Italian unification

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Italian unification process

Italian unification (Italian: Risorgimento) was the political and social process that unified disparate countries of the Italian peninsula into the single nation of Italy between the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

It is difficult to pin down exact dates for the beginning and end of Italian reunification, but most scholars agree that it began with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the end of Napoleon's rule, and largely ended with the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, though the last irredented cities did not join the Kingdom of Italy until the Treaty of Saint-Germain after World War I.



The establishment of the Italian Republic and later of the Kingdom of Italy, ruled by Napoleon, began to spur nationalism in those who lived in the region. As Napoleon's reign began to fail, other national monarchs he had installed tried to keep their thrones by feeding those nationalistic sentiments, setting the stage for the revolutions to come. Among these monarchs were the viceroy of Italy, Eugne de Beauharnais, who tried to get Austrian approval for his succession to the Kingdom of Italy, and Joachim Murat, who called for Italian patriots' help for the unification of Italy under his rule (See the Proclamation of Rimini (

Following the defeat of Napoleonic France, the Congress of Vienna was convened to redraw the European continent, dividing and doling out much of the Italian peninsula among the prevailing European powers, fracturing the region into a patchwork of independent governments.

But groups in several Italian states began to push the idea of a unified Italian state again, feeding the flames of nationalism that had already been ignited in the populace. At the time, the struggle for Italian unification was perceived to be waged primarily against the Austrian Empire and the Hapsburgs, since they directly controlled northeastern Italy and were the single most powerful force against unification. The Austrian Empire fought hard against nationalist sentiment growing on the Italian peninsula (as well as in the other parts of the Empire) — at the time, Austrian Chancellor Klemens Wenzel von Metternich stated that the word Italy was "purely a geographic expression."

Those in favor of unification also faced opposition from the Vatican, particularly after attempts to broker a confederation with the Papal States, which would have given them some measure of autonomy over the region, failed. The pope at the time, Pius IX, feared that giving up power in the region could mean the persecution of Italian Catholics (Hales, 1958).

Even among those who wanted to see the peninsula unified into one country, different groups could not agree on what form a unified state would take. One proposal (around 1847-1848) would have created a confederation of Italian states under the rulership of the Pope. Many leading revolutionaries wanted a republic. But eventually it was a king and his minister who had the power to unite the Italian states as a monarchy.

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Giuseppe Mazzini

One of the most influential revolutionary groups was the Carbonari (coal-burners), a secret organization formed in southern Italy early in the 19th Century. Inspired by the principles of the French revolution, its members were mainly drawn from the middle class and intellectuals. After the Congress of Vienna divided the Italian peninsula among the European powers, Carbonari spread into the Papal States, the kingdom of Sardinia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena and the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. They were so feared that the reigning authorities passed an ordinance condemning anyone who attended a Carbonari meeting to death. But the society continued to exist and was at the root of many of the outbreaks in Italy from 1820 on. Carbonari condemned Napoleon III to death for failing to unite Italy and almost succeeded in assassinating him for his transgressions. Most leaders of the unification movement were members of this organization.

Two prominent figures in the unification movement were Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Among the more conservative constitutional monarchic figures, Count Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II, later the first king of a united Italy, were also important.

Mazzini, a native of Genoa, became a member of the Carbonari in 1830. His activity in revolutionary movements caused him to be outlawed soon after he joined, and in 1831 he went to Marseilles, where he organized a new political society called La Giovine Italia ("Young Italy"). The new society, whose motto was "God and the People," sought the unification of Italy.

Garibaldi, a native of Nice (then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia), participated in an uprising in Piedmont in 1834, was sentenced to death, and escaped to South America. He spent fourteen years there, taking part in several wars, and returned to Italy in 1848.

