- In Italian, the Risorgimento means the awakening of national sentiment that led to the creation of the modern Italian state. The decisive moment for Italian political unity was the wars of 1859–1861. Thanks to a felicitous combination of international and domestic factors and skillful diplomacy, Italy was substantially united under the rule of the House of Savoy. First, the international context was favorable for the reduction of Austrian power in Italy. Austria had isolated itself during the Crimean War by staying neutral and was facing France’s challenge to its role as the power broker in Europe. Liberal England, moreover, wished to see the end of the anachronistic absolutist regime of the Bourbons in southern Italy. Within Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia, thanks to the modernizing efforts of Camillo Benso di Cavour, had emerged as a power of some weight capable of attracting the middle classes of Lombardy, Tuscany, and the rest of northern Italy to its cause. Liberal and nationalist ideas, moreover, were widespread by the end of the 1850s. The views of Vincenzo Gioberti, Cesare Balbo, and Massimo D’Azeglio had been read by every educated Italian, and republicans and democrats such as Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini also had a substantial following, particularly in central Italy. Cavour’s unique diplomatic skills turned these favorable conditions into political action. First, he persuaded Napoleon III to ally France to Piedmont in July 1858 at Plombieres by promising France Nice and the duchies of central Italy (the eventual status of Savoy was left open) in exchange for French assistance to liberate Lombardy and Venetia from Austrian rule. The four northern Italian regions so liberated were then to form a federation under the presidency of the Pope. Cavour then goaded Austria into declaring war in April 1859, allowing Piedmont-Sardinia to appear as the innocent victim of an act of aggression by a larger power. As the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino demonstrated, without French support the Piedmontese army would never have been able to defeat the Austrians. Simultaneous insurrections in Tuscany, Modena, and Parma in favor of unification with Turin were in large part organized by Cavour’s agents, thus nullifying the Plombieres agreement by thwarting Napoleon III’s ambitions. The peace of Villafranca in July 1859—which granted Lombardy to Piedmont but insisted on the return of absolute rule in central Italy—was a tardy attempt by Napoleon and the Austrians to close the Pandora’s box opened by their own ambition. The treaty provoked Cavour’s resignation, but by now the movement for unification with Piedmont in central Italy was too strong to be blocked by anything short of a bloody war of repression. Cavour returned triumphantly to office in January 1860 and, in exchange for the cession of Savoy as well as Nice to France, was allowed to incorporate all of north-central Italy into PiedmontSardinia. Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi regarded Cavour’s patient diplomacy as too cautious, however. At the beginning of 1860, the so-called Action Party was founded with the specific goal of liberating Rome, Venice, and southern Italy from absolutist and Papal rule. In April 1860, Garibaldi and his “Thousand” redshirts sailed from Genoa to Palermo to assist the Mazzinian uprising that had broken out against Bourbon rule. With the assistance of the British fleet, Garibaldi disembarked and swiftly established his personal dictatorship over Sicily. In August 1860, he crossed the Strait of Messina at the head of an army of Sicilians and marched on Naples, which he entered in September without encountering resistance. He was joined by Mazzini and Cattaneo, who openly argued that the redshirts’conquests should herald a democratic and republican solution to the unification of Italy.Cavour, alarmed by this project, used the threat of a democratic revolution in Italy to persuade France to give him a free hand in southern Italy. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States and blocked Garibaldi’s road to Rome, and at Teano on 26 October 1860, Garibaldi ceded his conquests in person to Victor Emmanuel II. This decision was confirmed by regional plebiscites in February 1861. Only the wealthiest citizens were allowed to vote, and, particularly in the south, ballot fraud was widespread. Italy had completed its liberal revolution but had installed a regime that was ignorant of the needs of the southern peasantry and strongly identified with the interests of the northern upper classes. It is not fanciful to claim that many of Italy’s subsequent problems stemmed from the political settlement of the process of unification.See also Monarchy.
Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. Mark F. Gilbert & K. Robert Nilsson. 2007.
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