Crispi, Francesco

views updated Jun 11 2018


deputy of the left
prime minister

CRISPI, FRANCESCO (1818–1901), Italian politician, a leader in the movement for Italian unification.

Francesco Crispi was born on 4 October 1818 into a Greek Orthodox family of minor landowners, businessmen, and priests in Ribera, a small agricultural community in the southwest of Sicily. Sicily, which had been under British occupation for much of the Napoleonic period, then formed part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and was ruled from Naples. As an eldest son, Crispi carried the burden of family ambitions, and after receiving an excellent education at the Greek Orthodox seminary in Palermo, he enrolled as a law student at Palermo University. There he became a prominent figure in the local intellectual community, founding his own newspaper, L'Oreteo, and championing the cause of literary Romanticism and moderate reforms. He moved to Naples in the mid-1840s to practice as a lawyer and became active in radical political circles, conspiring in the second half of 1847 to launch a revolution in Sicily.

In the course of the Sicilian revolution of 1848–1849, Crispi served as a deputy in the Palermo parliament, and was employed as an official in the ministry of war, where he honed his considerable administrative talents. Like most of his fellow revolutionaries, Crispi aspired to an autonomous Sicily within a federal Italy, but the failure of the moderate leadership to mobilize popular resistance and defend the revolution against the advancing Neapolitan forces pushed him toward more extreme democratic views. In exile after 1849, in Turin, Malta, London, and Paris, Crispi moved in democratic circles, and under the influence of Nicola Fabrizi (1804–1885) in Malta and above all Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) in London, he came to believe strongly in the need for a unitary Italian state.

When, through the instigation of the Piedmontese prime minister, Count Cavour (Camillo Benso, 1810–1861), war broke out in northern Italy in the summer of 1859, Crispi conspired to trigger a democratic insurrection in Sicily. When this failed, he joined other leading democrats in persuading the charismatic soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) to head a small army of volunteers to Sicily in the spring of 1860. During the famous Expedition of the Thousand, which ended in the unification of most of Italy, Crispi served as Garibaldi's secretary of state and played an important part in ensuring the political success of the revolution in Sicily and in enabling Garibaldi to cross to the mainland and march on Naples. However, he was bitter at the way in which Cavour then hijacked the revolution and prevented Garibaldi from reaching Rome, and in 1861 he entered the new Italian parliament as a spokesman for the far left, deeply critical of the government.

deputy of the left

In the course of the 1860s, Crispi became one of the leading figures of the left in parliament. He also established himself as among the most successful and best-paid lawyers in the country, and his wealth enabled him to sit almost uninterruptedly in parliament until his death in 1901, and also, from 1867, to fund a major national newspaper, La Riforma. Politically in the early 1860s Crispi was still quite close to Mazzini, but he broke with him acrimoniously in the years 1864 and 1865 over the issue of the monarchy, with Crispi insisting that in a country of widespread illiteracy, strong municipal and regional loyalties, and limited national sentiment, the crown was vital to the maintenance of unity. As he said in parliament, in what became the most famous political phrase of his career, "the monarchy unites us, a republic would divide us." Thereafter Crispi was seen as a constitutionalist, and he played an important part in helping to steer sections of the disaffected revolutionary left into constitutional channels.

Political power still eluded him, however, and after the capture in 1870 of Rome—the main objective of the left in the 1860s—he became unsure of his future. His domestic life also began to unravel. In exile during the 1850s, he had married a Savoyard washerwoman, Rosalie Montmasson, but the relationship broke down in the early 1870s, and in 1875 the couple separated with Crispi claiming, speciously, that the original wedding had been technically invalid. When the left came to power in 1876, Crispi was appointed speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, and then at the end of 1877, minister of the interior in the second government of the Piedmontese politician Agostino Depretis

(1813–1887). Crispi's tenure of office was brief, however: early in 1878 he married a Sicilian woman some years his junior, Lina Barbagallo, and shortly afterwards found himself accused by political enemies of bigamy. Though acquitted by the courts, Crispi was forced to resign, and for a time it seemed as if his career was over.

