Dante’s Dream Comes True: Investigating the Reasons for the Italian Unification

Garibaldi and other leading figures of the Italian Unification salute Italian nationalists

Beyond the Alps, beyond the sea, are other peoples, now fighting, or preparing to fight, the holy fight of independence, of nationality, of liberty; other peoples striving by different routes to reach the same goal. Unite with them and they will unite with you.

Giuseppe Mazzini

peter robert campbell ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Professor Peter Robert Campbell

This paper is written for HIST 242 (The History of Early Modern Europe) class for Prof. Peter Robert Campbell. He wrote a wide range of articles about the Early Modern French History. He also published a variety of books like  Louis XIV (1661-1715) in 1993 and Power and Politics in Old Regime France (1720-1745) in 1996. 

He currently gives lectures on European History at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul.

For his Curriculum Vitae: https://hist.boun.edu.tr/sites/hist.boun.edu.tr/files/Campbell%20CV%20Bogazici%20June%202015%20.docx


   In the geopolitical orientation, the Italian peninsula was consisting of scattered states and other smaller entities at the end of the 18th century. In the north, there was an Austrian pressure by controlling the Duchy of Milan in Lombardy and Venice. The Papal States were also taking measures to prevent revolts in any place. Alongside these two powers, Kingdom of Sardinia or Piedmont which later played a huge role in uniting Italy was holding Piedmont and Genoa. Lastly, the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily was effective in the southern parts. In this regard, Napoleon I of France invaded these states and altered their social, legal, and cultural structures by applying his codes of law and other political precautions. However, his rule ended in a short while and Austrian hegemony was established with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Nonetheless, Italian people did not accept this situation and revolted against the Austrian rule. Even though these attempts failed, it triggered new insurrections in order to take their independence and to achieve unification. The idea of unification seemed difficult and improbable in this complicated web of political structure but the Italians completed their unification after a long struggle with the considerable contributions of Italian leaders such as Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the Prime Minister of Piedmont, Cavour. Thus, it can be said that inquiring why the Italian Unification happened is obviously necessary to understand this major turning point in European history better. In this context, there are roughly three fundamental reasons paved the way for Italians to be united under the roof of one state named the Kingdom of Italy. The shaking wave of socio-economic troubles against the Italian society, the soaring of nationalist ideas and inclinations under the French Revolution’s considerable effect and the taking advantage of political turmoil between European states thanks to a successful diplomacy-centered policy might be assessed as the main causes of Risorgimento (the unification’s original name in Italian).

I-The shaking wave of socio-economic troubles against the Italian society

“Rebellion in Venice”, like this painting, there are a high number of paintings for Italian Unification.

   In the first place, the worsening socio-economic problems of Italian rural and urban communities became a key reason on the road of Risorgimento thanks to mobilizing masses against negative conditions on the side of unification for years. It can be emphasized that the common use of the land was for agricultural activities within the rural areas. Most of the fertile lands belonged to the upper classes and peasants had to work in their fields in addition to their smaller fields. Napoleon’s capture of the peninsula deeply affected the lives of people in terms of social order and economic conditions. Napoleon canceled and prohibited the feudal way of life in imposing privatization programs over lands. Besides, he ordered to seize the lands of Italian nobility to redistribute his generals, nobles, and his other proponents1. Martin Clarck mentions that

“landowners found themselves dispossessed, and fought back angrily against the usurpers… Public order, always fragile, broke down in the struggle for land. Poor peasants were, needless to say, squeezed off any land they might possess, and lost their access to formerly common land as well.”2

Hence, after the abolition of the feudal regime and redistribution policies of Napoleonic Era, Spencer M. DiScala states that

“the peasantry, damaged by a pro-landowner and high tax policy, was now further exasperated…Italy remained rural, the peasants uneducated.”3

   It must be indicated that these conditions worsened after the French invasion under the unsuccessful management of the Restoration governments governed mostly by Austria. The Italian economy was underdeveloped since, as John Gooch argues:

