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The Unification of Italy

The unification of Italy into a single nation-state was a gradual process. It is often compared to the unification of Germany, which lasted seven years (1864-1871) (more here). However, the unification of Italy lasted longer, as it began in 1848 and was completed in 1871. Some historians even place its completion in 1918, when Italy annexed Trieste and other areas from Austria-Hungary after the end of the First World War. The creation of an Italian nation-state was an idea that matured throughout the 19th century. The Risorgimento (meaning resurgence in Italian) was a political and social movement that demanded the Italian unification. The Italian national feeling was stimulated during the Napoleonic Wars and was expressed as a demand for the establishment of an Italian state at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (more here). Of course, the demands of the Italians were completely ignored and even Metternich (more here) characteristically stated that the term Italy would remain merely a geographical expression (Trivedi, 2020). Since then, the Italians have repeatedly expressed their indignation with revolutions. Before the revolution of 1848 (more here), after which the first substantial step towards unification was taken, the Italians revolted in 1820 and 1830 (more here). In addition to the strong influence of Liberalism and Nationalism, the secret organization of the Carbonari, and of course the very important personalities of Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Count of Cavour contributed catalytically to the unification. In this article, a brief but essential account of the maturation and realization of Italian unification will be made.

The Entrance of Garibaldi to Naples in September 7, 1860.
The Entrance of Garibaldi to Naples in September 7, 1860 (1).

Carbonari and the Two Giuseppes

One of the most influential groups that contributed to the Italian revolutions of the 19th century and consequently to the Italian unification, was Carboneria. Carboneria was a secret political discussion group and its members were called Carbonari. Carbonari were committed to Italian nationalism and most of them were middle-class professionals, businessmen, and some intellectuals. They were inspired by the principles of the French revolution and that is why this movement spread quickly across Italy. Carbonari caused political turmoil in Italy from 1820 until the unification. Many leaders of the unification movement were once members of this organization. The chief purpose was to defeat tyranny and to establish constitutional government.

Two of the leading Carbonari revolutionaries that wanted a republic, were Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Mazzini's activity in revolutionary movements caused him to be imprisoned in 1827. During his time in prison, he concluded that Italy should be unified, and he formulated a program for establishing a free, independent, and republican nation with Rome as its capital. Garibaldi participated in an uprising in Piedmont in 1834 and was sentenced to death, but he escaped. He returned to Italy in 1848 during the first Italian war of independence.

The first meeting between Garibaldi and Mazzini in 1833.
The first meeting between Garibaldi and Mazzini in 1833 (2).

The Revolutions of 1820 and 1830

The first Italian revolution against the decisions of the Congress of Vienna broke out in Italy in 1820. Liberal army officers and members of the Carbonari revolted against Ferdinand I, the King of the Two Sicilies, demanding a constitution. One of the demands of the revolutionaries was the establishment of an Italian state. However, in 1821, Austrians moved south, defeated the Neapolitan army and easily suppressed the revolution. Meanwhile, another revolution was organized in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and the Austrian province of Lombardy in order to drive out the Austrians and form a constitutional Kingdom of Northern Italy. The liberal army officers demanded from the King to lead them against Austria, but he refused, and the Austrians quickly suppressed the rebels (, 2021).

The next revolution in the Italian peninsula broke out in 1830. The general revolutionary sentiment was again in favor of a unified Italy. The Duke of Modena, Francis IV, who was an ambitious noble, encouraged the revolutionaries and organized them. However, he, fearing the Austrian troops, abandoned his Carbonari supporters in 1831. At the same time, other insurrections arose in the Papal States. These revolutions showed an initial success. The revolutionaries proclaimed the creation of a united Italian nation. The revolts in Modena and the Papal States inspired similar activity in the Duchy of Parma. The rebellious provinces planned to be united as an Italian province. Pope Gregory XVI asked Austrians to help him against the rebels. In the spring of 1831, the Austrian army began its march in Italy and crushed the resistance in each province that had revolted (The Sydney Monitor, 1831).

