by Alf Wilkinson
The nature of the topic
Like most topics in history, the story of Italian Unification
is confused and subject to differing interpretations by historians. The key
question is how far Italy was united by 1870, and was this as a result of
Italians’ own efforts, or as a result of Great Power manoeuvring? In
nineteenth-century Italy there was a harking back to a largely mythical unity
and greatness of earlier times. In fact, for most people the local was much more
important than the national, the struggle for survival more important than
The vital first steps
Look closely at your specification. It will spell out the
important boundaries - start date, end date, issues that the examiner feels are
important, what skills are to be tested by this particular unit. You also need
to know your Piedmont from your Venetia, so a good map or, better still, series
of maps, is essential. Although not examined, the role of Napoleon and the
changes he made when he occupied most of Italy are important in explaining the
origins of Nationalist feelings among some middle-class people, and Austria’s
role in Italian affairs. The influence of the Pope and the Catholic Church is
another issue to get to grips with - was the Pope a force of reaction or a force
for change? Several individuals are important - Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi
especially - a brief biog-raphy of each will help. Finally, it is essential to
build up a timeline of events as you work through this topic - that way you will
be able to see the ‘wood from the trees’ and impose a pattern on events.
a. The process of unification. Where did the demand for unification come
from? Which groups in society wanted change, and which none? Why did Piedmont
emerge as a future leader of a united Italy? What part was played by the secret
societies, Carbonari and ‘Young Italy’ movement? How influential was Pope
Pious IX in stimulating the demand for change?
b. 1848. The Year of Revolutions led to lots of separate uprisings. Where?
Why? With what effect? The forces of reaction overcame reform. Why? What was the
role of Austria and France in defeating insurrections? Why were the Nationalists
so weak? So divided? Should a future Italy be a monarchy or a republic? Who
wanted unity? Were any gains made in 1848-49?
c. 1859-61. Why was the influence of Austria in decline? Why did war break
out against Austria in 1859? How did this lead to unification of most of the
North and Central area of Italy with Piedmont? The conquest of the South. How
united was Italy by 1861? Why was Piedmont law and government extended to the
rest of the country?
d. 1870. Venetia acquired in 1866, thanks to Prussia’s conflict with
Austria. France finally removed troops from the Papal States in 1870
(Franco-Prussian conflict?) allowing complete unification apart from the Vatican
City state ruled by the Pope. How democratic was the new state? Who benefited
from unity? Who didn’t?
e. How united was Italy in 1870? North-South divide - was it now better or
worse? Had the hopes of the Nationalists been met? Italy was a single state, but
was it a single people? How important was localism?
a. The roles of Cavour and Garibaldi. Was Cavour an Italian nationalist, or
in favour of a ‘greater Piedmont‘? What part did he play in unification? Why
did he regard leading Nationalists with distrust? Just how important was he?
Garibaldi’s conquest of the South made him a romantic hero throughout Europe,
but was he more of a hindrance than a help after 1860?
b. Napoleon III. Were his actions in Italy pro-Italy or anti-Austria? He
played a crucial role in unification, but why? Why were French troops kept in
Rome until 1870 if he was so committed to unity?
c. Unification by conquest? Piedmontese expansion rather than nationalism
seems to be the real force behind the unification of Italy. Do you agree?
Piedmont law, constitution and policies were also widely adopted - were these
beneficial to other parts of the country?
d. Unification by Great Power manoeuvring? Austria was the dominant power in
Italy until the 1850s, and her policy was to prevent unification. The
nationalists were not strong enough to defeat Austria. What changed that allowed
unification to happen? Was unification a tool for the Great Powers to bargain
with, or was there real support for Italian Unification in Britain, France and
e. A Risorgimento? Was unification a ‘national revival’, or is this a
myth? Just how widespread was nationalist support, and among which sectors of
society? How have historians’ ideas of this changed, especially since the rise
and fall of Fascism? Was there in any real sense a ‘united Italy’ in 1870,
or 1900, or even 1922?
Further Reading Forthcoming).