“external markets were hard to enter because of the high tariff walls which most states put up; and a market tendency to put surplus profits into land, often for social reasons, deprived industry of much needed investment.”4

In addition to external markets, internal problems increased because mismanaged Restoration states controlled by the Austrian Empire could not be able to support rural communities as well as added new takes over the shoulders of peasants. Alexander Grab highlights that

“especially in the grain-producing areas (latifundi), peasants were angered by the government’s failure to protect them… In particular, the failure to compensate the peasantry for the abolition of customary rights…and the enclosure of common land caused terrible hardship; bad harvests, exploitative landlords, and an inequitable tax system further intensified popular resentment.”5

These circumstances made the rural peasantry “destabilized” and “public opinion turned decisively against the whole regime.”6 Thus, economic malaise created a general discontent which made peasants participated in the independence activities through the entire peninsula. In this respect, Lucy Riall argues that

“economic issues explain the growing power of nationalist feeling in Italy. It also becomes clear why the unification of Italy should be attributed to the inexorable logic of history”7

Furthermore, Austrian sanction-focused applications to protect its interest and revenue devastated the economic structure for Italians. Di Scala writes that Italy was controlled with “an iron fist” by Austrians and they made

“severe restrictions discriminated against Italian products if they competed with Austrian goods, and other regulations practically prohibited Italians from traveling.”8

This demonstrates that the cost of foreign interventions on financial issues was destructive and accelerated the demand for independence in Italian society.

   Eventually, the sudden rise of the population threatened the lives of both local and urban population. The statistics display that the overall population of the peninsula rose from 17.8 million to 24 million between 1800 and 18509. As a consequence, Clarck argues that after the double of food prices in 1847,

“demand for food went up and agricultural wages fell… This meant that living standards declined, food shortages were always probable and local famines were fairly common”10

In this geography, public health was also unhealthy since contagious illnesses were widespread after shortages alongside the deforestation policies of Austrian Empire for making profits11. To illustrate, 27.000 people died in Palermo in one year due to cholera and malaria caused major deaths around the valleys12. To be precise, Davis interprets that

“the devastating unemployment, famine, bank failures, and commercial stagnation…brought renewed social unrest, raising apprehensions of impending disaster among the propertied classes and creating fertile ground for the conspiracies and insurrections…”13

II-The soaring of nationalist ideas and inclinations under the French Revolution’s considerable effect

Italian Nationalists were at war with Austrian forces in Milan in March 1848

   The rise of nationalist ideas and patriotic propensities among Italian intellectuals, soldiers, and statesmen because of the French Revolution’s influence would be accepted as a critical reason in the making of Risorgimento. It can be stated that the legacy of Napoleonic epoch is quite essential in the emergence of nationalist thinking. Clarck puts forward that the real and major result of the French revolution “was in ideas or “mentalities”14 and Napoleon’s armies brought their mentality into the Italian peninsula. In this case, “nationalism” is an essential component of their mentality at that time. Thus, nationalist ideas could spread among the Italian population. The end of French control did not terminate the spread of nationalism. Clarck contends that

“‘nationalist ideas grew up, after 1815, from this fertile soil. In Italy, unlike Germany, they were not a reaction against French ideas, but an offshoot of them.”15

In this regard, the Austrian Empire’s socially and culturally repressive measures also served the rise of nationalism and the idea of unification. To exemplify, there is no way of Italian representation in Australian-governed parliaments. Press also was not free and all works could be published with the permission of Austrian and other restoration cities. Riall claims that this situation created tensions between state and society and “posed the greatest problems” in the peninsula16. There is no social reform for basic liberties but

“strict censorship was imposed and more elaborate spy networks were established; many revolutionaries from 1848 were summarily tried and executed. Repression, in this period, destroyed all attempts at amalgamation and compromise”17

as Riall clearly mentions. As the last resort, oppressed people began to participate in revolutionary activities and established nationalist secret societies like Carbonari and La Giovine Italia (Young Italy). It can be expressed that understanding the meaning and contribution of nationalism in Risorgimento is substantial. According to Riall,

