The process of Italian unification began with a popular movement called Risorgimento, or Resurgence, a political and social movement based on nationalist sentiment and restoration of Italian pride. Risorgimento began in 1815 and ended in 1871.
The Build-up to Risorgimento
With the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte of France and his final surrender in May 1814, the Congress of Vienna was held in Austria to establish a new order in Europe and establish lasting negotiated peace between various states and kingdoms. Representatives of the Great Powers of Europe; Great Britain, Austria, France, and Russia, assembled in Vienna to reestablish the rule of the Kingdoms that existed before the Napoleonic Wars began. Territories were negotiated with Great Britain, Austria and Russia becoming major beneficiaries.
The Kingdom of Austria got large parts of northern Italy along with Venice in present-day Italy. The region of Italy, which once witnessed domination with the Roman Empire, was now a cluster of client states for larger kingdoms of Europe. The Italian pride hurt as local identity and culture began to dilute against foreign socio-cultural influences.
In the post-Napoleon era, several intellectuals, nobles, and businessmen began discussing the possibility of Italian unification. Most of the proponents of unification remained in exile, building political consciousness with the hope of triggering local support within the Italian region.
The influence of Giuseppe Mazzini
One of the early proponents of Italian unification was Giuseppe Mazzini, a politician, activist, and a journalist. Mazzini grew up in Genoa under French rule, and in 1827 became a member of the Carboneria in Tuscany – a secret revolutionary group that emerged in Southern Italy. Mazzini was arrested for his revolutionary activities. It was during his incarceration that he developed his idea of a unified Italy. On his release from prison in 1831, he relocated to Geneva before moving on to Marseille in France. He soon founded the Young Italy party with the aim of creating an independent and free Republic. His ultimate goal beyond unified Italy was to see a unified Europe. He kept moving between Geneva, Marseille, and London before returning to Italy.
Rise of Garibaldi
Mazzini’s writings had a major influence on several international leaders of political movements around the world, but it was his admirer and pupil, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who would play a significant role in the unification of Italy. Garibaldi was an Italian general, politician, and a committed nationalist who believed in Italian unification.
His active participation in military campaigns in Brazil, Uruguay, and Europe, helped Garibaldi build a reputation and an aura as a successful military commander back home. He returned to Italy in 1848 when several revolutionary movements were occurring across states.
First War of Independence (March 23rd, 1848 – August 22nd, 1849)
In February 1848, the French Revolution began, and it soon spread across Europe including Italy. The cities of Milan and Venice unsuccessfully rebelled against Austrian rule. It was followed by the Sicilian Revolution in 1848, against the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, ruled by Ferdinand II of the House of Bourbon – the Spanish rulers.
Volunteers joined the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont) to launch the two Royal Wars against the House of Habsburg which controlled Lombardy-Venetia. These were precursors to the First War of Independence (March 1848 – August 1849) against the Austrian rule in Italy. The Piedmontese lost the war against the Hapsburg.
Second War of Independence (April 29-July 11, 1859)
The Kingdom of Sardinia’s Prime Minister Camilion Benso, also known as, Conte di Cavour, was to play a major part towards the subsequent events that would later lead to the Italian unification. Cavour was a wily politician who understood realpolitik and the need to build international alliances to support domestic movements.
He realized the value of French support in his plan to take on the strong Austrian Hapsburg dynasty. He negotiated treaties with the French wherein the latter would get Nice and Savoy in return for their support to the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Austrians.
The Second War of Independence (April – July 1859) was fought between the Victor Emmanuele II ruled- the Kingdom of Sardinia, with French support, against the House of Hapsburg. With French intervention, Lombardy was transferred to the Kingdom of Sardinia.
Earlier, in 1849, Garibaldi was appointed General of the Republican Army of the short-lived Roman Republic which was created in the absence of the ruling Pope by the leaders – Carlo Armellini, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Aurelio Saffi. He was tasked with defending Rome against the French-Spanish siege. He was soon forced to flee overseas.
Garibaldi liberates Naples and Sicily
In 1859, the news of the handover of Nice (his hometown) and Savoy to the French, upset Garibaldi deeply. He was persuaded by Cavour to join the effort for unification which was the greater goal. With support from Piedmont, Garibaldi launched his Thousand Man Red Shirt army and sailed into Southern Italy and launched attacks to liberate Sicily and Naples, which comprised the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
Garibaldi was successful in his campaign, and soon Sicily and Naples were liberated. Meanwhile, Cavour had already successfully negotiated the unification of Tuscany, Modena, Parma, and Romagna to join the Kingdom of Sardinia. Shortly after that, Cavour ordered his army into the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. He quickly organized plebiscites through popular voting to get people support for Naples to join the Kingdom of Sardinia.
Rome and Venetia – the final step
By 1861, Victor Emanuele II announced the unification of Italy. However, Rome and Venetia remained outside Sardinian control. Austria’s defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866, paved the way for the Austrian handover of Venetia to Sardinia. By 1870, the French defeat at the hands of the Prussians enabled Victor Emanuele II to take control of Rome. By 1871, Italy was a unified nation.
Visit the following to learn more about Italy: