The unification of Italy was one of the most impressive political and military achievements in the 19th century, a process accomplished partly by the efforts of romantic patriots and partly by the efforts of a calculating statesman. For centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula had been home to an odd assortment of independent city-states and then small territorial states, which were occasionally subject to foreign domination by larger states, including Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire early on, and later, Bourbon and imperial France and the Hapsburgs.

After Napoleon I was defeated, the Congress of Vienna restored Italy to its status ante-bellum; it was divided into a number of territories, most of which were ruled by outside powers.




Kingdom of the Two Sicilies

Naples and the southern part of the Italian peninsula were restored.

Spanish Bourbons

Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont)

Savoy and Sardinia were restored. Genoa was gained.

House of Savoy (Italian dynasty)

Papal States

The Papacy recovered its possessions in central Italy.

The Pope

Kingdom of Lombardy

Northern Italy (minus Piedmont), Tuscany, and other states of central Italy were restored. Venetia (Venice and surrounding regions) was gained.

Hapsburg Empire

This disjointed power settlement would form, with surprising speed, a unified Italian state, combining an effective combination of international politics, careful statecraft, and vibrant nationalism.

Risorgimentoand Nationalist Programs

The Risorgimento (Italian for "resurgence"; taken from the title of a newspaper founded by Cavour) movement, which sought to unify Italy under liberal-nationalist auspices, inspired a variety of nationalist programs that quickly gained popular support:

An ordained priest, politician, and philosopher, Vincenzo Gioberti (1801-1852) led the so-called "neo-Guelphs," who favored a loose confederation of Italian states under a papal presidency. Early in the papacy (1846-1848) of Pius IX, who was initially quasi-reformist and known as "the workingman's Pope," this plan was temporarily the most popular. But the conservative nature of the Papacy and the anti-clerical tenor of much liberal nationalism eventually made a Risorgimento without church leadership the preferred course.

The patriotic journalist, member of the "carbonari," and publisher of the influential journal Young Italy in the early 1830s, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) favored a unitary republic and advocated a broad nationalist movement. He would have a significant role in securing national unity. His prolific output of propaganda, including his The Duties of Man, helped the unification movement stay active in its more dormant phases.

A radical democrat and revolutionary, who had also fought for democracy in Latin America, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) hoped to inspire a peasant insurrection, which would lay the foundation for a grassroots democracy in a federated Italy. His success at leading a seemingly ill-trained force of peasants in revolt against areas in Southern Italy still under petty monarchical control was crucial to unification's ultimate success.


In 1856, the National Society was founded as an umbrella organization for Italian patriots. These romantic nationalists would provide crucial ideological support to the campaign for national unification and would play a vital role in eventually mobilizing the population.

While Mazzini and Garibaldi were the major popular and revolutionary proponents of Italian nationhood, the most significant figure in actually achieving national unification was a hard-nosed practitioner of statecraft: Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1861). (To what extent has ideological nationalism continued to influence European and American politics?)

Unifying Northern Italy (1848-1860)

The stage for unification, the work of Cavour, was set in the state of Piedmont-Sardinia, which lay in the northwest corner of Italy, near France. Piedmont-Sardinia was well positioned to lead Italian nationalism because it was the most prosperous region in Italy and its administration had been modernized by the French Revolution. Its efficient government, competent bureaucracy, and relatively strong economy provided a firm foundation for national unification.

In the revolutionary year of 1848, the Piedmontese King Charles Albert issued a statuto, or constitution, converting his state to a constitutional monarchy (it is important to remember that demands for constitutional government were central to the political liberalism of the day). The Statuto of 1848, which borrowed heavily from English, American, and Belgian models, established a parliamentary government based on a limited franchise and guaranteeing civil rights. Victor Emmanuel II, who succeeded his father in 1849, continued to recognize the Statuto. The erection of such a modern state focused the various liberal and national hopes in Italy on one state: Piedmont.

Count Camillo di Cavourwas appointed prime minister of Piedmont in 1852 and ruled until 1860. He was an odd man, of poor health, immoderate appetites, and unsteady emotions. Italian unification became his life's passion and, when not driven by it, he was prone to slip into bouts of suicidal depression. A constitutional monarchist and liberal, Cavour was also one of the most masterful politicians of the age, willing to use all available means - including temporarily expedient alliances and war - to achieve his ends. The reforms Cavour carried out in Piedmont were essential in preparing it to lead the way toward national unification. Cavour achieved the following goals:

a far-reaching secularization of Italian life, including dissolving the monasteries and abolishing the Church's legal jurisdiction

a review of all land purchases by the Church

the modernization of the economy through free-trade treaties and improvement of the state's infrastructure

the construction of railways

a lowering of trade barriers

the professionalization of the army

the formation of an alliance with the Left-Center in parliament, known as the "Connubio," although he himself was a member of the Right-Center. This alliance anticipated the politics of transformismo in post-unification Italy, i.e., buying off the opposition and absorbing as much of it as was necessary or possible

In foreign policy, Cavour, a "realist," was aware that Italian unification could only become a reality if Italy could evict its foreign hegemon - the Austrian Empire. This, in turn, could only be achieved with foreign aid, namely that of France, which was newly interested (under Napoleon III) in undermining Austrian power.

