The Italian Unification

During the 18th century, intellectual changes began to dismantle traditional values and institutions. Liberal ideas from France and Britain spread rapidly, and from 1789 the French Revolution became the genesis of "liberal Italians".  A series of political and military events resulted in a unified kingdom of Italy in 1861.

The settlements reached in 1815 at the Vienna Congress had restored Austrian domination over the Italian peninsula but had left Italy completely fragmented . The Congress had divided the territory among a number of European nations and the victors of the Napoleonic Wars.  The Kingdom of Sardinia recovered Piedmont (Piemonte), Nice, and Savoy and acquired Genoa.  

There were three major obstacles to unity at the time the congress took place, i.e. (a) the Austrian occupation of Lombardy and Venice in the north, (b) the principality under the sovereignty of the pope, i.e. the Papal States that controlled the center of the Italian peninsula; and  (c) the existence of various states that had maintained independence, such as the Kingdom of Sardinia, also called Piedmont-Sardinia, which located at the French border had slowly expanded since the Middle Ages and was considered the most advanced state in Italy. The Kingdom of Sardinia consisted of the  island of Sardinia and the region called Piedmont in northwestern Italy. The Kingdom of Sicily that occupied the island of Sicily and the entire southern half of the Italian peninsula . Other small states were the duchies of Toscana (Tuscany), Parma, and Modena.  In each of these states, the monarchs (all relatives of the Habsburgs, the ruling family of Austria) exercised absolute powers of government.

Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian patriot spearheaded a national revolutionary movement.  Mazzini's ideology of an independent integrated republic spread quickly among large segments of the Italian people.  Revolutionary cells formed throughout the Italian peninsula.  

Massive reforms that took place during the 1840s in the Papal States, Lucca, Tuscany, and the Kingdom of Sardinia were intended to slow the revolutionary movements, instead these reforms (1846 and 1847) only intensified the resolve of the revolutionary cells culminating in the Revolutions of 1848, that spread to Germany, the Austrian Empire, France, and parts of northern Italy. 

The first revolution on the Italian peninsula took place in the Kingdom of Sicily, which resulted in a constitution for the whole kingdom. An insurrection in 1848 caused pope Pius IX to flee Rome and a republic was proclaimed. King Charles Albert of Sardinia mobilized his army and marched to the assistance of Lombardy and joined in the war to drive the Austrians from Italian soil.  

While it initially looked as if  the independence and  unity of Italy was a realistic possibility, the Austrians defeated the Piedmontese and Charles Albert had to abdicate.  His son, Victor Emmanuel II, succeeded him in 1849.   A new revolutionary leader, Giuseppe Garibaldi, could not avoid Rome's destruction by the French in 1849.  Only Sardinia held firm to their constitutional government 

Count Camillo di Cavour became prime minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia  In 1852 . It was his leadership and accommodating  policies that led to the unification of Italy in little more than a decade.

Cavour was able to persuade Napoleon to a secretly planned war against Austria.  By early 1859, Cavour had caused a crisis that provoked  the Austrians to send an ultimatum demanding Piedmontese disarmament. As part of the "plan", Cavour rejected the ultimatum which led to the subsequent war with the Austrians.  The French came to the aid of the Piedmontese and the Austrians were defeated in the two major battles of Magenta and Solferino.  The Austrians were forced to surrender Lombardy, with its great city of Milan (my home town), to Napoleon III.  Finally, in 1859, Napoleon transferred Lombardy to the sovereignty of Victor Emmanuel II.

Following elections during 1859 and 1860, all northern states (of the Italian peninsula), except Venetia, which was still part of Austria, joined the Kingdom of Sardinia. Napoleon's growing concern with respect to the sudden (large) size of his neighbor  was resolved in part  by the cessation of the Sardinian provinces of Savoy, near the Alps, and Nice, on the Mediterranean coast to France in 1860 .  After 1860, the only French presence on the Italian peninsula was in the city of Rome, where French troops remained at the request of the pope.

Giuseppe Garibaldi  Italian nationalist revolutionary hero and leader in the struggle for Italian unification and independence.  Born in 1807 in Nice, France, he joined Mazzini's movement  in 1833.  In 1834 Garibaldi was ordered to seize a warship, but the plot was discovered by police and he was condemned to death.  He escaped to South America, where he lived for 12 years. There he displayed unusual qualities of military leadership while participating in the revolt of the state of Rio Grande do Sul against Brazil, as well as later in a civil war in Uruguay.

