Modern Europe—Unification of Italy

1792 to 1925
Napoleonic Wars to Mussolini

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Unification of Italy

Divided Italy—From the Age of Charlemagne to the the 19th century, Italy was divided into northern, central and, southern kingdoms. Northern Italy was composed of independent duchies and city-states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire; the Papal States of central Italy were ruled by the Pope; and southern Italy had been ruled as an independent Kingdom since the Norman conquest of 1059. The language, culture, and government of each region developed independently so the idea of a united Italy did not gain popularity until the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars wreaked havoc on the traditional order.

Unification of Italy
Italian Unification, also known as "Risorgimento", refers to the period between 1848 and 1870 during which all the kingdoms on the Italian Peninsula were united under a single ruler. The most well-known character associated with the unification of Italy is Garibaldi, an Italian hero who fought dozens of battles for Italy and overthrew the kingdom of Sicily with a small band of patriots, but this romantic story obscures a much more complicated history. The real masterminds of Italian unity were not revolutionaries, but a group of ministers from the kingdom of Sardinia who managed to bring about an Italian political union governed by themselves. Military expeditions played an important role in the creation of a United Italy, but so did secret societies, bribery, back-room agreements, foreign alliances, and financial opportunism.

Italy and the French Revolution—The real story of the Unification of Italy began with the French conquest of Italy during the French Revolutionary Wars. Italy had been invaded many times before, with no great change it its traditional boundaries, but the French invaders of 1796 deposed princes, set up client governments, confiscated and redistributed Church property, and ministered according to "enlightenment" principles. After combining most of the northern duchies into the "Cisalpine Republic", the French invaded the Papal States, kidnapped the Pope, and created a short-lived Roman Republic. The French occupation of Italy was unpopular, however, partly because of the rapacious plunder of the revolutionary army, but also because of the anti-Catholic bigotry of the French Revolutionary government.

When Napoleon made himself emperor, he recognized the problems in Italy and sought to create a more stable government by repairing relations with the Pope. He healed the breach between the French government and the Catholic Church, declared France and Italy Catholic countries, and returned control of the Papal states to Pius VII. At the same time, he reformed the northern republics as the Kingdom of Italy, and appointed his relatives as monarchs in both northern and southern Italy. By 1815, when Napoleon's empire fell and the monarchies were restoried, the government of Italy had been in the hands of modern-minded ministers for nearly 20 years, and secret political societies such as the Freemasons and Carbonari had spread throughout the land. The old monarchies were restored, but the political landscape had changed forever especially in the Northern kingdoms most influenced by French ideas.

Unification of Italy
Mazzini and the Revolution of 1848—The idea of a united, republican Italy was most ardently advocated by Mazzini, an intellectual, journalist, and political activist who gained fame for his participation the failed insurrections of 1831. He was active in both the Freemasons and Carbonari in the region, but after a major crackdown on political dissent he started his own secret society called "Young Italy", and spent twenty years disseminating pro-Republican literature among a network of political activisits throughout Italy. Garibaldi was one of his early and most dedicated followers. In 1848, the two men were instrumental in organizing insurrections in northern Italy against Austria and the overthrow of the Papal states. The 1848 rebellions were quickly put down, but the violence, murder, and treachery associated with them made Pope Pius IX, who had formerly been considered a "liberal" pope, into an ardent reactionary. Mazzini, who had served briefly as the president of the "Roman Republic of 1848" was exiled to London but continued to work for Italian unification through his networks.

Cavour and the Rise of Piedmont-Sardinia—As the career of Mazzini declined a new mastermind of Italian unification arose. This was Cavour, the Prime Minister of Sardinia-Piedmont, the most liberal state in Italy. The king of Sardinia was Victor Emmanuel II, who later became the first king of Italy, but it was his prime minister who worked methodically to bring about the unification of Italy under the control of Sardinia. Cavour recognized that the only way to unify Italy was with the aid of foreign powers. He therefore cultivated relationships with France, Britain, and Prussia, all of whom played key roles in "Risorgimento". Cavour's first step was to send Sardinian troops to fight in the Crimean War in order to cultivate diplomatic and military relations between Sardinia, England, and France. This paid off in 1860 when France agreed to help Sardinia drive Austria out of northern Italy in return for the provinces of Nice and Savoy. This arrangment suceeded in bringing most of northern Italy under Sardinian control, but it infuriated Garibaldi, a native of Nice. He considered Cavour and Victor Emmanuel opportunists and traitors to Italy, but worked with them nevertheless.

Cavour had hoped that France, led by Napoleon III, would continue to fight against Austria after the successful battle of Solferino, but instead Napoleon negotiated a peace settlement that gave Sardinia control of most of Northern Italy but allowed Austria continued rule over Venice. Although Napoleon III personally favored Italian unification he knew his Catholic subjects would revolt if he moved against Rome and he was dissillusioned at the lack of popular support for unification. Inspite of this disappointment, Cavour was able to integrate the duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany into his newly expanded government, after holding them temporarily as a client republic.

