Italian Unification Revision Notes. Italian Politics in 1815

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Italian Politics in 1815

The Liberals

They were generally non-violent, and were against absolute monarchy and a republican democracy. They favoured constitutional monarchy.

The Radicals

They wanted social reforms and a fairer distribution of wealth. They were prepared to use violence. Many of them were members of revolutionary secret societies and believed that political power should lie with the people, not with a parliament unless it were elected by all men ad not just property owners.


They believed that people of the same race, language, culture and tradition should be united in an independent nation of their own. Many nationalists went further demanding a republic. Liberals and radicals supported nationalism and unification as the way forward for Italy.

Metternich’s view of Italy

He adopted an entirely negative stance as these views would undermine Austrian control of Italy. He saw the need to maintain the Italian jigsaw of separate states rules by absolute monarchs.

Secret societies played an important part in the revolutions in 1820. These societies are thought to be developed from 18th century freemasonry where men formed themselves into groups pledged to mutual protection with secret passwords and semi-religious rituals. In the 1790s similar groups whose main purpose was to drive out the French had sprung up all over Italy. After 1815 their aims changed to overthrowing the Restored Monarchs and to driving out the Austrians.


  •   A wide variety of members including army officers, students, lawyers, teachers and doctors.
  •   A few noblemen joined
  •   The majority of members were patriotic, enthusiastic and daring
  •   Many were idealists, a few were rogues and criminals
  •   Weakness: unwillingness to work together and lack of organisation skills
  •   An emphasis on secrecy meant that their ideas were not well disseminated

Carbonari (The Charcoal Burners)

  •   Particularly active in southern Italy, especially Naples
  •   Thought to have around 60,000 members
  •   In Piedmont they hoped to establish a constitutional monarchy
  •   In Naples they also wanted a constitutional monarchy


Began in 1818 when King Ferdinand greatly increased the Church’s power to censor books, newspapers and magazines. The angered the middle-class. Ferdinand was also short of money so he cut public spending and halted works such as road and harbour improvements and reduced the small amount of education available. Poverty, corrupt government and restrictions on personal freedom became general.

  • News of revolution in Spain encouraged the Carbonari and the liberals to take action. Led by a priest and supported by 100 junior officials and soldiers, 30 Carbonari members advanced on the town of Avellino and a widespread uprising took place.

  • In July, Ferdinand offered to meet the rebels and discuss their demands for a constitution modelled on the new Spanish constitution. Universal manhood suffrage, limits placed on the monarchy, and the abolition of the privileges held by nobles and clerics. The revolt looked successful.

  • A separate revolt in Sicily, the other half of Ferdinand’s kingdom, wanted freedom from Naples. Sicily had been forcibly united with Naples in 1815 and Sicilians felt that Ferdinand’s government was concentrating on Naples and neglecting their island’s needs. Agricultural prices had fallen sharply and peasants found themselves more and more in debt. Demands were made for a constitution, government offices were burned and the Neapolitan governor was sent home as revolutionaries took over the city of Palermo.

Failure in Naples and Sicily

In Naples the newly elected parliament decided that at all costs the island of Sicily must remain part of the Kingdom of Naples. The island must not be allowed to declare independence and must be brought to heel, by Neapolitan force if necessary.

  • Metternich was disturbed that the Neapolitan revolution had been so successful. Therefore, he argued, that it was only right for the Great Powers (Austria, Prussia and Russia) to meet and if necessary take action to maintain the Balance of Power.

  • In 1821 the King of Naples was invited to attend the meeting at Laibach. Ferdinand declared that he had been forced to grant the constitution out of fear and asked for Austria to help him restore his rule. Metternich did not have to ask twice. The Austrian army entered Naples in March 1821. Severe reprisals were meted out to citizens indiscriminately by the Austrian authorities. Arrest, imprisonments and executions became so common that even Metternich was shocked by the savagery and ordered the dismissal of the chief of police.

  • The old order was returned in Sicily. Naples recovered control over Sicily and abolished the trade guilds whose members had been revolutionary leaders there.


Piedmont’s king, Victor Emmanuel I, had pursued a very reactionary policy since his return. He declared that the old constitution of 1770 would remain in force and could never be changed.

  • When news of the Neapolitan reached Piedmont discontent came out in to the open. The Carbonari rapidly gained numbers and university students, army officers and liberals combined to establish a revolutionary government in the town Alessandria, where they pronounced their independence as the ‘Kingdom of Italy’. They declared war on Austria.

