Risorgimento (Italian Unification)

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italy in the revolutionary and napoleonic era
restoration italy
the italian revolutions, 1848–1849
italy and european politics, 1849–1859
the south and unification
the aftermath

Risorgimento, meaning "resurrection," was the term used as early as the 1840s to describe the aspirations to Italian independence that would finally be achieved between 1859 and 1870. For centuries Italy's political geography had been shaped by rivalries between major European dynastic powers, but it was not until the nineteenth century that demands for political change within the individual Italian states began to be linked to broader projects for political independence or unification. However, the two were never the same and there was strong support for alternative federal solutions. But in the event, the political outcome of the political struggles in Italy was determined as much by external as internal forces.

italy in the revolutionary and napoleonic era

By the end of the eighteenth century Habsburg Austria was the dominant foreign power on the Italian peninsula. Austria ruled only the prosperous northern province of Lombardy, but the grand duke of Tuscany was a Habsburg and the two Spanish Bourbon rulers—the duke of Parma and the king of the Two Sicilies—were close allies of Vienna. So was the pope, who ruled as a king over the Papal State that covered much of central Italy. As well as numerous lesser principalities, the remaining Italian states included the former mercantile republics of Venice and Genoa, but the only Italian dynasty that enjoyed real autonomy was the house of Savoy, the hereditary rulers of Piedmont, Savoy, and Nice whose royal title had come from the more recent acquisition of Sardinia.

The Revolutionary Wars gave the European powers an opportunity to resume their old rivalries and resulted in France taking Austria's place in Italy. When the French invaded northern Italy in 1796, Napoleon's victories forced the Austrians to abandon Lombardy (Treaty of Campoformio, October 1797). As the French advanced, numerous Italian republics were created, the last being the Roman Republic (February 1798) and the Neapolitan Republic (January 1799). In the spring of 1799 the Italian republics collapsed amid popular counterrevolution and royalist purges when the Directory withdrew its troops from Italy. Although short-lived, the republics marked the first brief moment of freedom of speech in modern Italian history and, among many other political projects, provided the first occasion in which proposals for Italian independence and unity were publicly debated.

The political climate was very different when Napoleon returned with another French army to Italy in 1800, and after the coup of Brumaire (November 1799) France's new first consul wanted nothing to do with the Italian Jacobins. Napoleon's victory over the Austrians at Marengo (June 1800) ended Austrian power in Italy, and the Italian Republic that was established in 1802 with its capital in Milan became the cornerstone of French domination. Following the proclamation of the French Empire in 1805 it was renamed the Kingdom of Italy.

Napoleon's stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, was nominated viceroy, but the kingdom was ruled from Paris. It was the largest and most important of France's imperial satellites and at its height included the former Venetian Republic and the northern provinces of the Papal State south of the Po River. But French rule deliberately accentuated existing political differences and added new ones. The Kingdom of Italy was cut in two by the duchy of Parma while Piedmont was annexed to France and the former Genoese Republic and Tuscany became French protectorates. In 1806 a French army placed the emperor's brother Joseph on the throne of Naples, and he was replaced two years later by the emperor's brother-in-law Joachim Murat. In 1808 Tuscany was annexed and the Papal State was occupied, and a year later pope Pius VII became Napoleon's prisoner.

By 1809 all of Italy except for Sicily and Sardinia were under direct or indirect French rule. The imperial administrators consolidated reforms begun by the Italian princes in the late eighteenth century and won the support of the propertied classes by rescuing the creditors of the former monarchies and selling off the lands of the monasteries. But the costs of empire were heavy. Conscription and taxes were the main causes of popular unrest and revolts, but the subordination of the Italian states to the needs of empire also provoked opposition among sections of the elites. In 1814, on the eve of the empire's collapse, Napoleon's former chief of police, Joseph Fouché, reported that nationalism was the most powerful political force on the peninsula. But although the Allies and Joachim Murat tried to exploit these aspirations to independence, they had little political focus or cohesion.

restoration italy

The principal concern of the European statesmen at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) was to ensure that France would never regain a foothold on the Italian peninsula, which was placed exclusively under Austria's control. Although it ruled directly only in the newly created northern Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, Austria was the power behind every Italian throne, and when the Italian princes were threatened by revolution—as happened in Naples and Sicily in 1820, in Piedmont in 1821, and in the Papal State in 1831—Austrian bayonets kept them in power.