Early revolutionary activity (1820 to 1830)

Carbonari insurrections (1820 – 1821)

In 1814 the Carbonari began organizing revolutionary activities in Naples; by 1820 the group was strong enough to invade Naples with its own army, forcing the king to promise to implement a new constitution the Carbonari had drafted. But the revolution was put down the following year by the Austrians, acting as the agents of the "Holy Alliance" between Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Two Sicilies insurrection

In 1820, Spaniards revolted successfully over their constitution, which spurred a similar movement in Italy. Inspired by the Spaniards, a regiment in the army of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, commanded by Guglielmo Pepe, a Carbonari, revolted, conquering the peninsular part of Two Sicilies. The king, Ferdinand I, agreed to enact a new constitution. But the revolutionaries failed to court popular support and fell to Austrian troops of the Holy Alliance. Ferdinand abolished the constitution and began systematically persecuting revolutionaries.

Piedmont insurrection

The leader of the revolutionary movement in Piedmont was Santorre di Santarosa, who wanted to remove the Austrians and unify Italy under the Savoy dynasty. The Piedmont revolt started in Alessandria, where troops adopted the green, white and red tricolore of the Cisalpine Republic. The king's regent, acting while the king was away, approved a new constitution to appease the revolutionaries, but when the king returned he disavowed the constitution and called for "Holy Alliance" help. Di Santarosa's troops were defeated.

1830 insurrections

Around 1830, revolutionary sentiment in favor of a unified Italy began to boil over; a series of insurrections laid the groundwork for the creation of one nation along the Italian peninsula.

The Duke of Modena, Francis IV, was very ambitious, and had hoped to become king of Northern Italy by increasing his territory. In 1826, Francis made it clear that he would not oppose subverting opposition toward the unification of Italy. Encouraged by the declaration, revolutionaries in the region began to organize.

In 1830, during the July Revolution, revolutionaries forced the king to abdicate and started the July Monarchy with encouragement from the new French king, Louis-Philippe. Louis-Philippe had promised revolutionaries like Ciro Menotti that he would intervene if Austria tried to interfere with troops. But, fearing he would lose his throne, Louis-Philippe did not intervene in Menotti's planned uprising. But it was not to be — the Vatican caught wind of Menotti's planned insurrection and arrested him and other conspirators in 1831.

At the same time, other insurrections arose in the Papal Legations of Bologna, Forl, Ravenna, Imola, Ferrara, Pesaro and Urbino. These successful revolutions, which adopted the tricolore in favor of the Papal flag, quickly spread to cover all the Papal Legations, and their newly-installed local governments proclaimed the creation of a united Italian nation.

The revolts in Modena and the Papal Legations inspired similar activity in the Duchy of Parma, where the tricolore flag was adopted; the duchess Marie Louise left the city.

Insurrected provinces planned to unite as the Province Italiane unite (united Italian Provinces), when Pope Gregory XVI asked for Austrian help against the rebels. Metternich warned Louis-Philippe that Austria had no intention to let Italian matters be, and that French intervention would not be tolerated. Louis-Philippe withheld any military help and even arrested Italian patriots living in France.

In the spring of 1831, the Austrian army began its march across the Italian peninsula, slowly crushing resistance in each province that had revolted, ending much of the fledging revolutionary movement and arresting its leaders, including Menotti.

Creation of Italian state

After fleeing the country because of earlier revolutionary activity, the revolutions of 1848 again opened Italy to Mazzini and Garibaldi, though both were again eventually forced to flee. Mazzini was back in Italy long enough to help found the Roman Republic in 1849, before once again being driven into exile — in 1850 he became a resident of New York City.

In 1859, a war incited by Cavour (the prime minister of Sardinia) and Napoleon III of France brought both men back to Italy. Garibaldi, commissioned a major-general and asked to raise a volunteer corps, lured Mazzini back to serve with him. Together they defeated the Austrian army at Lombardy, Varese, Como and other places. The success of the French and Sardinians in Lombardy stirred the Italian populace. The grand dukes of Tuscany, Parma and Modena fled to other countries, and several other towns in the Papal States cast off their allegiance to the pope, proclaiming the king of Sardinia dictator.

Cavour had much to do with the successful unification of Italy. In sending a Sardinian army (Bersaglieri) to assist France and England in the Crimea in 1855, he achieved standing among the European powers. He courted favor with the people by promoting religious tolerance, free trade, freedom of the press and rebelling against Papal dominance. Cavour successfully gained control of Lombardy, Tuscany, Parma and Modena, which in the end greatly helped unification.

