This is a discussion of why the Risorgimento failed prior to the 1850s.

The term Risorgimento was used by Piedmontese dramatist Alfieri who desired a politico-ethical revival in Italy. The essence of Risorgimento was the renewal of Italy as a nation. Yet by looking before 1850 and asking why the Risorgimento failed is inherently flawed. For because of this, the history of the early 19th Century is turned into one of failure for Italy. The early to mid 19th century in Italy did see various movements which had as part of their aims a single state but there was no real unity of action. One must remember that Italy was a series of states some of which were under foreign domination and investigate with that in mind. When integration of states into one finally successfully began in 1859 it was remarkably conservative. Cavour, who played a massive role was determined that no real revolution would take place whereby political systems were transformed to include for example universal male suffrage. Radicals and Mazzinians were excluded from government and freedom was restricted. For example Leopoldo Cempini, Carlo Fenzi and Piero Puccioni who wanted to found a paper in Tuscany called La Nazione were advised not yet as the debate on how the nation would exist was delayed until it was sure it had been permanently established. Thus when the Risorgimento succeeded it was in a way anti-populist, emphasising the impression that would be made on foreign governments. Its leaders emphasised a single message should be used so that past failures should not be repeated. As D’Azeglio stated to the Romagnols in 1859: “one single danger menaces you: discord and disorder”. Although this is a brief account of its success and one should be very wary of assessing the failures in comparison to this it is interesting to consider the manner of success. For it does reveal the importance of the international community and the difficulty of forming achievable aims from a wide variety of beliefs.

The Example of the Carbonari

The idea of the Risorgimento is slightly flawed. It was made up of a series of movements with differing aims which varied within a movement depending on the region and other factors. The Risorgimento was not a movement. An investigation of sects that constituted what is seen as the Risorgimento may help reveal why the beginning of the physical unification of Italy had not occurred by 1850. There were many sects which used secrecy, ritual, hierarchies and other means to try and gather support for their cause. The most famous of these was the Carbonari. Their foundation date is unknown as is their origin but we do know they existed by the 1800s. They had a hierarchy and a grading system which by the early 1820s is thought to have been between 7 and 9 in number. The details of the aims and beliefs of each grade were supposed to be strictly secret so our knowledge is somewhat limited especially about the higher grades which is problematic due to the likelihood of more radical views and the overall intentions of the leaders being found there. It was relatively simple to become an apprentice and this was probably dependent on your knowing a member of the Carbonari. The emphasis in the First Grade was “Faith, Hope and Charity”. Although this group may appear subversive one must consider the very traditional basis of the First Grade. It was only gradually that members’ aims became more liberal or radical. It is this traditionalism which may help to explain how the Carbonari has by 1820 anything between 300,000 and 642,000 members. The second grade saw emphasis placed on Jesus Christ, Grand Master of the Universe (here one sees Freemason influence) and this sees a definite break from the Christian tradition. In fact Jesus Christ is claimed as the first Carbonari! One can see that this group was a quasi-religious organisation which justified political aims with religious philosophy. But although this group could gain much support from peasants and the more educated, for example Mazzini, who saw it as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the regimes they lived under. It lacked mainstream appeal with its secrecy and new religious philosophy and its emphasis on ritual shows the power people felt conveyed by this whether religious or political.

The higher grades of this order show the different views that could be contained within a group. At a basic level the unity, liberty and Independence of the Italian people was the common goal of the Carbonari. The Ausarian Republic which was incorporated into the ritual of a Grand Elect Grand Master saw amongst other things an Italy with 21 provinces, each with a national assembly, two kings who would be elected every ten years. It was to be Democratic, Republican, Anticlerical and Egalitarian. This policy was very radical compared to the basic unifying idea and it is unlikely that the whole membership would have concurred with these aims. Wit von Doring stated that the final aim was to:

“Destroy every positive religion and every form of government whether unlimited despotism or democracy”.
The 1818 Macerate trial saw a catechism stating the aim of the Carbonari was to destroy tyrannical governments. The lack of consistency in ultimate aims and lack of real method of implementation are factors that run on until the Reunification of Italy. This is crucial when considering why reunification did not happen earlier.

The example of The Sublime Perfect Masters

The Sublime Perfect Masters were created by Filippo Buonarroti from the Adelfi. This had three grades the first of which had as its aim Independence from Austria, the second a Democratic Republic and the third Communistic Society with common ownership of property. It had an important centre in Turin whilst the Carbonari were more popular in Naples where half their membership were. This regional variance is important to bare in mind as it reflects the diverse nature of Italy emphasising the difficulty of common aims between the states. There were groups like the Italian Federation which was developed between 1818 and 1820 which wanted the liberation of Venetia-Lombardy (from Austrian rule) and its unification with Piedmont in a constitutional monarchy. The moderation of this when compared to the Sublime Perfect Masters marked and shows the breadth of view between liberal monarchists, democrats and radicals all of whom are grouped under the heading of desiring a Risorgimento. Hence one is left with a better understanding of the lack of cohesion. Further one can see the regional basis for these organisations and the way they reacted to and addressed the particular problems in these areas. These organisations had their own specific goals which they were caught up in which prevented an effective attempt at unification.