The principal cause of political unrest in Italy was not nationalism but opposition to the reactionary Restoration autocracies. Since Austria kept the legitimist rulers in power it became the common enemy of all those who favored political change within the individual states. But that did not create a common program, and aspirations to greater political freedom gave rise to different and often conflicting political projects. Since censorship and police surveillance made any form of open political debate impossible, literature, painting, and music were evocative vehicles for nationalist aspirations, but as soon as these were translated into specific political programs it became clear that nationalism was more likely to divide than unite Italians.

In the early years of the Restoration the secret societies mobilized demands for constitutional government, but they were denounced by Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), who founded Young Italy in 1831 with the specific aim of creating a single nationalist movement devoted to the overthrow of the existing Italian rulers and the creation of an independent Italian republic. Mazzini's proposals were anathema to conservatives and moderates, who preferred to think that Italy's independence could be achieved without political upheaval through a confederation of the existing rulers. But democrats like the Lombard economist Carlo Cattaneo also rejected Mazzini's ideas, arguing that only a federal solution along Swiss or American lines would accommodate the diversity of the Italian states.

The examples of the July monarchy in France (1830) and Britain's Great Reform Act (1832) persuaded many conservatives that gradual political change was the best antidote to social unrest. But the Italian rulers refused either to make political concessions or adopt more liberal economic measures, and as economic conditions deteriorated throughout Europe in the early 1840s popular unrest and political apprehensions in Italy grew. The revolutionaries took this as an opportunity to incite insurrections, but like the attempt by the Venetian Bandiera brothers to start a revolt in Calabria in 1844 these were unsuccessful. As tensions rose, the moderates for the first time broke cover and appealed to the rulers to take initiatives to stave off the threat of revolution. One appeal that aroused great attention came from a former Mazzinian, the abbé Vincenzo Gioberti, whose clandestinely published treatise on Del primato morale e civile degli italiani (1843; On the moral and civil primacy of the Italians) called for the papacy to revive the political leadership it had given in the Middle Ages. This improbable proposal aroused great enthusiasm but alarmed the supporters of the Piedmontese monarchy, who argued that only a secular prince could provide leadership for the establishment of an independent confederation of Italian rulers, a role that the king of Piedmont, Charles Albert (1798–1849; r. 1831–1849), was admirably qualified to fulfill. But in 1846 the champions of the house of Savoy were upstaged by the election of a new pope, Pius IX, who for no very good reason was believed to be sympathetic to reform.

the italian revolutions, 1848–1849

The election of Pius IX heightened expectations throughout Italy, and in the Papal State the new government quickly lost control. Political demonstrations and the clandestine press spread into neighboring Tuscany, forcing the grand duke to make political concessions in the fall of 1847. It only needed a riot during the festivities of Palermo's patron saint, Santa Rosalia, for the city to become the theater for the first of the European revolutions in January 1848. Hoping to contain the political protests that quickly spread to the mainland, the king of Naples conceded a constitution (29 January), a lead followed by the grand duke of Tuscany (11 February), the king of Piedmont (5 March), and finally by the pope (14 March). But the situation took a new turn when Vienna was overwhelmed by revolution in March. Faced by militant protests in Venice and then by a popular insurrection in Milan that lasted five days (18–22 March) the Austrian forces made a tactical retreat.

With the Austrians temporarily gone, the conflicting aims of the Italian rulers and nationalists quickly became apparent. In March Piedmont declared war on Austria to liberate Lombardy, but many Lombards feared this was just an excuse for the expansionist ambitions of King Charles Albert. In April the unlikely idea that the pope might lead the nationalist cause collapsed when Pius IX denounced the war against Austria. Then on 15 May the king of the Two Sicilies, Ferdinand II, ordered his army to fire on the delegates that were gathered for the opening of the new parliament in Naples and suspended the constitution.

