by Pierangelo Gentile (University of Turin)
Among all this whirlwind of workshops and studies we must not forget that on the cusp of the 1840s Cavour was a young man, not yet thirty years old. Of course, because of the lower life expectancy at the time, people grew up quicker than they do now: life made people responsible, it was an issue of survival, also for those who, like Cavour, belonged to high society. But Camillo could not extinguish the exuberance of his youth and his enduring desire to stand out, to be the hero at all costs. His frequent stays in Paris to take care of his aunt’s affairs were a unique opportunity to have fun, to mingle with the high society that met at the Jockey Club, still currently one of the most exclusive scenes in Ville Lumière. There, as reported by Cavour, people played, smoked, talked, read newspapers, and dined; all these activities could not be indifferent to the Piedmontese cadet, who dealt with life in the fields, and the administration of a remote village, home to a few simple souls. Despite the rigours of military life experienced first-hand by him, experience had not yet taught Camillo to moderate his own egocentric approach, to keep in check his own drive to seize the moment, to escape, so to speak, dreaded conventions. He bit off more than he could chew. His desire for excitement, and proverbial self-confidence, drove him to gamble: he was convinced that gambling on a downward trend on the Paris Exchange, staking it all on a possible war between France and England, would have made him rich, finally making him independent from his father’s wealth. International events did not lead to the envisaged war; and Camillo had to endure, in his own words, a terrible disaster «provoked by a momentous mistake». In one day, he lost what he had saved over three years: 45.000 francs, a remarkable amount at the time. He was desperate. He grabbed his pen to write to his father: he would have to pay or be shot.
Michele Cavour did not abandon his son: he paid his debts, scolding Camillo for his unbridled self-confidence, which had brought him to the edge of ruin. It was a harsh lesson in life for the young man. He resolved not to marry because of the moral and financial debts incurred with his family, and he threw himself into his studies and work: on the one hand he was following his entrepreneurial talent, by becoming involved, for instance, in the projects of a Savoy company aiming to build a railway and boat service between Chambéry and Lion, that is, between the Kingdom of Sardinia and France; on the other he pursued his understanding of the economic strategies he had learned in the Superior Commission of Statistics of which he was a member, by accepting the proposal of the Foreign Minister to provide the English ambassador with all the information pertaining to the Kingdom’s agricultural production. After all, he had been introduced as «the most competent person» on the matter. Which was something. But Camillo could not make his own stance, he was still a member of one of Piedmont’s most powerful families. Although he had burned his fingers in society, he did not step back, far from it: with a group of friends, who regularly met at Caffè Fiorio in Torino (still active in its historic seat in Via Po), he decided to establish an exclusive club, modelled on those he frequented abroad. Thus, the Whist Society was born, a club that had amongst its aims that of bringing together the aristocracy and the upper middle classes – historically divided by prejudice – thanks to card games, chess, or simply thanks to conversations between “educated” people (currently the club has merged with Accademia Filarmonica and is seated in Palazzo Isnardi di Caraglio in Piazza San Carlo). Cavour also participated in philanthropic projects such as Torino’s Society for Children’s Nursery Schools, an association dedicated to meeting the needs of the lower classes. It was about offering shelter to the children of the lowest classes, as an alternative to a life on the streets, also aimed at educating them by providing schooling in various guises. It was an operation based on “Orthopedic morals”, aimed at quenching resentment by the recipients, who at the time often joined the revolutionary groups abhorred by the Authorities.
But Cavour was focusing on agriculture and experimentation, carried out directly on family properties, mainly around Vercelli and in the Langhe, but also around Chieri, Asti and Pinerolo. During the 1840s Cavour worked on all sorts of projects aimed at increasing the quantity and quality of produce. He focused especially on the issue of manuring, the foundation of a profitable farm. Fields were fertilized using animal bones, blood provided by slaughterhouses, lime, plaster, waste, woollen rags, finally realizing that the best manure was guano, bird excrement, particularly abundant on the coast of South America, of which he became an importer and dealer.
He then had the idea to produce it in-house: he started a company producing chemical products that did not enjoy much success (it folded after a few years), but which was nevertheless important, even if just for the interest Camillo had showed for this technology. The same technology the Count put to good use through mechanics, participating to a number of engineering ventures including a new hydraulic or animal-powered rice thresher and opening a centre for husking this cereal. HIs experiments did not end there: on the hills of Grinzane he farmed vines, walnuts for oil extraction and sugar beet; on the plains of Leri he tested different types of rice, improved mulberry farming for the production of silk, planted clover to increase the production of fodder, promoted crop rotation and grassland farming for livestock farming. Cavour also understood the importance of investing: together with other entrepreneurs he founded Banca di Torino, to extend «the benefits of credit to the industrious and varied class of farmers».
This vast experience gathered hands-on made his appointment as resident advisor to the Farming Association established by King Carlo Alberto in 1842 an obvious choice. Although promoted from above, in the context of an absolute State where freedom of speech or assembly were not guaranteed, this cooperative was an important step. It was not the prestigious Royal Academy of Agriculture of Torino, founded in 1785, where, in the name of Science, members were invited (as was Camillo); the Association was more liberal and practical, focused on the everyday problems of the Kingdom’s basic productive activities: finally people could gather around a table even if just to discuss farming and social economy issues; from there the leap to politics was small (as many believe). The Farming Association was a sort of pre-Parliament, where members where immediately called to choose between two distinct ideas: on one side there were those who wanted to make it not just an engine for the economy but also a place for debate, requesting wide-sweeping reforms by the King; on the other some, including Cavour, wished to focus exclusively on farming issues. A struggle ensued between the two sides: but once again the authoritarian nature, intolerance for his opponents, and unquestioning faith in his own opinions were behind the young man’s downfall, until he was forced to leave the association’s board, confessing he felt he was «a useless member of this society». Large-scale farming was his only consolation. But in the disappointment of an existence perceived as tiring, inside Camillo the sacred fire of politics and economic interests still burned. He avidly read the book Delle speranze d’Italia (Of the hopes for Italy), by his friend Cesare Balbo, which would become one of the classics of the Risorgimento, where the author, staunch promoter of a military and customs-based federalism between the peninsula’s different states, suggested – in the context of a crisis within the Turkish Empire – Austria look to the Balkans in exchange for the freedom of Lombardy and Veneto. He wrote a passionate article on the benefits of railways in Italy, which were not just material but also spiritual, the right context to gather allo those who ardently desired Italy’s emancipation, stating a categorical imperative: «Special interests must disappear and be muted, not just in order to see our motherland glorious and powerful, but above all to see it rise in intelligence and morals to the level of the more civilized countries». The times were approaching for that “springtime of the people” which would unsettle the status in Europe in 1848; the expression «a forty-eight occurred» is still in use today to describe a sudden chaos, a general uproar, an unexpected turmoil.