Crispi's political ideas underwent an important evolution from the late 1870s. Though as a man of the left he remained committed to democratic reforms, such as a broadening of the suffrage, more equitable taxation, greater accountability of public officials, and improvements in welfare, education, and health provision, he became increasingly concerned by the gap between the mass of the population and the state and by the lack of what he called the "political education" of Italians. In the past he had favored a weak state and administrative devolution in order to maximize liberty, but he now came to believe that a strong state was required so as to complete the country's "moral unification" and counter the spread of anarchist, socialist, and militant Catholic ideas among the working classes. As a result, he felt, personal freedom might at times have to be sacrificed to safeguard the nation from political subversion.

Part of the reason for Crispi's changing views was the international situation and his feeling, especially after the French occupation of Tunisia in 1881, that Italy was being "suffocated" in the Mediterranean. He claimed that France had aggressive designs on Italy, and he called in the 1880s for increased spending on the army and navy to prepare Italy for what he maintained was an inevitable European war. In parliament Crispi lacked a significant following, and his attempts to remedy this in 1883 by forming an opposition party of the left, the Pentarchy, met with limited success. In the country as a whole, however, Crispi's calls for a more assertive foreign policy and his denunciations of the "anemia" of parliament and the "inertia" of the government led by the sick and elderly Depretis struck a chord. When, early in 1887, a column of Italian troops was massacred at Dogali in east Africa, there was a public clamoring for Crispi to come to power. Crispi was appointed minister of the interior in Depretis's last government, and became prime minister when Depretis died in July 1887.

prime minister

Crispi was the first southerner to be appointed prime minister of Italy, and his administration from 1887 to 1891 was one of the most remarkable in the country's history. Domestically it was marked by a vigorous program of reforms. A new public health law and a law giving the government greater control over charitable bodies (opere pie) laid the foundations for a modern welfare state, while an extension of the local government suffrage marked a significant advance in democracy. A new and more liberal penal code was introduced, and there were other important reforms in public security, policing, and prisons. A major law was also passed to deal with abuses committed by public officials. Crispi was determined with his reforms to show that the Italian state could tackle the country's mounting social and political problems effectively, and the spirit of the new laws was for the most part liberal. However, Crispi was well aware of the risks faced by taking such measures as the extension of local democracy, and the government's agents in the provinces, the prefects, received extensive new powers to control those administrations that returned "subversive" councilors.

Crispi was the foreign minister as well as prime minister and minister of the interior from 1897 to 1891, and it was foreign policy that consumed most of his time and energy. Crispi hoped to turn the Triple Alliance (of which Italy had been a member with Germany and Austria since 1882) from a defensive into an offensive alliance. He seemed genuinely to believe that France was incorrigible in its hatred of Italy and Germany, and with General Boulanger inciting national sentiment in France, there seemed a real likelihood of a conflict. In Crispi's eyes a successful war against France would give the Italian state the prestige that it lacked, guarantee Italy's position as the dominant Mediterranean power, and promote the formation of a "national consciousness." On becoming prime minister, he signed a secret military convention with Germany, greatly increased spending on the army and navy, and attempted to lure France into a rash act of aggression during 1888 and 1889. The idea of a preventive war against France and Russia enjoyed considerable support in German military circles at this time, but it was Otto von Bismarck's (1815–1898) policy of peace that prevailed.

Crispi fell from power in January 1891, but he returned as prime minister in December 1893 at a moment of acute crisis. A major banking scandal was rocking the political establishment (and threatened the monarchy); the state faced bankruptcy; and Sicily seemed in danger of being engulfed by socialist-led rioting. Crispi declared martial law in Sicily and suppressed the socialist movement there ruthlessly. He also took firm and effective measures to sort out the public finances. But he faced growing opposition in parliament; at the end of 1894, he was in danger of himself being sucked into the banking scandal. His response was high-handed: he prorogued parliament and looked to a war in Africa to divert attention from the country's (and his own) plight. Italy had been developing a colony on the shores of the Red Sea since the mid-1880s, but in the course of 1895 it got drawn into a full-scale war with the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II (r. 1883–1913). Crispi seriously underestimated the strength of the enemy and injudiciously pressed the Italian commander onto the offensive. The result was a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Adwa on 1 March 1896. Crispi was forced to resign, and he died on 11 August 1901, deeply disillusioned and pessimistic about Italy's future.

