The Unification of Italy

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Unification of Italy

Although it had ruled the Mediterranean region and much of Western Europe in the days of ancient Rome, Italy had not existed as a unified nation-state since the sixth century. In modern Europe, Italy was a geographical term that signified the Italian peninsula, and the word Italian referred to the people who lived there and spoke that language. The people of the numerous Italian states were regionally divided to some degree; the fertile north had evolved into a prosperous industrial society, while the wine-producing south was largely poor and rural. However, the people were culturally homogeneous, sharing a common language, a common history, and a common religion. Italy was thus a natural breeding ground for nationalism and unification.

The Congress of Vienna had divided Italy among the victors of the Napoleonic Wars as follows:


Italian State Ruled By
Papal States Pope
Naples and Sicily Bourbon monarch
Lombardy, Venice, Tyrol Austria-Hungary
Parma, Modena, other states Hapsburg monarchs


Nationalist forces in Italy rebelled against their foreign rulers. This happened in Parma and Modena in 1831, where the uprisings were crushed, and again in 1848 with the same result. Republican forces fomented a revolt against the pope, declaring the Republic of Rome in 1848. Since France and Austria were united in the desire to maintain a divided and weak Italy, they worked together to put down the rebellions. French troops occupied Rome until 1870.

In 1852, Count Camillo di Cavour become prime minister of Sardinia, a kingdom that included both the island of Sardinia and the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Like almost all successful ministers in European history, Cavour was crafty, clever, and entirely practical in his outlook. He used national alliances to achieve his goal of uniting the rest of Italy to Sardinia.

At Cavour’s urging, Sardinia fought on the side of the British and French in the Crimean War. Having thus formed a friendship with France, Cavour joined Napoleon III in an attack on Austria. As a result, Lombardy and Sardinia were united in 1859. Later that year, most of the rest of northern Italy joined the union of Italian states.

In 1860, the fiery republican Giuseppe Garibaldi led an invasion of his followers, the Red Shirts, into the kingdom of Sicily, ostensibly to join a popular uprising. With covert assistance from Cavour, Garibaldi liberated both Sicily and Naples. Although Cavour was a monarchist and Garibaldi was a republican, they found common ground in their desire to unify their people.

Garibaldi believed that the natural next step was to march into Rome, but Cavour felt it was better to hold off rather than make an enemy of the pope. Therefore, he sent Sardinian troops to maintain peace in the Papal States. Next, with Garibaldi’s full support, he held an election throughout the states of southern Italy to decide whether the people were ready to join the northern states and Sardinia as a unified nation. The nation was officially united in 1861; the king of Sardinia was crowned Victor Emmanuel II of Italy later that year.

The Papal States—a sizable region surrounding Rome—remained the only holdout. Italian unification would rob the pope of his authority as a head of state; he would be marginalized, as head of the Church only. The 1860 unification reduced the Papal States to the city of Rome and the area immediately surrounding it.

The new Italian government was closely based on the Sardinian model. The king of Sardinia became the king of Italy. The new Italian parliament, meeting in 1860, was officially referred to as “the eighth session of the Sardinian Parliament.” The vote was limited to men over the age of twenty-four who were literate and owned property—a total of about 8 percent of all Italian men in that age group.

The administrative structure and tax codes of the old Kingdom of Sardinia were extended to apply to the entire nation. Cavour felt that, for the moment, it was best to present a unified nation to the rest of Europe. Debate and factionalism might have destroyed the unity that he had worked so hard to achieve. Internal debate, he felt, could come later. This decision caused a rift between the northern and southern regions of Italy, as the south resented the dominance of leaders from Piedmont in the north. Most of the army’s high-ranking officers were from Piedmont, most of the provincial governors were from Piedmont, and more than half the top positions in the civil service were held by men from Piedmont or its neighboring provinces Lombardy and Venetia. A further divisive factor came from the Vatican; Pope Pius IX retaliated for the reduction of his authority by encouraging the foundation of Catholic political parties whose goal was to undermine the new Italian state.

When France declared war on Prussia in 1870, occupying French troops abandoned Rome. This left the pope undefended, and the Italian army immediately marched in to complete the unification process. Rome, once the center and apex of Classical civilization, had enormous symbolic importance to the Italians, and it was immediately named the new Italian capital city. This did not end the hostility between the Church and the Italian state; if anything, it grew more intense. It would not be resolved until Prime Minister Benito Mussolini signed an agreement naming the Vatican an independent city-state in 1929.

European History The Unification of Italy Map

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Germany and Italy Unification Practice Test

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