March 17 passes without fanfare in Italy, but it happens to be the anniversary of the declaration that brought Italy into its modern political existence and made Vittorio Emmanuel II the first of Italy’s four kings. Here I invite listeners to think for a moment about Garibaldi, Cavour, and  the movement that brought Modern Italy into existence, the Risorgimento

Show Notes

The front page of my newspaper shows some men in downtown Rome dressed up like Roman Senators and having a good time acting out the assassination of Julius Caesar, for yesterday was the Ides of March. The hoopla does not surprise me, and—like the gladiators who hang out around the Colosseum—I suspect the senators do their thing in part because of the large number of tourists who come to Rome to be reminded of all things ancient and perhaps also to take a selfie with senator. It will soon be April 21, the anniversary of the birth of ancient Rome in 753 BC, and there will then be a still larger group of celebrants wearing togas and waving around a gladius or some other ancient weapon of war.

I mention these points to make a contrast. Today is March 17, and it marks a different anniversary, one important for modern Rome, not ancient.  Oddly, perhaps, it will again go largely uncelebrated throughout Italy. So since part of my goal in these podcasts is call visitors’ attention also to the sites that celebrate Modern Rome, let me summarize the significance of March 17 for Italy. Several earlier podcasts also contribute to this theme, including especially the ones on the Vittoriano, the statue of Garibaldi, and the statue of Cavour.

The unification of Italy was proclaimed on March 17, 1861 after years of clashes and political struggles. Before unification, Italy existed geographically but there was no Italian state: Instead, there were seven different sovereign states, and most of these were under the influence or even the direct rule of Austria. The movement that brought unity to Italy is called the Risorgimento, and its primary objective was to eliminate Austrian influence and domination from the Italian peninsula. A second goal was to bring together the different parts of the nation either in a united government or a confederation. Finally, the proponents of the Risorgimento wanted to strengthen in Italy the modern ideas that for decades came from abroad, especially from France.

March 17 is therefore an important anniversary for Italy: it recalls the birth of the Italian state and its success in becoming more independent, more united, and more modern and liberal.

To better understand this transformation, we recall that the new ideas coming from France were defended by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, but were also brought to Rome on the points of the swords of Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers. Napoleon invaded Italy twice, and he incorporated Northeast Italy as far as Rome into the French Empire, and also created the Kingdom of Italy which included Milan, Venice, and much of Northern Italy. He hereby showed the unexpected possibility of uniting the different parts of Italy, and also left many Italians longing for freedom, égalité, and fraternité. I’ll be curious to see whether this will be brought out in the recently released film based on Napoleon.

The most intense struggle of the Risorgimento lasted about two decades, from 1848 to 1870. During this quarter of century there were Three Italian Wars of Independence and these decisive events:

  • The First War of Independence, a failed attempt to drive Austria out of northern Italy.
  • An occupation of Rome during the Roman Republic, which was then quickly overthrown.
  • Obtaining help from France to drive Austria out of northern Italy in the partially successful Second War of Independence.
  • The “Expedition of the Thousand”, which captured Sicily and conquered all southern Italy, previously under the Bourbon government with its capital in Naples.
  • The Declaration of the Parliament of Sardinia-Piedmont, 17 March 1861, which proclaimed Italy a sovereign state.
  • The Italian acquisition of Venice and the territories surrounding Austria, thanks mainly to the help of Prussia in the Third War of Independence.
  • The taking of Rome from the Papacy on 20 September 1870.

Now for a few comments to explain the elements of this list:

The fight began with a failure. Initially, the most independent and powerful part of Italy, which united Sardinia and Piedmont, tried to drive Austria from Milan and Lombardy. They failed and the king abdicated. Then the crowd drove the Pope out of Rome, took control of the city and organized in the Roman Republic, with key roles for Mazzini and Garibaldi. The latter fell when French troops intervened, overthrew the Republic and restored the Pope to power. Both these efforts are remembered in the monuments of Rome, as various episodes of my podcast will explain.

Success came a decade later, especially in 1859-60. First, with the help of France and thanks to the diplomatic maneuvers of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, Piedmont took Lombardy from Austria and then annexed Tuscany, Parma and Modena. The podcast on the statue and the square honoring Cavour explains this in greater detail.

