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Age of Realism

Unification of Italy

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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During the Napoleonic period, Italy made considerable progress towards unification but at the Congress of Vienna the country was again broken up into numerous small states, mostly under Austrian domination. Strict press censorship, prohibition on public gatherings and arbitrary arrest without trial helped to control the spread of liberal and national ideas.

In the meantime, the poorly developed national consciousness of the people aided the task of the reactionary forces. Although secret societies, such as the Carbonari, helped in the spread of revolutionary ideas, repressive measures limited the opposition until 1848. Attempted revolutions in 1820 and 1830 were severely put down with the aid of outside intervention.

THE WAR OF 1848-9

With the news of the successful revolution in France in 1848, together with the downfall of Metternich in Austria, revolts broke out in the various Italian states. These can be divided into three phases. First, there were scattered insurrections in Naples, Sicily, Rome, Tuscany, Milan and Venice. More liberal constitutions were granted in the first four, while the Austrian army of occupation was expelled from the latter two.

King Charles Albert of Sardinia thereupon took the lead in a movement that was to develop into a war of independence. In March 1848 his army invaded Lombardy and he called upon the other Italian princes to send aid in ridding Italy of Austrian domination. Ferdinand of Naples sent troops, as did Pope Pius IX, although the latter soon recalled them as he was loath to use Papal troops to fight against a fellow Catholic country.

Charles Albert's army achieved early victories but in the long term was no match for the well-disciplined and well-armed Austrian army. That, together with Charles Albert's differences with the other Italian leaders, led to the failure of his attempt. In 1849 his army was defeated at Custozza and again at Novara, and the King abdicated in favour of his son, Victor Emmanuel II.

In February 1849 Mazzini led an attack on Rome which overthrew the Papacy and established a Roman Republic but Napoleon III came to the aid of the Pope. French forces invaded Rome, restoring the Papacy and remaining in the city until 1870.

Although by 1849 the Italian revolutions had failed, valuable lessons had been learnt. Nationalists knew that Italian unification could never be achieved under the leadership of the Pope, as many had earlier hoped.

On the other hand, the value of Sardinian leadership had become increasingly evident, particularly when Victor Emmanuel II refused to repeal the constitution granted in 1848. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Italian nationalists realised that they could never throw off Austrian domination without outside aid.


In 1854 England and France declared war on Russia (ostensibly a dispute between France and Russia over the control of the Holy Places in Turkey, and between Britain and Russia over Russian expansion into the Mediterranean Sea). Although the Kingdom of Sardinia was not involved in the dispute, Count Camillo di Cavour (Prime Minister of Sardinia, 1852-1861) saw an opportunity to gain outside support for a future Sardinian war against Austria.

Sardinia sent an army into Crimea on the side of Britain and France. As a result of this involvement, Sardinia was invited to the Peace Conference of Paris in 1856 and Cavour was able to make use of the opportunity to bring British and French attention to Italian problems.

A number of issues had become clear at the Conference of Paris. First, Austria would not give up her position in Italy except by force. Britain, on the other hand, although sympathetic to Italian problems, would never become involved except through benevolent neutrality because the British Government saw Austria as essential to the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe. Since Italy could never be unified without outside support, Napoleon III was seen as the only possibility of outside intervention.

Napoleon III was open to Cavour's overtures. Italy represented some of the greatest victories in the legend of Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon, fresh from an overwhelming electoral victory in 1857, was looking for some new adventure to further enhance his prestige at home.

The Crimean War had done much to bolster Napoleon III's prestige and he considered a war with Austria could only enhance that position. Furthermore, a unified Kingdom of Northern Italy, created by means of French support, would not only stand to his credit but would also be an asset to France in future diplomacy. Besides which, the French would stand to gain territorially from a successful war against Austria.


In July 1858 Cavour and Napoleon III met at Plombi‚res and a secret pact was the result. It was agreed that France would support Sardinia in a war against Austria, provided that the latter was the aggressor. Lombardy and Venetia would then be removed from Austria to join Sardinia in the Kingdom of Northern Italy, together with Parma, Modena, Tuscany and the Papal States.

In return, France would gain Savoy and Nice, while the 15 year-old Clotilda, daughter of Victor Emmanuel II would marry Jerome, seventy year-old cousin of Napoleon III, and so cement the two dynasties through marriage.

By March 1859 Austria was isolated. Napoleon III made an agreement with Russia to alter the Peace of Paris in return for Russian support for an alteration of the Congress of Vienna's decisions regarding Italy. Britain had sympathy towards the Italian question and was not likely to support Austria, while Prussia was not averse to seeing Austria humiliated.

Cavour now had to seek the means to provoke Austria into a war and so appear as the aggressor. He began the mobilization of Sardinian forces and used border tension to aggravate relations with Austria but, under threat of withdrawal of support from Napoleon III, he ordered demobilization. Before that could be achieved, however, Austria declared war.

The war began with initial victories for the combined Sardinian and French armies at Magenta and Solferino and the Austrians were driven out of Lombardy. Before the ultimate aim could be achieved, however, Napoleon III came to an agreement with Austria and withdrew from the war.

Napoleon realised that Austria was by no means defeated. Furthermore, Prussia had started mobilisation and the French Emperor was not certain of Prussia's intentions and could not risk a war against the combined Austrian and Prussian armies.


At the Peace of Villafranca, signed between Austria and France, it was agreed that Lombardy would be given to Sardinia and that an Italian Confederation could be formed under the presidency of the Pope. The rulers of Parma, Modena and Tuscany, overthrown during the war, were to be restored to their states.

Nevertheless, the Austrian war had inflamed the spirit of nationalism and Napoleon's sudden about-face only exaggerated the condition. By August 1859 the newly established constituent assemblies in Parma, Modena, Tuscany and Romagna formed a military alliance and requested confederation with Sardinia.

In March 1860 Garibaldi set out with his 1 000 Red Shirts to conquer the rest of Italy. He landed on the island of Sicily in May, and conquered it with tolerable ease because the inhabitants saw it as the opportunity for liberation from their Bourbon overlords. In August Garibaldi crossed to Naples where he subdued King Ferdinand's army. He then set out to conquer the Papal States and Rome.

Cavour feared that Garibaldi's conquest of Rome would trigger a war with France, or that these successes might bring about yet another war with Austria. Moreover, he was afraid of the growing spirit of republican nationalism which, if successful, might overthrow the domination of the Sardinian monarchy in favour of a republic centred on Rome.

With French support, therefore, Cavour marched an army through the Papal States, conquered the Papal army en route and marched on to Naples, where Garibaldi handed over all his conquests. Plebiscites were then held in the Papal states, Naples and Sicily and these territories decided on unification under the King of Sardinia. A Kingdom of Italy was now established, with Turin as the capital, leaving only the city of Rome and the province of Venetia outside of a united Italy.


In 1866, as Bismarck was planning war against Austria, he sought to keep Austria isolated in the conflict. He therefore turned to Italy and signed an agreement that, in the event of war, Italy would attack Austria from the south and, in return, would receive Venetia.

In the Seven Week War that ensued, although Italy was beaten both on land and at sea by the superior Austrian forces, she achieved her aim of gaining Venetia from an Austria which had been defeated by the superior Prussian forces.

In 1870 France declared war on Germany and, as a result of the war, the French forces had to be withdrawn from Rome. Immediately that was done, Italian troops entered the city and the last obstacle to Italian unification was over.

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