Nationalism: state-building in Italy (Part 1)

Nationalism: state-building in Italy (Part 1)


  • For many centuries, the Italian peninsula was a politically fragmented conglomeration of states.  When war broke out between Austria and the Revolutionary French Government in 1792, the French invaded the Italian peninsula, consolidated many of the Italian states, and established them as republics. In 1799 the Austrian and Russian armies pushed the French out of the Italian peninsula, which led to the demise of the fledgling republics.

French invasion and nationalism

  • After Napoleon’s rise to power, the Italian peninsula was once again conquered by the French. Under Napoleon, the peninsula was divided into three entities: the northern parts which were annexed to the French Empire (Piedmont, Liguria, Parma, Piacenza, Tuscany, and Rome), the newly created Kingdom of Italy (Lombardy, Venice, Reggio, Modena, Romagna, and the Marshes) ruled by Napoleon himself, and the Kingdom of Naples, which was first ruled by Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, but then passed to Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat.
  • The period of French invasion and occupation was important in many ways. It introduced revolutionary ideas about government and society, resulting in an overthrow of the old established ruling orders and the destruction of the last vestiges of feudalism. The ideals of freedom and equality were very influential. Also of consequence, the concept of nationalism was introduced, thus sowing the seeds of Italian nationalism throughout most parts of the northern and central Italian peninsula.

Reconstitution under Vienna Congress

  • Following the defeat of Napoleonic France, the Congress of Vienna (1815) was convened to redraw the map of Europe. In Italy, the Congress restored the pre-Napoleonic patchwork of independent governments, either directly ruled or strongly influenced by the prevailing European powers, particularly Austria. It was Italy where principle of legitimacy an balance of power had found great scope in the Vienna Congress.
  • Of the 8 states into which Itay was divided, only the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (often referred to as Sardinia) had Italian ruler.
  • Hapsburg princes (connected with Austrian royal house) were re-established in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Parma and Modena
  • Restored the Papal States to Pope
  • Bourbon rule was restored in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (fused together from the old Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily).
  • Geona was joined to Piedmont to bar the coastal route to the French
  • To Austria, two most prosperous provinces Lombardy and Venice was given to secure Italy against possible French aggression.
  • Hence Italy was put back on a pre-revolutionary basis except the extinction of 2 republics of Venice and Genoa.

Main villain was Austria

  • At the time, the struggle for Italian unification was perceived to be waged primarily against the Austrian Empire and the Hapsburg, since they directly controlled the predominantly Italian-speaking northeastern part of present-day Italy and were, together, the most powerful force against unification. The Austrian Empire vigorously repressed nationalist sentiment growing on the Italian peninsula, as well as in the other parts of Hapsburg domains. The Austrian diplomat Metternich, an influential diplomat at the Congress of Vienna, stated that the word Italy was nothing more than “a geographic expression”.
  • Italian states were too small to be self sufficient and so they had to lean upon Austria for help.

Artistic and literary sentiment and nationalism

  • Artistic and literary sentiment also turned towards nationalism; Vittorio Alfieri and Niccolo Tommaseo are generally considered two great literary precursors of Italian nationalism but the most famous of proto-nationalist works was Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Some read this novel as a thinly veiled allegorical critique of Austrian rule. The novel was published in 1827 and extensively revised in the following years. The 1840 version of The Betrothed used a standardized version of the Tuscan dialect, a conscious effort by the author to provide a language and force people to learn it.

Attitude of Pope

  • Those in favour of unification also faced opposition from the Holy See, ( the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome) particularly after failed attempts to broker a confederation with the Papal States, ( territories in the Italian Peninsula under the sovereign direct rule of the pope) which would have left the Papacy with some measure of autonomy over the region. The pope at the time, Pius IX, feared that giving up power in the region could mean the persecution of Italian Catholics.

Diverse opinions about unification

  • Even among those who wanted to see the peninsula unified as one country, different groups could not agree on what form a unified state would take.
  • Vincenzo Gioberti, a Piedmontese priest, had suggested a confederation of Italian states under rulership of the Pope.
  • Carlo Cattaneo wanted the unification of Italy under a federal republic while Cesare Balbo supported a confederation of separate Italian states led by Piedmont.


  • One of the most influential revolutionary groups was the Carbonari (coalmongers), 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, the Carbonari movement spread into the Papal States, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, and the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.
  • The revolutionaries were so feared that the reigning authorities passed an ordinance condemning to death anyone who attended a Carbonari meeting. The society, however, continued to exist and was at the root of many of the political disturbances in Italy from 1820 until after unification. The Carbonari condemned Napoleon III − who, as a young man, had fought on the side of the Carbonari − to death for failing to unite Italy, and the group almost succeeded in assassinating him in 1858. Many leaders of the unification movement were at one time members of this organization.

Early Revolutionary Activities

Two Sicilies insurrection

  • In 1820, Spaniards successfully revolted over disputes about their Constitution, which influenced the development of a similar movement in Italy. Inspired by the Spaniards (who, in 1812, had created their constitution), a regiment in the army of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, commanded by Guglielmo Pepe, a Carbonaro (member of secret republican organisation), mutinied, conquering the peninsular part of Two Sicilies.
  • The king, Ferdinand I, agreed to enact a new constitution. The revolutionaries, though, failed to court popular support and fell to Austrian troops of the Holy Alliance. Ferdinand abolished the constitution and began systematically persecuting known revolutionaries. Many supporters of revolution in Sicily were forced into exile during the decades that followed.