Then, thanks above all to the initiative, persistence and tireless guidance of Giuseppe Garibaldi, Piedmont obtained all southern Italy and Sicily from the Bourbon dynasty. To the public eye, Garibaldi’s “Triumphal March of the Thousand” was even more remarkable than Cavour’s diplomatic ability, and it captured the admiring imagination of the liberal world in the West. Garibaldi’s spectacular success also won him a job offer from Abraham Lincoln, who was hunting generals who could help him win the Civil War in the United States. Garibaldi is honored in Rome by a large statue on the Janiculum and in the naming of a bridge, a piazza, and a street. There is no metro stop in Rome that bears his name, but he has one in Paris, because, surprisingly, he ended up fighting for France in the Franco-Prussian War. In fact, there are so many memories of Garibaldi on the Janiculum that I am surprised that Rome did not take the step of changing the name of the hill to “Monte Garibaldi.”

After Cavour and Garibaldi had helped Piedmont to grow with new territories both in the north and south of the peninsula, the Piedmont Parliament declared, in effect, that the enlarged Piedmont was now Italy and that the king of Piedmont was the king of Italy. This King was Victor Emmanuel II, and he is the man honored by the huge equestrian statue on the so-called “Wedding Cake,” the huge modern monument that seized a large part of the ancient Capitoline Hill. Italy grew further in 1866 when Prussia forced Austria to leave Venice and its surroundings. Finally, the new Italy took Rome from the Papacy. Of the earlier parts of Italy, only Piedmont did not surrender its sovereignty: it was the part of Italy that became the whole. At least it seems so, since the laws of Piedmont were extended over the peninsula, and many new government posts were occupied by men from this part of northern Italy.

A further indication that Italy was an enlarged Piedmont is presented in the name of the first king of united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. Continuing to call himself Vittorio Emanuele the second, not the first, seemed to announce that his position had not changed and that Italy was an expanded Piedmont, not a completely new country. Whether it is more correct to say that a new nation was born or that an older nation became larger remains a controversial question, especially among some southern Italians who claim to have been conquered and therefore not to be full partners in the birth of the new nation.

However important independence and unification were for the Risorgimento, it was thought to be no less important to liberalize and modernize the Italy that was coming into being. Apart from Piedmont, Italy was governed by rulers whose authority was not limited by any constitution or controls and balances, and the Catholic Church had a privileged position throughout the peninsula. Essentially all were Catholics, and rulers throughout Europe, at least until the Protestant Reformation, accepted the Church as partners with the State in providing education and encouraging moral conduct (which does not mean that this partnership was free from rivalry). The Risorgimento changed this in Italy. The new Italy captured the Papal States and Rome from the Pope and pushed the Church out of the politics of the entire peninsula. These and related changes represented the end of the old world-order.

Although the Risorgimento advanced in part because of the spread of the ideas of the French Revolution, it did not establish a reign of terror as the Jacobins had done. There were no executions of the former rulers of Rome: a “Law of Guarantees” left the pope free to live as a private citizen, priest, and spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.

This was not sufficient to mollify the pope, who angrily declared himself a prisoner of the Vatican, refused to recognize the new government, and excommunicated those who had driven him out of power. Shortly afterwards he issued a decree, “Non expedit“, which prohibited all Italian Catholics from voting in national elections. The next four popes also spent their entire reign within the Vatican Walls, so Rome went from having the pope as king to having the pope as a well-known prisoner under a sort of self-imposed house arrest.

The overthrown pope was Pius IX, so some adapted his name to be “Pius No! No! ” because he seemed to oppose everything, or at least everything modern. He clearly understood that the battle was a conflict between two fundamentally opposing groups of principles, between two opposing worlds, a judgment shared by his modern antagonists. In an upcoming podcast, we will further explore this opposition, especially by examining two key documents issued by the pope, Quanta curae and The Syllabus of Errors.

I hope that these comments on the creation of modern Italy have stimulated your thought on the matter. The main point, I think, is that the birth of Italy, declared on March 17, 1861, was also a step from an old and often forgotten world in a new world.

Hope to see you next time, when I will also explain why I have been so silent for so long!

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