The Count of Cavour was one of the Four Fathers of Modern Italy, but this fact becomes interesting only if we know what he did and how he did it. The first part of an answer is that he got the help of France to drive Austria out of northern Italy, which increased Italian independence and took a step in the direction of unification. But did France do this out of love of justice? How did Cavour secure France’s help?

Show Notes

Italians speak of there being four Fathers of the new Italian Fatherland, and each has a major monument dedicated to him. So far, we have discussed two of these, the large statue of Garibaldi on the Janiculum Hill and the massive Vittoriano, popularly known as the “Wedding Cake,” which is dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. Today we’ll visit the statue of Cavour and take it as an apt moment to introduce the man it honors. Giuseppe Mazzini was the fourth Father, and he was impressive especially in having dedicated his entire life to the cause of bringing revolutionary change—that is, illegal, subversive change—to Italy and the rest of Europe. Still, whatever influence his manifestos and essays may have had on the European mind, he had less direct involvement with the birth and rearing of the new Italy than its other three Fathers did, so we will wait a while longer before visiting his monument.

For his contributions to the unification of Italy, Cavour is remembered in Rome by a major street, central Metro stop, piazza, bust on the Pincian Hill, bridge over the Tiber, and statue. He is similarly honored in other Italian cities and towns, as are the other three Fathers.

Statue of Cavour, as he looks toward the Palace of Justice (my photo)

Piazza Cavour and its statue are aligned with the northern flank of the Palace of Justice, toward which the statue is facing. Together with the Palace, rightly nicknamed the “ugly palace” (Palazzaccio), the piazza marks the beginning of what was then a new neighborhood of Rome, Prati, which means “meadows,” built during Rome’s rapid expansion after the capital of the new Italy moved from Florence to Rome in 1871. To keep Prati from being isolated from the much more populous left bank of the river, a new bridge was built, the Ponte Cavour. If Cavour was not assigned a location as elevated as Garibaldi’s on the Janiculum Hill, his statue is more central to the busy life of the modern city and its government.

Like Garibaldi’s, Cavour’s monument is surrounded by four bronze sculptural groups, and its stone base also features sculptures in low relief. Like Garibaldi’s, the reliefs allude to ancient Rome and include fasces, the she-wolf, and the trophies that were the signs of victory in ancient battles. Like all the many memorials to Garibaldi and the Garibaldini, and like the Vittoriano as well, Cavour’s monument does not highlight angels, halos, tiaras, or other allusions to Christianity or the papacy. It does have a cross, however, but it is part of the coat of arms of the Savoy Dynasty, which dated from prior centuries.

Cavour from the front, with the allegories of Italy and Rome below (my photo)

Unlike Garibaldi, Cavour is not on the back of a horse, is not on a battlefield, is not surrounded by his close comrades, and does not wear exotic garb: he is dressed in contemporary formal attire, complete with an honorific sash across his chest. We see immediately that he and Garibaldi came from very different worlds and possessed very different qualities: Garibaldi was a ship captain, freedom fighter, and colorful adventurer; Cavour was from a noble family and became a successful economist, entrepreneur, and gentleman farmer. He made his mark as Prime Minister, not at all as a leader of guerilla warriors accustomed to long marches and sleeping outdoors. Garibaldi was a natural subject for popular films; Cavour was not so colorful, but his life raises vital questions about what it takes to build a new nation.

Cavour’s statue faces the adjacent Palace of Justice: it would have sent the wrong message if it had looked away from it. But this results in the accident that the statue turns its back instead on Piazza Mazzini, about 10 blocks to Cavour’s rear. This is entirely apt, for Cavour and Mazzini hated each other. And since the Palace of Justice features a large coat of arms of the Savoy dynasty, high in front of the statue, the orientation of the statue reflects Cavour’s regard not merely for justice but for a monarchical interpretation of it.

Allegory of Action, with a sword in his fist (my photo)

The four bronze sculptural groups around the statue are allegorical. Thought and Action are represented on opposite sides of the statue by two male nudes, Thought looking down with his head covered and his chin on his hand, Action looking up with a sword in his fist. The north side features a ballot box and a lion, and the side facing the Palace of Justice has two women warriors, one representing Italy, the other, Rome.

