The unification of Italy, also known as the Risorgimento, was the 19th-century political and social movement that resulted in 1861 in the consolidation of different states of the Italian Peninsula and its outlying isles into a single state, the Kingdom of Italy. Beginning in the 1840s, the unification was completed in 1871, the same year as the unification of Germany.

Unification of Italy

  • Ever since the fall of Roman Empire, Italy had been a mere geographical expression. It was divided into number of states. Napoleonic conquest paved way for flowering of essence of national unity.
    • The Italian Peninsula had fragmented into different city-states upon the demise of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. Although briefly united under the Ostrogothic Kingdom, it again fell to disunity following the invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) in the 500s. 
    • The northern half of Italy was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire (a German-speaking Empire) beginning in the 8th century while the central and the southern half were intermittently governed between the Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily and the Papal States.
    • The state of affairs continued well into the 17th century until the rise of the Italian city-states, such as Milan and Venice, changed the balance of power in the region. Wars would be fought between the states and the Holy Roman Empire culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Although it would end the involvement of the Holy Roman Empire, most of Northern Italy would still be ruled by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire at the time. The Spanish Wars of succession would end the Habsburg Rule in Italy by 1714.
    • Italy was thus divided into many small principalities, and it would remain that way until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.
    • Towards the end of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte would begin a series of wars that would change the political landscape of Europe for years to come. Napoleon conquered the Italian city-states and turned it into a single administrative unit. As part of the French Empire, the Italian people would imbibe many ideas of the revolution such as liberty, equality and fraternity. Above all, active participation by the people in governance was encouraged, something unheard of in the Italian states for centuries
    • The empire established by Napoleon had served as a fuel for revolutionary ideas, as he even encouraged nationalism. Italy would be split again following the Napoleans’ fall in 1815, its city-states divided among various European powers, with the Empire of Austria having the most power. But by this time the Italian people had enough of foreign involvement in their land and would begin a series of insurrections to drive the foreigners out and unite their country.
  • The Unification of Italy Begins
    • During the 1820s and 1830s, the movement for unification would grow finally culminating in revolutions break out in many Italian states in 1848. Although the revolutions would be suppressed, it did little to stem the tide of revolutionary activities. Guiseppe Garibaldi would emerge as the face of Italian unification during this period.
    • Guiseppe Garibaldi (1807-1848) was a revolutionary who had taken part in 1848 insurrection but had to go into exile when it failed. Lending his support to King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont, he would return to Italy in 1860 bringing with him an army consisting of volunteers from Sicily and Naples. In 1858, Victor Emanuel, along with other northern Italian states, had allied with France to permanently end Austrian involvement in the region.
    • The insurrection in 1860 would be a success as Garibaldi and his army of Redshirts would conquer the island of Sicily and Naples. Meanwhile, the northern states had joined up with Piedmont-Sardinia and accepted Victor Emmanuel II as their King. Garibaldi handed Naples and Sicily to him in November 1860 and by 1861 Italy was declared as a kingdom. Only Venice and Rome would remain under foreign control and they became a part of Italy in 1866 and 1871 respectively. Thus, the Unification of Italy was completed.
Unification of Italy

Hurdles against the Unification of Italy

  • The dominance of foreign reactionaries over Italy posed a great hurdle. Italy was dominated by Austria. Lombardi and Venetia were under her direct control but Modena and Tuscany were governed by Austrian princes. Louisa the queen of Parma was an Austrian princess.
  • Geographical location of Italy also posed obstructions. It was roughly divided into three political units – North, Central and South Italy.
  • The Pope was determined to hold his reign over his state Rome.
  • Politicians did not have a harmonious plan about the unification of Italy. Mazzini and Garibaldi wanted the unification of Italy as a republic, but Gioberti stressed upon a federal state.
  • Italy had not yet developed national consciousness. All its states followed their diverse traditions and customs. In the words of Metternich, “In Italy, there stood a state against a state, a city against a city, a family against other family and a man against a man.”
  • After Napoleon’s decline, the nobility and feudal lords tried to restore feudalism in Italy. In 1815, there was no trace of the Industrial Revolution in Italy. Therefore, ‘ land was still a valuable asset and was connected with traditional social and political customs. Hence, the for of the nobility that unification would eliminate their right over estates and they would lose influence, was natural.
    • Besides, economic disparity also hurdled the path of unification. Southern Italy was rural and devoid of development, while North Italy was a semi-industrial state .

Factors Promoting Italian Unification

Role of Napoleon

  • The invasion of Napoleon had brought the local states close to each other. Napoleon carried out politico-administrative, socio-economic and religious changes in Italy. Restriction on flow of trade was removed and religious freedom was granted to all Italians. This paved way to rise in national feeling in the minds of people.

Culture and Literary Works

  • The works of Vittorio Alfieri, Leopardi and Mazzini helped to awaken the feeling of nationalism and visualize the aim of one nation.

Growth of Nationalism

  • An increased hatred for the foreign powers whose presence in Italy served as perpetual reminder of the humiliating situation of Italy .

Activities of Secret Societies

  • The clandestine societies which envisioned Italian unification played a dynamic role in the process. These societies were important in giving Italians training in how to fight for their rights. The most prominent among them are Carbonari. It aimed to expel the Austrians from Italy and played an active role in the revolutions of 1820 and 1831.

Revolution of 1848

  • The downfall of Metternich in March 1848 inspired and greatly emboldened Italian nationalists who could see the possibility of liberation of Italy from Austrian domination .

Young Italy Movement

  • It was an organization established by Mazzini in 1831. Mazzini realized the necessity of political awakening in Italy. He encouraged younger generation to sacrifice their lives for the country. It initiated the young Italy movement with Mazzini as the spiritual force.
Phases of Unification
First Phase
  • Villafranca Armistice: In July, 1859, Napoleon III met Emperor of Austria Francis Joseph at Villafranca and arrived at an armistice. Austria maintained its sovereignty over Venetia because of the treaty which was detrimental to Italy. On November 10, 1859, Emmanuel in company with Austria and France signed the Zurich Treaty which ratified Villafranca Armistice and established legal right of Piedmont over Lombardy.
Second Phase
  • Merger of Central Italy: At the time of Austro-Sardinian war, whole Italy was doused in the spirit of nationalism. At the same time, the people of central Italy expelled the rulers of Parma, Modena and Tuscany. People removed the representatives of Pope from Bologna, and Romagna and established temporary governments there. Those regions passed a resolution and decided to merge with Sardinia. Austria, and Prussia wanted to reinstall the previous rulers on the thrones of central Italy.
  • In the middle of March, 1860, through a referendum, Parma, Modena, Tuscany, Bologna and Piyokenja decided to merge with Sardinia. An Italian state was created comprising all regions of North Italy and central Duchies except Venetia.
  • Possession over Naples: On August 19, 1860, Garibaldi attacked Naples . He was in a better position than earlier because he had mustered the mass support and success had elevated the morale of his army .
  • All efforts made by Francis II to prevent Garibaldi ended in failure and the ruler of Naples fled to Geetta. Garibaldi marched forward without any hindrance and declared himself to be sovereign of Naples. He appointed Bartani, the supporter of Mazzini the minister of the state.
Last Phase
  • Acquisition of Venetia: In April, 1866, Bismarck and Emmanuel signed a treaty which provided that Venetia would be annexed to Italy in lieu of Italy ’s help to Prussia during war against Austria.
    • Italy attacked Venetia from south but Austria frustrated Italy at several places. On the contrary, Prussia defeated Austria on 3rd July, 1866 in the battle of Sedova. Bismarck, managed to annex Venetia to Italy and by means of referendum, Venetia was merged into Italy.
  • Acquisition of Rome: Without Rome, the condition of Italy looked like that of a body without heart. In 1867, Garibaldi made efforts to acquire Rome but in vain. In 1870 War broke out between Prussia and France and Napoleon called his army back from Rome, which gave Emmanuel an opportunity to attack Rome. Referendum was carried out in Rome and it was merged into Italy and made the capital of united Italy. With the acquisition of Rome, Italy did not remain merely a ‘’Geographical entity” but became an independent, sovereign nation.

Process of Unification

  • Congress of Vienna sought to turn the wind in a different direction. Italy was passed under control of Austria and it started directly ruling the provinces of Venetia and Lombardy. Pope started ruling the central part. Because of the influence of 1830 revolution, development of Carbonaries (underground societies) in Italy began. This was followed by the formation of many Carbonaries in different states. The Austrian army started suppressing the Carbonary terrorists.
  • After 1848 revolution, things changed and Prime Minister of Sardinia, Cavour took the initiative of united Italy under the leadership of Sardinia. Cavour knew that only with European support and foreign alliance, he could achieve his great objectives. So he devoted his efforts to the task of securing international cooperation.
  • With this, Cavour entered Crimean war (1853-1856) and supported Anglo-French alliance against Russia. With this he got the opportunity to internationalize the issue.
  • He introduced the reforms of Sardinia Piedmont. After this, Napoleon III, ruler of France, entered intoan agreement with the pact of Plombiers. Napoleon III was ready to support Sardinia against Austria. After this Cavour defeated Austria in the war of Solferino (1859). Napoleon III suddenly realized that a united Italy would not be condusive to the interest of France and decided to strike an alliance with Austria and signed a treaty of Villafranca (1859) without consulting Cavour.
  • With the Revolt in South in 1860, Garibaldi marched into the island of Sicily (Naples) with his fighters called Red Shirts and liberated this area. Garibaldi controlled these areas.
  • But after this, there was a fear of war in Sicily. Garibaldi envisaged the Republican form of Government but ready for compromise for Italian Unification and agreed to the Sardinia Piedmont leadership. It was considered as the greatest sacrifice of Garibaldi. After 1861, king of Sardinia took the title of king of Italy which was followed by phase of wars. Germany declared war against Austria ( 1866) and Italy sided with Germany and defeated Austria and all areas like Sadowa and Sedan were annexed.

Aftermath of the Unification 

  • Although the reunification was a reality, it leads to total domination of the Kingdom of Piedmont. Despite promises that regional authorities would participate equally in the government, it was the ruling class of Piedmont that dominated the government during the initial years. 
  • The Italian people wanted a united Italy with a weak central government and strong states. What they got instead was a strong central government with little to no power exercised by the states.
  • The new Kingdom of Italy was structured by renaming the old Kingdom of Sardinia and annexing all the new provinces into its structures. The first king was Victor Emmanuel II, who kept his old title.
  • The new constitution was Piedmont’s old constitution. The document was generally liberal and was welcomed by liberal elements. But this was resented by pro-clergy elements in Venice, Rome Naples and Sicily.
  • The first decade of the Kingdom of Italy saw civil wars raging in Sicily and Naples which was harshly suppressed. The inevitable long-run results were a severe weakness of national unity and a politicized system based on mutually hostile regional violence. Such factors remain in the 21st century.

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