The Mille expedition

Once the north had been united as the Kingdom of Italy, the unification movement turned to absorbing the powerful Kingdom of Two Sicilies in the south, a daunting task. Faced with strong political and military obstacles, nevertheless Garibaldi invaded the South with a thousand volunteers and raised a popular army in rebellion.

Francis II of the Two Sicilies, the son and successor of Ferdinand II, had a well-organized army of 150,000 men. But his father's tyranny had inspired many secret societies, and the kingdom's Swiss mercenaries were unexpectedly recalled home, leaving Francis only his unreliable native troops. It was a critical opportunity for the unification movement.

In April 1860, separate insurrections in Messina and Palermo occurred. These were easily suppressed by loyal troops. But despite a declared state of siege in these cities, unification supporters staged popular demonstrations which energized the populace. On May 6, 1860, Garibaldi and his cadre of about a thousand Italian volunteers (called the I Mille), steamed from Quarto near Genoa, and after a stop in Talamone on May 11 landed near Marsala on the west coast of Sicily.

Near Salemi, Garibaldi's army attracted scattered bands of rebels, together defeating the opposing army at Catalafimi on the 13th. Within three days, the invading force had swelled to 4,000 men. On May 14, Garibaldi proclaimed himself dictator of Sicily, in the name of Victor Emmanuel, king of Italy. After waging various successful but hard-fought battles, Garibaldi advanced upon the Sicilian capital of Palermo, announcing his arrival by beacon-fires kindled at night. On May 27, the force laid siege to the Porta Termina of Palermo, while a mass uprising of street and barricade fighting broke out within the city.

With Palermo deemed insurgent, Neapolitan General Lanza, arriving in Sicily with some 25,000 troops, furiously bombarded Palermo, nearly to ruins. With the intervention of a British admiral, an armistice was declared, leading to the Neapolitan troops' departure and surrender of the town to Garibaldi and his much smaller army.

This resounding success demonstrated the weakness of the Neapolitan government. Garibaldi's fame spread and many Italians began to consider him a national hero. Doubt, confusion and dismay overtook the Neapolitan court — the king hastily summoned his ministry and offered to restore an earlier constitution, but these efforts failed to rebuild the peoples' trust in Bourbon governance.

Six weeks after the surrender of Palermo, Garibaldi attacked Messina. Within a week its citadel was surrendered. Having conquered Sicily, Garibaldi proceeded to the mainland, crossing the Straits of Messina with the Neapolitan fleet at hand. The garrison at Reggio Calabria promptly surrendered. Progressing northward, the populace everywhere hailed him and military resistance faded. At the end of August he was at Cosenza, and on September 5 at Eboli, near Salerno. Meanwhile Naples had been declared in a state of siege, and on September 6 the king gathered the 4,000 troops still faithful to him and retreated over the Volturno river. The next day Garibaldi, with a few followers, entered Naples, whose people openly welcomed him.

Defeat of Naples

Though Garibaldi had easily taken the capital, the Neapolitan army had not joined the rebellion en masse, holding firm along the Volturno River. Garibaldi's irregular bands of about 25,000 men could not drive away the king or take the fortresses of Capua and Gaeta without the help of the Sardinian army.

But the Sardinian army could only come by way of the Papal States, which extended across the entire center of the peninsula. Thumbing his nose at the Holy See, Garibaldi announced his intent to proclaim a "Kingdom of Italy" from Rome, the capital city of Pope Pius IX. Seeing this as a threat to the domain of the Catholic Church, Pius threatened excommunication for supporting such an effort. Afraid Garibaldi would attack Rome, Catholics worldwide sent money and volunteers for the Papal Army, which was commanded by General Lamoriciere, a French exile.

Settling the standoff now rested with Louis Napoleon. If he had let Garibaldi have his way the latter would, no doubt, have quickly ended the temporal sovereignty of the pope and made Rome the capital of Italy. But Napoleon seems to have arranged with Cavour to leave the king of Sardinia free to take possession of Naples, Umbria and the other provinces, provided that Rome and the "patrimony of St. Peter" were left intact.