The motif “thought and action” suits Cavour, but it also suits Mazzini, who used it as a motto and published a journal with this title. Thought and Action also turn up in a pair of prominent bronze sculptures on the Vittoriano, as well as in two sets of marble statues by Michelangelo, one in the Medici Chapel in Florence, the other flanking his statue of Moses in the Roman church of St. Peter in Chains. Since no one wants a life of thoughtless action and few are content to think without ever acting, we need to wonder what kind of thought and action distinguished Cavour in particular.

The statue gives us only a partial answer, but the reliefs behind the figure of Thought are symbols of the sciences, technology, geographical discoveries, and political thought. Of the leading figures of the Risorgimento, Cavour was the greatest advocate of modern science, technology, and economics. He actively promoted railroads, and his studies contributed to improved agricultural practices, for example. It is minor but memorable that he helped to develop one of Italy’s finest wines, Barolo, the king of wines and the wine of kings, as it claims. At the same time, if the Christian contemplative tradition represented a kind of thinking, Cavour had little patience for it, and he helped Piedmont close those monasteries that did not make a visible contribution to education or some other obvious social good, a trend that would later spread to Italy as a whole. As for Cavour’s action, the statue may imply that it was tied to the king’s dynasty, for behind the nude representing Action are symbols of the Savoy. The statue itself is holding a sword, which was not characteristic of Cavour, but Cavour’s way of thinking several times sent soldiers into battle.

Cavour defended the monarchy of the Savoy Dynasty, but only after it ceased to be an absolute monarchy in 1848. Since that time, the Savoy traced their right to rule not directly from God but from the people, and they introduced an elected parliament as a limit on their authority. Although rejected by Mazzini and supported only with hesitation by Garibaldi, Piedmont’s limited monarchy suited Cavour’s liberalism, for it recognized the possibly conflicting demands of steady, consistent government on the one hand and the will of the people on the other.

The ballot box on the north side of the statue is a sign that Cavour’s support for the Savoy was tempered by his support for the popular vote, but his main use of the ballot box occurred as Piedmont gathered in each new part of Italy. Cavour then used plebiscites to confirm, or at least to suggest, the legitimacy of these revolutionary changes. He wished to show that Piedmont grew into Italy not by raw conquest but by the will of the people. So, for example, a popular vote made it clear that Sicily chose by an overwhelming margin to accept the constitutional monarchy of Victor Emmanuel II, and the same was true for Tuscany, Parma, Lucca, and the other parts that joined Piedmont in forming Italy.

Next to the ballot box is the statue of a lion, which probably represents the strength of the Italian people. If so, it is right that the lion is lying down, not rampant, for in contrast to Mazzini and Garibaldi, Cavour sought popular support but feared popular insurrection. Cavour was a liberal who favored limits on popular rule in order to promote stability and help protect individual rights.

In the allegories of Italy and Rome on the south side, Italy holds the fasces—the symbol of enforced authority in ancient Rome—while Rome is seated on a throne and wears a helmet. Both have symbols representing the Savoy dynasty, one on her head and the other on her shield. Like Cavour himself, they face the large Savoy coat of arms on the Ugly Palace. There are no such monarchical symbols on the monuments to Garibaldi or Mazzini.

The differences between Cavour’s contribution to Italian unification and those of Garibaldi and Mazzini are striking. Mazzini devoted a half-century and most of his life to illegal revolutionary causes. Cavour, on the other hand, helped to bring a new Italy into existence not by insurrection but by guiding the policy of the legitimate government of Piedmont. Garibaldi began as a revolutionary, but, 25 years later, began to cooperate with Victor Emmanuel. His switch came once Piedmont began to show the resolve of driving Austria out of Italy, that is, after Cavour became Prime Minister. Garibaldi hated Cavour, but were it not for Cavour’s successes, I doubt Garibaldi would have offered his services to Piedmont. More exciting, more hopeful of mass action, and more dangerous, Mazzini’s insurrections never actually enjoyed such successes.

As Prime Minister, Cavour found a way for Piedmont to unite the lion’s share of northern Italy. He then guided the king to intercept Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand south of Rome, thereby winning southern Italy for Piedmont and doing so without provoking French intervention. His adroit negotiations enabled him to begin to make a single fabric of this sprawling territory, which won him a nickname: “the weaver.” The character of his weaving was such that of the four Fathers of Modern Italy, only to Cavour might we be tempted to apply the adjective, “Machiavellian,” as the French Emperor did.