“nationalism gave meaning to diverse opposition movements and to the diffuse resentment felt towards Restoration governments”

and Italian secret organizations used

“nationalist discourse a justification for their political beliefs and actions.”18

The main figures of Risorgimento: (from left to right): King Emmanuel, Garibaldi, Cavour, and Mazzini

   Carbonari had vital importance as far as nationalist secret organizations are concerned. It was the largest and the most efficient establishment that organized offensive attacks and its members “endorsed radical French ideas.”19 John Rath comments that

“the one common political goal unanimously professed and upheld by every Carbonaro was to give unity, liberty, and independence to the Italian people.”20

Cornelia Shiver also debates that

“this movement marked a great forward step toward a future of”21

a united Italy. Since its meetings widened the ideas of Risorgimento among larger circles in the society and facilitated the completion of that process by undermining the Austrian strength via its activities. In that time period, three key figures contributed to the rise of nationalist ideas and respectively the unification’s realization. Initially, Giuseppe Mazzini’s republican ideas can be regarded as the first step in forming the Risorgimento. Even though he failed to carry his main goal to make Italy republic, he inspired the future generations to follow his thought. Gooch makes clear that he

“was a republican: only this form of government, he believed, could secure the equality of peoples. Mazzini aimed to marry thought and action by the twin means of education and popular insurrection.”22

He also formed a political organization called “La Giovine Italia” (Young Italy) that looked for the independence with a nationalist and republican sense in 1831. Other than Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi was a nationalist soldier and sought for a unified Italy in integrating the Kingdom of Sicily into the northern parts of the Italian peninsula with his supporters during the Risorgimento. Garibaldi was also under the influence of French revolutionary principles. John Gooch remarks that his

“military successes…won victories for Italy on the field…but he was both fiercely democratic and resolutely nationalistic. In 1860 these ideas could not easily be reconciled.”23

That is, his aspirations could not totally be fulfilled because the new regime was formed as a kingdom under the leadership of Piedmont. Nevertheless, while accomplishing to unify southern Italy, he used nationalist sentiments through his speeches in his armies. As for the role of patriotic propensities in Piedmont, it could be underlined that Prime Minister Cavour’s place and stance is very crucial in dominating nationalism over the northern regions. However, his ideology was different from Mazzini and Garibaldi’s nationalism in many cases. For example, he tried to synthesize nationalism and liberalism in Piedmont under the kingship of Charles Albert and Vittorio Emanuel II. He promoted private institutions in the economic change to improve the economic situation. Besides, he is not a republican but a monarchist with a parliamentary system. Di Scala argues that he

“believed in a middle road. He supported gradual change and favored cooperation among the bourgeoisie, the progressive nobility, and a monarchy sensitive to the nation’s wishes. He rejected radical democracy… for him, the Risorgimento was simply a movement to raise Italy to the level of the most advanced European countries.”24

It is important to note that Cavour’s nationalist ideology dominated Italian Kingdoms in some years since Piedmont became the strongest and the most durable economic power thanks to his financial reforms. Therefore, a high number of Italians whose working conditions got better accepted to live under a nationalist parliamentary monarchy and promoted Cavour’s nationalism until the unification was completed25. Ultimately, even though the nationalism of individuals and communities are different from each other, their nationalist feelings assisted to the unification under a common “Italian” identity26.

III-The taking advantage of political turmoil between European states thanks to a successful diplomacy-centered policy


The Unification of Italy through the 19th century on the map

   Apart from these two focal points, the making use of the opportunity between European powers’ internal and external weaknesses by carrying diplomatic tactics can be evaluated a facilitator cause of the Italian Unification. Primarily, it must be remembered that the relationships between European powers based on diplomatic skills in many cases rather than just war-making in that era. They could easily change their ally or enemy according to diplomatic steps and hence the alliance ground between such powers was quite weak.