Mazzini, Young Italy and the role of Piedmont

After the failure of revolts in 1820-1 and 1831 one sees an increasing militant tendency in within some of the movements. Giuseppi Mazzini in 1830-1 developed his idea of Democratic Nationalism and decided to form La Giovine Italia (Young Italy). This movement believed in the unity of humanity, progress and God’s existence. The principle of recognition of duty to society as well as the rights of individuals was important but his real faith was placed in Democracy. He wanted violent action as soon as possible to help establish a new society and this marked him apart from Buonarroti who believed Mazzini to be impatient and thus refused to support his actions, for example the failure of the 1833-4 plan for insurrection in Savoy and invasion through Switzerland. This lack of co-operation and mediation between groups reflects a fundamental difference in both aims and methods.

The 1840s saw increasing amounts of literature on nationalism. In 1843 Vincenzo Gioberti, a Piedmontese Priest published “Of the moral and Civil Primacy of the Italians”. He believed as the title indicates in the superiority of Italians and advocated a Confederacy of Italian States under the Papal Presidency. The work was moderate as it avoided speaking of Austrian occupation and Papal state reforms but what it did was link the Papacy to Risorgimento which although symbolic added an air of respectability. 1844 saw Cesare Balbo’s The Hopes of Italy published which saw Piedmontese Monarchical leadership of Italy and hoped for Austria to be convinced to give up influence in Italy with compensation in the Balkans. The liberal moderation of these works indicates the multiplicity of platforms and increasing divergence of views amongst reformers. By looking at the ideas of reformers and the sects one can see the lack of cohesion. The Risorgimento was a series of often conflicting ideas which were difficult to bring together to facilitate some unity of revolutionary or reforming action.

The Role of Metternich and the Congress of Vienna

The Congress of Vienna created established what had been dubbed Restoration Europe with the signing of the Treaties of Paris and Vienna in 1815. The newly termed Great Powers of Russia, Austria, Prussia and Great Britain recognised that the ancien regime would not return and established a system which sought to prevent dynastic expansion and to solve further disputes by international agreement. There were two aspects to the Europe that was being created. There was the balance of power between nations and internal politics. The latter shall be addressed first in its relation to the Italian states. Metternich the Austrian chancellor who had much power over Italy believed in enlightened absolutism. This meant he saw monarchy as the sure foundation of order and that its authority was absolute within the perameters of recognising the requirements of Justice and Humanity. For him constitutional monarchy was subversive in practice and a dangerous force. He believed in common good yet feared popular sovereignty. He played a significant role in the attempts of conservative forces, mainly the aristocracy and clergy, in society to secure the permanence of the settlement. His approach was administrative reform which he hoped would satisfy the public whom he believed to have faith in the concrete reality of good government rather than abstract ideas of nation, liberty or democracy. He recognised the overriding importance of reform to prevent the destabilisation of Italy and consequently this meant Austria took an interest in all the states seeking to ensure the balance was struck between reform and conservatism.

The worst governed region in Italy were the Papal States and Metternich took a great interest in reform here. A party called the Zelanti dominated the politics of the Papacy and was extremely conservative. In 1814 reforms were undertaken to reverse Napoleonic measures. These saw old laws and governmental systems restored and clerics returned to administrative posts with the wholesale sacking of laymen. Metternich was alarmed with this highly conservative act and sought support within Rome of reformers. He was able to find only one reforming Cardinal, Cardinal Consalvi. He said: “We must come to terms with the spirit of the times” (1816) and that:

“When the current is of such a force that it cannot be resisted, better to seek to control and guide it than to stand against it and be swept away” (1815).
This was what distinguished certain conservatives from their reactionary counterparts yet in the Papal States those who were involved in government were reactionary clerics whose uncompromising stance was to undermine their cause. Consalvi with some advice from Metternich developed his Motu-Proprio of 1816 which was quite moderate. It aimed for ecclesiastical tribunals losing their jurisdiction over civil affairs, a provisional consultative council, the abolishment of arbitrary arrest and punishment and for new law codes to be drawn up. The educated classes were largely happy with this and this is reflected by their lack of involvement in the 1820-1 revolutions. But the nobles and Zelanti were unhappy and tried to block the implementation so that only the code of procedure appeared and some limited health and education reform. This conflict between conservatives which prevented reform helped undermine their cause, as dissatisfaction grew in the Papal States in particular amongst the educated classes. The aims of the 1831 Conference of Rome were defined as administration based on elected municipal and provincial councils, admission of laymen to all civil posts, reform of the legal system on the basis of 1816 Motu-Proprio principles and some form of guarantee of permanence for the reforms. The lack of success by the 1830s in the Papal States of reform was very serious for by then liberal, democratic, Republican, radical ideas were becoming increasingly significant although divided so that reform on a conservative basis may well have not been enough.