Cavour differs from the other Fathers also by the short time he was on center stage, for he died at age 51, within months of the creation of the New Italy in 1861, so his political career was limited to a single decade. Meanwhile, Bismarck was busily weaving Germany into existence at approximately the same time, but he lived to preside over the process for a couple more decades. With Cavour and Lincoln, we are led to wonder what might have been had their talents been available to serve their nations a little longer. They both died with their countries mostly united in law but still disunited in the hearts and minds of their citizens.

In foreign policy, Cavour’s core achievements were to get French help in driving Austria out of part of Italy and then to seize the opportunities created by this expulsion. In his view, Italians were unable to unite Italy on their own. They lacked the firepower, and they lacked the passion as well. Mazzini kept trying to stir up this passion, but Cavour instead sought France’s help in taking the first step. It’s easy to say he obtained it, but it’s difficult to say how. Here’s a modest start. It’s a wonderfully provocative topic involving great questions of right and wrong in international relations.

Cavour recognized that France had an interest in curbing the power of Austria and that getting the Austrians out of Italy would help achieve this goal. But France was much more powerful than Piedmont, so how could Cavour show the French Emperor, Napoleon III, that Piedmont could be useful to him in achieving this difficult objective?

Step one was to catch the attention of the great powers, so Cavour sent Italian troops to fight on the side of Britain and France in the Crimean War. This sounds easy enough when so summarized, but it meant risking the lives of young men for an uncertain benefit. Mazzini bitterly attacked Cavour’s decision, which illustrates the differences between these two Fathers of Italy. Mazzini had the following message smuggled into Piedmont from his hideout in London:

Fifteen thousand among you are going to be deported to the Crimea. . . . You will die, without glory, without the glow of an illustrious halo to be handed down through you, the ultimate comfort for [surviving] loved ones. You will die though the fault of governments and foreign leaders. . . . By serving a false foreign plan, your bones will whiten while trampled by the Cossack’s horse, in a distant land, nor will any of your family be able to gather your bones and cry over them.

It is not difficult to imagine Cavour’s thoughts toward a man trying to infect his troops with such excited prose or to see why Piedmont twice condemned Mazzini to death for high treason, forcing him to live most of his life in exile. In Cavour’s view, the only way to drive Austria from Italy was with a powerful army such as only France could provide, but would not provide for the mere asking. Mazzini might imagine ordinary and untrained Italians rising up to defeat Austria with their pitchforks, but Cavour considered this delusory; and even if actively supporting such a revolt might help it take root, who can control an insurgency once it gets started? Mazzini saw Cavour as cynical and manipulative; Cavour thought of Mazzini as unrealistic and dangerous.

Cavour’s sacrifice in the Crimea of the lives of soldiers from Piedmont brought the result he had hoped: he won a seat at the Congress of Paris and there was able to protest Austrian interference in Italy and call attention to Piedmont as the only liberal state in all of Italy.

To strengthen and further exploit his relationship with France, Cavour met the French Emperor in July of 1858 at Plombières, southwest of Strasburg in eastern France. They bypassed official diplomatic channels and held their meetings in secret. The agreements they reached were not published openly. When it was leaked that the two had met, they denied it. It was a fine example of surprise and personal diplomacy, if not quite at the level of Kissinger’s visit to China in 1971.

Cavour described the agreements he reached with the French Emperor in a letter he sent to King Victor Emmanuel on July 24, 1858. This remarkable document conveys the specific understandings between France and Piedmont in their alliance against Austria; it also reflects Cavour’s character and may capture something even of the essential character of diplomacy itself.

Cavour and the Emperor quickly decided that Piedmont and France should go to war against Austria to drive her out of Lombardy and Venice. They did not discuss the justice of the war but did consider ways of making it appear to be just. Whatever the advantages of being just, appearing to be so might win them valuable international support or at least keep them free of blame. Their task was not easy, but Cavour and the Emperor managed to concoct an aggressive plan to make Austria look like the aggressor.

Both parties were supremely interested in how Italy would be rearranged after the war. While plotting against Austria and the pope, they kept an eye on each other as well. The French Emperor was looking forward to an Italy so divided that France could draw one or more of its parts into its sphere of influence: divide and rule! Cavour was trying to put Piedmont in a position such that it could become the leading power of Italy. The unification of the peninsula was not on the agenda, for it would have seemed impossible as well as contrary to the France’s interests.

