Causes behind Italian Unification


The idea of Italy as an entity, of Italian as a noble and beautiful language and of the common cultural roots of the Italian city and states, can be traced back to the Renaissance period and even earlier. Francisco Petrarch (1304- 1374 was a poet and earliest humanist) turned to antiquity for inspiration and solace following the decline of the two great forces of universalism – the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy.

In Italy poets played a major role in the development of nationalism. It was humanistic literary elite, which played a role in the diffusion of the Italian language.

The absence of a vernacular reformation as in Germany confined the Italian language to tiny elite of 2.5% who commonly used the Italian language even in 1860. Italian nationalism of the 19th century failed to overcome the cultural elitism of the Italian humanists and literary masters.

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Political and Economic Background

During the first half of the 16th century, Italy faced an intermittent conflict between French, Swiss, Spanish and German soldiers for political supremacy on Italian states – Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papal states.

Role of France

It was the French Revolution, which provided a model for Italian nationalism. The Kingdom of Italy created by Napoleon helped to foster Italian national sentiment, but it also reduced it to a continental colony of France. The Napoleonic legal codes and prefectural system, which was introduced in Italy, helped to define the model of a unified national state. It was as a reaction to French domination and Napoleon’s identification with Imperial Rome that Italian writers choose to reject the Roman heritage.

Role of Secret society

Carbonari of southern Italy who enjoyed the greatest public support among the 19th century revolutionary organizations were more interested in democratizing Naples than in unifying Italy.

Carbonari was an informal network of secret revolutionary societies active in Italy from about 1800 to 1831. Although their goals often had a patriotic and liberal basis, they lacked a clear immediate political agenda. The chief purpose was to defeat tyranny and establish a constitutional government.

After the failure of the revolutions of 1830- 31, Italians felt increasingly the need to rely on their own endeavours and on open methods of agitation.

Giuseppe Mazzini, started Young Italy and rejected the sectarian model of revolutionary dictatorship and terror. He envisioned a republican form of government for a united Italian state. Mazzini was a democratic nationalist who simultaneously rejected both the elitism of the moderates and the Jacobin ideal of revolutionary dictatorship. Radical nationalism in Italy found its greatest exponent in Guiseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) who had earlier joined a branch of the Carbonari in 1827 but soon became disillusioned by their lack of clear purpose. He felt that Italy’s freedom from Austrian domination depended entirely on the destruction of aristocratic privilege and clerical authority. After a failed armed uprising at Savoy in 1834 Mazzini went into exile in London.

Mazzinni believed in a people’s war of national liberation he also believed in a democratic government based on universal suffrage.

Economic Problem

The Italian national movement was not based industrial bourgeoisie, political unification or strong custom union like the ones in Germany. While south Italy was considerably economically weak.

National unification in Italy was based on the existence of several states, which tried to preserve their autonomy and privileges in the context of Franco-Austrian rivalry.

Role of Piedmont

  • Piedmont became the Italian state, which unified Italy. Although Piedmont was not quite the powerhouse like Prussia in an economic sense, it was politically and militarily the most active participant in the process of Italian revolution. Here, Charles Albert (1831-1840) was a conservative monarch who had no compunctious about using Austrian troops to stop revolution in Italy much like the Metternich system envisaged.

Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi have been hailed in some accounts as the brain, heart and sword of unification.

  • Since 1850s the more resolute policies of Count of Cavour (Camillo Benso) in combination with the popular movements launched by Mazzini and Garibaldi led to Italian unification. Cavour used his friendship and alliance with Napoleon III to wage successful wars for both the liberation of Italy from Austria and political unification. The territorial ambitions of Piedmont-Sardinia and the desire to preserve social stability shaped the attitude of the aristocratic Cavour. Unification was to depend primarily on the regular army and bureaucracy, not popular movements.

Earlier, when Pope Pius IX withdrew support for a national war against Catholic Austria in April 1848, he lost the support of nationalist opinion in Italy. After the revolution in Rome and the flight of the Pope, the Roman Republic was proclaimed. The efforts of the Pope to return succeeded in June 1849 with the help of French and Austrian forces. During the period of Italian unification, the Pope and the Catholic Church played a conservative role. After losing temporal power, the Pope forbade the faithful to participate in national politics. The opposition of the Church to the secular state – as well as socialism, anarchism and the labour movement – Culminated in the merger of anticlericalism with support for parliamentary democracy.

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