|Podcast number 6 – New ideas about “Italy” 1831 – 1848
Imagine we could travel back in time to Italy in 1815. Suppose we spent twenty years from 1815 to 1835 travelling Italy, joining secret societies and revolutionary cells. Lets say we were able to talk to three ‘revolutionaries’; say Charles Albert, who ummed and arred about leading a revolt against Austria in 1821; Enrico Misley who led the revolt in Modena in 1831 and General Pepe who persuaded the King of Naples to grant a constitution in 1821. Each one would have very different reasons for wanting change. Misley wanted Francesco of Modena to take over Piedmont and grant a constitution. Charles Albert fancied himself as King of Piedmont (and he wanted Piedmont to take over Lombardy). Pepe wanted a liberal constitution in Neapolitan Italy. It’s obvious that they all wanted different things, but what isn’t so clear is the thing that they didn’t have – an idea of what ‘Italy’ meant.
The period after 1831 did see other, small revolts. None of these made any real impact. Some people did continue to think about and plan for change in Italy. Three different ideas for a united Italy were developed, the first by the revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, the second by a Piedmontese Aristocrat, Cesare Balbo and the third by Vincenzo Gioberti, a Catholic priest, exiled after his radical activities in the 1830s. What made these ideas different from those that had gone before was that they had clear views about what Italy might be like as a unified country. These three ideas were very different from each other, but they were all clear that they wanted some sort of united Italy.
Before we move on to look at what these ideas were, we should be clear that most “Italians” would have been blissfully unaware of them. When we say that these ideas became clear and became discussed by Italians, what we mean is that the political classes, the middle class educated liberals, the aristocrats, and the important members of the priesthood would have been aware of them. Most ordinary peasant Italians were still getting on with the job of providing for their families, and mostly did not take part in these debates and movements.
Let’s take a look first at the ideas of Guiseppe Mazzini.
More than any other of these writers and thinkers, Mazzini believed in Italy.
Where others saw Neapolitans, Sicilians, Romagni, Piedmontese and Romans, Mazzini saw Italians. He believed in an Italian character, an Italian spirit, one that would eventually rise up, and in the heat of a national revolution, throw off the Austrian domination of Italy and forge a new, unified Italian state.
“I believe the whole problem to consist in appealing to the true instincts and tendencies of the Italian heart”
In October 1831, inspired by the failure of the revolutions in Romagna and in Modena that year, Mazzini formed “Young Italy” a secret society dedicated to revolution and to the founding of a republican, democratic Italian state. From the start Mazzini wanted Young Italy to be a ‘mass’ political movement, which meant that he wanted ordinary Italians to take part. He wanted peasants to be persuaded of their Italian nationality and to play a part in a national revolution, which would get rid of the Austrians, and the rulers of the different states in Italy. According to Mazzini, only by working together as Italians could they hope to destroy Austria’s power over Italy, and to make this new country.
Mazzini’s ideas inspired a certain type of Italian patriot to launch brave and risky attempts at revolutions. A good example of this is that of the Bandera Brothers’ attempt to start a revolution in Calabria in 1844. These two minor aristocrats from Venice gathered a group of revolutionaries on the island of Corfu. In spring 1844 they set off with just over 20 men, hoping that when they landed in Calabria, the locals would rise up alongside them and start a revolution. Instead they were attacked by a local mob, several were shot and the survivors (including the Banderas) arrested, put on trial by King Ferdinand and executed by firing squad.
Mazzini’s reputation might have remained as a bit of a revolutionary hothead, an inspirer of brave and foolish expeditions, had it not been for the part he played in the 1848 revolutions and the defence of the Roman Republic, which we’ll cover in a later podcast.
Now lets take a look at the ideas of Cesare Balbo
Balbo came from an aristocratic Piedmontese family. His view was that Italy needed to rid herself of the Austrians, but could not be forced to become one country. He thought that the differences between the states were too great. Instead he proposed that there should be a federation between the Italian states. Each state would retain its rulers, and have its own laws and customs for most things. At the head of this federation would be the Piedmontese King, who would lead “Italy”, especially in teaching them how to fight, so that independece from foreigners could be assured. Balbo’s ideas were much less radical than Mazzini’s. Under a federation the local rulers would keep most of their powers, and Italy’s states could remain proud of their differences. Balbo saw a crucial role for Piedmont as military example for the rest of the Italians because Piedmont had a fairly modern army (with about 150,000 soldiers), and a strong monarchy.
So far we’ve looked at two very different ideas. Mazzini hoped that a revolution would unite the different peoples of Italy, whereas Balbo thought that it was impossible to unite Italy, and that differences between the states should remain, so long as Piedmont could become the leading state on the Peninsula.
The third set of ideas that we’re covering today belonged to Vincezno Gioberti, a Catholic priest. Gioberti’s book “the moral primacy of the Italians’ set out his hopes of a re-born Italy, free from the control of foreigners. Like Balbo Gioberti saw a federation as the way forward. Unlike Balbo he hoped the Papacy, the Pope would lead the states of Italy out of foreign domination. Gioberti agreed that the Italians had many differences, but he also saw that they had a very important thing in common – the Catholic faith. He argued therefore that the Pope and the Papacy was the only force capable of bring Italians together and inspiring them to throw off foreign domination.
In some ways this was convincing – the Catholic church was one of the few things that people had in common across the peninsula, and the Pope’s religious leadership meant that he had the respect of many Italians.
There were two problems with this idea though. The first was that the church was not popular with many liberals. The Popes had ruled their states as ‘absolute’ monarchs – you’ll remember that it was this that lead some members of the middle classes in Bologna to rebel against the Popes in 1831. This meant that many of the people who were pressing for change were unlikely to accept the leadership of the Pope.
The second problem was that although Gioberti saw a great future where the Pope was the head of a united Italy, he had no idea of how to get to that future. Gioberti made no mention of the Austrians and didn’t say how Italians were to persuade the rulers of the other states to accept the leadership of the Pope.
The new ideas that were floating around Italy about how things might change there were important. They were important because they showed that there was still a desire for change amongst some Italians. They were important because they inspired other people – Garibaldi for instance became involved in the struggle for unification as a result of meeting Mazzini. Finally they were important because they showed how the people who wanted change couldn’t agree on what that change should be, or even how to get it.
A final point to make is that these weren’t the only ideas about Italy that were changing and growing. One more idea about Italy is worth mentioning – this one from outside – the idea that other powers could attempt to influence things happening in the peninsula. After the failed revolutions of 1831 Britain, France, Austria and Prussia held a conference in Rome, with the intention of making future revolts less likely. One of the things they worried about was the need for reform in the Papal states. They saw that ‘laymen’ (people who weren’t members of the clergy) wanted to have more say in the government of the papal states – they urged the Pope to give them more influence. The Pope ignored them, but what’s important is that France, Britain, Prussia and Russia as well as Austria were trying to change things. Italy was still Austria’s back yard, but other powers were attempting to wield more influence there too.