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the nature of the savoyard domains
the savoyard state, 1773–1801
the french occupation, 1801–1814
the restoration, 1814–1849

The lands of Piedmont-Savoy formed an important European regional power in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There is an irony surrounding Piedmontese history in this period, however. The Savoyard realm was impossible to describe in terms of the modern nation-state, yet it played the pivotal role in the unification of Italy by the 1850s. It did not correspond to the modern prototype of a nation, yet was at the heart of a great nationalist movement from 1849 onward. By the 1850s, Piedmont was the most modernized, powerful state in Italy, and the motor of Italian unification.

the nature of the savoyard domains

Ruled over by the House of Savoy, one of the oldest and continuous ruling dynasties in Europe, this relatively small state in northwestern Italy was an ally much sought after by France and the Habsburgs. To remain useful, as much as to defend itself, the Savoyard state developed a small but formidable army in the eighteenth century, supported by a professional, highly trained bureaucracy and an efficient taxation system. It also had a distinguished, if largely technocratic university in its capital, Turin, and insisted that all its senior magistrates and civil servants have relevant degrees from it. Its public institutions, armed forces, and the dynasty itself were the chief binding elements in a state best described as territorially "composite" and politically "patrimonial," as its only real source of cohesion was the House of Savoy.

The core of the Savoyard lands was a collection of contiguous territories in northwestern Italy, east of the Alps and north of the Mediterranean Apennines, known for convenience as "the Principality of Savoy," although no such entity legally existed. It was a collection of former provinces and tiny city-states welded together by the House of Savoy since the sixteenth century with a population of roughly one million, most of whom spoke an Italian dialect that also had a developed literary form; the upper classes were bilingual in French and Tuscan Italian. Its capital, Turin, chosen because of its central position, was an artificial creation of the seventeenth century with a population of about ninety thousand. These territories provided the real heartland of the realm; its inhabitants—of all classes—were bound by loyalty to the dynasty and were governed by a uniform, centralized administration at the provincial, if not at the local, level.

However, the dynasty drew its name from its traditional heartland, the French-speaking Duchy of Savoy, which was separated from the core of the realm by the Alps. It was easily lost to France in 1790, and was regained in 1814 only to be lost again on the unification of Italy in 1860. The same diplomatic fate befell its other "French possession," the county of Nice, on the Mediterranean. Finally, the dynasty took its favored title, "Kings of Sardinia," from its possession of the island, acquired in 1720. Just as the "Kings of Prussia" had to draw their royal title from a peripheral territory outside the Holy Roman Empire—where no ruling house could claim kingship—so the Savoyards did the same. The poor, remote island was of little interest or value to them, save between 1801 and 1814, when the Court took refuge there, during the Napoleonic occupation. Ironically, this composite, heterogeneous character was actually accentuated after 1814, when the Congress of Vienna awarded the Savoyards the former Ligurian Republic, centered on Genoa. So opposed were the Genoese to this annexation, that they declared they would rather become part of France than be ruled from Turin. Relations between Liguria and the core of the realm were never easy in the early nineteenth century, so different were the political cultures of the absolute monarchy in Turin and the former merchant republic.

the savoyard state, 1773–1801

Thus, the realm of the House of Savoy continued to be seen as a viable state in its own right by the Great Powers, well into the nineteenth century. However, the strategic position of its core territories, guarding the Alpine passes between France and northern Italy, also made it prey to threats of annexation—and total oblivion as a state—for the same reasons that made it a valuable ally, and led the Congress of Vienna to reenforce it as a barrier to French expansion. It all but disappeared in the period 1801–1814, when Napoleon annexed its mainland areas directly to France, but reemerged in 1814 strengthened by the acquisition of the Ligurian Republic, which gave it the major port of Genoa and a large outlet to the sea for the first time. Even so, during the Congress, Savoyard diplomats had to use all their skills to save the state from Austrian plans to annex the state to its Italian possessions in Lombardy. This tense, conflicting relationship to the Great Powers dominates Piedmontese history in the period 1773–1861.

When Victor Amadeus II (Duke of Savoy as Victor Amadeus III, r. 1773–1796; king of Sardinia as Victor Amadeus II, r. 1773–1796) ascended the throne in 1773, he inherited a territorially stable state, on good terms with both major powers in the region, France and the Habsburg Monarchy. However, the last decades saw Piedmont racked by social and economic crises, stemming from population growth in poor, upland areas and the rack-renting, land hunger, and inflation this produced. This crisis was aggravated further by the decimation of the population of the eastern lowlands through the spread of rice cultivation, bringing with it disease and poverty, as independent farmers were transformed into laborers, or were displaced. The subsequent growth of banditry—always prevalent along the southern border—and general dislocation strained the powers of the absolutist state by his death in 1796.