The First Italian War of Independence

On January 5, 1848, the revolutionary disturbances began with a civil disobedience strike in Lombardy. Shortly after this, revolts began on the island of Sicily and in Naples. The First Italian War of Independence had begun. In Sicily the revolt resulted in the proclamation of the Kingdom of Sicily, but in 1849 the Bourbon army took back full control of the island by force. In February 1848, there were revolts in Tuscany too. A breakaway republican provisional government formed in Tuscany. On February 21, Pope Pius IX granted a constitution to the Papal States, which was an unexpected and surprising move.

A highlight of the fighting in Milan in May 1848.
A highlight of the fighting in Milan in May 1848 (3).

Meanwhile, in Lombardy, tensions increased until the Milanese and Venetians revolted on March 18, 1848. The insurrection in Milan succeeded in expelling the Austrian garrison. An Austrian army under Marshal Josef Radetzky besieged Milan, but due to defection of many of his troops, he was forced to retreat. Soon, Charles Albert, the King of Piedmont-Sardinia and Savoy, urged by the Venetians and Milanese to aid their cause, decided this was the moment to unify Italy and declared war on Austria. After some initial success, he was decisively defeated by Radetzky. An armistice was agreed to, and Radetzky regained control of all of Lombardy and Venice.

Soon after the armistice was applied, matters took a more serious turn in other parts of Italy. The monarchs who had reluctantly agreed to constitutions in March came into conflict with their constitutional ministers. At first, the republics had the upper hand, forcing the monarchs to flee their capitals, including Pope Pius IX. In November 1848, Pope Pius IX fled just before Giuseppe Garibaldi and other patriots arrived in Rome. In early 1849, a Roman Republic was proclaimed on February 9. In early March 1849, Giuseppe Mazzini arrived in Rome and was appointed Chief Minister. After a while, Charles Albert renewed the war with Austria. However, he was quickly defeated by Radetzky. Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, and Piedmontese ambitions to unite Italy were brought to an end.

In April, a French force was sent to Rome. Apparently, the French first wished to mediate between the Pope and his subjects, but soon the French achieved the restoration of the Pope. Garibaldi and Mazzini fled into exile. Meanwhile, the Austrians captured Venice and restored order in central Italy. The revolutions were thus completely crushed.

Morale was badly weakened, but the dream of a united Italy did not die. Instead, the Italian patriots learned some lessons and became much more effective. Militarily speaking, the Italian states were completely outmatched by France and Austria. Nevertheless, France was a potential ally. The patriots realized they had to focus on expelling Austria first. Secondly, the patriots realized that the Pope was an enemy, and could never be the leader of a united Italy. Third, they realized unification had to be based on a strong monarchy, and in practice that meant reliance on Piedmont-Sardinia under King Victor Emmanuel II (Britannica, 2021).

Victor Emmanuel meets Garibaldi near Teano.
Victor Emmanuel meets Garibaldi near Teano (4).

The Second Italian War of Independence

At this point Count Cavour appeared in the diplomatic arena. He provided critical leadership and in 1852 he became prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. As a national reformer, he sought out support from patriots across Italy. In 1855, the kingdom became an ally of France, which gave Cavour's diplomacy legitimacy in the eyes of the great powers.

The Second Italian War of Independence began in April 1859, when Cavour declared war on Austria. The Austrians planned to beat the Sardinians before the French could come to their aid, but the French arrived on time and reinforced the Italians. The Austrians were defeated and retreated, so negotiations begun. On July 12, the Armistice of Villafranca was signed and Sardinia annexed Lombardy, but Austria kept control of Venice. The next year, Sardinians occupied the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Parma, the Duchy of Modena, and the Papal Legations. In exchange for its alliance, France received Nice and Savoy in 1860. Thus, by early 1860, only four main states remained in Italy; the Austrians in Venetia, the Papal States, the new expanded Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

On May 6, 1860, at the urging of Cavour, Garibaldi and his men arrived in Sicily to reinforce the revolutionaries in their struggle against the government of the two Sicilies. Garibaldi's army defeated the Neapolitan army on May 13. Then, Garibaldi advanced upon the Sicilian capital of Palermo and besieged the city. Garibaldi was victorious and his success demonstrated the weakness of the Neapolitan government. Having conquered Sicily, Garibaldi proceeded to the mainland. On September 7, he entered Naples, where the people openly welcomed him. After his enormous success and amidst popular admiration, Garibaldi announced his intent to proclaim a "Kingdom of Italy" from Rome, the capital city of Pope Pius IX.

