Unification of Italy: Summary, Origins, Phases

An 1860 painting by Remigio Legat depicting the Battle of Calatafimi, in which Garibaldi’s Red Shirts faced the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
An 1860 painting by Remigio Legat depicting the Battle of Calatafimi, in which Garibaldi’s Red Shirts faced the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Public domain image.

The unification of Italy as a single independent state, a process known as the Risorgimento, stemmed from a complex and tumultuous series of events that spanned several decades in the 19th century. The Italians were historically subjugated by foreign powers, and they began to assert their right to independence in response to this predicament. During the Revolutions of 1848, there were widespread revolts in support of liberal principles. Because all of them failed, the revolutionaries decided to join forces to achieve independence — and only later sort out their ideological differences. The creation of Italy was spurred by the Kingdom of Piedmont and its Prime Minister Camillo Cavour. He garnered international support for independence and triggered a series of wars and uprisings that would ultimately make it a reality in 1861 and in 1870.

Summary of the Risorgimento

  • The Italian Peninsula was divided into numerous small kingdoms, which were frequently subjugated by foreign powers — mostly Austria and France.
  • Napoleonic France introduced reforms in the peninsula, and made Italians yearn for better governance.
  • Because of this, Italians revolted in the context of the Revolutions of 1848, but were largely unsuccessful, as there was little coordination between revolutionary movements.
  • From 1849 onwards, many Italians gathered around the leadership of Camillo Cavour, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont. He set the stage for the phases of the unification of Italy.
  • In 1859, the first phase saw the annexation of Northern Italy by Piedmont, following a war alongside France against Austria.
  • In 1860-1861, the second phase saw the annexation of Southern Italy and most of Central Italy by Piedmont, and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy.
  • Finally, in 1870, the third and last phase of the Risorgimento resulted in the defeat of the Pope and the annexation of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy.
  • After the unification, the Italians still had to grapple with the political, economic and cultural challenges of forming a single country out of many different political entities and societies.

Origins of the Risorgimento (1796-1848)

From 1796 to 1815, the Italian Peninsula experienced a transformative era under the domination of Napoleonic France, which introduced a range of reforms in the region. First of all, the French brought a centralized form of governance. This replaced the patchwork of local and regional Italian authorities with a strengthened government that allowed for more streamlined decision-making and efficient implementation of public policies. Also, there was the introduction of the Napoleonic Code, which modernized the legal system. It abolished feudal privileges, introduced equality before the law, and secularized the state. Finally, the French introduced new economic policies, including the promotion of industry and commerce. This was a significant shift for many parts of the country, which was predominantly agrarian and underdeveloped back then.

Napoleonic practices were markedly different from the traditional practices of the fragmented Italian states, and they had an impact there even after Napoleon was long gone. From 1815 onwards, the Italians contrasted the efficient French administration with the flaws of the absolutist regimes that governed them. This comparison stimulated the idea of unification, as people yearned for better governance. Thus, several movements emerged or gained strength:

  • The Carbonari: It was an informal network of secret revolutionary societies active in Italy, particularly in the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily, from about 1800 to 1831. Its name meant “charcoal makers” and came from the trade of their original members, who were involved in charcoal production and conducted meetings in relative obscurity. In the context of the Revolutions of the 1820s, the Carbonari briefly succeeded in imposing a constitutional monarchy on King Ferdinand I. However, this victory was short-lived. In the Congress of Laibach, the European powers approved an Austrian intervention that suppressed the movement.
  • League of the Sublime and Perfect Masters: It was a clandestine and revolutionary organization, established in 1818 by Filippo Buonarroti, under the umbrella of the Carbonari groups. Functioning similarly to a Masonic Lodge, the society had its base in Turin, in Northern Italy. Its primary objective was to achieve independence from Austrian rule and, in the long term, it likely wanted to attain its founder’s goal of establishing a communist society. Buonarroti utilized this group to orchestrate and influence seditions throughout Italy. However, due to its covert nature and organizational structure, concrete evidence regarding its activities remains scant.
  • Constitutional Revolt in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia: In Northern Italy, King Victor Emmanuel I commanded an absolutist regime under Austrian influence. In 1821, a Carbonari-inspired movement took hold as a response to the oppressive and outdated policies of the regime. The revolutionaries sought the formation of a constitutional monarchy and compelled the king to abdicate. He chose to step down in favor of his brother, Charles Felix. However, the new king was a staunch absolutist and his ascension to the throne did not quell the unrest. Under the pressure of external powers and the internal resistance from the monarchy, the constitutional revolt in Piedmont was eventually repressed.
  • Anti-Papal Revolt in Bologna: At the time, Bologna was under the control of the Papal States, ruled directly by the Pope. Its governance was typically conservative and aligned with the broader interests of the Catholic Church, what challenged the European revolutionary atmosphere of the early 19th century. Some Italians rose in revolt against the Pope, but Austrian troops intervened, overthrowing the provisional government that had been set up and restoring the authority of the Church over the region.

