A glow surrounds leaders remembered by monuments, as it generally should, but it is still instructive to look closely at the hard choices they had to make to achieve what they did. Here is another peek at how Cavour enticed France into helping unify Italy.

Show Notes

My last Episode was on Cavour, who did so much to bring modern Italy into existence, and I’d like to say just a few words more about how he accomplished what he did. It’s not all pretty, and could not have been.

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

For one thing, I focused on his foreign policy, and especially on how he persuaded powerful France to help Piedmont drive Austria out of Lombardy in what is called the Second Italian War of Independence. But Cavour is also honored for having helped to strengthen Piedmont economically: his decade at the head of the government, roughly the 1850’s, was a decade of tremendous growth. Cavour had visited England and been impressed by the advantages of a freer economy and an improved transportation infrastructure, and he introduced such changes in Piedmont. By rapidly increasing railroads, canals, and commercial activity, Cavour also helped make Piedmont a more attractive ally for France, since new wealth made it possible to strengthen the military, and railroads enabled troops to move more rapidly.

I’d also like to look a little closer into the hard choices that Cavour and others had to make to win French support. They raise fundamental question about what ends justify what means and what sort of morality is possible when it comes to forming a nation.

So far, we have seen that Cavour sent soldiers from Piedmont to fight in the Crimean War so that France and England would look on Piedmont with more respect and perhaps even with a little gratitude. This might then dispose these two great powers more favorably toward his goal of getting Austria out of Italy, and I quoted Mazzini to show how sharply he and Cavour disagreed on this hard choice. Both men knew that Cavour’s policy would result in soldiers’ deaths—about 2,000 as it turned out; the question was what might be gained from their sacrifice.  For Cavour, the beginning of an alliance with France and Great Britain was worth the price.

The Countess of Castiglione, as painted by Michele Gordigiani

To take the next step, Cavour had to show his grace and savvy at the Congress of Paris held after the war. I don’t think high level schmoozing can substitute for sound policy, but Cavour was good at it, and it seems to have helped get in the good graces of other European leaders, the better to open their minds to new alliances and courses of action. Along with his lively intelligence, Cavour had the benefit of a very beautiful and seductive cousin, the Countess of Castiglione, who then began an affair with Napoleon III, the Emperor of France. This probably improved Cavour’s social position at the Congress and secured for him another source of information about what the Emperor had on his mind. Cavour seems to have encouraged the Countess by giving her father a position in the diplomatic corps.

We noted that Cavour’s next step, after the Congress, was to meet secretly with Napoleon III and to hatch a plan to provoke Austria so that she looked like the aggressor in a war in which France and Piedmont would drive Austria out of Italy.

Napoleon III would not go along with this just because of Cavour’s schmoozing, of course. He had an interest in weakening Austria, but he also demanded that Piedmont compensate France by handing over Savoy and Nizza (soon to be Nice). Here Cavour faced another hard choice, one for which Garibaldi and Mazzini would later denounce him in heated terms.  But the French Emperor made still another demand, and this one was even harder for King Victor Emmanuel to accept and hence harder for Cavour as well.

Dynastic marriages among ruling families were a common practice of the day, as a way of making alliances tighter; and Louis Napoleon wanted one between his French family and the Savoy Dynasty that ruled Piedmont. He wanted it to be between a cousin of his, Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, second to the throne, and the eldest daughter of King Victor Emanuel II, Maria Clotilde. This might have been an easy matter under other circumstances, but the potential bride was only 15, while the groom was 37, and the latter was reputed to be dissolute, while the young girl was modest, pious, and quite probably repulsed by the man.

Cavour first tried to nix this idea and explained to the Emperor that his king felt a “considerable repugnance” to pressuring his daughter into an unwelcome marriage; but the Emperor pressed for it nonetheless, arguing that the proposed groom was “better than his reputation,” a sharply limited recommendation. After failing to persuade the Emperor to drop the request, Cavour tried to persuade the king “as a father as well as a King” that the marriage was a good one. More than a third of Cavour’s long letter on his secret meeting with Napoleon III is an attempt to persuade Victor Emmanuel to accept this distasteful marriage, and I’m inclined to say he makes every argument imaginable, even suggesting that it would not be as bad as the current marriages of the king’s four aunts! He tried, in short, to argue that the duties of king and father were not in sharp conflict, at least in this case. Whether persuaded by this strained argument or thinking that the duties of king were more compelling, Victor Emmanuel eventually approved the marriage. After all, he might have said to himself, he would be calling on many soldiers to sacrifice their lives to expel Austria from Italy: Could he exempt his family from other sacrifices for the cause?

As for his daughter Maria Clotilde, she consented but only with evident reluctance. The mismatched couple had three children; and after about twenty years in France with her husband, Maria returned to Turin and spent another twenty years doing charitable work and religious activities.

Cavour is the political leader and diplomat most responsible for the unification and modernization of the new Italy, for which he is honored throughout the country. But it is instructive to note also the hard and troubling choices he had to make to achieve his goals. Among other things, he had to send soldiers into battle in two different wars. He had to give up Savoy and Nice, which had long been held by the Savoy Dynasty; and he had to defend a distasteful marriage. Can we be enthusiastic about the end result, a united Italy, and still regret the policies that were necessary to achieve it? Or was there another route to the same end? Could Mazzini or anyone else have brought modern Italy into existence without actions that demand sacrifice?

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