Camillo Cavour’s education

di Pierangelo Gentile (Università di Torino)

The European political order would change again within a few years. Once the empire of the “usurper”, as Napoleon was disdainfully called by his enemies, the powers who had defeated la Grande Armée sat around a table in Vienna to decide the fate of the Old World under the supervision of Austrian Chancellor Metternich. It was 1815, the dawn of an era known as the “Restoration”. All the diplomats who attended the summit in the capital of the Hapsburg Empire bowed to two principles: legitimacy and equilibrium. Legitimacy meant returning the throne to the numerous monarchs who had been deposed by Bonaparte; equilibrium meant creating a system to balance forces so that one power could not endanger the others, as had happened with Revolutionary France.

Even Italy, defined by Metternich as a simple “geographic feature” notwithstanding the patriotic enthusiasm of the previous years, had to undergo “restoration” work. The old nations were reinstated but with a few significant adjustments. In the north-west the Kingdom of Sardinia (which included Piedmont, the Aosta Valley, Savoy and Nice as well as the mediterranean island) was returned to the Savoy with the addition of Liguria – ancient property of the former oligarchic republic of Genoa – to create a buffer state between two eternal foes: France, once more ruled by the Bourbons, and Austria. In the north-east, a new province of the Hapsburg empire was created with its capital in Milan, at the expense of the glorious maritime republic of Venice,: the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. In the center, the Parma Duchy was given to Marie Louise, former wife of Napoleon but also daughter of Emperor Francis II; the Duchy of Modena also returned to Austria under the Habsburg-Este. The same happened with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, once more ruled by another branch of the House of Austria, the Habsburg-Lorraine. The papal states were returned to the pope; in the south the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was established, ruled by the Bourbons of Naples. Further micro-states were established in Massa Carrara and Lucca. This varied political scene was approximately what Camillo Cavour would have to confront between 1859 and 1861.

The decisions reached in Vienna had grave repercussions on people’s lives; it meant deleting at a stroke history itself, traveling 20 years back in time. It also meant losing all the benefits related to legislation that the Napoleonic era had brought: giving up everybody’s rights – enshrined in law – to favor just one person, the king, entitled by unfathomable divine right, was a huge step backwards. The age of Bonaparte had also allowed many to become wealthy and pursue careers, exactly like the Cavours. The return of the Savoy was for them a veritable disaster. All the more because the latter had decided to wipe out all those who had come to an agreement with the usurper. Vittorio Emanuele I ordered his minister of home affairs to consult the royal calendar and recall to court all those who had been removed from their posts after 1798. After realizing it would be impossible to carry out such a radical purge, the rulers offered forgiveness to the best of those in trouble. Among these the Cavour, who slowly managed to once again re-establish themselves as favorites.

Thanks to the king’s intervention on 1 May 1820 Camillo was enrolled in the Military Academy in Turin. For the cadets of aristocratic families who did not want to spend their entire lives supported by their first-born sibling (we must remember that only the first-born inherited the entire family fortune), there were only two possible careers: as a priest or as a soldier. So in accordance with tradition Camillo started a career in the army, in an institution dedicated to training young men for the duties of military life, or rather, as stated by the pompous introduction to the royal license with which the academy was founded in 1815, «to educating souls», «from the earliest age», «to the love of justice and the pursuit of physical abilities, through repeated suitable exercise, to that degree of strength and patience for military endeavors a soldier wants to be endowed with». In summary, a school that would guarantee to the motherland and families the «preservation of religious morals combined with the influence of science and well directed human cognition, above all kinds of honest and laudable customs». In other words, loyalty to the Throne and Altar.

As for other cadets destined to become His Majesty’s officers, leaving his family at such a young age did not come easy to Camillo Cavour. But discipline and loyalty had their own time of maturation. Especially the former: Camillo was well-liked by his comrades in arms, and during long marches he was always ready to recount some historical tale to pass the time during meals, but he was at times in conflict with his senior officers, who were not inclined to tolerate his character prone to disobedience and unwilling to make amends. Even more so when, by his father’s intercession, Camillo was nominated page boy by prince of Carignano Carlo Alberto on 9 July 1824t, and he demonstrated all his rebellious streak when required to wear at court and at the theater the typical red “prawn-like” uniform, which he considered a symbol of the utmost servility. Carlo Alberto would never forgive him for turning his nose up at that sign of distinction.