Because these movements ultimately failed due to foreign interventions, Italian revolutionaries increasingly began to link the idea of constitutionalism with that of freedom from foreign rule — that is, independence.

Imbued with this spirit, former Carbonari member Giuseppe Mazzini founded the Young Italy movement in 1832. This group aimed to establish a unified and republican Italy, rooted in the pursuit of economic progress, though Mazzini himself was anti-communist. However, despite inspiring many revolutionaries, the uprisings organized by Young Italy remained local and limited, lacking mass participation. In exile, Mazzini influenced other nationalist movements, like Young Germany, Young France, Young Poland, and Young Switzerland. As historian Eric Hobsbawm argues, these organizations had little practical relevance, but their symbolic importance must not be understated, for they “mark the disintegration of the European revolutionary movement into national segments”.

The First Italian War of Independence (1848-1849)

By 1848, the Italian Peninsula was experiencing a form of economic-cultural nationalism. Economically, most of the region lagged behind other countries and its inhabitants wanted to create a unified nation in order to foster industrialization — the sole exception was Lombardy, which flourished in the silk industry. Culturally, there were several moderate intellectuals who advocated for political reforms, even though their actions were not overtly revolutionary.

In the context of the Revolutions of 1848, Pope Pius IX assumed power and soon found himself torn between conflicting demands from conservatives and liberals. He appointed an enlightened minister, Pellegrino Rossi, to administer the Papal States, and he was hostile to Austrian influence in the Italian Peninsula. He implemented reforms such as freeing political prisoners and increasing religious freedom. Because of these measures, he inadvertently spurred Italian revolutionaries, leading to the First Italian War of Independence.

There were widespread revolts across Italy, but none were successful:

  • Lombardy approved a unification with Piedmont, but both were defeated by the Austrians. King Charles Albert of Piedmont abdicated in favor of his son Victor Emmanuel II, who reverted to absolutism with Austrian support.
  • Led by Daniele Manin, Venice sought independence with the support of Piedmont and Hungarian rebels, but ultimately failed.
  • In Rome, Pope Pius IX retreated from liberal policies to authoritarianism, what made the revolutionaries turn against him and establish the Roman Republic. However, Austria and France intervened to restored papal power.
  • In Sicily, an island that was a part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, separatists produced a constitution advocating the principle of popular sovereignty. The monarch reacted by offering autonomy to the island as a compromise solution, the Act of Gaeta, but the rebels rejected it. Thus, control over the island was forcefully recaptured by the monarch.
An 1876 painting by Napoleone Nani depicting the independentist movement in Venice, led by Danielle Manin.
An 1876 painting by Napoleone Nani depicting the independentist movement in Venice, led by Danielle Manin. Public domain image.

The failures of the 1848-1849 revolts led to a significant shift in Italian political thought. Mazzini’s ideals of republicanism and political revolution lost favor. Instead, a consensus emerged that different Italian political factions needed to unite to achieve independence. This led to the proposal of a temporary suspension of ideological debates until independence was secured.

Cavour and the Favorable Context (1849-1859)

In 1852, Camillo Cavour became prime minister of Piedmont, skillfully navigating the political landscape. He began to dominate Piedmontese politics by means of an alliance (connubio, or marriage) between his center-right party and the center-left factions. This balanced him against both the risk of a monarchical dictatorship and that of a republic in the Mazzinian extremist vein. He also modernized Piedmont through trade agreements with Austria, Belgium, France and Britain, through the adoption of new productive technologies, and through anti-clerical policies. These initiatives made him garner support from both democrats and republicans, and allowed him to garner support for Italian independence as well.

From 1853 to 1856, Piedmont took part in the Crimean War under the influence of King Victor Emmanuel II. Cavour accepted to engage in this conflict so as not to oppose the monarch, and he profited from this at the Congress of Paris (1856), in which peace talks were held. There he voiced concerns about Austrian dominance in Northern Italy, attempting to win sympathy from European powers.

Furthermore, he forged an alliance with Napoleon III of France in January 1859, securing the pact through a Franco-Piedmontese noble marriage.

Finally, on the domestic front, he tried to get closer to Italian patriots by arguing that only Piedmont’s army was strong enough to secure Italian independence.

The Stages of Italian Unification (1859-1870)

The unification of Italy gained momentum in 1859, when Cavour provoked Austria with military maneuvers. The Austrians responded with an ultimatum, demanding military demobilization and the disbandment of the Italian National Society — an organization that espoused the prime minister’s ideas. However, Cavour’s rejection of these stipulations led to the Second Italian War of Independence, in which Piedmont fought alongside France against Austria.

