Young Italy

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Young Italy, a secret political association, was founded by Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) in Marseilles in July 1831 to promote the fight for Italian independence and unity. Mazzini had taken up residence in the French port city to avoid serving a sentence of confinement for his political activities. At the time of his departure from Italy, the success of revolution of July 1830 in France encouraged Italians to expect a similar outcome on their country. Mazzini founded Young Italy after attempts at revolution in Italy were put down with the help of Austrian intervention. Young Italy recruited in Italy and among political exiles abroad in competition with other patriotic societies. The name indicated Mazzini's faith that the young would succeed where radicals of the older generation had failed, and his disappointment with the revolutionary tactics of the Carboneria, the secret society behind the unsuccessful revolutions of 1820–1821 and 1830–1831. But although Young Italy targeted those between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, it excluded no one on the basis of age or sex.

Mazzini hoped that Young Italy would serve as an umbrella organization for patriots who accepted its basic principles of republicanism, social justice, faith in the people, and in Italy's revolutionary mission. Its membership was secret out of necessity, but unlike other secret societies that kept their aims and programs shrouded in mystery, Young Italy proclaimed its intentions openly, recruited broadly, and disseminated its message in print and by word of mouth.

Young Italy's religious ethos reflected Mazzini's conviction that commitment requires a firm religious basis. Its members were called apostles, held to high standards of personal conduct, enjoined to appeal to ideals and principles rather than material interests, and to bring the word to the masses, without whose support no revolution could succeed. A firm believer in the importance of political education, Mazzini published the journal Giovine Italia and saw to it that copies were smuggled into Italy. But Young Italy did not confine itself to long-term political education. It also conspired to promote revolution and guerrilla warfare based on the theories developed by Mazzini's close collaborator, Carlo Bianco di Saint-Jorioz (1795–1843), in the book Della Guerra nazionale d'insurrezione per bande (1828; On the national war of insurrection by bands). Members of Young Italy pledged to destroy tyrants and keep ready a dagger, a gun, and fifty rounds of ammunition for action on short notice.

Young Italy was a remarkable achievement considering the difficulties that it faced. Funds were not a serious problem, for its activities were bankrolled by well-off Lombard exiles. But that created another problem for Mazzini, for the same exiles demanded a voice in decisions that he did not want to share.

Other secret societies regarded Young Italy as a rival and sabotaged its work. The reformed Carboneria, headed by the old Jacobin Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761–1837) and the society Veri Italiani (True Italians), both advocating a materialistic philosophy abhorrent to Mazzini, were Young Italy's most formidable rivals in the political underground. Spies infiltrated its ranks and police crackdowns disrupted its operations. Rapid communication and coordination of efforts in the Italian states, France, and Switzerland, where Young Italy was active, presented insurmountable problems. Wildly inflated estimates put Young Italy's membership at around 140,000 in 1833, but even a membership of no more than a few thousand would have been a remarkable achievement under the circumstances. Whatever the numbers, Young Italy attracted the most idealistic and best educated Italians and constituted the first broadly based revolutionary movement in Italy.

In 1833 and 1834 Young Italy suffered a series of reverses that destroyed its effectiveness, the last and most severe setback occurring in February 1834 when armed incursions into Savoy from France and Switzerland failed to spark the popular uprising on which Mazzini counted for success. Mazzini revived Young Italy in London in the 1840s. This new version, which is sometimes referred to as the second Young Italy, differed from the first in paying less attention to political conspiracy and more to political education. It was particularly popular among Italian students, who did not remember the failures of the first Young Italy and revered the name of Mazzini. It was flanked by a workers' union and had branches in North America and South America. It contributed to the political climate that led to the revolutions of 1848, but played no direct role in the revolutions; it was replaced by other Mazzinian organizations after 1848. The name was replicated by other militant democratic movements, including Young Ireland in the 1840s and Young America in the 1850s.

See alsoCarbonari; Mazzini, Giuseppe; Nationalism.


Hales, Edward E. Y. Mazzini and the Secret Societies: The Making of a Myth. New York, 1956.

Sarti, Roland. Mazzini: A Life for the Religion of Politics. Westport, Conn., 1997.

Roland Sarti