In the previous two lectures I talked about the role France and Britain played in the larger world. They were both powerful, unified states, capable of projecting tremendous power around the globe. Their internal strengths and weaknesses became political issues for all of Europe and much of the rest of the globe. In this lecture I want to consider the arrival of a new nation-state, Italy. Italy unified officially in 1870, and its experience of national unification--called the Risorgimento--is worthy of close scrutiny on a number of levels. First, it allows us to consider from another perspective the ways that Romanticism, Liberalism, and Nationalism interacted. Second, it shows us how domestic economic and political problems interacted with the larger European state system. Much like its more powerful neighbors, Italy exported its domestic problems to other parts of the globe. Finally, the Risorgimento was an enormously important event for Europeans’ worldviews. In general, people saw the Italian struggle as the final break with the Old Regime. In spite of all the revolutions—in 1789, 1830, 1848—it was the Italian drive for a unified nation-state that signaled to contemporaries that the last link to the past had been cut. It is no accident, I would add, that the artistic movement we call Modernism originated in Italy.
In order to understand the importance of all these changes, let us consider briefly how Italy was before unification. The first thing we need to understand is that Italy had been the focus of great power rivalries since the fifteenth century. At various times, Spanish, French, and Austrian troops all vied for control over different parts of Italy, while the British fleet made sure that no one became too powerful on the peninsula. By the eighteenth century Spain had dropped out of the competition and France and Austria became the major powers competing for influence. Thus, when the French Revolutionary Wars broke out French troops entered Italy and immediately reorganized its small principalities into various republics. This process was extended under Napoleon, who set up different kingdoms and then put his friends and relatives on the new thrones. By 1815, as political reaction set in across Europe, most of the old Kingdoms and principalities were restored and the revolutionary reforms were overturned.
The year 1815 is central for understanding the Italian Risorgimento, because it marked the high-water point of Austrian influence in the region. The Austrians had come to see Italy as the central bulwark against French aggression, and they were determined to maintain political control over most of the peninsula. Thus, the Austrians annexed Lombardy and Venetia. The Duchy of Tuscany went to the Austrian Emperor’s brother. Parma went to his daughter. Modena and Massa went to other relatives. There were, however limits to Austrian demands. This was an age of legitimism, so other traditional principalities went to families with historical dynastic claims. A Bourbon princess received the Duchy of Lucca. The reigning Bourbon line took back the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The Kingdom of Sardinia Piedmont was returned to its former ruler Victor Emmanuel I.
The legitimist restoration of Italy’s traditional rulers created an unstable situation. Italy was a poor country in 1815 and it continued to be poor right through the revolutions that rocked the peninsula in 1848. The north was traditionally richer than the south, based on its merchant wealth, and the Napoleonic Reforms had opened large sections of the northern economy to a world market. But the Napoleonic reforms had also hurt many small farmers, who now saw their lands bought up by larger, more successful farms. This increased the number of landless peasants, whose anger grew in proportion to their belief that the local governments were not helping them. The situation was even starker in southern Italy, where the land was poorer than in the north. Here market reforms and the enclosure of fields deprived many small farmers of social protections on which they relied to get them through difficult times. And if the landless peasant in the north had difficulties, they were much more intense for peasants in the south, where the soil was much poorer. Thus, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Italy was plagued by insurrections. There was a major uprising in 1820-21, that toppled Victor Emanuel in Sardinia Piedmont. In 1831, there was an uprising in Bologna that was crushed by Austrian troops. Sicily rose up unsuccessfully in 1837 and 1841. This discontent with conservative governments rose until January, 1848, when the Sicilians rose up again, leading the Sicilian King Ferdinand the II to extend a constitution to his Kingdom. This uprising, as well the one in Paris, led to a series of revolts across Italy in areas such as Tuscany, Piedmont, and Parma. In Venice and Lombardy, in particular, Austrian troops were pushed back both by popular uprisings and troops from Piedmont. (Piedmont’s rulers, the House of Savoy, had a long-standing interest in booting out the Austrians.) All over Italy local princes granted constitutions in response. By March 1848, it began to look like Italy would have a completely new order. It was not to be. Austrian troops rallied and put down the revolts not only in their own territories but also in those ruled by Habsburg relatives. With this show of strength, the Revolution of 1848 in Italy reached its end.