Accordingly, as Eric Hobsbawn puts it, Piedmont’s

“diplomatic ambitions also allowed her to be treated as a participant in the power game.”27

So, its diplomacy in this political framework gave the opportunity to the Italian states to be unified. As Haddock highlights,

“more than anything else, it was the international situation which ensured that the ‘Italian question’ would remain on the European political agenda.”28

Furthermore, Eric Hobsbawm clarifies that

“because of the peculiar nature of the European state-system [major powers’] domestic and international affairs were inextricably intertwined.”29

Therefore, playing diplomatic games in considering weak and strong aspects of Austria seemed the best way to guarantee Risorgimento for Piedmont. It should not be disregarded that Austria was an impotent empire which did not cease its internal and external problems. Haddock examines that

“Austria, in particular, found herself in an acutely vulnerable position…She could not afford to be responsive to pressures to prove irresistible.”30

Clarck also argues that three unexpected factors took place in Austria that undermined it in a short period. The new pope, Pius X, was against the Austrian control, unlike previous popes. In the wake of this, Switzerland Civil War broke out in 1847 that caused a headache for Austria. Besides, due to civil war, Austria could not be able to send enough troops through the Po River and the Apennines. He underlines that Austrian “government increasingly ineffective. She had no money and few reliable troops.” 31

   In addition to the weakness of Austria, Piedmont participated in the leading issues of Europe in order to “use international sympathy to weaken Austrian domination of north Italy”32 under the leadership of Cavour. Hunt states that his “realpolitik… made unification possible”33 To exemplify, Cavour assisted the Triple Alliance (Britain, France, the Ottomans) against Russia by sending troops in the Crimean War and attended the Conference of Paris. Haddock claims that “developments abroad ensured that Italy’s local uprisings would be viewed in an international context” in that conference34. Cavour met the representatives of European powers and signed alliance treaties to ensure his security in any conflict against Austria. This diplomacy worked with the military support of Napoleon III of France and as Gooch elaborates that

“France was prepared to see an expanded Piedmont in northern Italy as a check on Austria. And Britain was now willing to give Piedmontese ambitions active support….Piedmont’s anti-clerical legislation appealed to anti-papal feelings; Garibaldi was hero-worshipped by the working classes and high society alike; and the king of Naples was detested.”35

Moreover, Queen Victoria wrote that as

“a barrier alike to unenlightened and absolute principles . . . she [Piedmont] has a right to expect us to support her”36.

In the wake of the Conference of Paris, Piedmont lasted to embrace this diplomacy-focused policy in its capture of Venice in 1866 and Rome in 1870. In the former case, French armies defeated Austrian troops and Austria had to give up Venice. Instead of France, Italy gained Venice thanks to diplomatic activities that provided plebiscite for the city in favor of Italy. As for the latter, Napoleon III had to recall his armies in Rome to beat Prussia in the war of 1870. The consequence of this attempt is the absence of any major power at the heart of Italian Peninsula. The Kingdom of Italy (not Piedmont anymore)37 did not directly attack Rome; rather, achieved to hold plebiscite with regard to the city’s future because of diplomatic negotiations with Third French Republic that overthrew Napoleon III.


The capture of Rome in 1870 by Italian forces from Papacy finished the last phase of Italian Unification.