Events took a more radical turn when in July an Austrian army defeated Charles Albert at Custoza. Mazzini called for a war of the people to take over from the war of the princes, but there was little response. Daniele Manin, the moderate leader of the republican government in Venice, shared none of Mazzini's aims, which found little support until more leaders came to power in Tuscany and Piedmont. But the republicans' best opportunity came in November when the moderate provisional government set up by Pius IX in Rome collapsed. Disguised as a woman the pope fled (24 November), appealing to the Catholic powers for help.

Republicans and radicals from all over Italy now headed for Rome, where a republic was proclaimed in February 1849. Mazzini was a member of the new government which introduced some important welfare measures. However not only the rulers of Naples and Spain but also the government of the French Republic had already dispatched armies to restore the pope to his capital. The city's defense was organized by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), and after a long siege the French finally occupied Rome on 3 July.

italy and european politics, 1849–1859

The revolutions were over. In the spring of 1849 Austrians returned in force. After suffering a second shattering defeat (at Novara, 23 March), Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son Victor Emmanuel II (1820–1878). In Tuscany the grand duke was restored and after a long siege and an aerial bombardment Venice capitulated in August. In the south, the Bourbon army regained control of Palermo in May. By summer constitutional government survived only in Piedmont, and for the next decade Turin became a haven for political refugees from all over Italy. Under the leadership of Count Cavour (Camillo Benso; 1810–1861), liberal reforms were introduced that made Piedmont attractive to foreign investors.

Victor Emmanuel grudgingly conceded some power to parliament, mainly because the liberals supported his expansionist ambitions while the Piedmontese conservatives and the church were pro-Austrian. But Victor Emmanuel's cynical exploitation of the nationalist cause paid rich dividends, and when the Crimean War (1854–1856) revealed the weakness of the Austrians the Piedmontese government set out to exploit the expansionist ambitions of the new French emperor, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III).

The French army that had restored Pius IX in 1849 was still in Rome, but Louis-Napoleon understood that backing the Piedmontese monarchy against Austria offered important opportunities for expanding France's political influence on the Italian peninsula. An attempt on Louis-Napoleon's life by the Italian nationalist Felice Orsini in January 1858 marked the beginning of diplomatic contacts between Turin and Paris that resulted in a secret meeting between the French emperor and Cavour at the lakeside resort of Plombières in July 1858. A joint war against Austria was planned, after which Italy would be divided into four states. In January 1859 the French and Piedmontese rulers signed a secret treaty, and in April, Cavour finally provoked the Austrians into issuing an ultimatum. After three very bloody battles—Magenta (4 June), Solferino, and San Martino (both 24 June)—that were fought mainly by French troops, Louis-Napoleon abruptly ended the war without consulting his ally when the Austrians agreed to abandon Lombardy.

The Peace of Villafranca (11 July) outraged the Italian nationalists because the Veneto remained under Austrian control. Cavour's supporters, who in 1857 founded the Italian National Society, had in the meantime been busy staging fake revolutions in Tuscany, the central duchies, and the northern parts of the Papal State in order to create a legitimate pretext for plebiscites in favor of annexation to Piedmont. But the situation was very confused, not least because Britain now also intervened to ensure that France made no territorial gains in Italy.

the south and unification

Cavour had resigned after Villafranca but returned to office in January 1860. In March a plebiscite approving annexation to Piedmont won overwhelming support in Tuscany, but in April the government announced that France was to receive Nice and Savoy. The nationalists were outraged, but when it was learned that an insurrection against Bourbon rule had broken out in Palermo the radicals and democrats seized the opportunity to relaunch the project for the unification of the whole peninsula and overturn the monarchist solution worked out by Cavour and Victor Emmanuel in the north. The hopes of the radicals rode therefore on the ramshackle steamboats that in May carried Garibaldi's famous thousand volunteers to Sicily, where they disembarked at Marsala. Garibaldi's defeat of a small Bourbon force at Calatafimi was the signal for peasant insurrections throughout the island, which threatened the lines of communication of the Bourbon army and forced a retreat. In August, Garibaldi crossed to the mainland, where the landowners abandoned the Bourbon monarchy and were taking control of local government. The young king of Naples, Francis II, decided to make a stand north of the capital, and on 7 September, Garibaldi entered Naples unopposed.

