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The Unification of Italy: Summary, Timeline & Leaders

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  • 0:07 The Unification of Italy
  • 0:36 Background
  • 2:16 Sardinia and Cavour
  • 4:19 Garibaldi in Southern Italy
  • 5:22 Rome and Venice
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the piecemeal unification of Italy which took place in the 19th century. Created in part by the brilliant statesmen Camillo Benso di Cavour, Italy as we know it did not fully take shape until 1870.

The Unification of Italy

The countries of Europe today are almost second nature to those of us who grew up in Western society. Italy, Germany, England - all of these and others conjure certain images of landmarks, people, and food. Considering this, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that as little as 150 years ago, Italy as a cohesive political entity didn't exist! In this lesson, we'll trace the 19th-century developments which fostered the unification of Italy.

Background

For most of the Medieval and Early modern periods, the territory that makes up modern Italy was a fragmented region often under control by monarchs elsewhere in Europe. While the pope carved out states around Rome as his own personal kingdom, northern and southern Italy often alternated between local rule and periods under control by foreign powers like Austria, Spain, France, or the Holy Roman Empire. This political reality had created large regional differences between different parts of the peninsula, but most of the region still came from a similar ethnic background and shared similar customs and the Italian language.

In the first few decades of the 19th century, Italian nationalism grew in the peninsula, and calls for a united Italian state grew in aristocratic and intellectual circles. This period and movement is known as the Italian Risorgimento - literally, 'the resurrection.' Early groups which wanted more rights and liberalism from their foreign rulers eventually coalesced in the 1830s into the group, Young Italy, under the charismatic leader, Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini not only wanted a unified Italy, but he wanted the new Italian state to be a republic.

Mazzini resolved the only way to achieve this was through revolution. As foreign revolutions swept across Europe in 1848, Mazzini seized his opportunity and called for a pan-Italian revolution. Mazzini himself led a guerrilla force into Rome, seized the city, and declared Rome a republic, causing the pope to flee. Though the revolutions around Italy during that year were all eventually quashed by foreign powers, the revolutions showed that the enthusiasm for an Italian state was present.

Sardinia and Cavour

Whereas Mazzini might have had the fervor, the next man with the real political power and acumen to unify Italy was Camillo Benso di Cavour, prime minister of the most powerful independent Italian state in the early 19th century: Sardinia. In addition to the island of Sardinia, the state also controlled Savoy, Piedmont, and Nice in northern Italy. Cavour had been prime minister of Sardinia since 1850. Cavour's original intentions were simply prestige and power for Sardinia, but his goal - uniting more Italian territory under the same flag - was one and the same with those who wanted an Italian state. Moreover, Sardinia had a moderate king in Victor Emmanuel II who ruled jointly with the Sardinian parliament - a political system those wanting an Italian republic would likely accept.

Cavour realized the most powerful nation in northern Italy in the mid-19th century was Austria, who possessed the large and rich territory of Lombardy. Knowing Sardinia could not defeat the Austrians by themselves, Cavour tried to position Sardinia in a politically advantageous position by entering the Crimean War on the side of France, Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1850s. Meanwhile, Cavour continued to strengthen Sardinia and its territories from within, building railroads and improving the military.

Though Sardinia joined the war late and made very little real impact on the outcome, Cavour's move had gained Sardinia powerful international friends in Great Britain and France, who were simultaneously upset with Austria for steadfastly refusing to get involved in the Crimean War. With help secured, Cavour stirred up nationalist rebellions in the territory controlled by Austria. Cavour's troops invaded from the Sardinian territory of Piedmont, and Napoleon III of France immediately sent French troops to aid in the Sardinian effort.

The conflict did not take long, and Austria surrendered Lombardy to Sardinia. At the same time, Italians in Parma, Tuscany, and other central and northern Italian states rebelled against their independent rulers and joined Sardinia in the hope of creating a pan-Italian country.

Garibaldi in Southern Italy

With northern Italy now largely under the Sardinian flag, Cavour sent Giuseppe Garibaldi with a small force to southern Italy in 1860. Garibaldi was a long-time Italian revolutionary, and had been part of Mazzini's force that attempted to set up a republic in Rome in 1848. Garibaldi's forces were wildly successful, but the assault on the southern territories nearly stopped before it even began. Garibaldi was furious with Cavour and Sardinia, after he learned that in return for French help against the Austrians, Cavour had ceded Savoy and Nice to France. Garibaldi was from Nice and was outraged - the very city for which he was hoping to unite Italy was now French!

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