Within this context we can now highlight two crucial elements that led to Italy’s unification: first, the House of Savoy; and second Giuseppe Mazzini, the father of Italian nationalism. One thing that many princes learned from the Revolution of 1848 was that conservative reform could head off demands for even greater autonomy. No house understood this better than the House of Savoy, which began an aggressive campaign of conservative reform. Its first step on this path was to retain Piedmont’s constitution after 1849, the so-called Statuto. This constitution called for an elected parliament that shared some governmental responsibilities with the monarchy, and for that reason it became a rallying cry for many reformers. Keeping it was the smart thing to do. Piedmont’s Old King, the reactionary Charles Albert (1831-1849) had been overthrown by the Revolution of 1848. The new King Victor Emanuel II (1849-1878), however, used the peace that the Statuto guaranteed him to push through major economic reforms in Piedmont, and it was due to these reforms that Piedmont took the leading role in Italy.
To this we must add Italy’s most important politician during the period, the Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. If there is an architect of Italian political unity, he is it. In the 1850s, Piedmont became the leading industrial and economic region in Italy, due to the free trade and reform policies that Cavour guided through the Italian government. Born of a noble family, Cavour entered politics in 1848 as a member of the Piedmontese parliament. In 1850, he joined the cabinet as minister of trade and agriculture. Cavour saw to it that Piedmont signed trade agreements with a dozen different states. The government got other governments to lower their tariffs in exchange for Piedmont lowering its tariffs. This meant that local producers of things such as wine and silk could sell more of their products, while cheap manufactured goods suddenly became available to local consumers. The results of Cavour’s policies were impressive. Piedmontese trade tripled between 1851 and 1861, as foreigners bought large quantities of wine, rice, oils, and textiles. This rise in trade made possible huge new investments in infrastructure. The kingdom’s railroad network, for example, which had not existed in 1851, was Italy’s largest by 1861. Thus, by Cavour’s death in 1861, Piedmont had become the most powerful and economically advanced state in all of Italy, a model that others soon sought to emulate.
Against this backdrop, Piedmont became Italy’s main engine for unification. But unlike what would happen in Germany, where Prussia unified Germany by actually winning wars, Piedmont did it by losing them. I noted earlier that Piedmont tried to boot Austria out of Italy during the Revolution of 1848. It failed in the attempt, because Austria was better armed, and it received no real assistance from other powers. Piedmont was, therefore, in a unique diplomatic position. France wanted Austria out of Italy, but it could not risk an open conflict with the Austrians, since that would bring in the British. Moreover, France also considered Piedmont a necessary buffer state. This meant that Piedmont was free to attack Austria as much as it wished, without any fear for post-war consequences, since France would not allow Piedmont to disappear. The knowledge that the French would always back Piedmont, led Cavour to launch an openly aggressive policy between 1856 and 1859. In 1857, he broke diplomatic ties with Austria. In 1858, he reached a secret agreement with the Napoleon III of France that ceded Savoy and Nice to the French in exchange for support in a war against Austria. In 1859, war came, but the French backed out under pressure from the British. Piedmont was, thus, only able to take Lombardy as a war spoil. Cavour left the government in protest, but he returned in 1860, at which point he proposed a series of plebiscites whose positive outcome allowed Piedmont to annex Venetia, Tuscany, and Modena. This new grouping of states now became the Kingdom of Italy, with the House of Savoy on the throne.
We are now only half-way through the process of unification, but before we can go further, we need to look back and consider the career of the second factor in unification that I mentioned before, Giuseppe Mazzini, the spiritual founder of Italian Unification. Mazzini is particularly important, because he brings together so many of the political currents that I discussed in the “isms” lectures. Born in 1805, Mazzini was influenced by Romanticism, though he was not a true Romantic himself. The Romantics created the nation, seeing it as the founding element of all cultural experience. Mazzini was part of an early liberal trend within Romanticism, in that he saw himself as a leader in an international struggle to emancipate all the peoples of the world. As evidence of his Liberalism, we must note that he included women, serfs, and slaves in his international mission. But Mazzini was also Italian. He wanted to unite the many Italians into a single nation-state, believing that organizing peoples into contiguous states was the only way to bring peace to Europe. (He was wrong on that, of course.) Mazzini’s romantic approach to politics made him an opponent of both Liberalism and Marxism. He saw liberals as too concerned with individual rights, willing to allow the nation to suffer at the expense of individuals. He also believed in private property, though he did not like big business. So Mazzini was a very complicated figure, and tracing his influence on Italian unification will allow us a glimpse into some of the complications and contradictions within the new Italian state itself.