It was in this situation that a Sardinian force of two army corps, under Fanti and Cialdini, marched to the frontier of the Papal States, its object being not Rome but Naples. The Papal troops under Lamoriciere advanced against Cialdini, but were quickly defeated and besieged in the fortress of Ancona, finally surrendering on September 29. On October 9, Victor Emmanuel II arrived and took command. There was no longer a papal army to oppose him, and the march southward proceeded unopposed.

Garibaldi distrusted the pragmatic Cavour, particularly due to Cavour's role in the French annexation of Nice, Garibaldi's birthplace. Nevertheless he trusted Victor Emmanuel. When the king entered Sessa at the head of his army, Garibaldi willingly handed over his dictatorial power. After greeting Victor Emmanuel in Teano with the title of King of Italy, and resigning the next day with a brief telegram reading only Obbedisco (I obey), Garibaldi entered Naples riding beside the king. He then retired to the island of Caprera. The remaining work of unifying the peninsula was left to Victor Emmanuel.

The progress of the Sardinian army compelled Francis to give up his line along the river, and he eventually took refuge with his best troops in the fortress of Gaeta. His courage boosted by his resolute young wife, the Bavarian Princess Mary, Francis mounted a stubborn defense that lasted three months. But European allies refused him aid, food and munitions became scarce, and disease set in, so the garrison was forced to surrender. Nonetheless, ragtag groups of Neapolitans loyal to Francis would fight on against the Italian government for years to come.

The fall of Gaeta brought the unification movement to the brink of fruition — only Rome and Venetia remained to be added. On February 18, 1861, Victor Emmanuel assembled the deputies of all the states that acknowledged his supremacy at Turin, and in their presence assumed the title of King of Italy. Four months later Cavour, having seen his life's work nearly complete, died.

First march on Rome

Mazzini was discontented with the perpetuation of monarchial government, and continued to agitate for a republic. With the motto "Free from the Alps to the Adriatic," the unification movement set its gaze on Rome and Venice. There were obstacles, though. A challenge against the Pope's temporal domain was viewed with great distrust by Catholics around the world, and French troops were stationed in Rome. Victor Emmanuel was wary of the international repercussions of attacking the Papal States, and discouraged his subjects from participating in revolutionary ventures with such intentions.

Nonetheless, Garibaldi believed that the government would support him if he attacked Rome. Frustrated at inaction by the king, and bristling over perceived snubs, he organized a new venture. In June 1862, he sailed from Genoa and landed again at Palermo, where he gathered volunteers for the campaign. The garrison of Messina, loyal to the king's instructions, barred their passage to the mainland. Garibaldi's force, now numbering two thousand, turned south and set sail from Catania. Garibaldi declared that he would enter Rome as a victor or perish beneath its walls. He landed at Melito on August 14, and marched at once into the Calabrian mountains.

Far from supporting this endeavor, the Italian government was quite disapproving. General Cialdini dispatched a division of the regular army, under Colonel Pallavicino, against the volunteer bands. On August 28 the two forces met in the Aspromonte. One of the regulars fired a chance shot, and several volleys followed, but Garibaldi forbade his men to return fire on fellow subjects of the Kingdom of Italy. The volunteers suffered several casualties, and Garibaldi himself was wounded; many were taken prisoner. Garibaldi was taken by steamer to Varignano, where he was honorably imprisoned for a time, but finally released.

Meanwhile, Victor Emmanuel sought a safer means to the acquisition of the Papal States. He negotiated the removal of the French troops from Rome through a treaty with Napoleon III in September 1864, by which the emperor agreed to withdraw his troops within two years. The pope was to expand his own army during that time so as to be self-sufficient. In December 1866, the last of the French troops departed from Rome, in despite of the efforts of the pope to retain them. By their withdrawal Italy was freed from the presence of foreign soldiers for the first time probably in a thousand years.

The seat of government was moved in 1865 from Turin, the old Sardinian capital, to Florence, where the first Italian parliament was summoned. This arrangement created such disturbances in Turin that the king was forced to leave that city hastily for his new capital.