In 1848, Garibaldi traveled to the United States settled in Staten Island, New York, and later became a US citizen. During the same year he returned to Italy and participated (again) in the movement for Italian freedom and unification, which became widely known as the Risorgimento (Italian for "revival"). He organized a corps of volunteers, which served under the Piedmontese ruler Charles Albert, king of Sardinia.  He unsuccessfully waged war against  the Austrians in Lombardy and  led his volunteers to Rome to support the Roman Republic established by Mazzini and others in 1849.  Garibaldi defended Rome, initially successfully, against French forces, but in the end was forced to "settle"  with the French. He was allowed to depart from Rome with about 5000 of his followers.  However,  the line of retreat reached directly through Austrians controlled territory.  Garibaldi's force was killed, captured, or dispersed during his attempt to retreat, and Garibaldi had to flee Italy to save his life.

He returned to Italy in 1854 where he settled down on the island of Caprera northeast of Sardinia.  By this time, Garibaldi had separated politically from Mazzini, and had formed an alliance with Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Sardinia,  and his premier, Conte Camillo Benso di Cavour.  Given Garibaldi's popularity and large following, thousands of Italians gave their allegiance to  the Sardinian monarch.

Garibaldi's dream of a united Italy motivated his successful expedition against the Austrian forces in the Alps in 1859.  In 1860 he conquered Sicily and set up a provisional insular government.  Garibaldi then conquered Naples, which he then delivered to Victor Emmanuel in 1861 and returned to his home on Caprera. With the annexation of Umbria and Marches from the papal government, a united Italy was finally established in 1861 with Victor Emmanuel as its king. The Italian kingdom was missing Rome, which was still a papal possession, and Venice, which was controlled by the Austrians.

Venice was added to Italy in 1866 after Prussia defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks' War, in which Italy sided with Prussia; Venice was its reward. Then, in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Rome. With the city of Rome and the remaining Papal States left unprotected, Italian troops moved into Rome without opposition. Rome voted for union with Italy in October 1870 and, in July 1871, Rome became the capital of a united Italy.


1672-1803 Muratori, Alfieri and Genovesi ignite the fire of revolution.

1796   Milan is occupied by the French under French General Napoleon Bonaparte who founds the Cispadane Republic (including Modena, Bologna, and Ferrara).

1797  Pope submits to Bonaparte; Uprisings against French in Verona; French enter Venice;  Cisalpine Republic established in Lombardy; Venice given to Austria.

1798   Roman Republic declared; Ferdinand IV enters Rome (later retaken by French); Abdication of Charles Emmanuel IV of Savoy.

1799   French occupation of Naples; Milan taken by Russians; Austrians enter Turin; Naples capitulates to Bourbons.

1801   Napoleon occupies Milan; Kingdom of Etruria founded by Napoleon in Tuscany; Treaty of Florence between France and Naples.

1802   Cisalpine Republic called Italian Republic; France annexes Piedmont.

1805   Napoleon crowns himself King of Italy; Ligurian Republic annexed to France; also Parma and Piacenza.

1806   Venetia annexed to Kingdom of Italy; Joseph Bonaparte declared King of the Two Sicilies.

1808   Joachim Murat becomes King of Naples; Papal States partly annexed to Kingdom of Italy.

1809   Napoleon annexes Rome and Papal States to French empire.

1814   Napoleon defeated; banished to Elba.

1820   Revolt in Naples.

1821   Revolt in Piedmont.

1831   Revolution in the Papal States; King Charles Albert becomes King of Sardinia; "Young Italy" founded by Mazzini.

1845   Pius IX becomes Pope.

1848   Uprisings in Palermo; Constitutional edict in Naples; Constitutional monarchy proclaimed in Piedmont;  Constitution granted in Rome, Republic proclaimed with Mazzini as head. Successful revolution in Milan; Venice proclaimed a Republic; Charles Albert [Piedmont and Sardinia] invades Lombardy;  Tuscan forces invade Lombardy; Naples constitution denied; Union of Venetia and Piedmont declared, soon overthrown; Battle of Custozza, Charles Albert defeated.

1849   Charles Albert abdicates in favor of Victor Emmanuel II; Sicilian revolution crushed by Naples; Austrians take Florence; Venice surrenders to Austria.

1850   Cavour becomes Prime Minister in Sardinia-Piedmonte.

1852   Napoleon III becomes emperor of France.

1858   Meeting of Cavour and Napoleon III.

1859   War between Austria and Sardinia Piedmont; Austria defeated by Piemontese and French; Sardinia gains Lombardy.

1860   Tuscany and Emilia declare for union with Sardinia-Piedmonte; Revolution in Sicily, Garibaldi lands and is victorious; invades Italy and gains victory; enters Naples Piemontese army under Victor Emmanuel take over from Garibaldi; Marche and Umbria vote for annexation to Piedmonte.

1861   Sicily and Naples vote to join Kingdom of Italy; Kingdom of Italy proclaimed.

1866   Italy joins Prussia in War against Austria; gains Venetia;

1870   Italian troops occupy Rome when French abandon city;

1871 (July)   Rome made Capital of Kingdom


Links:  Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento


Created: November 1996
Updated: 03/06/05
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