Mazzini spent his early years in Genoa. He disliked the post-revolutionary order and engaged in political subversion while a student, joining the Carbonari, a secret society devoted to liberal reform. In 1831, he was found out and had to go into exile. He settled in Marseille, which had become a haven for Italian exiles and surrounded himself with like-minded individuals. His central contribution was the founding of a famous journal La Giovine Italia, or Young Italy, which propagandized for revolution in Italy. A large movement emerged from this paper called “Young Italy,” with cells across Italy. (The organization became the model for the “Young Turk” movement that founded modern Turkey.) In 1833, the Genoese cracked down on the organization, putting some of the local leaders in jail and forcing others to flee. Mazzini responded in 1834 by sponsoring an invasion of Savoy that turned into a fiasco. This got him expelled from France. He went to Switzerland and later to Britain, where he continued to conspire against the many Italian governments. By the 1840s, Mazzini had become the most famous Italian nationalist, and an entire generation of future political leaders learned their nationalism from him.
Mazzini was active throughout the 1840s, trying to start rebellions all over Italy. During this time, he recruited an Italian soldier-adventurer named Giuseppe Garibaldi to lead a series of failed invasions and other escapades. Garibaldi had been influenced early in life by Mazzini, but his politics got him exiled to South America, where he basically made a living as a pirate. In 1848, Garibaldi returned to Italy with Mazzini’s encouragement, bringing 60 men with him to lead the fight for independence. Most of Garibaldi’s operations were failures, but with each one both he and Mazzini became more famous and more determined to lead Italy to unification. In 1859, when Cavour led Piedmont to war against Austria, Mazzini was still in England, but he rushed to Italy after learning of France’s betrayal, intent on making trouble. Unfortunately, Mazzini made trouble, above all, for Cavour, since he hated monarchy and disliked Cavour’s conservative brand of unification. Nonetheless, the irony is that Mazzini’s machinations actually assured that Italy would be unified on Cavour’s model.
Mazzini was convinced that an uprising in the south would lead to democratic change across Italy. When he learned of an uprising in Sicily he convinced Garibaldi to lead an expedition there, in order to expel the Bourbons who still held the throne. In a brilliant campaign, Garibaldi defeated the Bourbons and entered Naples. Unfortunately for Mazzini, Garibaldi had joined the Piedmontese army and he only ruled Naples in Victor Emanuel’s name until Piedmontese officials arrived. When the time the Piedmontese took over, only the Papal States and Venice remained outside Italian hands.
The period from 1860 to 1870 marked the waning of Italy’s Risorgimento. The only outstanding issue was Rome and the Papal States, which the Pope still ruled. What we need to keep in mind here, however, is that Italy was now largely unimportant from a European perspective. Beginning in 1864, Otto von Bismarck embarked on a series of three wars that ended in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian war. As the world watched these events, the Italian situation came to mean much less. In 1866, the Italians used war between Prussia and Austria as an excuse to attack Austria, hoping to steal some territory in Tyrolia that had a few Italian speakers. They lost again, in spite of Prussia’s stunning success. (The Italians would not get this territory until 1919, when the victorious Entente Powers gave it to them at the Versailles conference.) It is this inability to keep pace with the other European powers that shows us the limits of both the Risorgimento and Italy’s economy. The Risorgimento was much more important culturally than politically. With the rise of Prussia, the old Franco-Austrian battle came to mean less, and Italy ceased to be a strategic battleground. In fact, it was hardly important at all, since Italy did not have the resources to compete with Germany, Britain, or France. Thus, when Italian troops entered Roman on September 20, 1870, ending the Pope’s territorial rule, it was something of an embarrassment. There was no real battle, and the Pope retreated rapidly to the Vatican, where he remains. Italy now had a capital city, but no one seemed to care. The great Italian theorist and historian Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) said of the Risorgimento that until 1870 Italian history had been poetry. After 1870, however, it descended into prose. This represents some disenchantment with the political world. In Croce’s lifetime nationalism changed from being a rhetoric of liberation to a justification for state power and violence. We will follow a similar theme next time.