Report of the school exams taken by Cavour at fifteen years of age; the Count came first with a final mark of 199/200

Despite the troublesome debut, his parents’ concerns for his rather unorthodox political inclinations developed next to a few radical hot-heads, and the desire to take refuge in Santena, where all his beloved relatives were, on 30 July 1826 Cavour passed his exams and was appointed second lieutenant. A few months later, on 16 September he threw out his page livery as he obtained a license as lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, the “erudite corps” because of the scientific skills required. While convalescing from an illness on 12 January 1827 he was again promoted and assigned on 10 February to the Direction of the Genio di Torino (Turin Corps of Engineers).

It was during that time that Camillo became aware of his talents: remember how he had hated his duties as a schoolboy? Well, writing to Jean-Jacques de Sellon, his idealist uncle who acted as a spokesperson of an international campaign for the abolition of the death penalty and the establishment of universal peace, he confessed his wish to pursue the study of mathematical and mechanical sciences towards which he felt more inclined. But after being transferred to the Fort of Ventimiglia on 25 October 1828, between gambling and love affairs, his political beliefs began to forcefully emerge, so diametrically opposed to those common in his family, the army and at court: to his brother he confessed that he would never sacrifice his “liberal ideas”, even if he had to face his father’s wrath, who threatened to let him starve in America, and the traditionalist environment that marked him as a degenerate in comparison to his ancestors, a traitor of his country and of the aristocracy. He was already thinking of leaving the Corps: he still did not know what he would become, but he felt alone “among the most diverse elements”, and always in opposition to whatever surrounded him.

Despite these dark thoughts, Cavour continued to carry out his duties: first at the entrance of the High Val di Susa, at the fort of Exilles, where he was posted on 25 February 1829; then at the fort of Esseillon, defending the valley of Arc, near Modane, where he arrived in June of the same year. On this buttress of rock defending the pass of Mont Cenis he experienced the worst environment of his career: in his own words, awful weather, terrible food, total isolation, promiscuous lodgings: all conditions that fueled nostalgia for the plains of Santena, warm and full of things and people he loved. He even started to ponder suicide. Then a letter from Abbot Frézet arrived to save him from depression. HIs old tutor prescribed medicines with no contraindications: newspapers and books would be his faithful companions during that lonely time.

Camillo followed the advice and threw himself headlong into reading, especially books on history, economy and philosophy. Contemporary French and English authors such as Guizot, Constant and Bentham were able -he said -to open his eyes and cure him of apathy. But Italian literature also contributed to broadening his horizons: extracts and verses by Petrarca and Manzoni would fill many pages of his notebooks; Dante, Alfieri and Foscolo learned by heart would help him to feel less lonely. Cavour started smiling again, at the side of his friend William Brockedon on mountain hikes, looking for views that could inspire the English artist. Even on his return to Turin in autumn 1829, he suffered less because of the “intellectual hell” typical of a closed, provincial capital, and of the Cavour residence, mainly frequented by the “ultras”, as extremist reactionaries were called. When on 29 March 1830 he was transferred to the headquarters of the Engineering Corps in Genoa, Camillo Cavour was able to experience a very different political climate, in contact with an avantgarde political scene, critical of Savoy absolutism. It was there that he learned of the fall of the Bourbons in France, and the rise of Louis Philippe I, hailed as KIng of the French, not of France, after the three revolutionary “days of glory” in Paris between July 27-29 1830.

The new regime would raise great expectations in those who had always nurtured liberal ideas. Cavour started to ponder the conditions of «wretched Italy», «always held down by the same system of civil and religious oppression»; he hoped for «regeneration» by a «passionate youth»; to his philanthropist and pacifist uncle he promoted an «Italian war», through which Italy could return to being a nation. Too much for an officer of Carlo Felice of Savoy, later nicknamed Carlo “Feroce” (ferocious) for the doggedness he showed in pursuing patriots.

Somebody intervened to extinguish such enthusiasm; Cavour was promoted first-class lieutenant and transferred from sparkling Genoa to solitary Bard, in a fort at the entrance to Valle d’Aosta. The Count increasingly realized he was not cut out for military life; despite his mother’s reprimands for being «a young man full of pride», with «crazy, improper, ridiculous» ideas, who would not bow to any order, to any rule, who would wish to reform all of society’s customs, Cavour, tired of being accused of being an «anarchist», asked his father for permission to be discharged: his tastes, the kind of studies he had undertaken, and his poor sight made him hope for a «more suitable career». Begrudgingly his father consented. His resignation was accepted on 12 November 1831. Just a few months had elapsed since Carlo Alberto’s coronation. It was customary for discharged officers to wear their uniform on solemn occasions. The king allowed Camillo Cavour to wear the army’s generic uniform but not that of the Corps he had served in. A small vendetta towards the former page boy who had dared snub his favor years before.