Italian Unification: Cavour and Garibaldi


Italian Unification. Cavour, Garibaldi and the Making of Italy

In 1815 at the close of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the statesmen representing the great powers, in their efforts to restore stable governance to Europe after twenty-six years of turmoil, came to accept (under the persuasion of Talleyrand - the Foreign Minister of the recently restored French monarchy) that "legitimate sovereigns" should be restored, where possible, to their thrones.

Prior to the first irruption of what developed into French, and European, revolutionary unrest after 1789 the political shape of the Italian peninsula derived in large part from the influence of Papal diplomacy over the previous millenium where the Popes had tended to strongly support the existence of a number of small states in the north of the peninsula such that no strong power might presume to try to overshadow the papacy.
Such political decentralisation may have facilitated the emergence of a number of mercantile city states such as the Florence of the Medicis and the Milan of the Sforzas and to have allowed a scenario where ambitious men such as Cesare Borgia could attempt to establish themselves as rulers of territories won by statecraft and the sword. The burgeoning wealth of these city states, despite much political turmoil, helped to fund that re-birth of classical learning and of artistic expression that is known as the Renaissance.
As time passed some of these mercantile states became reconstituted as Duchies and Grand Duchies. By the mid eighteenth century the north of the Italian peninsula featured a number of such dynastic states together with mercantile republics such as Genoa and Venice. The former Duchy of Savoy meanwhile, originally based on limited territories north of the Alps, had expanded to also include Nice, Piedmont (an extensive territory in the north-east of the Italian peninsula) and the island of Sardinia and was now known now by its senior title as the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Noble House of Savoy maintained its court at Turin in Piedmont.

In the settlements to the Napoleonic Wars statesmen, in their efforts to restore political stability to Europe, reconstituted most of the Duchies and Grand Duchies often under rulers drawn from junior branches of the Habsburg dynasty or otherwise under Habsburg Austrian tutelage. Habsburg Austria was awarded sovereignty over Lombardy and over the former Venetian Republic whilst the Republic of Genoa was similarly entrusted to the House of Savoy. The territories of the chuch that straddled the central portion of the peninsula were again placed under Papal sovereignty whilst to the south the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) was restored to a junior branch of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, later famous as an Italian patriotic leader, recorded his introduction to the concept of "Italia" as having taken place during a voyage to Constantinople in 1833.
During the course of this voyage he overheard an argument. A young man had been talking about a secret organisation he had joined - La Giovine Italia - or Young Italy. One of his companions commented dismissively, "What do you mean Italy? What is Italy?" The young man now spoke enthusiastically of a "new Italy ... United Italy. The Italy of all the Italians." Garibaldi recorded that listening to these words he felt "as Columbus must have done when he first caught sight of land". In response to this awakening to the idea of "Italia - Italy" he moved to skake the young man enthusiastically by the hand.

The belief that "Italia" was a desireable possibility can be associated with the change in perspectives that many people, particularly from the more affluent artisan, middle and minor aristocratic classes, underwent after the American and French revolutions away from an acceptance of more purely dynastic patterns of sovereignty and towards aspiration towards "liberal" constitutional, and possibly even overtly republican or national notions of sovereignty.

The central figure in the origin of "Young Italy" was one Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), who in 1821 in Genoa had witnessed the distress of the "refugees of Italy" who were in the process of fleeing into exile after their failure of their revolutionary efforts at winning reform and, moved by their example, had chosen to devote his life to the cause of Italian independence and unity. In 1827 he was initiated into Carbonari movement and was himself forced into exile in 1831 for revolutionary activity. In exile in the French seaport city of Marseilles, then something of a revolutionary hotbed, he advocated subversive activity "even when it ended in defeat" as a method of developing general "political consciousness." He also began to move away from the philosophy of the Carbonari and subsequently founded Giovine Italia (Young Italy) a movement dedicated to securing "for Italy Unity, Independence, and Liberty."

Mazzini's revolutionary vision extended beyond the limited objective of Italian national unity towards the liberation of all oppressed peoples. He hoped for a new democratic and republican Italy that would lead other subject peoples to freedom and liberty and for a new Europe, controlled by the people and not by sovereigns, that would replace the old order.
Camillo Benso Cavour was born at Turin on the 1st of August 1810 into the old Piedmontese feudal aristocracy. Being a younger son of a noble family social tradition steered him into the army such that he entered the military academy at Turin at the age of ten. On leaving the college at the age of sixteen - first of his class - he received a commission in the engineers. He spent the next five years in the army but he spent his leisure hours in study, especially of the English language. During these years he developed strongly marked Liberal tendencies and an uncompromising dislike for absolutism and clericalism. After the accession to the Sardinian throne of Charles Albert, whom he always distrusted, he felt that his position in the army was intolerable and resigned his commission (1831). Cavour’s political ideas were greatly influenced by the July revolution of 1830 in France, which seemed to him to prove that an historic monarchy was not incompatible with Liberal principles, and he became more than ever convinced of the benefits of a constitutional monarchy as opposed both to absolutism and to republicanism. His views were strengthened by his studies of the British constitution, of which he was known to be a great admirer such that he was even nicknamed - " Milord Camillo ”

During these times the Austrian statesman Metternich was aware of the implicit challenge posed to the settlements of 1815 by those who supported the the formation of "Italy". In letter of April 1847 to the Austrian ambassador to France he wrote:-

"The word 'Italy' is a geographical expression, a description which is useful shorthand, but has none of the political significance the efforts of the revolutionary ideologues try to put on it, and which is full of dangers for the very existence of the states which make up the peninsula."

  In 1847 Cavour was involved in the the founding of "Il Risorgimento", a newspaper whose very publication had been facilitated by a recent relaxation of censorship, which became the official voice for the Italian National Movement. He successfully pressed King Charles Albert of Sardinia to grant a constitution to his people [to form a constitutional monarchy]; and in 1848 to battle against Austria as an holder of power in the Italian penisula. The failure of this military action prompted the king to abdicate in favour of his son, Victor Emmanuel.