Administration and traveling an alternative to politics

by Pierangelo Gentile (Università degli Studi di Torino)
After he left the army, Camillo Cavour felt free to pursue his political instincts. He started to regularly frequent the liberal social gatherings held by the ambassador of France in Turin, Prosper de Barante, attempting to engage in conversations and interviews well into the small hours. But his father was to bring the young man back to harsh reality. Having renounced the possibility of a (certain) career within His Majesty’s armed forces, it was necessary to find another way for his son to create a future for himself and become independent. After much consideration, Marquess Michele had an idea: were not the Cavour among the Kingdom’s wealthiest landowners, with farms scattered all over Piedmont? Farming does not just need good workers, willing to face the hard toil of working the land, but also of shrewd and able administrators. Well, his son would have to pull his socks up and take on the challenge of running the Grinzane estate on the hills of the Langhe. And if he wanted to be in the spotlight, that could be arranged too: he would become the mayor of that small village and its 350 inhabitants. This would not constitute a problem: at the time there were no elections, the mayor was imposed from above. Who could say no to the Cavour family, owner of more than half of the municipality’s land? Camillo was somewhat less than enthusiastic about the proposal; not just because it would mean leaving the, maybe boring, comforts of Palazzo Cavour for the rather medieval austerity of the village castle; but also because he clearly understood his father’s real objective, which was to send him over 100 km away from Torino in order to remove him from political distractions with France and from certain “dangerous liaisons”, like the futureless love story which had been going on ever since his stay in Genoa with the beautiful Anna Schiaffino, known as Nina.
Camillo Cavour smiling
Nina Giustiniani brooding

They had a tormented and romantic affair in the early 1830s.

It was not so much that the damsel was a few years older than him, the real problem was that she was married to Marquess Giustiniani and the mother of his children. She was also well known for harbouring “bizarre” ideas and for welcoming republicans and revolutionaries to her social gatherings.

Without any valid alternatives, once again Cavour bowed to his father’s authority. Congratulations for his nomination as mayor by the extremely wealthy Marquess Giulia Falletti di Barolo, among the most generous benefactors of 19th century Turin, a “neighbour” of the Cavour family because of her family castle which also stood on the hills surrounding Alba, received a piqued reply from Camillo; he then regretted his impertinence with that noble woman who had, on a number of occasions when he was a child, welcomed him as her guest on her golden carriages, tickling his puerile love for luxury. An enlightening letter of apology arrived: for those who, like him, had started out in politics very young, it was easy to succumb to pride. There had been a time when he had believed nothing was beyond him, and that it would be totally natural to wake up one morning as the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy. That’s right: prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy… surprisingly prophetic words, destined to become true, although it would be 30 years later. But at that moment, that “minimum” condition depressed him. All he could do was act without thinking too much, exploiting his almost feudal authority on the inhabitants of Grinzane, solving controversies between rowdy rich, country beauties and village ladies’ men; or pursuing romantic adventures, hunting down in the woods the bands of brigands infesting the country surrounding Grinzane and the foothills of the Apennines with his farmers; or starting the first agricultural experiments that would make him famous, in this case in the field of wine-making, with innovative methods to refine well-known Barolo wine. Surely, practical life did not prevent Camillo from continuing his political musings: he confessed to his cousin, Geneva scientist Auguste De La Rive, that after «numerous and violent starts and jumps», he had finally placed himself as a pendulum in the juste-milieu (the right middle), that is, among those who desired, hoped and worked tirelessly for the advent of social progress, but not at the price of a general and political upheaval. But this didn’t prevent him from desiring «the liberation of Italy from the barbarians oppressing it as soon as possible». And even if these words were relegated to a private letter, they still reached by other means the Austrian police who on 1 June 1833 banned Cavour from entering the emperor’s states. A precautionary measure taken against a progressive young man who questioned the presence of the Hapsburgs in Italy. It was better to keep everyone in sight, considering a republican conspiracy had just been discovered in Piedmont, where many members of “Giovine Italia” were willing to lose their freedom and even their lives, enthralled by the words of a young lawyer from Genova who hated kings, by the name of Giuseppe Mazzini.

After the painful death of his young sister-in-law Adele Lascaris (portrayed on her deathbed in one of Francesco Gonin’s masterpieces, now in Santena), Camillo travelled to Geneva, finding intellectual solace at his relatives in the Hôtel Sellon (rue des Granges 2, currently home to the museum of the Zoubov Foundation), and in the country homes of La Fênetre (also owned by the Sellons, now the home of the UN’s secretary-general), Bocage (property of his uncle Clermont-Tonnerre) and of Presinge (of his cousins de La Rive). But once intellectual discussions were over, on his return in June 1834, Cavour rekindled his relationship with Nina Giustiniani, as shown by fiery, romantic pages in his Santena diary, and also seduced another married noblewoman, Clementina Guasco di Castelletto, at the thermal baths of Valdieri.