Garibaldi and the Kingdom of Sicily—Having exhausted France as an ally in his program to unite Italy, Cavour now launched an even more ambitious scheme with the help of Britain, in order to annex southern Italy to his domains. With the help of Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Britain, a plan was made to invade Sicily by sea. Garibaldi was by far the most popular hero of Italy so he was chosen to lead the expedition with a band of 1000 "volunteers". Both Sardinia and Britain were involved in planning the mission but thought it prudent to disavow official involvement. For both political and propaganda purposes it was important that the "rebellion" in Sicily appear to be a popular uprising. In fact, dozens of Neopolitian officers had been bribed in advance to surrender and the British navy prevented loyal troops from interferring in the "rebellion". Garibaldi's brilliant campaign in Sicily, including the miraculous "surrender" of 15,000 Royalist troops at Palermo, was entirely orchestrated behind the scenes by secret societies and foreign governments, but all credit was given to the fearless Italian patriot.

Unification of Italy
Several weeks after Garibaldi and his redshirts took control of Sicily they sailed for the mainland under the protection of the British navy. Garibaldi was greated as a hero and liberator but even with genuine popular support and the help of the British navy, he was unable to win a decisive victory over the Royalist army at the Volturno river. At this point, Sardinia felt it was time to take control of the situation so a troop of 40,000 invaded the Papal states and at the Battle of Castelfidardo, defeated a much smaller army of Papal loyalists. This was the only resistance offered and the Sardinia troops continued their march south to drive the last of the Royalist out of their stronghold at Gaeta. In October 1860, Garibaldi officially turned his command over to Victor Emmanuel II. At that point, all of Italy,—excepting Vienna and Rome,—was under the rule of Sardinia, and the soverign of Sardia became Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Italy.

Annexing Venice and Rome—Militarily, the Kingdom of Italy was now strong enough to overthrow Rome but Cavour knew that as long as the French were protecting the region, annexing Rome was would risk war. He turned his focus to fostering a relationship with Prussia, Austria's enemy to the north, in hopes of making an alliance to recover Venice. Although Cavour did not live to see his plans come true, in 1866 Italy marched an army into Venice at the very start of the Austro Prussian War. This split Austria's forces, and even though the Italians were defeated in battle, the Prussians insisted that Austria cede control of Venice when terms of peace were negotiated.

Italy also had Prussia to thank for its acquisition of Rome four years later, when French troops were forced to withdraw their protection from Rome as a result of the Franco Prussian War. Left unguarded, the Pope had only a small volunteer force to protect him. After a short, symbolic battle, the Italians assumed control of Rome, but the Pope declined to recognize the new government and refused to leave the premesis of the Vatican for the rest of his reign. Other Popes followed suit, and for the next 59 years, the Papacy continued to uphold its historic claim to the city of Rome, while the Pope was kept as a "Prisoner in the Vatican". It was not until 1929 that the Lateran treaty was signed and Vatican City became an independent state. Only then did the Pope recognize the legitimacy of Italian control of Rome.

After Unification—Unfortunately, the first few decades of Italian independence were not a particularly good example of democratic government. The government was extremely corrupt and a great deal of the land confiscated from the church and southern aristocrats fell into the hands of rapacious property owners. Taxes and rents were raised to support the political class, while over nine million Italians migrated to North and South America between 1861 and 1920. The flow of Italians out of Italy did not diminish until the Fascist government that arose in the 1920s began to restrict immigration.

Characters—Unification of Italy

Character/Date Short Biography

Napoleonic Era

Eugene de Beauharnais
Stepson of Napoleon, who accompanied him on all his early campaigns. Later Prince of Italy.
Alexander Suvorov
Renowned general who won victories for Russia against Turks, Napoleon, and Polish rebels.
Victorious general who rose to power during the French Revolution. Crowned himself Emperor and restored France to greatness.
Joseph Bonaparte
Older brother of Napoleon who was crowned first, King of Naples, and then later, King of Spain.
Joachim Murat
Leading general of Napoleonic Wars, brother-in-law of Napoleon. Appointed king of Naples after Joseph was installed as king of Spain.
Pope Pius VII
Pope during the reign of Napoleon and the early restoration period.
Antonio Canova
Renowned sculptor who showed talent at an early age by carving a lion out of butter.


Led several campaigns in the Wars of Italian Unification. Renowned as a hero patriot of Italy.
Pope Pius IX
Long serving pope who reigned during the unification of Italy. Famous for Vatican I, papal infallibility doctrine, and Syllabus of Errors.
Italian journalist and political activist who worked for the Unification of Italy and advocated popular democracy throughout Europe.
Prime minister of Sardinia who used skill and diplomacy to unite Italy under the rule of the Piedmont king.
Napoleon III
Nephew of Napoleon, elected emperor of France after revolution of 1848. Deposed after disastrous Franco-Prussian War.
Victor Emmanuel II
Became first king of a United Italy after Garibaldi handed over control of Naples. Previously Savoyard King of Sardinia.

After Unification

Pope Pius X
Popular pope who resisted modernism and promoted the eucharist and classical philosophy.
Alexander Volta
Invented the first usable electrical storage battery.
Guglielmo Marconi
Inventor of a wireless telegraphy system, first used on ships.

