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Risorgimento: The Italian rebirth

Carlo Alberto, King of Piedmont-Sardinia

MANILA, Philippines - It was March 17, 1861 when Vittorio Emanuele II, King of Piedmont-Sardinia, proclaimed the birth of the new Italian Kingdom in Turin, which became its first capital (since then, it has been the capital of the same Piedmont-Sardinia, in northern Italy).

Before 1861, a “proper” Italy did not actually exist. Or, at least, had not existed for a long time. Italy had last been unified under the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, some 1,300 years before. Since then it had been divided into a series of small- and medium-sized regional states, often under Norman, German, French, Spanish and Austrian rulers. Political fragmentation brought economic and cultural fragmentation as well — some remnants of which still exist after one and a half century of unity.

The Risorgimento, which means “resurrection,” was the 19th century movement for Italian unification inspired by the realities of the new economic and political forces at work after 1815, the liberal and nationalist ideologies spawned by the French Revolution of 1789, and the ideas of 18th century Italian reformers and illuministi.

Throughout that period the question of Italy dominated European politics: with personalities such as Cavour, Mazzini and, of course, Garibaldi becoming household names. The Risorgimento constituted a fascinating and colourful mixture of armies, personalities, skirmishes, rebellions, grand battles and wars.

Vittorio Emanuele II, King of Piedmont-Sardinia

The Risorgimento had a two-fold significance. As a manifestation of the nationalism sweeping over Europe during the 19th century, it aimed to unite Italy under one flag and one government. For many Italians, however, Risorgimento meant more than political unity. It described a movement for the renewal of Italian society and people beyond purely political aims and pursuing ancestral, common roots in culture and tradition. Among Italian patriots, common denominators were also desire for freedom from foreign control, liberalism, and constitutionalism. They agreed on the need for unity among the various states and for constitutional guarantees of personal liberty and rights. They disagreed, however, on whether such unity should be under a confederation or a centralized form of government. There was further disagreement on whether a united Italy should be a republic or a monarchy.

Such distrust and disagreement undermined attempts to create an Italian Legion, or common army, and to present a united front against the common enemy, embodied in the Austrian army (at the time the Austrians controlled most of northern Italy, while the south was ruled by the Bourbons, through the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The revolutionary republics established in central Italy and Venice fought their battles alone after the army of Carlo Alberto, King of Piedmont-Sardinia, was twice defeated by Austrian commander Marshall Radetzky (1766 to 1858).

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The heroic, revolutionary phase of the Risorgimento over, its legacy and its lessons, however, paved the way for the cautious deliberate diplomacy of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810 to 1861), prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Although not a charismatic revolutionary leader, he was a realistic politician, a clear-headed diplomat and a brilliant organizer. The only Italian state with a constitution and an elected parliament after 1849, Piedmont-Sardinia exerted a powerful attraction for the large majority of Italian nationalists who accepted its leadership. A new consensus emerged among all nationalist elements, except for Mazzini’s followers and other democrats who continued to believe in popular revolution.

By 1859 Cavour, assured of French military support in a war against Austria and secure of the support of the Italian National Society (a coalition of non-Mazzinian nationalists) provoked the conflict. As a result, Austria was forced to cede Lombardy to Piedmont-Sardinia. A series of upheavals in the states of central Italy overturned the rulers and a successful campaign in southern Italy by Garibaldi and his troops unseated the Bourbons. Thus on March 12, 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in Turin (capital of Piedmont-Sardinia) by a parliament in which sat elected representatives from all parts of Italy, except Venetia which remained under Austrian rule until 1866 and the city of Rome under papal control until 1870, when — with the state capital moved to Rome — the aims of the political Risorgimento had eventually been achieved.

Count Camillo Benso di Cavour

But, as one politician put it, “Italy is made.  We still have to make the Italians.”  After centuries of dis-union, huge cultural, political, and economic differences existed in this nation of 22 million people.  The biggest gap was between the urban north and agricultural south. The new government did three things to pull Italy together. It built a national railroad system to physically links its parts.  It established a national educational system to give its people a similar cultural outlook and loyalty.  And it formed a national army to enforce its policies and also unify men from all over Italy in a common cause. 

The diversity — in dialects, tradition, cuisine, music and architecture — of all the 20 Regions of the Italian Republic, which arose from the 1,300 years of disunity, is undoubtedly the great richness of the Peninsula, and one of the many reasons which make it unique and fascinating to everyone.

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