They agreed that the peninsula would be divided into four main sovereignties, not the current and very unequal group of seven. Expanded by the lands to be taken from Austria, Piedmont would become the Kingdom of Upper Italy. There would also be a new Kingdom of Central Italy, and a vastly diminished area still to be ruled by the pope. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would continue to rule the south. These four states would form a loose confederacy, with the Pope being its leading figure.  Cavour’s letter suggests that this honor was as a balm for the pain he would suffer from having much of the Papal States removed from his control.

Mighty France would be doing Piedmont a favor and wanted territory in return, not only from Austria but also from Piedmont itself. Cavour had to offer Savoy, the ancestral home of his king’s dynasty.  Nizza, which happened to be the home of Garibaldi, was also discussed. Later, when Nizza was eventually ceded to France and became Nice, Garibaldi charged treason, and his hatred for Cavour grew ever greater. Surely Cavour would have preferred not to give any territory to France, but a new war against Austria came with enormous risks, and France was offering 200,000 soldiers. Of course, he later tried to justify his policy by holding plebiscites in Nice and Savoy, and of course they showed that the people supported the transfer of these lands to France. In democratic times, who can quarrel with the will of the people?

Cavour’s agreements with the French Emperor at Plombières helped to start a war with Austria under conditions favorable for Piedmont. The French fielded over two and half times as many soldiers as Piedmont, and they fought well, which suggests that Cavour was correct to think the alliance was a necessary one. Nevertheless, a disappointment was in store. After the Austrians had been driven out of Lombardy, the French Emperor abandoned the effort to drive them out of the Veneto as well. When Victor Emanuel accepted this premature peace, an enraged Cavour insulted his king and resigned from the government. Cavour knew that it is difficult to control an insurgency; he here learned it can also be difficult to control powerful allies.

Italy in late 1859. Piedmont had just acquired the areas shown in orange, Lombardy, Parma, Modena, Tuscany, and the Romagna. Garibaldi would add the south in the next year.  (Map by Mt. Holyoke)

All was not lost, however. Having won Lombardy, the area around Milan, Piedmont now faced another alluring prospect. The tumult of war had provided the central Italian states with an opportunity to revolt against their rulers, who had been propped up by Austria. The separate peace signed by France and Austria called for these states to be restored to their pro-Austrian masters, but who was going to send the troops to force them back into the Austrian fold? Cavour—now back at the head of the government—boldly annexed Parma, Modena, and the Romagna (which had revolted from the Papal States), with the hesitant consent of the French, and Tuscany, without such consent. To disarm French dismay over Tuscany, Cavour held plebiscites to show that the locals were in favor of these annexations.

At Plombières it had been agreed that there would be a Kingdom of Central Italy, which would limit Piedmont to ruling northern Italy. The French Emperor also thought that he would be able to make this central kingdom part of France’s sphere of influence. Now, however, Cavour had acted so that there would be no Kingdom of Central Italy. Instead, Piedmont expanded by taking this territory. Somewhat belatedly, and under circumstances very different than first imagined, Cavour handed Savoy and Nice over to France to soften the blow. Piedmont failed to win Venice, but she got central Italy instead, while also securing Lombardy and a significant Austrian retreat. Not a bad result for the Weaver, when you consider the challenge.

With most of northern and central Italy now having been stitched together by Cavour, it was Garibaldi who secured the last piece needed to assemble the critical mass of the new Italy. As noted in Episode 20, Garibaldi’s “Expedition of the Thousand” troubled Cavour deeply, even though it would soon be treated as Italy’s proudest moment. His exact and shifting judgments of Garibaldi’s campaign remain a matter of dispute, but it is fair to say he was cautious, suspicious, and sometimes actively opposed. In the end, at least, he was hopeful as well.

How Cavour used French military might to help achieve Piedmont’s goals is remarkable. How Garibaldi won over southern Italy with little or no official support is remarkable. Most remarkable of all is how different these two men were, and how Italy managed to enjoy the benefits of their contrasting gifts. I would call them polar opposites except that this metaphor is based on two poles, whereas there was then a third memorable man, one very different from both Cavour and Garibaldi. But for Mazzini we must wait a while longer.

For our next episode, we will change worlds and return to Ancient Pagan Rome and to the man who claimed that he transformed Rome from brick to marble, the Emperor Augustus, and who certainly helped to turn it from a Republic into an imperial monarchy. His revolution is justified as having brought peace. Did it also turn Roman citizens into slaves?

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