Although tormented by guilt (when their relationship ended Nina killed herself), he did not give up his studies: encouraged by his father, the mayor of Turin, and following on his interest for Europe, he decided to summarize a report on poverty written by English economist William Nassau Senior. His work enjoyed some success although it was also criticized by Cesare Balbo because it had been written in French rather than in Italian: with apologies by the young ma,n who openly claimed to love Italy and to wish to contribute «to its honor and glory, even if just by adding a small pebble to the huge edifice of its literature and science». But how, since he had to humiliate himself by admitting he didn’t know the national language very well? Maybe this could sound surprising: but we must consider that at the time French was what English is for us now, an international language; even more so in a country sharing a border with France like the Kingdom of Sardinia, which also included two provinces, Savoy and Nice, where French was the local language. In the Cavour household, like in all those of the aristocracy, French was the everyday language. At first it seemed Camillo was set on a Grand Tour of the Peninsula to fill the gaps in his Italian. But the opportunity vanished so in 1835 he started a long trip through France and England with his childhood friend Pietro Santa Rosa, cousin of patriot Santorre, thus confirming his nature as a man of Europe. Once in Paris, Cavour methodically dedicated himself to living a once-in-a-lifetime formative experience. In the mornings study of what he’d seen on the previous day; in the afternoon visits to hospitals, hospices, prisons, schools, public mills and factories, and lectures at the Sorbonne; in the evenings, leisure and fun, attending dances, card games, political clubs, gatherings, shows by the Comédie Française and opera at Théâtre Italien. He also had the chance to assist for the first time ever to a parliamentary debate: imagine the excitement for Camillo, sat in a corner of the gallery, listening to the French nation’s MPs, with anger in his heart at the lack of political representation in his beloved Piedmont. Then the time came to cross the Channel; and in London he also enjoyed exhilarating experiences such as becoming a member of the exclusive Royal Geographical Society, or visiting the factories of the first industrial nation in the world, with its countless gas-works, large printing works, and breweries powered by steam. For him and his friend it was an «extraordinary thing» to travel on a train for the first time along the railroad, covering the distance between Liverpool and Manchester in one hour and a half. Camillo and Pietro visited England and Wales, then returned to Piedmont via Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. After such a journey Camillo’s life could never be the same.

When his father Michele Cavour became “vicar of politics and policing” in Torino (a kind of equivalent to a modern day commissioner), he found himself unable to follow the family affairs, so Camillo had to take on further responsibilities by running the estate of Leri, in the area of Vercelli, extending for approximately 2223 acres (currently a district of Trino Vercellese, sadly in an advanced state of abandon). Camillo had written to his brother: «If dad guarantees a modest income for me, I’ll dedicate myself to administering his fortune and to my studies; I shall give up society and worldly pleasures. I’ll devote myself to serious occupations. It would indeed be an excellent position within society. Publicist, philanthropist and independent, I could work towards an honorable occupation for my future». He completely dedicated himself to agriculture and administration work: in 1836 he travelled to Villach in Carinthia to carry out the paperwork necessary to purchase and ship a flock of Hungarian merinos to Egypt, and although closely watched by the Austrian police, who believed him to be «an incorrigible and very dangerous person», he managed to visit Trieste, Venice, Verona and Milan; in 1837 he was entrusted by his aunt Victoire with investing the vast wealth of her deceased husband, duke Aynard Clermont-Tonnerre, among the wealthiest aristocrats in France: 3700 acres of properties between the Dauphiné and the Franche Comté, worth two million francs. Although he joked saying he had given up the crazy notion of «becoming a statesman» in order to plant carrots and fatten pigs, he had not forgotten his duties towards the Kingdom he was a subject of. To those who suggested he seek his fortune elsewhere he wrote: «No, no, it is not by fleeing one’s unfortunate motherland that a glorious objective may be achieved. Misfortune befalls those who leave with disdain the land that saw them come to light, disowning their brothers and deeming them unfit! As for me I have decided I will never separate my fate from that of the Piedmontese. Fortunate or not, my motherland will have me for all my life; I will not be unfaithful to her, even when I’ll be sure to find success elsewhere». Between a small motherland, Piedmont, and a great nation, Italy, Camillo still had but one obsession: politics.