The Unification of Italy: The Risorgimento

Overview | Leaders | Early Phases | Final Phases


The unification of Italy took place in the 1850s and 60s. The unification of Germany occurred only slightly later. This was a time of ferment in Europe. The abortive revolutions of 1848 had both whetted appetites for change, and stimulated realists to take into account the political institutions of the age. Nationalism, the belief that people of like social and ethnic backgrounds, who also shared a common language should be united politically, had taken hold in Europe. Previously, governments and boundaries had been determined by rules of inheritance dictated by the aristocratic families perched upon the thrones of France, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and other states. Agglomerations such as the Austrian Empire were composed of peoples speaking many languages and having diverse cultures. Indeed, there was power in Austria as can be seen from her long dominance of both German and Italian affairs. But her rulers could not contend with cohesive movements based on nationalism.

Map depicting the Unification of Italy

In the course of the unification of central Europe under Prussia, and Italy under Piedmont, Austria was the big loser. It may be instructive to investigate why nationalism was so potent a force that it could overcome this sprawling power. First, a unified language always facilitates communication among the individuals making up an organization. Second, an ethnocentric view fosters loyalty to a cause that is imbued with notions of a brotherhood in arms. Third, an atmosphere of illegitimacy is brought to a group of people ruling a seemingly foreign body. This illegitimacy brings with it external support for rebellion.

Italy had been a conglomeration of independent kingdoms, dukedoms, republics, and papal states for centuries. Its petty feudal rulers, and the numerous invasions from external powers had kept it divided politically. Yet for much of this time people of the region did not think of themselves as Italians, but as Neapolitan, or Sicilian, or Venetian. But even these ties of origin were not seriously binding. For any man who could align himself with a prince, even a foreign prince, to increase his own personal wealth, status, or power would do so. Pieces of Italy at various times had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, and by the 1850s especially Austria which ruled both Lombardy and Venetia. Nationalism saw its rise after the Napoleonic wars with the Romantic Movement.

In the 1850s Italy was divided into four major areas. In the north-west stood the strongest independent power, Piedmont-Sardinia, ruled by King Victor Emmanuel and his prime minister, Count Cavour. In the north-east lay the Austrian dominated provinces. In the center were a group of states clustered around Rome, many ruled by the Pope himself. In the south was the kingdom of Sicily which included the island of that name and the region around Naples and south of Rome. Of the rulers of these regions the most popular and the one with the most legitimacy was Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont. For this reason, the Italian nationalist cause seemed naturally to flow to him.

Leaders of the Risorgimento

Three great leaders were prominent in the Risorgimento as the struggle for unification came to be called. Count Cavour, Mazzini the politician, and the renown general Garibaldi. Piedmont's role in the unification of Italy began to take shape as Count Cavour strove to put together an alliance to drive the Austrians out of Italy. Ever since the Concert of Europe Austria had been dominant in the region in spite of British diplomatic opposition. (The British supported the unification of Italy because they saw a strong Italy as part of a balance of power to France and Austria.)

Early Phases of the Risorgimento: Lombardy and North Central Italy

Victor Emmanuel II

Count Cavour began his efforts to unify Italy under his king, Victor Emmanuel II, in 1858 by concluding a secret understanding with the Emperor of France, Napoleon III. Napoleon would help him accrete the Austrian part of Italy to Piedmont in exchange for Savoy and Nice. In 1859 Cavour provoked the Austrians by stirring up revolutionary trouble in Lombardy. The Austrians declared war on Piedmont. The joint French and Piedmont army defeated the Austrians, but only after a terrible butcher's bill. Napoleon backed out and Piedmont was forced to conclude peace, but Cavour gained half of his objective by acquiring Lombardy for Piedmont. Cavour was disappointed not to have driven the Austrians out of Italy altogether. However, in the immediate aftermath of the war the states sandwiched between Piedmont and the Roman Papal States voluntarily allowed themselves to be annexed by Piedmont, creating a more powerful state.

The Final Phases: Sicily, Rome, and Venice

When 1860 arrived, southern Italy, that is Sicily and Naples were in an uproar, ready to usurp their Bourbon King, Francis II. Garibaldi, though not officially sanctioned by Cavour, was secretly aided by the Piedmont state. With 1000 red-shirted volunteers, they invaded southern Italy. Aided largely by the indigenous population, Garibaldi deposed Francis II and assumed dictatorial powers. In a patriotic act, he surrendered these powers to Victor Emmanuel II. Next, Piedmont occupied the Papal states and though Rome was now defended by French troops, an Italian State was declared. Nevertheless, the Italian state was not quite complete. Venice was united with Italy as a result of Bismark's machinations. But in the end, Austria was compelled to give up Venice at the conclusion of a seven week war with Prussia. Rome finally became part of Italy when French troops were recalled from the city after the advent of the Franco-Prussian war.

As the British had hoped, Italy began to take on an important role in the power politics of Europe.

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The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

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