Third Independence War (1866)

In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Austria-Hungary contested with Prussia the position of leadership among the German states. The Kingdom of Italy seized the opportunity to capture Venetia from Austrian rule and allied itself with Prussia. On April 8, the two powers signed an agreement that supported Italy's acquisition of Venetia, and on June 20, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. Within the context of Italian unification, the Austro-Prussian war is called Third Independence War, after the First (1848) and the Second (1859 – 1861).

Victor Emmanuel hastened to lead an army across the Mincio to the invasion of Venetia, while Garibaldi was to invade the Tyrol with his Hunters of the Alps. The enterprise ended in disaster. The Italian army encountered the Austrians at Custoza on June 24 and suffered a crushing defeat. On July 20 the Regia Marina was defeated in the battle of Lissa. Italy's fortunes were not all so dismal, though. The following day, Garibaldi's volunteers defeated an Austrian force in the battle of Bezzecca, and moved toward Trento.

Meanwhile, Prussian Prime Minister Bismarck saw that his own ends in the war had been achieved, and signed an armistice with Austria on July 26. Italy, deserted by her ally, officially laid down its arms on August 12.

In spite of Italy's poor showing, Prussia's success on the northern front obligated Austria to cede Venetia. Under the terms of a peace treaty signed in Vienna on October 12, Emperor Franz Joseph tried to maneuver by ceding it to France. This would have kept the territory out of Italian hands, courted France as an ally, and fractured Victor Emmanuel's relations with Napoleon III. The scheme failed – Napoleon III ceded Venetia to Italy on October 19.

Austrian forces put up some opposition to the invading Italians, to little effect. Victor Emmanuel entered Venice in triumph, and performed an act of homage in the Piazza San Marco.


The national party, with Garibaldi at its head, still aimed at the possession of Rome, as the historic capital of the peninsula. In 1867 he made a second attempt to capture Rome, but the papal army, strengthened with a new French auxiliary force, defeated his badly armed volunteers. This led to the French army of occupation being returned to Civita Vecchia, where it was kept for several years.

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War started, and French Emperor Napoleon III could no longer protect the Papal States. Soon after, the Italian government declared war against the Papal States. The Italian army, commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna, entered Rome on September 20, after a cannonade of three hours. Rome and Latium were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.

Initially the Italian government had offered to let the pope keep the Leonine City (the walled part of Rome on the opposite side of the Tiber from the Seven Hills of Rome). But the pope rejected the offer because acceptance would have been an implied endorsement of the legitimacy of the Italian kingdom's rule over his former domain. Pope Pius IX declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican, although he was not actually restrained from coming and going. Rather, being deposed and stripped of much of his former power also removed a measure of personal protection — if he had walked the streets of Rome he might have been in danger from political opponents who had formerly kept their views private. Officially, the capital was not moved from Florence to Rome until early 1871.

Modern era

Italian unification was completed at the end of World War I with the annexation of Trieste and Trento, with the respective territories of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Trentino.

The Kingdom of Italy had declared neutrality at the beginning of the war, officially because the alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary was a defensive one, but actually to get the best offer for its contribution to the war. Austria-Hungary requested Italian neutrality, while theTriple Entente its intervention. With the London Pact, signed in April 1915, Italy accepted to declare war against the Central Powers, in exchange for the irredent territories of Friuli, Trentino–Alto Adige and Dalmatia. The new front contributed to the defeat of the Central Powers.

Secession movements

The Italian unification process was popular with the Italian people. Nevertheless, dissenters were present in the 19th century (mostly the rulers of the annexed states), and regionalist sympathies continue to the present day. There are two chief secession movements represented by active political parties: one in the North (Lega Nord), and one in the South (Due Sicilie). The former has elected representatives to the national parliament.

A similar situation exists with the self-proclaimed principality of Seborga. Its historical claim to independence lies in being excluded from various treaties that unified the modern Italian state. Consequently, it will not identify itself as a "secession" movement, since it claims that it was never a part of Italy in the first place. Seborga's claims of independence have not been recognized by any government.


See also

fr:Risorgimento it:Risorgimento ja:リソルジメント nl:Risorgimento pt:Risorgimento sv:Risorgimento


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