At that time, the international context favored Piedmontese ambitions:

  • Russia resented Austria’s lack of support during the Crimean War.
  • Prussia felt humiliated by the Austrians since it had attempted to exert more control over the German Confederation.
  • France would accept Piedmontese expansion in order to counter Austria.
  • Great Britain was willing to provide direct support for Piedmont, to avoid the risk of an independent Italy becoming a satellite state of France.

Yet there were outbursts of revolutionary activity during the war, and they made Napoleon III withdraw from the conflict. He was afraid that Central Italy would fall into the hands of Piedmont rather than those of the Pope. Because of this, he signed an armistice with Austria in July 1859. This agreement ceded Lombardy to France (and later to Piedmont), left Venice with Austria, restored the monarchs of Tuscany and Modena, and reaffirmed the authority of the Pope.

Cavour handed in his resignation after Victor Emmanuel II accepted the armistice, but soon returned to power with popular support. He then persuaded France to accept Northern Italy’s annexation by Piedmont. In particular, the Piedmontese acquired Tuscany and Emilia in exchange for giving Savoy and Nice to the French — this was the end of the first stage of the Italian unification.

The second phase of the Risorgimento took place when Giuseppe Garibaldi moved to gain control over Southern Italy. He had been a follower of Giuseppe Mazzini, but broke with the latter because he thought an alliance with the monarchists of Piedmont would better serve the cause of Italian independence. Garibaldi assembled a corps of volunteers called the “Red Shirts” and sailed to the island of Sicily in the Expedition of the Thousand. His goal was to implement a republic there, but he did not want to provoke a social revolution. Instead, he established a dictatorial regime, in which peasants were oppressed and instability was a constant factor. Then, he decided to attack Naples, the continental part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and to move towards Rome.

His actions were adamantly opposed by Cavour, who wanted to avoid the possibility of a French intervention in the Italian Peninsula so as to preserve the Church’s authority over the Papal States. The Piedmontese government orchestrated an occupation of Central Italy with French consent, as long as its troops did not pose a threat to the Pope in Rome. Thanks to this, Piedmont acquired both the territories of Central Italy and of the Two Sicilies.

By March 1861, Victor Emmanuel II declared the formation of the independent Kingdom of Italy, but Rome and Venice remained outside its control — the former was still governed by the Pope and the latter was subjugated by Austria. The country was a constitutional monarchy under the influence of Cavour, who strived to prevent the extremism of revolutionaries such as Garibaldi. However, the prime minister died in June 1861, thus before the end of the Risorgimento.

A detailed painting depicts a grand historical event inside an ornate assembly hall filled with hundreds of men dressed in 19th-century formal attire. The focus is on a central figure standing at a podium draped with a luxurious red velvet cloth, addressing the gathered crowd. The atmosphere is one of solemnity and significance, with Italian flags adorning the balconies and walls of the richly decorated room, suggesting a pivotal moment of state importance, likely the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy.
The ceremony of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy and the installment of the first Italian Parliament, painted by Induno in 1861. Public domain picture.

In April 1866, amidst the Austro-Prussian War in the context of the unification of Germany, Italy aligned itself with Prussia. In return, the Italians requested both Venice and Mantua, and obtained them after the war, at the Peace of Vienna, in October 1666. According to this treaty, not only did Austria cede territory to Italy, but it also formally recognized the existence of the new kingdom. Nevertheless, the status of Rome remained in question.

The third and last phase of the Risorgimento occurred in September 1870, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War, also related to the unification of Germany. The Italians profited from the temporary vulnerability of the French to mount an offensive against the Papal States. While the French Second Empire collapsed and gave its place to a republic, Italy annexed Rome and thus consolidated its rule over the entire Italian Peninsula.

Conclusion: Italy after the Unification

Italy came into being as a constitutional monarchy centered around Piedmontese power. Even though the Italians held practical control over Rome, the status of the city (the Roman Question) remained unresolved until 1929, because the Church refused to recognize the formation of the Kingdom of Italy.

Newly-unified Italy faced numerous challenges — namely, a poor economy, resistance to Piedmontese dominance, a restricted electoral system (only 2% of the population voted), regional disparities between the industrial North and the agrarian South, and the lack of an Italian national culture and identity.

The Risorgimento was not just a political or military struggle; it was a complex amalgamation of ideas, failures, and re-strategizing. It enabled the eventual unification of Italy, and its lessons in unity and strategic adaptation remain relevant in understanding the formation of modern nations. It was also a pivotal moment in European history, as a part of a context of nationalism, state-building, and modernization that characterized the late 19th and early 20th centuries.




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