'Unplanned and unintended'

To what extent is this a valid comment on the Unification of Italy?

The events of 1848-49 arguably had a greater effect on politics in Italy than anywhere else in Europe. Although no significant alterations were made to the borders of Italian states and despite the fact that foreign influences seemed more important than ever, with the re-establishment of Austrian power over the peninsular and the installation of a French garrison in Rome; nevertheless, between 1859 and 1870, the unification of Italy was achieved under the hegemony of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The events which led to the creation of the modern state of Italy between 1850 and 1870 remain of great symbolic and emotional importance to many Italians.

Traditionally, Italian historians interpreted the Risorgimento as a natural and inevitable movement towards unification: Mazzini's Young Italy led inexorably to the Roman Republic which in turn produced the proto-Kingdom of Italy and the consolidation of its position which occurred in 1870. Although such historians termed Cavour 'the maker of Italy', reappraisal of the available evidence suggests that Cavour's actions were occasioned not through any definite intent or personal conviction but as a response to the actions of others. Modern interpretations of the Unification of Italy assert that it was not the agreements but the disagreements between figures such as Cavour and Garibaldi which brought about the unification of Italy by Piedmont.

Cavour was an astute politician who realised soon after achieving office that Charles Albert's hope that 'Italia fara da se' was an impossible aim. There was no hope of Piedmont being able to expel Austria from northern Italy without outside help and the only available source of such aid was Napoleon III. Accordingly, Cavour was prepared to engineer foreign intervention in the furtherance of Piedmontese interests yet his aim was not the creation of a unified Italian state. While Cavour did express a tentative support for unification in the 1830s, declaring that Italy should be united and free from Austrian dominance, little attention should be accorded to this assertion since in the 1850s he referred to the idea of Italian unification as "rubbish" on a number of occasions.

Even during his secret negotiations with Napoleon III at Plombières, Cavour was still only working towards a Kingdom of Upper Italy which would remain a component of a Confederation of Italy under the leadership of the Pope. However, although Cavour would have been perfectly prepared to halt with the annexation of Tuscany, Modena and Parma, the unexpected success of Garibaldi in Sicily and Naples forced his hand. Fearful that the south would form an independent republic, Cavour gambled on an invasion of the Papal States. This venture paid off not only by preventing Garibaldi from advancing on Rome but because it delivered Naples and Sicily to Victor Emmanuel; yet this was not what Cavour had originally planned.

Garibaldi first became involved in Italian Unification when he joined Young Italy in 1831 and became a passionate supporter of Mazzini's proposed Italian Republic. Although Garibaldi's political affiliation later changed to a pragmatic royalism, his commitment to Italian unification never faltered; at no point, however, did Garibaldi possess a design by which he planned to achieve his goal. A military figure with no particular political skills, as shown by his brief governance of Sicily, Garibaldi's success in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would have been predicted by very few. Additionally, it is likely that had Garibaldi succeeded in his attack on Rome then he would have inspired foreign intervention on the part of reactionary countries such as Austria and set back the cause of Italian unification by many years. Thus while Garibaldi was an extraordinarily successful soldier and general his achievements were governed more by opportunism and chance than an overarching plan.

In the same way as Garibaldi, Mazzini was a passionate supporter of Italian unification, although he was not prepared to compromise his principles and remained deeply hurt by Garibaldi's abandonment of republicanism. However, although Mazzini can be credited with almost single-handedly creating at least a partial Italian consciousness and while he possessed a huge influence in the Milanese and Roman Republics his practical contribution to Italian unification was minimal. For much of the period between 1848 and 1870 within which Italian unification came about, Mazzini was in exile in London. Additionally, his political writings were unfathomable even to the educated minority and comprehensively failed to encourage popular revolutions after 1848. Thus while Mazzini had a definite political agenda which he succeeded in imposing on the Roman Republic, for most of the period in question he was powerless in political terms.

The first king of a united Italy, Il Re galantuomo, played little active part in the unification of his new kingdom. Due to the fact that it was generally believed in Italy that Victor Emmanuel II alone had defied the Austrians and maintained the 1849 constitution, Italian historians tended to place him alongside Cavour, Garibaldi, and Mazzini as one of the 'heroes' of the Risorgimento. However, foreign historians have provided a different interpretation of the King's role, being inclined to believe that his only claim to prominence comes about because he happened to be in the right place at the right time to provide a figurehead first for Italian nationalists and later for the Kingdom of Italy. Accordingly, it was what he represented rather than what he did or intended that gave Victor Emmanuel II a place in Italian history.

The Pope was initially seen as a figurehead under whom Italy could achieve unification, and this was certainly Cavour's suggestion in 1848. However, Pius IX's Papal Allocution led pro-Papal figures such as Gioberti to change their allegiance, declaring Piedmont to be the only means by which Italian unification could be achieved. Thus although initially there was a certain level of support for a strong level of Papal influence in a united Italy, the actions of the Papacy made this position untenable.

Napoleon III has a strong claim to being the most important figure in Italian Unification: it is certainly true that Austrian influence could not have been removed from northern Italy without the enormous amount of military assistance provided by France. However, Napoleon himself had never planned that Italy should be united: he merely wanted a friendly Kingdom of Upper Italy as a counterweight to Austrian influence. Despite heading a Republic in 1849, Louis Napoleon nevertheless sent troops to defend Rome against the republican Garibaldi when none of the reactionary powers were prepared so to do. Indeed, it is arguable that in opposition to his principle of nationalities, Napoleon III only accepted the 1860 unification of Italy under British pressure. When the French garrison left Rome in 1870, it was not due to a desire on Napoleon's part to see Italian Unification completed but rather was an act which was forced upon him after the Austro-Prussian War. Thus, although Napoleon III did more to unify Italy than any other political or religious figure, it can hardly be said that this was in any way his original intention.

It can, therefore, be seen that while the unification of Italy owed more to political manoeuvring than to any great social, economic or demographic change there was no individual who intended that unification should be brought about in such a manner. Aside from idealists such as Mazzini and Garibaldi, few Italians in 1850 had any desire or comprehension that a united Italy might be brought about within twenty years. The unification of Italy came about more through accident and chance than through design - modern historical interpretations go as far as to assert that it was the disagreements rather than the agreements between the major players which brought about unification. Indeed, if there had been a design, especially a long, drawn out enterprise than it seems likely that it would have been crushed, as were the 1848 Revolutions, by some combination of the Great Powers acting in concert. The extreme rapidity with which Piedmont expanded its territory in 1860 makes it clear that this combination of circumstances was not one that could have been foreseen or directed: in this light, the unification of Italy must be seen as unplanned and unintended.


Matthews, A. (2001), Revolution and Reaction: Europe 1789-1849, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Murphy, D., Morris, T., Staton, R., Waller, S. (2000), Europe 1760-1871, London, Harper Collins

Stiles, A. (2001), The Unification of Italy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press