Italy: The Road to Unification

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The Treaty of Vienna 1815

Following the Napoleonic wars the Great Powers met at the Congress of Vienna to decide how to go about restoring normality in Europe and setting Europe on a path to peace. They adopted two general principles:

  • The principle of legitimacy, which meant that rulers who had been deposed by the French would be able to reclaim their thrones. 
  • The need for security against further French agression which meant that a barrier of strong states would have to be created around the Frech border 

It was assumed by the Great Powers that they could give and take land as they pleased because of their standing in Europe. As far as Italy was concerned Piedmont-Sardinia was given Savoy and Nice to act as a bulwark against any further French aggression. 

Austria was handed the two wealthy provinces of Lombardy and Venetia, and Habsurg dukes were appointed to rule in the duchies of Tuscany, Parma, Modena and Lucca which gave Metternich the means and opportunity to influence te whole peninsula. 

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Austrian Influence:

The Austrian Habsburgs had a huge amount of influence over Northern Italy having recently gained Venetia and Tuscany as well as having Habsurg dukes appointed to rule in the duchies of Tuscany, Parma, Modena and Lucca. 

  • Metternich wanted to create an Italian Federation, with Austria at the head, but this was prevented by strong opposition from the King of Naples and the Pope. 
  • Nevertheless most Italian states followed the Austrian lead. Metternich wanted to keep Italy divided so that it was easily influenced and dominated by Asutria. 
  • The only states that were capable of any degree of independance were Piedmont and the Paple states
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The revolt in Naples

In July 1920 a revolt was led by General Pepe who demanded a constitution. He used the Spanish constitution of 1812 as his model. This constitution provided for:

  • A limited monarchy which governed through ministers subject to parliamentry control
  • Suffrage was determined by property qualifications. In parliament there was no special provisions for the Church or the nobility 

Pepe drew his support from members of the militia, which had been formed to provide protection for travellers against attacks by brigands in 1818. Many members were members of the Carbonari (charcoal burners) a secret society set up in 1810 to fight the French. 

The constitution was granted by King Ferdinand on 9th July but this did not put an end to unrest. The aristocracy demanded the return of land confiscated under French rule and the business classes protested against excessive bureaucracy. 

This situation gave Metternich the excuse to intervene. In March 1821 Austrian troops were sent into Naples and the revolt collapsed. Austrian influence now took hold. 

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Revolt in Piedmont and the effect of the revolts

Three days after the collapse of the revolt in Naples there were mutinies in the Piedmontese army and demands for a constitution and war with Austria. 


As a result the King Victor Emmanuel decided to abdicate and passed the throne to his brother Charles Felix. In the interim, Charles Albert, the Regent, proclaimed a constitution, but was exiled when the king sought Austrian help. Faced by Austrian troops the rebels fled. 


  • Increased Austrian influence in Italy and it gave Metternich the excuse to use more secret agents within Italy. Spies were sent to all states and police were brought increasingly under Austrian control. 
  • Many rebels fled abroad where they could no longer have contact with the local people whose support they relied on for success. 
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Mazzini and Young Italy

Guiseppe Mazzini went into exile in 1831 aong with many other rebels and in July organised a meeting in Marseilles where he formed Young Italy. 

  • Wanted complete independance for the whole peninsular of Italy. Mazzini believed this could only be achieved by uniting all the people in a national effort. 
  • Invented a new form of Nationalism. He claimed that a nation had a moral purpose and believed that citizens should have equal political and civil rights. 


He created the concept of Italian nationalism in Europe and spread it with his vast amount of writings, all of which were devoted to Italian nationalism. Described by Metternich as the 'most dangerous man in Europe' as he was attacking the dynastic rights that had dominated Europe for so long. 

However he had lived out of Italy since 1831 and was out of touch with events and people. For many ordinary Italians they had a high amount of politcal apathy. 

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Italian states in the 1840s

Overall very little had changed since 1815 and Metternich would have been quite pleased if he had reviewed Italy in the mid 1840s as it was still prominently under Austrian influence. Every revolution since 1815 had been crushed. 

