Who Were the 4 Key Players of the Risorgimento?

The Risorgimento aimed to unite the Italian regional states under the same flag. Here are four key players whose ideas and actions shaped the movement for Italian unification.

Jan 14, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History

key players risorgimento


“We were for centuries downtrodden, derided, because we are not one people, because we are divided,” recites the second stanza of Il Canto degli Italiani (the Song of the Italians), Italy’s national hymn, “let one flag, one hope gather us all. The hour has struck for us to unite.”


These emphatic words written by 20-year-old Goffredo Mameli, a supporter of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, embody the patriotic fervor that spread throughout the Italian peninsula during the Risorgimento, the movement aiming to free Italy from absolute rule and unite the different regional states under one flag.


Here are the four key players that shaped the Risorgimento and its political outcomes.


1. Giuseppe Mazzini: The “Heart” of the Risorgimento

portrait of giuseppe mazzini gaetano chierici
Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini by Gaetano Chierici. Source: Musei Civici Reggio Emilia


Born in Genoa in 1805, Giuseppe Mazzini quickly became a passionate advocate for Italy’s independence from foreign and absolute rule. After joining the Carboneria, a secret patriotic society, he was arrested and imprisoned in Savona in 1830. Upon his release, he voluntarily chose to go into exile in Marseille, where he founded the Giovine Italia (Young Italy), an association devoted to championing the unification of the Italian states in a free republic. Mazzini’s Giovine Italia played a central role in arousing the national consciousness among Italians. In 1833, the movement already counted 60,000 members.

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A republican and democrat, Mazzini believed that the unification of the Italian peninsula should be achieved through a cultural, political, and social revolution. “Neither pope nor king,” he affirmed, “only God and the people will open the way of the future to us.” The God at the basis of Mazzini’s ethical and political thought was radically different from the Christian one. Indeed, Mazzini’s “God of the people” embodied the values of justice and equality that gave meaning and direction to history. In this sense, a free and independent patria was a crucial stage in the gradual historical progress that would ultimately unite all people in a universal brotherhood. In The Duties of Man, Mazzini defined the patria as “the sentiment of love, the sense of fellowship which binds together all the sons of that territory.”


proclamation of the roman republic
Proclamation of the Roman Republic. Source: Museo della Repubblica Romana e della memoria garibaldina


The Giovine Italia’s first attempts to organize popular uprisings failed. Frustrated with his association’s unsuccess, Mazzini moved to London in 1837, where he won the support of many English liberals and resumed his patriotic activity. Then, in 1848, when the people of Milan rebelled against the Austrians, Mazzini returned to Italy for the first time. However, he soon clashed with the Milanese provisional government, which opposed his proposal to establish a republic.


The following year, Mazzini was again in Italy for the democratic uprising in Rome that ended with the establishment of the Roman Republic. This time, he played an active part in the revolutionary government as one of the triumvirs. Though short-lived, the Roman Republic promulgated the most advanced and unique constitution of the Risorgimento. Mazzini himself was not a member of the constituent assembly, but the document was the embodiment of all his political ideas. Historians have compared the 1849 text with the 1948 Constitution of the Italian Republic, highlighting the many similarities.


grande sacrificio girolamo induno
Il grande sacrificio (Great Sacrifice) by Girolamo Induno, 1860. Source: Brera Pinacoteca


After the fall of the Roman Republic, Mazzini went back to London. Over the following years, he supported a series of unsuccessful popular uprisings. Mazzini briefly returned to southern Italy during Giuseppe Garibaldi’s dictatorship but left soon after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. Though most of Mazzini’s political endeavors failed, he significantly contributed to the patriotic cause. As a result, he is often referred to as the “heart” of the Risorgimento. His influence lasted beyond the 19th-century independence movement. In 1942, a group of anti-fascist founded the Partito d’Azione. Named after Mazzini’s 1853 party with the same name, its members played an important role in the Resistenza.


2. Camillo Benso di Cavour: The Master of Diplomacy

camillo benso cavour francesco hayez painting
Camillo Benso di Cavour by Francesco Hayez, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Born in an aristocratic Piedmontese family, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour came into contact with patriotic ideas when he was a cadet at the Military Academy of Turin. In 1830, the French July Revolution cemented his opposition to absolutism, the reactionary aristocracy, and the clergy. After resigning from the army, Cavour traveled to France and England. There, he studied their constitutional regimes and visited their advanced infrastructures. While abroad, Cavour became convinced that implementing economic growth was the only way to achieve political change.


perrin camillo benso conte di cavour
Drawing of Camillo Benso di Cavour, Perrin, 1897. Source: Museo Torino


Toward the end of the 1840s, Cavour began to be actively involved in politics. From the pages of Il Risorgimento, the newspaper he founded in 1847, he called for drastic reforms and urged King Charles Albert to champion the movement for Italian unification. In 1848, Cavour was also one of the leading forces that convinced the Piedmontese ruler to grant the Statuto Albertino.


In the 1850s, when he was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Finance, Cavour started to implement his audacious diplomatic and economic policy. He built railways and other modern infrastructures that propelled Italy into the modern age. A firm believer in free trade, Cavour signed several commercial treaties with the Western powers in the hope that they would lead to a future alliance against Austria. In 1852, Cavour became Piedmont’s prime minister and de-facto political leader.


room congress of paris
The room where the Congress of Paris took place. Source: Fondazione Cavour


After the Crimean War (1853-1854), where Sardinia-Piedmont fought alongside France and Britain, Cavour skillfully succeeded in bringing the Italian national crusade to the attention of the two Western powers. During the Congress of Paris, he boldly declared that Austrian control of the peninsula would inevitably lead to social and political instability, thus endangering European peace. Cavour’s tireless networking in Paris paid off in 1858 when he managed to win the support of Napoleon III during the secret meeting at Plombières.


