The Unification of Italy

Adam Bilinski, Christopher Sailus
  • Author
    Adam Bilinski

    Adam Bilinski has taught Political Science courses at various colleges since 2008. In 2015 he graduated with a PhD in Political Science from the University of Florida. He has Applying the QM Rubric (APPQMR) certificate on teaching online. His research interest include immigrant integration and democratization.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Sailus

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

Learn about the unification of Italy through a timeline of events. See when Italy was founded, who unified the country and what the goal of young Italy was. Updated: 12/02/2021

Table of Contents


The Unification of Italy

When was Italy founded? Before the leaders who unified Italy in 1861 created a single nation, the land was divided into several smaller states and partly occupied by Austria. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (whose main territory was in fact the region of Piedmont) was the only Italian state that was a liberal constitutional monarchy since 1848. The regions of Lombardy and Veneto were annexed by Austria following the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In North-Central Italy, there were three duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany. They were ruled by branches of Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties and were closely allied with Austria. Most of Central Italy belonged to the Papal State ruled by the Pope of the Catholic Church. Southern Italy formed a single state known as the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Apart from Piedmont-Sardinia, all those states were absolute monarchies with no constitutions.

The map below illustrates the process of Italian unification. Piedmont-Sardinia is red while Austrian-occupied regions brown. Dates indicate a region's unification with Piedmont.

Unification of Italy Map

Unification of Italy Map

Timeline of the Events: The Risorgimento

Italy was conquered by Napoleonic France in 1796-1804, and from 1804 to 1815, its territory was directly or indirectly controlled by France. Napoleon modernized the governance and legal system of the conquered territories. However, after his defeat and the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Italian states returned to their pre-Napoleonic rulers as absolute monarchies. Politically, Italy was dominated by Austria, which directly annexed Lombardy and Veneto (regions forming before 1797 the Republic of Venice).

The Napoleonic period led to the growing popularity of modern ideas such as republicanism and nationalism. Based on a sense of cultural and linguistic unity, many activists began advocating for Italian unification. Here, nationalism was coupled with liberal and democratic ideas. The unified Italy was to be a constitutional monarchy or a republic (activists disagreed on the future form of government), in which the people would be sovereign instead of an absolute monarch. One should add that other names of the movement of Italian unification include the Italian Revolution or Risorgimento ("resurgence" in English, both words derive from Latin "surgere," meaning "to rise").

Here is the Italian unification timeline:

  • 1820-21, revolutions in Piedmont-Sardinia and Kingdom of Two Sicilies aim to create liberal constitutional governments and unify Italy, but are suppressed.
  • 1830-31, revolutions break out again in Central Italy and Papal States, but they are suppressed by Austrian military interventions. Giuseppe Mazzini founds Young Italy, a secret movement whose goal was to unify Italy as a republic. It attempted several revolts in Italian states in the following decades.
  • 1848-49, during the Spring of Nations, the cause of Italian unification is adopted by Charles Albert (king of Piedmont-Sardinia), whose army is defeated in a war with Austria. Liberal revolts lead to the establishment of liberal governments in other Italian states, but they are again suppressed by Austrian or (with the Papal States) French military interventions.
  • 1859-61, most of Italy, except Veneto and part of Papal States, is unified because of a war in which France and Piedmont-Sardinia defeat Austria. The Kingdom of Two Sicilies is liberated by an expedition led by a revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, and subsequently united with Piedmont-Sardinia.
  • 1866, during the Austro-Prussian war Italy annexes Veneto.
  • 1870, French garrison protecting the pope is withdrawn from Rome during the Franco-Prussian war, which enables Italy to annex the remaining part of the Papal States and move the capital to Rome in June 1871.

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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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Leaders of Italian Unification

Who unified Italy? Italy was unified because of the actions of several politicians and revolutionaries. In the first stage a primary role was played by Giuseppe Mazzini. However, the unification turned out successful only after it was embraced by one of the Italian states, Piedmont-Sardinia, led by Prime Minister Cavour and King Victor Emmanuel II. A military leader and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi also played a crucial part All four men are known as the "fathers of the fatherland" for their roles in the unification of Italy.