  • The Two Sicilies had been ruled since 1830 by King Ferdinand II. He had begun by introducing reforms but after a revolt in 1837 he had become more repressive and centralised the kingdom. 
  • Piedmont had been ruled by Charles Albert since 1831. It was regarded as essentially French and was more interested in gaining territory from France. Censorship was extreme and the Church had more infleunce in Piedmont than any other state.
  • Papal states was ruled by Pope Gregory XVI since 1831 and because of a revolution in Romagna he was forced to call for Austrian military support and became a outspoken critic of revolution. 
  • The state most likely to lead calls for liberal change seemed to be Tuscany. It had been ruled since 1825 by Leopold II who had allowed considerable liberty to the press. Politcal exiles were allowed to settle here and theatres were allowed to perform plays ciritcal of Austrian influence. 
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Seeds of Revolution

Unrest was caused by a number of issues, for example in 1845-7 there were a series of bad harvests and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in Northern Italy forced working people closer together in growing cities. 

Election of Pope Pius IX in 1846:

When Pope Pius IX was elected in 1846 1200 politcal prisoners were released from Papal prisons. He then relaxed censorship, lowered tariffs and encouraged economic development such as railways. His actions encouraged liberals to believe he was prepared to go further and that he might even become a figurehead in a new Italy. 

Piedmont taking lead in struggle against Austria:

He began a programme of modernisation. He also decreased tariffs, and created some railways and canals. As well as this the army was improved and the legal system reinforced. His hope of increasing territory at the expense of the French came to an end and he saw it could only come from Austria. In 1847 Charles Albert protested the Austrian decision to intervene in the papal states and Modena.

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Revolutions of 1848 (Part 1)

The first revolution took place in Palermo in Sicily on 12 January. Ferdinard had became unpopular after his decision to merge the governments of Sicily and Naples.When Mazzinians organised a demonstration, it rapidly turned into a revolt demanding the Spanish Constitution of 1812. On 29th January Ferdinand II offered a constitution to the whole kingdom but this was rejected in Siciliy and they became virtually independant for the next 18 months.

It showed other Italian rulers that in the face of revolution it was better to give in and grant a constitution than to allow Mazzini's ideas to take hold. 


Lombardy, under Austrian rule was the most economically and educationally advanced area in Italy however this rule was rigid. There was a state monopoly on tobacco and brandy and unrest against these monopolies broke out in Milan in January after the Sicilian revolt. The Austrians reacted harshly and 61 people were killed. 17-22nd March the Austrian garrison was driven out and a provisonal government was formed. By the end of March all garrisons were forced out of all cities. 

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Involvement of Piedmont

Unrest in Sicily and Lombardy inevitably spread to Piedmont. There were riots in Genoa and demands for reforms. Charles Albert gave way in March and granted a constitution, the Statuto, would created a parliament and gave the vote to 2.5% of the population. Charles Albert then declared war on Austria and the army marched into Lombardy (wanted to avoid it being a republic as well as determined to avoid it taking the lead in the fight).

It was unsuccesful because:

  • Charles Albert was unpopular in Lombardy and he insisted that Lombardy and Venetia become parts of the Kingdom of Piedmont. 
  • He advanced too slowly even so he had 100,000 troops against 70,000 Austrians 
  • Austrians fell back on the Quadrilateral and waited for reinforcements from Vienna. In July the Piedmontese forces were defeated by the Austrians at Custozza and Charles Albert signed an armistice. The Lombard revolution collapsed. 
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Why did it end in failure?

In the Papal States the ministers supported Piedmont and sent troops to fight against the Austrians ut Pius IX attacked the war and called for all Catholics to oppose revolution. Elections resulted in an Assembly which stripped the Pope of his political power and in March 1849 Mazzini was appointed to lead a Roman Republic, he was also joined by Garibaldi. It only lasted until July 1849 when it was overwhelmed by foreign armies and the Pope was reinstated. Faced four invading armies after the Pope appealed for help. 

  • Different motives for revolution 
  • Lombardy and Venetian revolts were essentially republican 
  • Charles Albert focused more on territorial expansion than Italian independance. 
  • Majority of people were faced with local issues rather than nationalism. 
  • Italy lacked a leader who could unite all of its different peoples and a common ideal under which they could be united.
  • The only state capable of challenging Austrian might was Piedmont but Charles Albert was too ow and indecisive in 1848 when he had the advantage.
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