The Habsburg provinces of Lombardy and Venetia saw a continuation of Napoleonic government with very few Austrian administrators brought in. The attempt for reform was shown with two central congregations at Milan and Venice which had limited consultative functions including the distribution of new taxes. They were composed of wealthy taxpayers. Yet the introduction of conscription, breaking of trade with France, censorship, the setting up of prohibitive customs barriers and increased centralisation of rule ensured degrees of opposition and the reality that conservative government had not gone far enough in pacifying the educated classes (such as lawyers, bankers) desire for involvement in government. Piedmont saw more fundamental failure in satisfying the educated classes desire for good government and increased involvement in it. Parma saw a degree of success with an admired civil code (1820), as did Tuscany with the preventing of Jesuit entry to the state. Yet at a fundamental level conservatives seemed to fail to find consensus on how to re-establish their monarchies and implement successful reforms which secured the support of the educated classes as well as aristocratic and clerical. This lack of success did not mean the regimes would fall but it did put into the fore the idea of legitimacy which was so crucial to Restoration Europe. A failure in government could lead to the debating of the system’s right to existence rather than a change in simple leadership of that system.

The other key aspect established by The Congress of Vienna was the balance of power. No major state desired another war and sought to create a Europe in which it was not likely to occur. But if it did the Congress system was there to help and contain and deal with particular questions. This meant the views of France, Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria could all be expressed and any settlement needed the support of all these nations. Therefore revolutions in Piedmont and Naples were not seen as isolated affairs when they occurred in 1820-1. The Congress of Troppau was convened and the Troppau Doctrine established that Allied governments would:

“Refuse recognition of changes brought about by illegal methods and take measures to rectify the changes first by friendly representations, then by measures of coercion, if the employment of such coercion is indispensable”.
Although the Congress system collapsed later in the 1820s European intervention in the affairs of the Italian states was profoundly necessary in the governments of France and Austria’s eyes and it was these two power who had the deciding influence on whether Risorgimento would be allowed. In 1831 and 1848 the power of conservative foreign governments was crucial in preventing Risorgimento, although post the 1848 Revolutions Piedmont was allowed to retain its Statuo as Austria felt this was necessary for peace. Fundamentally foreign intervention did help maintain the conservative states in Italy and any change required their sanction. Their desire to maintain the status quo for fear of destabilising their own countries and the balance of power had much to do with the prevention of wholesale reform or reconstitution of the Italian States by 1850.

The actual Revolution attempts themselves show the actual relative lack of widespread unity amongst any section of the Italian populace for serious change. In 1817 Metternich pointed out the problem which was that:

“In design and principle divided among themselves, these sects change every day and on the morrow may be ready to fight against one another.”
The immediate causes for each failure varied. In the Neapolitan one of 1820-1 saw peasants, provincial middle class and craftsmen supporting the junior officers and the Carbonari. Major reforms saw decentralised provincial government and the Salt Tax halved. The cause was not a united Italy amongst the moderates or democrats. One must remember the significance of the feeling of those such as Dante Gabriele Rosseti who held the patria to be the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Yet when King Ferdinand attempted a coup the moderates and democrats united but the Liberals faith in Constitutional Monarchy helped undermine their cause as popular support was lost and the Austrians defeated General Pepe at the Battle of Rieti. Each Revolution until the final success had slightly different immediate causes for failure but ultimate the factors discussed in this essay played the deciding role.


This discussion has concentrated on the conflicting nature of the Risorgimento, the problems faced by Conservative forces and the importance of foreign intervention when considering the history of the Italian States in the early to mid 19th Century. Yet one must also consider the increasing industrialisation of the Italian states, the increasingly educated population of the Northern States and failure of the Catholic Church to adapt to the demands of the age. These factors have not been comprehensively discussed but I would argue that although important they are overwhelmed by the significance of dissension within political camps when considering why the movements which made up what is called the Risorgimento failed. The appeal of the movements to various sections of the population varied according to year one considers and region chosen. The intricacies of the changing appeal from specific Revolution to another can be used to indicate the potential support available given the successful fusion of ideas. This fusion was difficult to achieve for it could make up peasant, middle class and upper middle class support. It also needed to be very careful in ensuring at the very least the non-intervention of foreign states.

When the Reunification succeeded it was with the military conquest by Piedmont of Naples and the backing of France who had undergone the return of the French Empire. Change in European politics did allow the success of the Reunification of Italy. The history of the 19th Century did not necessarily have to end in the Reunification of Italy. If the conservative monarchies of Italy had reformed successfully it may have seriously affected the development of the Italian States. The Risorgimento itself never actually came to fruition in the 19th Century. Italy was reunified as it had been under the Romans but the conflicting demands for reform meant that ultimately very few were enacted. The Risorgimento must always been seen as a series of movements that sought reform. Its very nature, that of seeking a political-ethical revival in the Italian states, created fundamental division about how to do so. This was not resolved. So when considering why the Risorgimento did not succeed before 1850 one must consider the fact that it never actually succeeded and appreciate the possibility of a flaw in the intonation of the question.