How Was Italy Unified? Alan Farmer Examines the Process Which Led to the Unification of Italy

By Farmer, Allan | History Review, March 2006 | Go to article overview

How Was Italy Unified? Alan Farmer Examines the Process Which Led to the Unification of Italy


Farmer, Allan, History Review


'Gary Baldy united Italy with the help of his Victory Manual'. Can anything positive be said about this apocryphal A-level answer? Certainly during the mid-19th century Italy was united. The acquisition of Rome in 1870 was the final phase of the unification movement or Risorgimento. But just how important were the roles of Garibaldi and King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont in the unification process?

Italy in the Early 19th Century

By the late 18th century there were eleven states in the Italian peninsula. In the 1790s France conquered most of the peninsula, remaining in control until 1814. Some Italians preferred French occupation to the anciens regimes. However, opposition to aspects of French rule--conscription, heavy taxes, repressive anti-clerical measures--provoked hostility and may have helped promote nationalist sentiment. The Vienna peacemakers, anxious to suppress revolutionary movements and to prevent France regaining control of Italy at a future date, tried to ensure that Austria dominated the peninsula. Lombardy and Venetia were placed under direct Austrian rule, while members of the Habsburg family were installed as the ruling sovereigns of most other Italian states. There was no suggestion of establishing a Confederation under Austrian control as was done with Germany. Italy, in Metternich's view, was no more than a 'geographical expression'. Given the strength of local loyalties and bitter regional antagonisms, the notion of a united Italy seemed a political fantasy in 1815.

Secret societies, like the Carbonari, became the focal point for individuals with grievances against the restored monarchies. Most society members did not agree about the means to achieve their ends or even about the ends themselves. A few dreamt of Italy becoming a single nation with a democratically elected parliament. Most simply wished for local constitutional reform. The only thing they had in common was a desire to kick out the absolute monarchs and free Italy from Austria's grasp. Revolutions in 1820-1 and 1831 were unsuccessful. Austrian troops quickly restored order. The secret societies failed to generate mass support and were not up to the task of directing a great national revival.

Mazzini, Gioberti and Balbo

In 1831 Giuseppe Mazzini launched 'Young Italy'. Those who joined the society had to swear to dedicate themselves to the endeavour to make Italy 'one free, independent republican nation'. Believing that Italians must achieve unity by their own efforts, Mazzini envisaged 'Young Italy' inciting a war of national liberation against Austria and the petty despots. Pinning his hopes on the educated middle class and urban artisans, he had little faith in the peasantry and thus little interest in land reform which might have brought the rural masses to his side.

Mazzini's efforts to spark a war of liberation failed miserably and in 1836 he was forced to disband 'Young Italy'. His movement was too idealistic to be a practical blueprint for revolution. However, his writings helped put the idea of a united Italy firmly on the political agenda and his influence on a section of patriots, not least Garibaldi, was huge. In the 1830s and 1840s the idea of an independent Italy captured the minds of writers, historians and composers and a host of poems, books and operas emphasised Italy's glorious past.

Mazzini was not the only Italian ideologist. Gioberti in the early 1840s dismissed total Italian unity as 'madness', rejected revolutionary methods and saw no future for republicanism. Instead he placed his hopes in the Pope, whom he envisaged as leader of a federation of existing Italian states. Balbo had a different vision. While accepting Gioberti's idea of an Italian federation, he saw no specific role for the Pope. He claimed that Piedmont was the only Italian state capable of expelling Austria from Italy--the first step to political change. He thus advocated that its king should lead the federation. …

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