  • An army mutiny in Turin, the state capital, encouraged Victor Emmanuel I to abdicate.

  • The liberals turned to Charles Albert for leadership. He issued a vague proclamation praising the Spanish Constitution of 1812 as a model to be followed and appointed a new government.

  • However, he was not the legitimate ruler. Charles Felix, Victor Emmanuel’s brother refused to accept the changes. Charles Albert lost faith and fled Turin leaving the liberals to fight to defend their constitution.

  • Charles Felix appealed to Metternich for help. Austrian troops together with troops loyal to Charles Felix defeated the Turin liberals at the Battle of Novarra in 1821. Hundreds of revolutionaries went into exile.

In 1830 the French Revolution saw a new king, Louis Philippe to the French throne. Italian liberals became excited by the possibility that the new French government would support revolutions in Italy. Disturbances broke out again, this time in Modena, Parma and the Papal States.

Modena and Parma

  • In Modena the revolt was led by Enrico Misley, the student son of a university professor. He trusted his own ruler, Duke Francis IV of Modena, to whom he revealed his plans for a united Italy, but his trust was betrayed. Misley was arrested and Duke Francis went to Vienna to seek Austrian support.

  • This move encouraged students in neighbouring Parma to riot and demand a constitution from their ruler, the Duchess Marie-Louise. She fled in terror and a provisional government was established by the students. Contact was made with the revolutionaries in Modena and a joint commander was appointed.

  • With the support of an Austrian army, Duke Francis quickly defeated the revolutionaries. Savage reprisals were taken and anyone suspected of supporting the rebels was imprisoned, exiled or executed. Even the wearing of a moustache or beard, supposedly signs of radicalism, could lead to arrest.

The Papal States

  • Similar uprisings took place in the Papal States, organised this time by the professional classes who resented the oppressive rule of the Church authorities. The papal government put up little resistance and a provisional government known as ‘The Government of the Italian Provinces’ was formed in Bologna in February 1831

  • It did not last long. Once more the power of the Austrian army proved decisive, Metternich’s troops moved into the Papal States and defeated the rebels. Minor uprisings continued during 1831 and 1832 but the were fiercely suppressed

Despite the failure of the revolutions of the early 1830s, it was in this decade that the Risorgimento began to make some progress. This was due above all to the work of a dedicated revolutionary intellectual, Giuseppe Mazzini, dubbed by Metternich, ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’.

Mazzini was a highly controversial figure. His radical approach led his political enemies to criticise him as an enemy of Italy and a terrorist, and at the same time as an impractical dreamer. Yet his supporters described him as ‘greatest, bravest, most heroic of Italians’. Historians’ verdicts too have differed widely, partly because his thinking was complex and evolved over a long period and partly because, as an exile often under sentence of death, he often destroyed his letters (those that survived were written in handwriting so tiny that it served as a secret code. What is certain, however, is that he is a key figure in the history of Italian unification.

It’s not easy to get to grips with Mazzini’s thought, and few thinkers have been so misunderstood and caricatured. Nevertheless, Denis Mack Smith, in his biography (1994) has provided a convincing analysis of his ideas.

  • Mazzini insisted that he had ‘one overriding aim’ and that was ‘the brotherhood of people’. He believed in the equality of human beings and of races. He had contempt for xenophobia and imperialism. Yet, he believed that the next stage of the world’s history would be domination by nations. The political map had to be redrawn so that distinct peoples occupied their own nation-states. This stress on nationalism led Karl Marx to dismiss Mazzini as ‘that everlasting old ass’, but Marx fatally underestimated the importance of national allegiances.

  • So, Italy had to be united. He did not want a federal Italy, which might retain the old foreign rulers. Instead, the whole peninsula should be independent, with one central government and locally elected officials
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  • There should be democracy and the guarantee of individual rights.

  • Italy should be unified by its own efforts. He wanted to avoid relying on France as that might replace one oppressor with another. The idea was that Italy should be unified from below. The people should rise against Austrian domination.

  • Socially, he wanted greater equality, with an end to poverty and with taxation being proportional to wealth. There should be free and compulsory education for all and women’s rights should be guaranteed

Mazzini’s ideas constitute a remarkably ‘modern’ agenda, and a remarkably radical one in the ...

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