Italy has a history that stretches back thousands of years and includes the Etruscans of Tuscany, the ancient Roman empire and Charles the Great (Charlemagne), otherwise known as the “Father of Europe”. Many of its 61 million population are descendants of those ancient people. Furthermore, Italy is home to more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other nation in the world and houses over 60% of the works of art in the world. Yet Italy itself is less than 200 years old. How is that possible?
It turns out that although the territory that makes up Italy today was united under the ancient Romans, it gradually fragmented after the fall of the Roman Empire around 476 AD. Control passed first to the Ostrogoths, originally from eastern Europe between the Baltic and Black Seas, and then to the Byzantines from Turkey. Charles the Great also had a go at ruling many parts too but gradually a number of different kingdoms, republics and city-states rose up to take control of the divided lands and people. It would take almost another 1400 years before the lands of the peninsula, affectionately nick-named “Il stivale” or “the boot”, would be reunited on 17th March 1861. But, even then, the regions of Lazio (Rome) and the Veneto (Venice) were still not included. We’ll get to them later!
So what finally brought cities such as Florence and Bologna together with the kingdoms of Sardinia and Sicily into one nation state again?
For many centuries the Italian peninsula was politically and geographically fragmented. Separate territories existed for cities such as Florence, ruled by the Medicis, Naples, ruled by its king and the maritime republics of Genoa, Venice and Pisa. Many flourished during the middle ages and throughout the Renaissance from the 14th to 17th century. Each had their own government, language and even money. But whilst the various city republics and kingdoms had been more than happy to fight eachother for centuries, one of the things that eventually united them was the imposition of foreign domination by France, Austria and even the Papal State.
As far back as the 1300s writers such as Dante Alighieri, famous for his Divine Comedy, had expressed their opposition to foreign control. The famous Florentine politician and strategist Niccolò Machiavelli also called for a political leader to unite Italy and “free her from the barbarians” in his 1513 book The Prince. And around the time that Captain Cook was exploring Australia and New Zealand, just before the United States of America announced its independence from Great Britain, writer Gian Rinaldo Carli’s article Della Patria degli Italiani, Homeland of the Italians, became a rousing call for Italian nationalists. Written in 1764 the article talked of a man, who, on entering a café in Milan was asked where he was from. He replied that he was “neither a foreigner nor a Milanese, I am an Italian.”
But so far, the idea of “Italy” as a nation country, or Rome as the capital, was just that, existing purely in the articles, books and minds of nationalists, not on an official map. Yet.
All that was to change when war broke out between Austria and Revolutionary France in 1792. The French invaded the Italian peninsula, clearing out the old establishment and last vestiges of feudal rule. Their incursion also consolidated many of the Italian states and imposed republican rule. The Austrians briefly pushed the French out in 1799 but Napoleon once again conquered the Italian peninsula shortly afterwards dividing it into 3 parts. The north (Piedmont, Liguria, Parma, Piacenza, Tuscany, and Rome) was annexed to the French Empire. The newly created Kingdom of Italy (Lombardy, Venice, Reggio, Modena, Romagna, and the Marshes) was overseen by Napoleon himself, to the eternal disgust of many including the Venetians. And the Kingdom of Naples was ruled first by Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte and then Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat.
As with many occupations, the people of the peninsula increasingly united against the occupiers. But ironically many now argue that it was exactly that occupation by the French that really cultivated the revolutionary ideas of freedom and equality in preference to a return to the old establishment and feudal ruling families.
The seeds of Italian nationalism had been sewn throughout the north and central peninsula but when Napoleon fell in 1814 most of the old Italian city states were recreated at the peace conference, the Congress of Vienna, restoring the Duchy of Tuscany, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and the Duchy of Parma, to name just a few. But the idea of a united Italy continued to spread as underground societies formed to oppose the newly restored ruling regimes and promote nationalism.
One society, called Young Italy, proved to be important. Founded in 1831 by Giuseppe Mazzini, the society was a passionate promoter of Italian unification and was instrumental in starting the Italian Risorgimento or resurgence.
As unification grew in popularity, the late 1840s saw several uprisings in cities such as Milan where the professional classes rebelled against Austrian rule. And although unsuccessful that time round, the Risorgimento continued to gain support and momentum until the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, the wealthiest and most liberal of the states, engineered the final push.
Their Prime Minister, a rather grand sounding Conte Camillo Benso di Cavour cannily allied the state with the French in an effort to oust Austria in the Franco-Austrian war of 1859. The Austrians were defeated in Lombardy which was promptly added to the Piedmont-Sardinian holdings. Other northern states of the peninsula voted to join the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia shortly afterwards and France was rewarded by Savoy and Nice, a small price to pay it seems.
Another key player in the story was also a native of Piedmont-Sardinia, one Guiseppe Garibaldi, namesake of the biscuit (I digress!)
In 1860 Garibaldi, a leading pupil of Mazzini, gathered a small army, known as the “Thousand”. Landing in Sicily, Garibaldi and his men gradually worked their way up from the south overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy. And yes, I know what you’re thinking – the Bourbon biscuit is named after them too! Whoops, I’m digressing again!! As I was saying…..overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy and liberating the people of Sicily before moving on up to Naples. Again, the liberated territories were added to the Piedmont-Sardinian holdings under their King Victor Emmanuel II.
Unification came in early 1861 when a national parliament came together to declare the birth of the Kingdom of Italy, with Victor Emmanuel II as its head. Only Venice and Rome were yet to join but they would eventually follow. Venice first, in 1866, when after the Austro-Prussian war, Italy struck a deal with the victorious Prussians forcing Austria to relinquish the Veneto. Rome and the Papal State followed 4 years later in 1870 as Victor Emmanuel took over Rome when the French troops left to fight the Franco-Prussian war. Anyone else thinking that there were a lot of wars back then?
The final act was to move the Italian capital from to Rome from Florence, where it had been since 1865 (the capital prior to that had been Turin). And thus the Risorgimento was completed in 1871 and the entire boot of Italy was united under one crown for the first time since the Roman empire!
So the next time you travel round Italy, guidebook and crumpled map in hand, see how many Via Cavours, Piazza Victor Emmanuels or Via Garibaldis you can spot! Hopefully after our rather simplistic romp through Italian history, you can now appreciate just why there are so many and how they came about! It also explains why Italy has so many different dialects and tasty cuisines too – its all part of its wonderful patchwork inheritance! So what is your favourite part of the Italian peninsula? Leave me a comment to let me know. And in the meantime, let’s all wish Italy a very Happy 154th Birthday!!
The anniversary of the unification of Italy is not usually a public holiday. The last time it was declared a public day off was in 2011 for the 150th anniversary.