Seeing Garibaldi marching to Rome, Napoleon III feared that French influence in Rome would come to an end. Wanting to maintain ties with the Pope, when he allied with Cavour, they had agreed not to include Rome and the papal state into the territory of the united Italy. Troops under Victor Emmanuel II therefore headed south to stop Garibaldi. Nevertheless, Garibaldi accepted the command of Victor Emmanuel. The work of unifying the peninsula was left to the Sardinian king. Only Rome and Venetia remained to be added. On February 18, 1861, Victor Emmanuel assembled the deputies of the first Italian Parliament in Turin. On March 17, 1861, the Parliament proclaimed Victor Emmanuel King of Italy, and on March 27, 1861, Rome was declared Capital of Italy, even though it was not yet in the new Kingdom. Three months later Cavour died, having seen his life's work nearly completed (Lindemann, 2012).

Entrance of Vittorio Emanuel in Venice 1866.
Entrance of Vittorio Emanuel in Venice 1866 (5).

The Third Italian War of Independence

After the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, the Kingdom of Italy captured Venice from Austria, as an ally of Prussia. On April 8, Italy and Prussia signed an agreement that supported Italy's acquisition of Venetia, and on June 20 Italy issued a declaration of war on Austria. Within the context of the unification of Italy, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 is called the Third Italian War of Independence.

The Italian army suffered a severe defeat on the battlefield. However, Prussia defeated Austria and the Austrian troops left the Italian front. Under the terms of a peace treaty signed in Vienna on October 12, Emperor Franz Joseph agreed to cede Venice to Napoleon III, and thus Napoleon ceded Venice to Italy on 19 October. Now only Rome was the missing part.

The Capture of Rome

The opportunity for the united Italian state to annex Rome came in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war. In early August, Napoleon III recalled his garrison from Rome, thus no longer providing protection to the Papal State. Public opinion called for the Italian government to take Rome, but it took no direct action until the final defeat of the French. King Victor Emmanuel II offered Pius IX a proposal that would have allowed the peaceful annexation of Rome, but Pope angrily refused. Consequently, the Italian Army advanced towards Rome and placed the city under a state of siege. On September 20, the Italians breached the walls and entered Rome. Rome and Latium were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy on October 2. Officially, the capital was moved from Florence to Rome in July 1871 (Berstein & Milza, 1992).

Animated map of the Italian unification from 1829 to 1871.
Animated map of the Italian unification from 1829 to 1871 (6).


Finally, after many centuries of foreign occupation, the Italian peninsula belonged for the first time to a single state since the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The unification of Italy into a single nation-state was a slow and gradual process. Many pioneers of Italian unification did not live enough to enjoy the reward of their toil, such as Count of Cavour. Also, the final form of the Italian state did not meet the demands of many Italian revolutionaries. Italy was a kingdom and not a democracy, as Mazzini wanted, and its capital city was not Rome from the beginning, something for which Garibaldi fought for a lifetime. However, the blood of the revolutionaries was not shed unjustly. The Italians enjoyed national independence and the tricolore flag (green, white, red) was waving proudly over Rome.


Image Sources

  1. Schwarz, F. W. (1860). The Entrance of Garibaldi to Naples in September 7, 1860. [Painting]. Napoli, Museo civico di Castel Nuovo. Retrieved from:

  2. The first meeting between Garibaldi and Mazzini in 1833. (ca 19th). [Painting]. Turin, Museo Nazionale Del Risorgimento. Retrieved from:

  3. Verazzi, B. (1886). A highlight of the fighting in Milan in May 1848. [Painting]. Museo del Risorgimento, Milan. Retrieved from:

  4. De Albertis, S. (1870). Victor Emmanuel meets Garibaldi near Teano. [Painting]. Retrieved from:

  5. Entrance of Vittorio Emanuel in Venice 1866. (1866). [Painting]. Retrieved from:

  6. Artemka. (2013). Animated map of the Italian unification from 1829 to 1871. [Animated Map]. Retrieved from:

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