   On the whole, this can be thought that there are mainly three reasons for the achievement of Risorgimento that seemed improbable and difficult at first glance. In the first place, experiencing tough conditions under the Napoleonic as well as Restoration rule prepared local and urban Italian communities gave rise to bloody uprisings against their rules. Moreover, Restoration states failed to restore the negative economic and social conditions of Italian people through the peninsula. As a permanent solution, many people thought that the unification must be ensured so that the Austrian Empire’s socio-economic oppressions over them come to an end. Secondly, nationalist sentiments emerged in that peninsula with Napoleon’s occupation and became more powerful in time. Later, the spread of nationalist ideology and patriotic viewpoints pushed many Italian communities and leaders not to accept any foreign-governed rule. Three of those patriot pioneers are considered the architects of Risorgimento, as Di Scala describes, Mazzini is “the pen,” Cavour is “the mind,” and Garibaldi is “the sword” of unification38. Lastly, the external and internal political setting of Europe was in turmoil when the Italian people and leaders determined to be independent. In this confusing environment, Piedmont and its Prime Minister Cavour did their best by using diplomatic skills rather than war-making according to many authors. This is since the supporters of Italian Unification took strong support from many European countries in forming a unity. Following that, Piedmont consolidated its power and completed unification with defeating vulnerable Austrian Empire. It can be concluded that it is necessary to consider various economic backgrounds, socio-cultural dynamics, individual factors, and political dimensions in grasping the formation of states in the Modern Age as the Italian case shows.


  1. Martin Clarck “Restoration: Society and Economy”, The Italian Risorgimento.. Edinburgh, (Pearson Books, 2009). 29
  2. Clarck, “Restoration”, 28.
  3. Spencer M. Di Scala, “Enlightenment and French Revolutionary Italy”, Italy: From Revolution to Republic, (Westview Books, 2008): 37.
  4. John Gooch, “Strands of Revolution”, The Italian Risorgimento, (Lancaster Pamphletes, 2001): 7.
  5. Alexander Grab, “From the French Revolution to Napoleon”, The Short Oxford History of Italy: The Nineteenth Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 134.
  6. Lucy Riall, “The Short Oxford History of Italy”, 137.
  7. Lucy Riall., “The Risorgimento and Restoration Government”, The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society and National Unification, (New York: Routledge Papers, 1994): 16.
  8. Di Scala, “Restoration Italy”, 61.
  9. Clarck, 31.
  10. Clarck, 36.
  11. Clarck, 29.
  12. Clarck, 32.
  13. Davis, “Introduction: Italy’s difficult modernization”, 12.
  14. Clarck, “The Impact of France”, 17.
  15. Clarck, “Plots and Patriots”, 42.
  16. Riall, 25.
  17. Riall, 25.
  18. Riall, “The Risorgimento and Italian nationalism”, 71.
  19. Davis, 26.
  20. John Rath, “the Carbonari: Their Origins, Initiation Rites, and Aims”, The American Historical Review, (Oxford University Press, January 1964): 326.
  21. Cornelia Shiver, “the Carbonari”, Social Science. Volume 39, No 4, (Pi Gamma Mu Publications, October 1964): 240.
  22. Gooch, 6.
  23. Gooch, 37.
  24. Di Scala, “The Age of Prose”, 103.
  25. Nathaniel T. Kenney, “United Italy Marks Its 100th Year”, National Geographic: Vol. 120. No. 5. (Washinghton D.C: National Geographic Press, November 1961): 593.
  26. Nathaniel Platt & M. Jean Drummond, “Nationalism Unifies Italy”, Our World through the Ages, (Prentice Hall Inc, 1954), 386.
  27. Eric John Hobsbawm, “Conflicts and War”, the Age of Capital (1848-1875), (Abacus Books, 2006): 101.
  28. B. A. Haddock., “Italy: Independence and Unification without Power”, Themes in Modern European History 1830-1890, (Routledge Books, 1990), 70.
  29. Hobsbawm, 88.
  30. Haddock, 70.
  31. Clarck, “The Revolutions of 1848”, 49.
  32. Gooch., 25.
  33. Lynn Hunt, “Politics and Culture of the Nation-State: 1850-1870”, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures Vol C. Since 1740, (Paperback Publications, 2003), 698.
  34. Haddock, 78.
  35. Gooch, 27.
  36. Gooch, 27.
  37. Di Scala, 125.
  38. Ibid., 119.


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