The monarchy finally collapsed under the onslaught of Napoleon's first Italian campaign of 1796. With his army defeated, the new king, Charles Emmanuel II (Duke of Savoy as Charles Emmanuel IV, r. 1796–1798; king of Sardinia as Charles Emmanuel II, r. 1796–1802), fled to Sardinia in 1797, leaving the country under virtual French control. Napoleon established a short-lived provisional government under pro-French liberals, which had little popular support and was easily swept away in 1799, when the Austro-Russian armies briefly drove out the French. Napoleon's second Italian campaign of 1800 saw these "patriots" reestablished in power, but their weak position in so strategically vital an area led to Piedmont's incorporation into France, as five departments, in 1802. In exile in Sardinia, Charles Emmanuel II abdicated in favor of his nephew, Victor Emmanuel I (Duke of Aosta, Duke of Savoy, and king of Sardinia, r. 1802–1821).

the french occupation, 1801–1814

The Piedmontese heartland was one of the non-French parts of Europe longest under Napoleonic rule; as such, Piedmontese society absorbed many key aspects of Napoleonic rule, and was transformed by the occupation. The French restored law and order, extirpating the large brigand bands by 1807, through the introduction of the Gendarmerie, a paramilitary police force, into the countryside. Taxation on the French model and the Napoleonic Code were also well established by the fall of the empire in 1814. Many aspects of French rule were hated, particularly conscription and the religious reforms of the Concordat, but a generation of Piedmontese were trained in French judicial and administrative norms, even if many, like the future prime minister, Cesare Balbo (1789–1853), detested the loss of independence.

the restoration, 1814–1849

Victor Emmanuel I returned from exile in Sardinia in 1814, restored by the allied powers who had defeated Napoleon, his realms swollen by the acquisition of Liguria and internally pacified by the French. He retained the Gendarmerie, changing its name to the Carabiniere Reale, and their taxation system, but nothing else. The period 1814–1821 was a disastrous attempt to reverse history, and culminated in a small revolt within the army in 1821, closely linked to similar risings in Naples and Spain. Victor Emmanuel I abdicated in favor of his uncle, Charles Felix (king of Sardinia-Piedmont, r. 1821–1831), who imposed a reactionary regime backed by Austria until his death in 1831. However, under his cousin, Charles Albert IV (king of Sardinia-Piedmont, r. 1831–1849), the essence of the Napoleonic Code and legal system was restored and the administration modernized. Politically and culturally, the regime remained repressive, but early in 1848 Charles Albert IV was forced to grant a limited constitution under pressure from liberals at home, especially in Genoa, and from the rising tide of revolution in France and Naples. This won him the backing he needed to invade Lombardy, ostensibly in the cause of Italian unification, but really reviving traditional Savoyard designs on expansion into Austrian-ruled Lombardy. He was defeated at the battle of Novara in March 1849, then abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II (king of Sardinia-Piedmont, r. 1849–1861).

The combination of constitutional government, a new king, and the defeat of the 1848 Italian revolutions ushered in a new era. Elections empowered the upper bourgeoisie, bringing to power progressives led by Count Cavour (Camillo Benso, 1810–1861) and Massimo Taparelli, Marchese d'Azeglio (1798–1866), who initiated liberal economic policies that led to the growth of trade, railways, and industry. Defeated, dissident nationalists from elsewhere in Italy were sheltered in Turin, and transformed its political and intellectual life during the "miraculous decade" of the 1850s; Piedmontese participation in the Crimean War (1853–1856) won Cavour the friendship of Britain and France, which he needed to challenge Austria. Thus transformed, Piedmont-Savoy became the natural focus for the eventual unification of Italy in 1859–1861. The House of Savoy became Italy's dynasty, and Piedmontese political, legal, and administrative institutions were the templates for the new unitary state.

See alsoCavour, Count (Camillo Benso); Charles Albert; Italy; Risorgimento (Italian Unification); Roman Question; Victor Emmanuel II.


Primary Sources

D'Azeglio, Massimo, Things I Remember. Translated by E. R. Vincent. Oxford, U.K., 1966. Translation of I miei ricordi. 1866. The memoirs of one of the leading Piedmontese statesmen of the Restoration period.

Secondary Sources

Broers, Michael. Napoleonic Imperialism and the Savoyard Monarchy, 1773–1821: State Building in Piedmont. Lewiston N.Y., 1997.

——. "The Restoration in Piedmont-Sardinia, 1814–1848: Variations on Reaction." In Napoleon's Legacy: Problems of Government in Restoration Europe, edited by David Laven and Lucy Riall, 151–164. New York, 2000.

Hearder, Harry. Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento, 1790–1870. London, 1983. An older, but wide-ranging introduction, with good sections specifically on Piedmont.

Mack Smith, Denis. Cavour. New York, 1985. A highly critical, comprehensive life of the dominant figure in Piedmont post-1849.

Michael Broers

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