Piedmont insurrection

  • The leader of the 1821 revolutionary movement in Piedmont was Santarosa, who wanted to remove the Austrians and unify Italy under the House of Savoy ( ruler of the Kingdom of Sardinia).
  • The Piedmont revolt started in Alessandria, where troops adopted the green, white, and red tricolore of the Cisalpine Republic (a French client republic in Northern Italy that lasted from 1797 to 1802.). The king’s regent, prince Charles Albert, acting while the king Charles Felix was away, approved a new constitution to appease the revolutionaries, but when the king returned he disavowed the constitution and requested assistance from the Holy Alliance. Santarosa’s troops were defeated, and the would-be Piedmontese revolutionary fled to Paris.

Echoes of the July Revolution of France (1830) in Italy

  • By 1830, revolutionary sentiment in favour of a unified Italy began to experience a resurgence, and a series of insurrections laid the groundwork for the creation of one nation along the Italian peninsula.
  • The Duke of Modena, Francis IV, was an ambitious noble, and he hoped to become king of Northern Italy by increasing his territory. In 1826, Francis made it clear that he would not act against those who subverted opposition toward the unification of Italy. Encouraged by the declaration, revolutionaries in the region began to organize.
  • During the July Revolution of 1830 in France, revolutionaries forced the king to abdicate and created the July Monarchy with encouragement from the new French king, Louis-Philippe. Louis-Philippe had promised revolutionaries such as Ciro Menotti that he would intervene if Austria tried to interfere in Italy with troops. Fearing he would lose his throne, Louis-Philippe did not, however, intervene in Menotti’s planned uprising. The Duke of Modena abandoned his Carbonari supporters, arrested Menotti and other conspirators in 1831, and once again conquered his duchy with help from the Austrian troops. Menotti was executed, and the idea of a revolution centered in Modena faded.
  • At the same time, other insurrections arose in the Papal Legations. These successful revolutions, which adopted the tricolore in favour 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 Parmese duchess Marie Louise left the city during the political upheaval.
  • Insurrected provinces planned to unite as the Province Italiane unite (united Italian Provinces), which prompted Pope Gregory XVI to ask for Austrian help against the rebels. Austrian Chancellor Metternich warned Louis-Philippe that Austria had no intention of letting 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. This military action suppressed much of the fledgling revolutionary movement.
  • Cause of failure: So the Revolution failed because it was too local and forces against them were too strong. People as a whole as yet not ripe for Revolution.
  • Significance: In spite of its failure, it exposed weakness of the reactionary rulers and increased hatred against Austria.

Mazzini’s Young Italy

  • Two prominent radical figures in the unification movement were Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Mazzini’s activity in revolutionary movements caused him to be imprisoned soon after he joined. While in prison, he concluded that Italy could − and therefore should − be unified and formulated his program for establishing a free, independent, and republican nation with Rome as its capital.
  • In 1827 Mazzini travelled to Tuscany, where he became a member of the Carbonari, a secret association with political purposes. On 31 October of that year he was arrested at Genoa and interned at Savona. In early 1831, he was released from prison.
  • After Mazzini’s release in 1831, he went to Marseille, where he organized a new political society called Young Italy. The new society, whose motto was “God and the People“, sought the unification of Italy.
  • The goal of Young Italy movement was to create a united Italian republic through promoting a general insurrection in the Italian reactionary states and in the lands occupied by the Austrian Empire. Mazzini’s belief was that a popular uprising would create a unified Italy. It was not a mere body of conspirator like Carbonari and its methods were education and insurrection. It superseded the Carbonari as the nucleus of national revolution. Its members spred the doctrine of nationalism and by its agents Mazzini made frequent attempts of uprisings which failed.
  • 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 learning the art of guerrilla warfare, and returned to Italy in 1848.
  • Service of Mazzini to the cause of Italian Liberation: His service cant be judged by what he failed to do. His service wer in realm of ideas and inspiration. He infused national movement a moral fervour which so long lacked. He kept spirit alive by insurrections and made cause of united Italy into a popular movement.
  • Mazzini, an Italian nationalist, was a fervent advocate of republicanism and envisioned a united, free and independent Italy. Unlike his contemporary Garibaldi, who was also a republican, Mazzini never compromised his republican ideals and refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the House of Savoy.
  • Mazzini was vigorously opposed to Marxism and Communism, and in 1871 he condemned the socialist revolt in France that led to the creation of the short-lived Paris Commune. This later caused Karl Marx to refer to Mazzini as a “reactionary” and an “old ass.”
  • Metternich described Mazzini as “the most influential revolutionary in Europe.”
  • Indian independence leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was influenced by Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini.
  • Mazzini’s socio-political thought has been referred to as Mazzinianism, and his worldview as the Mazzinian Conception, terms which were later utilized by Benito Mussolini and Fascists such as Giovanni Gentile to describe their political ideology and spiritual conception of life.
  • Mazzini was also an early advocate of a “United States of Europe” about a century before the European Union began to take shape. For him, European unification was a logical continuation of Italian unification.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

  • Giuseppe Garibaldi was a disciple of Mazzini and a very able military leader. After participating with Mazzini in an abortive republican uprising against the King of Sardinia in 1834, Garibaldi gained fame for military exploits in South America. He returned to Italy in 1848 and fought first against the Austrians and then against the French. He put up a gallant but hopeless struggle to maintain the Roman Republic of 1849.

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