Risorgimento: The Long Road to the Unification of Italy

The 19th-century movement for Italian unification (Risorgimento) aimed to free Italy from foreign rule, renew its society, and unite the various states of the peninsula under one flag.

Jan 3, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History
risorgimento unification italy
The Frecce Tricolore celebrate the anniversary of the Unification of Italy, 2017, Rome, via Ministero della Difesa – Aeronautica Militare; with Portrait of Giuseppe Garibaldi via Mercanteinfiera


“One in arm, in language, in faith,” emphatically wrote Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni in his patriotic poem March 1821. Like many other 19th-century patriots, Manzoni dreamed of a united Italian state free from foreign control. The unification of the Italian peninsula under one flag was one of the main goals of the Risorgimento (“Rise Again”). The movement also aimed to radically renew Italian society by introducing liberalism, constitutionalism, and freedom of speech. Alternating episodes of popular uprisings and moments of pragmatic diplomatic negotiations, the Risorgimento culminated in the 1861 proclamation of the new Kingdom of Italy.


The Napoleonic Period & the Origins of Risorgimento

napoleon crossing the alps jacques louis david chateau de malmaison
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1801, Château de Malmaison, via Rai Cultura


While the conservative governments of the Italian peninsula observed with growing concern the unfolding of the French Revolution, many Italians, particularly the bourgeoisie, viewed its ideals as an answer to their discontent with the status quo. When Napoleon Bonaparte established the “sister republics” and then the Kingdom of Italy, ideas of freedom, equality, and a sense of national consciousness began to spread among the Italians. As a result, various political groups started to advocate freeing the regional states from foreign rule and uniting them into a single national entity.


During the Napoleonic regime, Italian society underwent a process of radical renewal and modernization. The French emperor regularly appointed educated bourgeois to administrative and executive roles, not just aristocrats. He also created an Italian army, thus bolstering a national consciousness among the soldiers. The Napoleonic era witnessed the dissolution of the feudal system in most of the peninsula, with the new Napoleonic code replacing feudal jurisprudence. Many properties and lands of the Roman Catholic Church were confiscated by the state.


The Restoration & the First Insurrections

congress of vienna august friedrich andreas campe
The Congress of Vienna by August Friedrich Andreas Campe, via Britannica


After the collapse of the Napoleonic regime, the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) returned most of the Italian states to their former rulers to restore the pre-revolutionary status quo. As a result, the Italian peninsula was once again under Austrian hegemony. In 1847, Count Metternich of Austria famously declared: “The word ‘Italy’ is a geographical expression, a description which is useful shorthand, but has none of the political significance the efforts of the revolutionary ideologues try to put on it.” When they came back to power, the old political elites abolished the reforms introduced by the French and dismantled the Napoleonic administration.

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In many states, the reactionary policies were met with widespread discontent that occasionally culminated in revolts and conspiracies. In 1820, for example, members of the Carboneria, a secret society formed in southern Italy in the early 1800s, forced Ferdinand, king of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to introduce the Spanish constitution. Called Carbonari (Charcoal Burners), the members of the Carboneria advocated liberal, constitutional, and representative regimes and aimed to free the Italian peninsula from foreign hegemony. After the Congress of Vienna, the Carbonari led the opposition against the conservative regimes reinstated in Italy. Their liberal and patriotic ideals spearheaded the Risorgimento.


portrait of giuseppe mazzini
Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini, via Museo del Risorgimento Lucca


In Piedmont, liberal bourgeois, backed by like-minded aristocrats, organized a revolt (1821) against King Victor Emmanuel I with the support of Charles Albert, heir apparent to the throne. After the king’s abdication, Charles Albert was appointed regent and granted a constitution. However, Charles Felix, Victor Emmanuel’s brother and successor, refused to ratify it. With the help of Austrian troops, Charles Felix quickly suppressed the revolt and regained control of the kingdom. In 1831, similar uprisings took place in Modena, Parma, and Bologna. The conspirators established provisional governments. However, their success was short-lived, and the Austrian forces easily restored the previous status quo. In the aftermath, Austria arrested many revolutionaries and implemented stricter censorship.


The failure of these rebellions was partly due to the divisions among the exponents of the patriotic front. While the different groups shared the same goal of uniting Italy under one flag, they disagreed on how to achieve it. On the one hand, the Giovine Italia (Young Italy), a movement founded by Giuseppe Mazzini in 1831 in Marseille, favored the creation of a united republican, democratic nation. Mazzini also worked to spread a national consciousness among all social classes, as he firmly believed that only a popular uprising could free the Italian peninsula from foreign control.


On the other hand, the Neo-Guelfs and liberal Catholics advocated for a constitutional monarchy. In his 1843 Del primato morale e civile degli Italiani (On the Moral and Civil Primacy of the Italian Race), Vincenzo Gioberti, the leading exponent of the Neo-Guelfs, argued for the establishment of an Italian federation presided by the pope. Gioberti saw renewal as the restoration of spirituality, a task only a renovated Church could achieve. In Le speranze d’Italia (The Hopes of Italy), Cesare Balbo championed an antirevolutionary road to national independence.


The Revolutions of 1848 & the First War of Independence

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Combattimento a Porta Tosa by Carlo Canella, around 1848, Museo del Risorgimento, Milan, via Comune Milano


In 1848, inspired by the political upheaval in the rest of Europe, a new wave of patriotic revolutions broke out across the Italian peninsula. As a result, several rulers granted more liberal constitutions. In Piedmont-Sardinia, King Charles Albert promulgated the Statuto Albertino that would later become the constitution of the Kingdom of Italy. However, Austria was determined to put a swift end to the revolutions. In Milan, the insurgents built barricades and fought against the Austrian army for five days. In the end, Field Marshal Radeztky retreated his troops into the so-called Quadrilateral, an area between Mantova, Peschiera, Verona, and Legnago. The event, later known as the Cinque Giornate di Milano (Five Days of Milan), was one of the few successful popular initiatives of the Risorgimento.


To preclude republicans and democrats from taking the lead of the patriotic demonstration, King Charles Albert declared war against Austria. Soon, pressured by popular opinion, other rulers sent their troops to join the fight. After some successful battles, however, Charles Albert halted his military campaign to urge Lombardy to merge with Piedmont. Meanwhile, on April 29, Pope Pius IX withdrew his troops, stating that he couldn’t wage war against his “brothers in Christ.” After the crushing defeat of Custoza, Charles Albert signed the Salasco Armistice (August 1848) and agreed to withdraw his troops from Lombardy and Venetia.


field marshal joseph radetzky von radtez
Portrait of Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radtez, via The Krönstadt Tribune


The Salasco Armistice provoked the outrage of the democrats, who refused to accept its terms. In Venice, Daniele Manin led the resistance against the Austrian army. In Rome, a popular uprising caused the pope to flee to Gaeta, while a constituent assembly proclaimed the Roman Republic governed by Aurelio Saffi, Carlo Armellini, and Giuseppe Mazzini. In March 1849, after the defeat of Novara, Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, who signed a non-punitive peace treaty with Austria. The unsuccessful war brought down the constitutional governments backed by the Democrats. In August 1849, the Roman Republic fell against the attack of the French army. Soon, all the previous rulers were reinstated on their thrones.


Camillo Benso di Cavour: Master of Diplomacy

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Miniature of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour by Antonio Masutti, 1873, via Palazzo Madama Torino


In Piedmont, the democratic parliamentary majority refused to ratify the treaty and pushed to introduce liberal reforms. In 1850, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour became a member of the cabinet led by the moderate Massimo d’Azeglio. As Minister for Agriculture and later Finance, Cavour devised a laissez-faire economic policy, signed international commercial treaties, promoted economic growth, and modernized agriculture. In 1852, he formed with the center-left leader Urbano Rattazzi an alliance known as connubio (marriage). With the connubio, Cavour managed to unite the liberal wings of the aristocracy with the rising bourgeoisie. At the same time, he excluded the “old” elite and the democrats from the cabinet.


Cavour also implemented a careful diplomatic strategy to improve Piedmont’s position among the Western powers. After the outbreak of the Crimean War, Cavour formed an alliance with France and England. As a result, Piedmont took part in the 1856 Congress of Paris as a victor. At the congress, Cavour remarked that Austrian hegemony in the Italian peninsula was the root cause of the country’s social and political instability.


While Cavour honed his diplomatic policy, Mazzini’s democratic, republican front suffered a significant setback. In 1857, an insurrection in southern Italy, known as the Sapri Expedition, failed as the insurgents were unable to galvanize the population. As a result, Mazzini’s Partito d’Azione (Action Party) disbanded amid criticism. The defeat of the democratic movement led many patrioti to believe national unity could be achieved only under the Savoy monarchy and by diplomatic relations. In 1857, the monarchist front founded the Società Nazionale (National Society), later supported by Daniele Manin and Giuseppe Garibaldi, a charismatic patriot and skilled military leader.


The Second War of Independence

portrait of victor emmanuel ii rodolfo morgari
Portrait of Victor Emmanuel II by Rodolfo Morgari, via Catalogo generale dei Beni Culturali


In 1858, Cavour and Napoleon III secretly met at Plombières, where the French emperor agreed to support Piedmont in the event of Austrian aggression. On January 10, 1859, at the opening session of the parliament, Victor Emmanuel II declared: “If we respect the treaties, we are nevertheless not insensitive to the cries of distress which we hear emanating from so many parts of Italy.” He then began to enlist volunteers and created the Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps), a military corps led by Garibaldi.


In April, Austria issued an ultimatum to Piedmont requesting the demobilization of its army. When Piedmont rejected the demand, Austria declared war. Honoring the terms of the conference of Plombières, Napoleon III sent his troops to Italy. The allies, led by the French emperors, defeated the Austrian army at Magenta and Solferino. Meanwhile, in Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and the northern Papal Legations, the patrioti formed provisional governments asking for unification with Piedmont.


battle of solferino
The Battle of Solferino, via Croce Rossa Svizzera


However, in July, Napoleon III, pressured by the outcry of his Catholic supporters against the Italian campaign, signed an armistice with Francis Joseph of Habsburg at Villafranca. The Austrian emperor granted Lombardy to Napoleon III, who then gave it to Piedmont. After Cavour resigned, Victor Emmanuel II signed the armistice. The provisional governments, backed by Britain, staunchly rejected the terms of the peace treaty. After the concession of Savoy and Nice to France, however, Napoleon III reconsidered his position. Cavour’s strategy had proven successful. A series of plebiscites in the northern duchies and papal states officially ratified the territories’ unification with Piedmont.


Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand & the Unification of Italy

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Garibaldi’s Thousand set sail from Quarto, via Rai Cultura


Despite the success of Cavour’s diplomatic negotiations, the southern and central regions of the peninsula remained under foreign control. In Sicily, popular opposition to Bourbon rule was widespread, with many asking for autonomy. In April 1860, Palermo rebelled against young King Francis II. The insurrection quickly extended to the whole island. Francesco Crispi, a Sicilian Mazzini supporter, urged Garibaldi to go to Sicily and lead the uprising.


The night between May 5 and 6, 1860, Garibaldi and his “thousand volunteers,” also called Redshirts or Garibaldini, set sail from Quarto, a coastal town near Genoa. Once in Sicily, Garibaldi’s troops quickly gained control of the entire island. In August, without the Piedmontese king’s consent, Garibaldi marched onto Naples. After suffering a crushing defeat at Volturno, Francis II fled to Gaeta.


Meanwhile, Cavour, alarmed by the growing success of the popular movement, sent the Piedmontese army to the central papal territories to regain control of the situation. An armed confrontation between the Garibaldini and the regular troops seemed unavoidable. However, Garibaldi defused the crisis when he met Victor Emmanuel II at Teano, where he greeted him as “King of Italy” and gave him the newly liberated south. On March 17, 1861, the parliament assembled in Turin officially declared Victor Emmanuel II “King of Italy for the grace of God and the will of the nation.” Turin became the capital of the new kingdom.


Last Stages of Risorgimento: 3rd War of Independence, Acquisition of Venetia, & the Roman Question

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Pope Pius IX, via Britannica


Only Rome and Venetia remained separate from the new Italian nation. In 1866, when war broke out between Prussia and Austria, the Italian government of Alfonso La Marmora saw the conflict as a chance to complete the unification of the peninsula. The Italians attacked the Austrian troops in Venetia. However, they suffered catastrophic defeats at Custoza and Lissa. In the end, Italy annexed Venetia only thanks to the mediation of Napoleon III, who obtained it at the Treaty of Vienna and, in turn, handed it over to the Italian government.


Before his untimely death in June 1861, Cavour had declared that Rome must be the capital of the new Italian nation. Under his policy of “a free church in a free state,” Cavour postulated the separation of state and church, arguing that the pope should renounce his temporal power to focus on his spiritual and apostolic mission. In 1862, Garibaldi and his volunteers tried to solve the Roman Question with a new expedition. However, fearing a hostile French and German reaction, the Italian government sent its army to stop him.


bersaglieri alla presa di porta pia michele cammarano
Bersaglieri alla presa di Porta Pia by Michele Cammarano, 1871, via Catalogo generale dei Beni Culturali


In 1864, Italy and France signed the September Convention: while Italy agreed not to occupy Rome, France consented to remove its garrison from the papal city. A secret clause bound the Italian government to move its capital to Florence, thus abandoning Cavour’s plan. In the same year, Pius IX issued his Syllabus of Errors, an uncompromising condemnation of all modern doctrines, freedom of thought and speech, and the separation of church and state. However, Napoleon III’s defeat at Sedan left the pope without military support. It was the breakthrough Italy needed. On September 20, 1870, Italian troops entered Rome through the so-called “breach of Porta Pia.”


Though Italy had finally completed the unification of the peninsula, the Roman Question was far from over. Pius IX declared himself a prisoner and refused to accept the Law of the Guarantees, the unilateral deal that granted him an annual income of more than 3 million lire, perpetual use of his palaces, and the fulfillment of his spiritual authority. In 1874, the pope emphasized his rejection of the new status quo with the Non expedit, a decree that prohibited Catholics from voting in the national elections. The Roman Question would not be solved until 1929 when Fascist Italy and the church signed the Patti Lateranensi (Lateran Treaty).

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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.