Giuseppe Mazzini and The Goal of Young Italy

Young Italy was a revolutionary movement founded by Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72) when he was exiled in France in 1831. What was the goal of Young Italy? It sought the unification of Italy as a democratic republic with equal citizenship. Its motto was "Union, Strength, and Liberty," which emphasizes the movement's goal of a free united Italy.

Young Italy gained up to forty thousand followers, though membership in the movement was punishable by death or imprisonment. In 1833 and 1834, the movement organized insurrections in Piedmont-Sardinia, which were brutally suppressed. The same fate met revolts organized in the 1840s in other Italian states.

In 1848-49, Mazzini participated in the war of Piedmont-Sardinia against Austria (the First War of Italian Independence) and served in the government of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849. After failed uprisings in Mantua and Milan in 1852-53, Young Italy's activities subsided. Instead, unification was led by the government of Piedmont-Sardinia. Mazzini and Young Italy activists had ambivalent feelings about supporting it in this process because they wanted the unified Italy to be a democratic republic, and not a parliamentary monarchy as the latter intended.

Giuseppe Mazzini, founder of Young Italy

Giuseppe Mazzini

Giuseppe Garibaldi

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82) was a soldier and a revolutionary who played an instrumental role in the Italian Unification. He joined the Young Italy Movement and took part in a failed uprising in Piedmont-Sardinia in 1834. Escaping a death sentence in absentia, he went to Latin America, where he participated in several wars and rebellions. This gained him valuable guerilla experience. After the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848, Garibaldi and volunteers he recruited from Italian immigrants returned to Italy. Garibaldi supported Piedmontese troops in the First War of Italian Independence against Austria (noting some military successes) and the forces of the short-lived Roman Republic.

After returning from another exile in 1854, Garibaldi abandoned the Mazzini's goal of republican Italy and instead supported Piedmont-Sardinia in its goal to unify Italy as a parliamentary monarchy. He thought that the goal of unification could be accomplished only if led by one of the Italian states. Garibaldi and his volunteers fought alongside Piedmontese and French troops against Austria during the Second War of Italian Independence in 1859. In 1860, Garibaldi organized an expedition of volunteers to support pro-unification uprisings in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Helped by local reinforcements, he defeated royal troops and united the kingdom with Piedmont-Sardinia. In this way, Garibaldi's lifetime goal of unification was largely accomplished.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the heroes who unified Italy

Giuseppe Garibaldi

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was Italy before it was Italy?

Before its unification in 1861, Italy was divided into several smaller states including Two Sicilies, Piedmont-Sardinia, Papal States, and others. Regions of Lombardy and Veneto were occupied by Austria.

Why was the unification of Italy important?

Unification of Italy was important because it resulted in the creation of a large European power. Italy became the fifth most populous country in Europe after Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and France. The creation of Italy weakened Austria (which had lost its Italian provinces) and temporarily boosted France's international position.

How did the unification of Italy happen?

Unification of Italy happened when Piedmont-Sardinia allied itself with France and together in 1859 defeated Austria, which occupied parts of Northern Italy and was the main obstacle to its unification. Defeat of Austria led to the annexation by Piedmont-Sardinia of the provinces it had controlled (Lombardy and Veneto) and collapse of autocratic regimes in the Northern Italian states allied with Austria, which also enabled its unification with Piedmont. In 1860, due to lack of Austrian opposition, Piedmont annexed also two other Italian states, Two Sicilies and most of the Papal States.

When did Italy become its own country?

Italy became a unified country in 1861. It happened after Sardinia-Piedmont and France defeated Austria in the Second War of Italian Independence. Two smaller Italian regions were added to the unified Italy in 1866 and 1870.

Who was chronologically the first to begin Italian unification?

Groups aimed at creating a unified Italy emerged after the Napoleonic Wars in the 1820s. The most important was the Young Italy movement founded by Giuseppe Mazzini in 1831. Italian unification was effectively accomplished only in 1860 due to the efforts of Piedmontese politicians, primarily Prime Minister Cavour and King Victor Emmanuel II, aided by French Emperor Napoleon III.

How long did Italian unification take?

Unification of Italy took eleven years (1859-70), during which the most important was the period 1859-60 when most of Italy was annexed by Piedmont-Sardinia. Smaller regions followed thereafter: Veneto in 1866 and Lazio (the remaining part of Papal States) in 1870. Some small Italian-speaking areas (Trento and Trieste) were united with Italy only after WW1 in 1919.

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