Cavour curried French favor by allying with France and England in their battle against Russia during the Crimean War. The Congress of Paris, held in 1856 to negotiate the peace treaty ending this conflict, discouraged Cavour's hopes for international support for unification mainly because the European powers seemed more concerned with reestablishing stability to the balance of power. Yet, Cavour continued his efforts to woo the indecisive Napoleon III. When an Italian radical attempted to assassinate Napoleon in 1858, Cavour pleased the French emperor by suppressing radical republicans within Italy. In the summer of 1858, Napoleon III and Cavour signed a secret pact at Plombieres in which the French emperor agreed to fight for Italy against Austria. In return, Napoleon III would be granted the throne of a central Italian kingdom, and France would be granted the territories of Nice and Savoy, which lay on her borders.

To the nationalist fervor of Mazzini and Girabaldi was added the cagey statecraft of Cavour. The seeds he planted were to bear fruit in 1859-1860.

The War of 1859

As agreed at Plombieres, Cavour cleverly induced Austria to declare war on Piedmont in the spring of 1859, after Austria had provocatively announced plans to draft Italians into the imperial army. Napoleon III joined the fighting, and his French forces, together with the Piedmontese, crushed the Austrian armies at the battles of Magenta and Solferino. Napoleon III led 100,000 men into battle, but it was Cavour who had crafted the situation in his own interests. When the French and Italian victories sparked popular uprisings throughout Italy, Napoleon III, fearing the spread of radical revolution and the entry of Prussia into the war, abruptly halted the military campaign and agreed to a peace with Austria. France wanted Victor Emmanuel's Piedmont to be a compliant satellite state, not the head of a powerful and united Italy. Napoleon thus opted for a precipitous peace.

In accordance with the Peace of Villa Franca, Austria ceded Lombardy to Piedmont, but retained Venetia. Many Italians were bitterly disappointed by Napoleon III's decision; popular uprisings in Tuscany and the other central Italian states forced out the old rulers. The Pope lost control of Bologna.

In plebiscites, the northern and central states voted overwhelmingly to join Piedmont. In the Treaty of Turin (1860) Napoleon recognized Piedmont's annexation of Tuscany, Modena, Parma, and Bologna. In 1860, representatives from all the northern states except Venetia gathered at the Piedmontese capital of Turin in the first parliament of the enlarged kingdom. Now, a northern Italian kingdom, ruled by Victor Emmanuel II, existed alongside the Papal States in the middle of the peninsula and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south. Unification was half complete.

Unifying Southern Italy

When the Treaty of Villa Franca destroyed hopes that Napoleon would lead a war of Italian unification, the radical nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi stepped into the breach.

With Cavour's tacit approval, Garibaldi launched an invasion of Sicily and southern Italy with about 1,000 followers known as "Red Shirts." Garibaldi's Red Shirts conquered the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and prepared to march on Rome. But Cavour wanted to avoid such an assault on the Papal States and direct confrontation with the Pope and the French, who had sworn to protect the Pope. He therefore preempted Garibaldi by sending a Piedmontese army, under King Victor Emmanuel II, into the territories outside of Rome and into the south. (Why did Cavour fear the successes of Garibaldi?)

Garibaldi, at one time fiercely anti-monarchic, now accepted Cavour's solution to the problem of Italian unification. Garibaldi's concession raises the question of whether a real Garibaldian, i.e., a democratic federalist, alternative ever existed. It seems more likely that the asserted power of the constitutionalist monarchy of Piedmont had been necessary to the achievement of Italian unification. Bowing to this fact, the once-republican Garibaldi placed national interests above political or constitutional principle.

In plebiscites held in the territories around Rome and in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the voters chose overwhelmingly to join Piedmont. In 1861, a parliament representing all of Italy (except for Venetia and Rome) was held in Florence. Here, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed and Victor Emmanuel II assumed the title of King of Italy. But before the year was out, the new Kingdom suffered a serious blow; its great mastermind, Cavour, suddenly died.

The Completion of Unification

In the decade after Italy's initial formation, her statesmen again used alliances with a great power to gain possession of the entire peninsula. This time Prussia, rather than France, provided her with the necessary muscle.

Tensions had been mounting between the two rivals within the German world: Prussia and Austria. In 1866, Italy signed a pact with Prussia guaranteeing support if Prussia went to war with Austria. In exchange, Prussia promised to obtain Venetia for Italy. Several months later, war between Prussia and Austria did come to pass. Austria was utterly defeated by Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. In the peace settlement, Italy was rewarded with Venice and the surrounding territories. Florence was made capital of Italy.

Four years later, in 1870, Prussia went to war against France. When the French troops pulled out of Rome, Italian forces occupied the city. The Pope was left with a small enclave within Rome, "Vatican City," which includes the Church of St. Peter and the surrounding administrative buildings. Pius IX, as well as subsequent popes, adopted a policy of self-imprisonment and proclaimed himself "prisoner of the Vatican." It is important to remember that, as advantageous to Italy the Prussian victories over Austria and France were, they were part of Bismarck's program to unite Germany under Prussian leadership. Aiding Italian unification and territorial consolidation was merely a side-effect.