent to the Crimea, and the distinguished combat record of these troops enabled Cavour to assume a prominent position at the Congress of Paris after the war. Through his diplomatic skill at this meeting he succeeded in making the Italian question a chief topic of discussion and in making Austria appear in an unfavorable light.

Anticipating war with Austria, Cavour began strengthening the Piedmontese army and negotiating an alliance with the French emperor, Napoleon III. He agreed to cede Nice and Savoy to France in return for French help in ousting Austria from northern Italy. By 1859 the plans had been completed, and volunteers under the guidance of Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi were ready to spring into action throughout Italy. But Napoleon III then threw Cavour into despair by accepting a Russian proposal to convene a congress to settle the Italian question.

The Austrians, however, made the mistake of rejecting this plan and on April 23, 1859, sent an ultimatum to Piedmont. This had the effect of sealing the alliance between that state and France, and Cavour delightedly led the Piedmontese into war. When the French unexpectedly signed an armistice with Austria on July 8, Victor Emmanuel II, over the objections of Cavour, ended Piedmontese hostilities after only a partial victory. Lombardy was to be ceded to the Piedmont and Venetia to remain Austrian.

Unwilling to see such a good beginning go to waste, Cavour secretly encouraged revolutions against the petty tyrants of central Italy. He also remained in communication with Garibaldi. In May 1860, acting in the name of King Victor Emmanuel, whom Cavour had persuaded to cooperate, Garibaldi and his force of "Red Shirts" sailed to Sicily and in a few days demolished the tottering structure of the Bourbon government. When Garibaldi crossed to the mainland and took Naples, Cavour feared that the Red Shirts might complicate matters by attacking the Papal States. To avoid this action, he sent troops to annex the papal holdings. Cavour believed in a free Church but not in one whose territories cut Italy in half.

Cavour lived to see Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed king of a united Italy in 1861. But the statesman's strength was waning, and on June 6, 1861, he died. There were many problems in Italy still unsolved, but Cavour's brilliance had transformed his country from a collection of feudal principalities into a modern state.

Further Reading

The formative years of Cavour are analyzed in Arthur James Whyte, The Early Life and Letters of Cavour, 1810-1848 (1925). Denis Mack Smith, Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860: A Study in Political Conflict (1954), is useful. A penetrating analysis of the major achievements of Cavour combined with primary source materials is Arthur James Whyte, The Political Life and Letters of Cavour, 1848-1861 (1930). William de la Rive, Reminiscences of the Life and Character of Count Cavour (trans. 1862), is still valuable. For a more general picture of the unification see Sir J. A. R. Marriott, The Makers of Modern Italy: Napoleon-Mussolini (1889; rev. ed. 1937). A solid recent study of the unification is Edgar Holt, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870 (1971). □