From the fall of the Roman Empire until the 19th century, Italy was a unified nation. After the 1815 Congress of Vienna, for certain individuals decided this should no longer be so. One such individual was Giuseppe Mazzini, often considered the father of Italian nationalism. Another figure who was instrumental in the unification of Italy, though was not necessarily a nationalist, was the Piedmontese count Camillo di Cavour. Although Mazzini was played an important role in the unification of Italy in that he created ideals of nationalism throughout the Italian public, and was the inspiration for Giuseppe Garribaldi, Cavour was of greater direct importance for the unification of Italy as he lent military and political might to the question of Italian unification.
Mazzini’s biggest influence on of Italian unification was the establishment Italian nationalism by bringing nationalist ideals to the Italian people. In 1827, he joined the secret society known as the Carbonari. The Carbonari had no specific aims and its members were left to decide on aims of their own. Some believed in ridding Italy of Austrian rule by over-throwing absolute monarchs, some wanted to overthrow the entire existing political and social structures prevalent in Europe. Others, such as Mazzini, wanted a united Italy. Secret societies were illegal however Mazzini was arrested in 1830. Upon his release in 1831, he founded a new society, having become dissolutioned with the Carbonari’s methods. This was Young Italy. Mazzini claimed Young Italy had as many as 50,000 members, though some historians such as Alan Farmer casts doubt on this claim. Mazzini believed that Italian unification could only come from the Italian people themselves, by means of education and revolution. As such, Mazzini spent 1831 – 1833 organising Young Italy and distributing nationalist propaganda throughout Piedmont, Tuscany and the Papal States. In this regard, Mazzini succeeded in placing Italian unification firmly on the political agenda of Europe. Although Mazzini’s intellectual and idealist desires for Italian unification were impractical, and his extreme views alienated himself from potential middle-class support, Mazzini was an inspiration to the Italian people. As such, in 1836, Mazzini disbanded Young Italy and fled the peninsula. In 1848, when revolutions spread through much of Europe, Italy was no exception. A Roman Republic was declared, and Mazzini was returned from his exile to serve as its leader. A French invasion in July the following year led to Mazzini once again being forced to flee his homeland.
Though Mazzini’s personal efforts at bringing about Italian unification failed, a number of his disciples were more successful. Primary among these were Felice Orsini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Both men were members of Mazzini’s Young Italy organization. Though Mazzini had desired a republican Italy, formed through popular revolution, both Orsini and Garibaldi placed the unification of Italy above the method by which it was brought about, and the system of government it employed. After the fall of the Roman Republic in 1849, Orsini became convinced that the chief obstacle in the path of Italian unification was the man who had ordered the invasion which caused the Republic’s fall: the French Emperor, Napoleon III. Orsini believed that if Napoleon III were to be assassinated, the French people would revolt and Italians could exploit the situation to their own political benefit. As such, on January 14th 1858, Orisini threw a bomb at the Emperor in his imperial carriage. Eight people were killed, but Napoleon III was not among them. Orsini was captured and imprisoned. In February the same year, Orsini wrote a letter to Napoleon III asking him to join the cause of Italian independence. This Napoleon did. When, in 1859, Victor Emmanuel II (the King of Piedmont) declared war on Austria, Napoleon III declared war in support. This conflict became known as the First War of Italian Unification. There were two brutal battles which decided this war, Magenta on June 4th 1859, and Solferino twenty days later. Both were victories for France. This war in effect removed Austrian influence from the north of Italy, paving the way for Italian unification the following year.
Giuseppe Garibaldi joined Young Italy in 1831. He was a brilliant military tactician, who commanded the Uruguayan navy, and defended the Roman Republic from the French army in 1858. In 1860, a revolt broke out in Sicily against the conservative King Francis II. In May 1860, Garibaldi marched with 1,089 young, middle-class volunteers, all adorned in red shirts. They had 1,000 rifles and no ammunition. Garibaldi declared himself the “Champion of Victor Emmanuel and Italy” as he sailed for Sicily. Despite the revolt having been stopped by the time of Garibaldi’s arrival in Sicily, and the 25,000 troops there to stop his advance, Garibaldi succeeded in winning over peasants with promises of tax reduction and land redistribution. With these methods, Garibaldi conquered Sicily. Garibaldi followed similar tactics on the mainland in August, and had taken control of Naples by September. He then turned his attention on Rome. Not wishing to come into conflict with the increasingly powerful Piedmont however, on October 26th, 1860, Garibaldi handed control of Naples and Sicily to the Piedmontese king, Victor Emanuel II, whom Garibaldi greeted as the first king of Italy. Although Mazzini was ineffectual in his desires to unify Italy, he had great success at inspiring those more capable than he.
Garibaldi would not have had the confidence to invade Sicily, and France would not have had the gall to attack Austria, were it not for an increasingly powerful Piedmont. In 1848, Piedmont was the only Italian state to possess a constitution. It had gone to war with Austria twice between the years of 1848 – 1849, and it was the most prosperous reason in Italy. For this reason, Piedmont appealed to Italian nationalists. Piedmont would not have become so powerful without its proto-realpolitiker Count Camillo di Cavour who was Prime Minister after 1852. Cavour was not a nationalist. He believed the Northern and Southern parts of Italy had little in common, although he was in favour of Piedmontese expansion. In 1856, when war broke out between France and Great Britain, and Russia, Cavour sent Piedmontese troops to assist the French and British. This is another factor which succeeded in securing French assistance for the Piedmontese war with Austria. Indeed, after Orsini’s failed assassination attempt, Napoleon III made agreements to meet Cavour at Plombieres in July 1858. At this meeting, Napoleon III pledged French help for Piedmont to rid Lombardy and Venetia of Austrian influence, before annexing the two regions. After the First War of Italian Unification, and the annex of Lombardy (Venetia would have to wait until 1866), the citizens of the central Italian states were dissatisfied with their old, Hapsburg rulers. In March 1860, Cavour organised plebiscites to be carried out, which saw Piedmont expand to the regions of Tuscany, the Romagna Papal States, Parma and Modena. It was this action in the north of Italy which inspired Garibaldi in the South, eventually bringing the two regions together and forming a united Italy. Cavour was an important figure in Italian unification as he brought much needed political and military clout to the question of Italian unification, even if full Italian unification was not his aim.
Cavour was of greater direct importance to the question of Italian unification, despite his lack of desire for a united Italy, than Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini’s great accomplishments were spreading ideals of Italian nationalism to the Italian people, most notably Orsini and Garribaldi, both of whom were of more direct importance to Italian unification than Mazzini.