Crispi was the most high-profile and best-known Italian politician in Europe between Cavour and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). He was greatly admired in Germany, not least by his friend Bismarck; he was feared in France, and understandably so; and in Britain he was seen as a troublesome but necessary ally. Although his important contribution to the movement for national unification before 1860 has not been questioned, Crispi remains a controversial figure in Italy. The Fascist regime celebrated him as an exponent of nationalism and authoritarianism, and he was often referred to as the "precursor" of Mussolini. Largely as a reaction to this, he was widely dismissed after World War II as a maverick and a liberal renegade. In the 1970s, however, he attracted attention from historians for the light he appeared to shed on the roots of fascism. At the turn of the twenty-first century, his progressive reform program, his attempts to modernize the Italian state, and his concern with the civic education and nationalization of Italians have made him the subject of considerable renewed debate.

See alsoBismarck, Otto von; Cavour, Count (Camillo Benso); Italy; Mazzini, Giuseppe; Sicily; Tunisia.


Adorni, Daniela. Francesco Crispi: Un progetto di governo. Florence, 1999.

Chabod, Federico. Italian Foreign Policy: The Statecraft of the Founders. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Duggan, Christopher. Francesco Crispi: From Nation to Nationalism. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Christopher Duggan

Francesco Crispi

views updated Jun 11 2018

Francesco Crispi

The Italian statesman Francesco Crispi (1819-1901) fought for Italian unification and twice served as premier of Italy.

Francesco Crispi was born on Oct. 4, 1819, in Ribera, Sicily. After studying law at the University of Palermo, in 1846 he became an attorney in Naples. He took an active part in the revolutionary struggle of 1848-1849, and after its failure he fled to Piedmont, where he engaged in radical journalism. Implicated in Giuseppe Mazzini's attempt to foment revolt in Milan in 1853, Crispi was expelled from Piedmont. In the following years he lived in Malta, London, and Paris and traveled throughout Europe.

In 1859 Crispi returned to Sicily and rejoined the independence movement. The following year he participated in Giuseppe Garibaldi's campaign in Sicily. When the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1862, Crispi was elected deputy to the first Italian Parliament and became a leader of the left opposition to the premier, the Conte di Cavour. Although a zealous republican, in 1865 he became a supporter of King Victor Emmanuel II, after deciding that the monarchy could accelerate national unification.

In 1876 Crispi was elected president of the Chamber of Deputies. In December 1877 he became minister of the interior, but in March 1878 he resigned after being accused of bigamy. Although acquitted, he withdrew from political life for several years.

In 1887, after again serving briefly as minister of the interior, Crispi became premier. He broadened communal and provincial self-government, bettered public health conditions, and approved a more liberal penal code. However, he introduced severe regulations concerning public order and gave civil authorities the power to prohibit meetings and restrain freedom of association.

In the area of foreign policy Crispi supported Italian colonialism in Africa. He extended and unified Italian acquisitions in Africa and imposed an Italian protectorate on Ethiopia. He sought support of this policy from Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy's allies in the Triple Alliance. Angered at French expansion in Africa, in 1887 Crispi influenced Parliament to refuse to renew the Italian commercial treaty with France. There then began a 10-year tariff war which greatly damaged the Italian economy.

In 1891, because of the unpopularity of his tariff and tax policy, Crispi was forced to resign. But in 1893, in an atmosphere of internal strife resulting from peasant riots and the growing worker movement, he again became premier. He outlawed all Socialist societies and associations of peasants and workers and disfranchised hundreds of thousands of Italians. He did not convoke Parliament in 1895 but ruled for 6 months as dictator.

Crispi continued his aggressive policy in Africa. But in 1896, following the crushing defeat of the Italian army at Adowa, Ethiopia, he was again forced to resign. He then lived in poverty and oblivion in Naples until his death on Aug. 11, 1901.

Further Reading

Rich material on Crispi's life is in The Memoirs of Francesco Crispi, translated by Mary Prichard-Agnetti and edited by Thomas Palamenghi-Crispi (3 vols., 1912-1914). There is one biography of Crispi in English, W. J. Stillman, Francesco Crispi: Insurgent, Exile, Revolutionist and Statesman (1899).

Additional Sources

Ganci, S. Massimo (Salvatore Massimo), Il caso Crispi, Palermo: Palumbo, 1976.

Tricoli, Giuseppe, Francesco Crispinella storiografia italiana, Palermo, Italia: Editrice I.L.A. Palma, 1992. □

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