Timeline—Unification of Italy

AD YearEvent

Rise of Italy

723 First Doge of Venice elected, after collapse of the Byzantine government
800 Northern Italy and Papal states included as "Kingdom of Italy" within the Holy Roman Empire.
1005 Republic of Genoa established as a self-governing city-state.
1154 Kingdom of Sicily established by Norman prince Roger II of Sicily.
1395 Duchy of Milan created in Northern Italy as part of Holy Roman Empire, between Savoy and Venice.
1416 Duchy of Savoy established in Northwest Italy as part of the Holy Roman Empire.
1569 Grand Duchy of Tuscany, formerly the Republic of Florence, established as part of Holy Roman Empire.

Napoleonic Era

1796 Napoleon assumes command of France's army in Italy, defeats Piedmont-Sardinia and the Duchy of Milan, then invades Venice.
1797 Battle of Rivoli, Mantua surrenders. Austrian army in Italy rounted. Parma and Modena surrender.
1797 Treaty of Campo-Formio cedes Belgium and most of Northern Italy to France, leaving only Venice to Austria.
1798 French client republics formed in Northern Italy and Switzerland.
1798 Papal States invaded. Republic of Rome formed. Pope Pius VI kidnapped, dies in France.
1799 French invasion of Southern Italy is frustrated by a peasant rebellion.
1799 Russian/Austrian offensive forces France out of Northern Italy.
1800 Napoleon seizes power in Paris and immediate leads an army to reconquer Italy.
1801 Napoleon signs concordat with Pope Pius VII, restoring some rights to the Church and ceding Papal states.
1805 Northern Duchies and client-Republics joined into a "Kingdom of Italy" with Napoleon crowned as king.
1806 Kingdom of Naples falls to the French. Napoleon's brother declared king. Later replaced by Murat
1806-1814 Secular "reforms" in Naples and Northern Italy involve closing monasteries, selling church property.
1815 Kingdoms of Italy restored to pre-1789 boundaries by the Congress of Vienna.

Revolution of 1848

1820 Revolts in Naples and Piedmont-Sardinia organized by secret societies, easily put down by conservative governments.
1831 Revolt in Rome, organized by the "Carbonari", put down by an Austrian army. The pope, Gregory XVI, flees Rome.
1845 Newly elected Pius IX implements many reforms, allows a free press and restores citizenship to many radicals and revolutionaries.
1848 Simultaneous revolts, organized by Mazzini and "Young Italy" in Naples, Piedmont-Sardinia, Milan.
1848 Tuscan and Piedmont forces invade Lombardy to expel Austria. Pope Pius IX fails to join anti-Austrian coalition, forced to flee Rome.
1849 Austria crushes rebellion in Northern Italy. France puts down rebellion in the Papal States and leaves a French guard in Rome.

Unification of Italy

1850 Victor Emmanuel II becomes king of Piedmont-Sardinia; Cavour becomes prime minster with a liberal cabinet, implements anti-clerical measures.
1852 Napoleon III becomes Emperor of France. Pledges to protect Rome from revolutionaries in order to win favor with French Catholics.
1854 Cavour sends Piedmont forces to the Crimean War in order to gain favor with France and England—lays groundwork for successful takeover of Northern Italy.
1858 Secret meeting between Cavour and Napoleon III. France gets Nice and Savoy if it helps Piedmont drive Austria out of Northern Italy.
1859 France allies itself with Piedmont against Austria. France drives Austria out of Lombardy, but drops out of coalition, leaving Austria in possession of Venice.
1860 Tuscany and northern Papal States declare for union with Piedmont-Sardinia.
1860 Garibaldi invades Sicily and Naples and brings entire kingdom under his control. He voluntarily passes control to Piedmont-Sardinia.
1861 Kingdom of Italy is declared with Victor Emmanuel II as the head. Cavour dies at the very moment of his triumph.

Consolidation of Papal States

1862 Garibaldi makes an unsuccessful attack on Rome.
1866 Italy joins Prussia in war against Austria, wins Venice as its reward.
1870 French troops abandon Rome when France is attacked by Prussia. The Pope is surrounded and forced into out of Rome, into the Papal compound in Vatican City.
1871 Rome becomes capital of Italy. Victor Emmanuel II is the first King of United Italy.

Kingdom of Italy

1929 Vatican City created as a separate state with Rome. () ?>

Recommended Reading—Unification of Italy

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Haaren - Famous Men of Modern Times   Garibaldi (1)
Synge - Growth of the British Empire   The Awakening of Italy to The King of United Italy (2)
Morris - Nations of Europe and the Great War   Garibaldi and Italian Unity (1)

Supplemental Recommendations

Snell - Garibaldi and his Red-shirts    entire book
Birkhead - Heroes of Modern Europe    Mazzini, "God and the People" to Garibaldi, "For Italy" (2)
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Solferino to Palermo (2)
Forbes - Life of Pius X    entire book
Abbott - Joseph Bonaparte   Joseph King of Naples to The Crown a Burden (2)

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep