Risorgimento, as the Italian Unification is also known, was the event that turned the unified disparate states in the Italian peninsula into the single nation of Italy. This political and social process which transpired from the 19th century till the early 20th century is perhaps one of the most important events in the history of Europe as the unification of Italy also led to its resurgence in European politics.
Historians have had a difficult time in determining the exact dates that mark the beginning and the end of the Italian Unification save for a few events such as the fact that it was during the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that marked the start. While most cities did not join the Kingdom of Italy until the Treaty of Saint-Germain after the First World War, it has been said that the actual beginning coincided with the end of Napoleon’s rule and largely ended with the Franco-Prussian war of 1871.
The main architects for the Italian Unification are Camillo Benso di Cavour and Guiseppe Mazzini. While their contributions to the unification of Italy have always been questioned, there is no arguing the fact that it was because of these two individuals that this political process began. In understanding just how significant the roles of these individuals were in the Italian Unification it is important that a brief look at their lives prior to the movement be discussed.
Guiseppe Mazzini was a member of the Carbonari. With the motto, God and the People, the La Giovine Italia was one of the main groups that were pushing for the unification of the several states and kingdoms of the Italian peninsula into a single republic. Mazzini was a firm believer that Italian Unification could only be attained through revolutionary methods such as popular uprising and in line with such; Mazzini encouraged and organized many small and large revolutions all over the Italian peninsula even while he was in exile in England.
Among the revolutions that Mazzini took part in, the most notable ones are the 1830 insurrections. It was during this pivotal period that the growing sentiment for nationalism had gripped most of the states of the Italian peninsula. The success of the revolutions in the Papal Legations of Bologna, Forlì, Ravenna, Imola, Ferrara, Pesaro and Urbino and the adaptation of these Papal Legations of the tricolore strengthened the unification movement and inspired other states to do the same.
It is argued that though Mazzini initiated and organized many of these revolutions they were still too small and ineffectual to cause the Italian Unification. It should be pointed out however that no matter how small and insignificant these revolts that Mazzini organized were they ultimately led to the Italian Unification. Every challenge to local authority, such as these small revolts, slowly advanced the goal of Mazzini for unification.
The reason why Mazzini is not heralded as the main figurehead for the unification of Italy is due to the fact that while he may have encouraged, initiated and organized many of the small revolts that advanced the cause of the Risorgimento, Mazzini largely remained an ideological leader. The political ideas and the social reforms that Mazzini advocated made the participation of Mazzini in the Italian unification merely inspirational. The additional fact that the Roman Republic that was organized after the 1848 revolutions was short-lived also put some doubt as to the actual contributions of Mazzini to the Risorgimento.
The contributions of Mazzini however become more relevant when they are considered in light of the eventual success of Camillo Benso di Cavour as the leader of the unification movement. While Mazzini was widely considered as one of the foremost supporters of nationalism, it was Cavour who was able to bring that idea of nationalism into fruition beginning with a series of wars between the years 1859 and 1861. Cavour, who became the Prime Minister in 1852, shared the same sentiments that Mazzini had with regard to the Italian Unification. It should be pointed out however that while both Mazzini and Cavour favored nationalism, Mazzini wanted the establishment of a unified country while Cavour preferred an expanded Piedmont. The unifying ideal that both Mazzini and Cavour had was the fact that Austria had control over the entire Italian peninsula.
As early as 1849, Cavour had already shown his desire to oust the Austrians and joined the uprising in Milan against the Austrians. In perhaps one of his wisest moves which led to the eventual unification of Italy, Cavour’s participation in the Crimean War in early 1854 was pivotal in securing Piedmont a position at the Peace Congress in Paris. The allied powers of Britain and France had requested that Piedmont enter the war partially so as to involve Austira. On January 10, 1855, while the aid that was provided by the Piedmontese was not militarily significant, it allowed Cavour to make a valuable ally which helped in his unification movement and more importantly left Austria politically isolated.
The influence of Cavour in the unification of Italy can only be properly be appreciated by examining the series of events that he orchestrated in order to oust the Austrians. The earliest of these events was the Second Italian War of Independence. In the summer of 1858, Cavour met with Napoleon III at Plombières where they agreed to a joint war against Austria. Piedmont was to gain the Austrian territories in Italy, namely Lombardy and Venetia, and also the Duchies of Parma and Modena. Meanwhile France would be rewarded with Piedmont’s transalpine territories of Savoy and Nice. But in order to allow the French to intervene without appearing as the aggressors, Cavour was to provoke the Austrians into aggression by encouraging revolutionary activity in Lombardy. This event was largely a failure since the Austrians exhibited a lot of patience in dealing with the insurrections that were started by Cavour. The demobilization order issued by Austria however provided the Piedmontese an opportunity to draw Austria into the fray and allow France to intervene which led to a short war. This led to eventual dominance of the Kingdom of Sardinia over most of Northern and Central Italy on March 20, 1860.
Cavour also played a pivotal role in maintaining the dominance of the Kingdom of Sardinia when he was able to convince Garibaldi and his cadre of about a thousand (1000) Italian volunteers called the I mille to turn his forces to Sicily. By the spring of 1860, only four states remained in Italy – the Austrians in Venetia, the Papal States, which no longer had the legations under their control, the new expanded Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
The relative importance of the role played by Mazzini and Cavour in the unification of Italy can thus be properly be distinguished as being active and passive. Mazzini, as a political ideologist, inspired the nationalist movements that led to the eventual unification of Italy. His exile in England and the failures of most of the revolts that he initiated made his participation in the Risorgimento inspirational at best. Cavour on the other hand was actively involved in the politics and military mobilizations that occurred during the Risorgimento. While it has been argued that the success of Cavour in undertaking an active approach to the unification as opposed to the passive, inspirational approach of Mazzini was due to his position as prime minister, it cannot be argued that these men did indeed play pivotal roles in the unification of Italy. They may have employed different approaches in unifying the Italian peninsula but in the end without the accomplishments of these individuals during these times Italy as is now known would probably never have existed.