Cavour, Camillo Benso di


Cavour, Camillo Benso di
(1810–1861)
   The younger son of a noble family from Turin, Cavour entered politics by way of journalism. In 1847, he founded Il Risorgimento, a liberal journal that pressed for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Philosophically, Cavour was influenced by English utilitarianism, especially Bentham, and the classical economists (Adam Smith, David Riccardo, John Stuart Mill). But an even greater influence was the French philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville. Like de Tocqueville, Cavour was an aristocratic liberal, convinced of the need for wider political participation but acutely aware of the dangers of the coming democratic age.
   Cavour favored Piedmontese intervention in the Lombardy uprising against Austrian rule in 1848; in 1849, he was elected to the first constitutionally elected Parliament in Turin. His ministerial career began almost immediately; long interested in modern techniques of scientific farming, he became minister for agriculture in 1850. He was promoted to the finance ministry the following year. Cavour became prime minister of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1852. His sojourn in office was characterized by the far-reaching modernization of the economy and society. Faithful to his liberal principles, Cavour slashed tariffs and encouraged foreign investment, multiplying annual exports to the rest of Europe fourfold by the end of the 1850s, although the benefits of this increased economic activity went mostly to the propertied classes, not to the urban poor. At the cost of perilously indebting the state, Cavour also initiated many public works to raise the standard of infrastructure to European levels and modernized the organizational structure and military preparedness of the army.
   Cavour’s spell as prime minister was also characterized by an attack on the privileges of the Church. In part to placate the anticlerical Left who were supporting him in Parliament, in 1855 Cavour introduced a law abolishing the contemplative orders of monks (i.e., those who did not fulfill a teaching function or perform good works). The passage of the legge sui frati was one of the most strenuous challenges to Cavour’s authority of his entire ministry, and thereafter he followed a more conciliatory policy toward the Church, proclaiming his belief in a “free church in a free state.” Cavour’s foreign policy initially aimed less at Italian unification than at extending Sardinia’s authority over the whole of northern Italy. The failure of the Sardinian army to drive Austria out of the North in 1848–1849, however, had convinced Cavour that Sardinia would only be able to expand its territorial possessions in Italy with the help of Britain and France. To ingratiate himself with the two liberal European powers, Cavour agreed to send a corps of soldiers to the Crimea in 1854, a move that secured him no concrete territorial advantage but did enable him to raise the Italian question, in the teeth of fervent Austrian opposition, at the subsequent Paris peace conference in February–March 1856. Cavour’s chosen ally was Napoleon III of France, against whom an assassination attempt was made by an Italian nationalist in January 1858. Cavour used the attack as a means of emphasizing the relative moderation of Sardinia, and in July 1858, he signed the pact of Plombieres with Napoleon. By this agreement, Cavour ceded Nice and Savoy to France and conceded that southern Italy and the central Italian states would be placed under the control of rulers favorable to France in exchange for a French guarantee of military assistance in the event of an Austrian war on Piedmont-Sardinia. Piedmont-Sardinia would add Lombardy and Venetia to its possessions after a victorious war.
   This cynical deal was nullified by events once Austria had declared war on Piedmont in April 1859. Pro-Piedmontese insurrections broke out in Tuscany, Modena, and the Papal States (Cavour’s agents had been at work), and Napoleon, seeing his own hopes of territorial gains in Italy evaporating, did his best to repair the damage by abandoning the war against Austria and reneging on the pact of Plombieres. The peace of Villafranca (July 1859) left Austria still in command of Venetia, and Cavour, who was no favorite of King Victor Emmanuel II, was forced to resign. Moody by nature, Cavour contemplated suicide after this disaster for his strategy. He was out of office for a mere six months. The duchies of central Italy were determined to unify with Piedmont, and Cavour was called back to office to negotiate their annexation with Napoleon III. While Cavour was dexterously completing this task, radical nationalists, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, were contemplating less diplomatic methods of completing Italian unification. Cavour was initially skeptical of Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily in the spring of 1860, but once the redshirts had seized power in Palermo and crossed into southern Italy, Cavour was quick both to take advantage of the collapse of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and to prevent the contagion of nationalist and democratic ideas from spreading. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States in September 1860, and at Teano on 26 October 1860, Garibaldi surrendered his conquests to Victor Emmanuel II. Cavour’s subtle Realpolitik had been successful beyond his own intentions: Piedmont-Sardinia had effectively digested most of the rest of Italy, with the consent of the great European powers. Cavour became the first prime minister of the new Kingdom of Italy in March 1861. In June 1861, years of overeating and excessive drinking caught up with the Piedmontese statesman, and he died without warning at the still relatively young age of 51. Italy was left to face the challenge of completing its reunification without the services of the one 19th-century Italian statesman of comparable stature to Otto von Bismarck, William Gladstone, or Klemens von Metternich.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

Look at other dictionaries:

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