From Turin, Cavour followed events with growing alarm. He had tried unsuccessfully to regain the political initiative in Sicily and then to organize a moderate coup in Naples to forestall Garibaldi. Cavour's aim was to prevent the radicals from gaining control of the south and to prevent Garibaldi from attempting to liberate Rome, which might easily lead to war with France since Louis-Napoleon had guaranteed the pope's safety and still had an army in Rome. To avoid both eventualities Cavour acted decisively. In September 1860 a Piedmontese army headed by Victor Emmanuel invaded the Papal State ostensibly to protect the pope but in reality to block Garibaldi's advance. With Garibaldi's Red-shirts in front of them and the Piedmontese army in their rear, the Bourbon army sued for terms. In what would later become one of the most celebrated scenes of the Risorgimento, Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel met on horseback at Teano on 26 October, and Garibaldi loyally surrendered his command to the king. The danger that the Piedmontese forces would clash with the nationalists had been averted, and after hurriedly organized plebiscites, the southern provinces and Sicily, as well as the former papal provinces of Umbria and the Marche, voted for annexation (October–November 1860).

the aftermath

In 1861 Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed king of a new Italy that was far from complete. The pope still held Rome and was under the protection of Louis-Napoleon. Venice remained under Austrian rule until Prussia's victory at the Battle of Sadowa in 1866. In the south unification was followed by violent rural insurrections, and in the operations against so-called brigandage in the southern provinces and in Sicily that followed, more troops were engaged and more lives lost than in all the Italian wars of liberation. In 1862 Garibaldi attempted to revive the campaign to liberate Rome but was stopped and wounded by Piedmontese troops at Aspromonte in Calabria. In 1866 Italy acquired the Venetian province, but other Italian speaking territories—notably the South Tyrol and Trieste—remained under Austrian government. In 1867 Garibaldi made another attempt to free Rome which ended in disaster at Mentana, and it was only after Louis-Napoleon's defeat by the Prussians at the battle of Sedan that Italian troops could finally enter the Eternal City on 20 September 1870.

Italy's unexpected unification was a direct consequence of the decline of the Habsburg monarchy and the rise of the new German Reich. Italian nationalists, not surprisingly, saw things differently: the new Italy, they claimed, was the realization of the aspirations of the Italian people to freedom and independence. The Italian people, however, had played little direct part in the Risorgimento and had little part in the new kingdom since fewer than 2 percent of the population met the literacy or property requirements needed to vote in 1861. The elites were also divided. Until the end of his life in 1872, Mazzini—who believed the triumph of the Piedmontese monarchy to be a travesty of the ideals of the Risorgimento—was under sentence of death for treason while Pope Pius IX had declared himself the prisoner of the Vatican, denounced the new state as the negation of God, and forbade practicing Catholics from voting or holding public office.

Long after unification, the Risorgimento was the battlefield on which Italians fought out their national and political identities. Unification proved to be a point of departure, not arrival, and the task of creating of an independent nation-state imposed heavy burdens on a country whose unity was recent and fragile and whose economic resources were slender. It was made more difficult by the changes that accompanied the emergence of mass society and intensified rivalries among the leading industrial states. When Italy's parliamentary democracy collapsed after World War I it was often claimed that fascism was a consequence of the defects of the Risorgimento, but twenty-first-century historians are wary of the retrospective logic and determinist assumptions that lie behind such a judgment. The burdens of independence were heavy, but the differences between Italy and its western European neighbors in the nineteenth century have been frequently exaggerated, and, although in many ways an accidental outcome of the Risorgimento, Italy's unification has proved remarkably resilient.

See alsoCavour, Count (Camillo Benso); Charles Albert; Garibaldi, Giuseppe; Italy; Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; Mazzini, Giuseppe; Milan; Papal State; Piedmont-Savoy; Rome; Venice; Victor Emmanuel II.


Davis, John A., ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Mack Smith, Denis. Cavour. London, 1985.

——. Mazzini. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Woolf, Stuart. A History of Italy 1700–1860: The Social Constraints of Political Change. London, 1979.

John A. Davis