Equally opposed to the revolutionary front of Giuseppe Mazzini and the aristocratic reactionaries, Cavour believed that the unification of the Italian peninsula could be achieved only through diplomacy. In 1861, Cavour’s daring national and international stratagems finally led to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy.


3. Giuseppe Garibaldi: The “Hero of the Two Worlds”

garibaldi rides into naples
Giuseppe Garibaldi rides into Naples. Source: Library of Congress


Born in the French-controlled Nice in 1807, Giuseppe Garibaldi is perhaps the most iconic figure of the Risorgimento. Due to his charisma, bravery, and honor, he became a hero in Italy and abroad.


Giuseppe Garibaldi, then a merchant captain, became involved in the movement for Italian unification in 1833 when he joined Mazzini’s Carbonari in Marseille. Mazzini’s ideas profoundly impacted young Garibaldi, who took part in an unsuccessful uprising in Piedmont the following year. He was sentenced to death for his role in the rebellion and fled to South America, where he lived in exile until 1848. There, Giuseppe Garibaldi volunteered in the wars of liberation fought by Rio Grande do Sul against Brazil and Uruguay against Argentina. During the Uruguayan rebellion, he formed and led an Italian Legion whose members wore the famous redshirts that would later become the symbol of his supporters. In South America, Giuseppe Garibaldi trained in guerilla warfare and gained a reputation as a passionate rebel in the name of freedom. He also met his future wife and companion in arms, Anita Maria Riberio da Silva.


In 1848, Giuseppe Garibaldi returned to Italy to aid the Milanese in their fight against the Austrian army. The following year, he led Mazzini’s Roman Republic’s desperate resistance against the French siege. Because of his heroic exploits in Rome and South America, he became known as the “Hero of the Two Worlds.” However, his popularity, charisma, and leadership skills brought him into conflict with the Piedmontese moderates, who were wary of his reputation as a rebel.


monument commemorating the expedition of the thousand genoa
Monument commemorating the Expedition of the Thousand, Genoa. Source: Comune di Genova


After fighting in the Second War of Independence, Giuseppe Garibaldi undertook the greatest military exploit of his life in 1860, when he led the so-called “Expedition of the Thousand” to liberate Sicily and the mainland South from Bourbon rule. His volunteer forces quickly defeated the King of Naples’ regular army. On September 7, he reached Naples, where he proclaimed himself “Dictator of the Two Sicilies.” Garibaldi’s sweeping success alarmed King Victor Emmanuel II, who went to Naples to meet the redshirts’ general. At Teano, Garibaldi handed the king the liberated south.


Over the following years, Garibaldi organized other unsuccessful expeditions into the Papal States in central Italy. In 1862, afraid of the reaction of the French garrison in Rome, the Piedmontese government sent the regular army to stop Garibaldi, who was wounded at Aspromonte. He then fought in the Third War of Independence in 1866. When he died in 1882, Garibaldi was already a myth. Many saw him as the embodiment of the Risorgimento’s heroic ideals of freedom and liberty.


4. Victor Emmanuel II: The King of the Risorgimento

engraving of victor emmanuel ii
Engraving of King Victor Emmanuel II. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy ascended the throne in 1849 when his father, King Charles Albert, abdicated in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat of Novara. His decision to sign the honorable armistice proposed by Austria was met with the firm opposition of the Piedmontese parliament, whose democratic majority refused to ratify the treaty. Persuaded by the liberals, Victor Emmanuel II agreed not to abrogate the Statuto Albertino. Thus, Piedmont-Sardinia remained the only Italian constitutional monarchy.


In 1852, Victor Emmanuel II’s decision to entrust Cavour to form a new cabinet changed the course of the Risorgimento. The king’s relationship with the prime minister was often strained as Victor Emmanuel opposed the process of laicization promoted by Cavour. Despite their differences, however, they shared the belief that Sardinia-Piedmont should take charge of the movement for Italian unification. As a result, in 1859, Victor Emmanuel II held a speech stating his intention to answer the “cry of woe” of patriots throughout the peninsula. In the ensuing Second War of Independence, the king led the Piedmontese troops during the battles of Magenta and Solferino.


view of the vittoriano rome
View of the Vittoriale, the monument honoring Victor Emmanuel II in Rome. Source: Turismo Roma


In 1861, as the parliament proclaimed him king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel’s decision to maintain his designation of Victor Emmanuel II (not Victor Emmanuel I) was criticized by some patriots. They saw it as a confirmation that his real goal had always been to annex the rest of the peninsula to Piedmont. After the untimely death of Cavour, Victor Emmanuel II successfully concluded the process of unification with the acquisition of Venetia (1866) and Rome (1870). On December 5, 1870, during the opening session of the national parliament, King Victor Emmanuel proudly declared: “With Rome as capital, I have kept the promise and succeeded in the endeavor on which my magnanimous father embarked twenty-three years ago.”


The occupation of Rome enraged Pope Pius IX, who refused to meet with the king of Italy. However, in 1878, when Victor Emmanuel II died, the pope allowed the burial of the “Father of the Fatherland” in the Pantheon.

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.