by Pierangelo Gentile (University of Turin)
When Camillo Cavour was born in Torino, on 10 August 1810 inside his family’s 18th century palace, Piedmont was ruled by the French.
At the peak of his imperial rule, Napoleon dominated most of Europe. In just over a decade History had changed its course, on a large scale and also on a small one. Let’s take a step back in time because it is important to understand its dynamics and place in time an event as important as the Count’s birth.
At the end of the 18th century the France born of the revolution, that had stormed the Bastille and guillotined Louis XVI, had started a war on the entire continent to export its principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and to defend itself from the reaction of the powers like Austria, Russia and England which felt threatened; horrified by the Phrygian Cap, ominous symbol of that chaos, many absolute monarchies had been overthrown to the sound of the Marsellaise; many trees of freedom had been planted in public squares, to mark the end of tyranny.
It also happened in Piedmont, gateway to Italy, where the centuries-old Savoy dynasty was humiliated in Cherasco (about thirty miles from Santena), by an extremely ambitious general from Corsica, just 26 years old, destined for a great future, called Napoleone Bonaparte. The Savoy were forced to come to an agreement with the enemy; then to leave room for a temporary Jacobin government: as a result Carlo Emanuele IV, king of that strange Kingdom of Sardinia, named after the island but extending on both sides of the western Alps, had to secretly flee on a snowy December evening in 1798.
In the rest of Italy the different kingdoms the peninsula was divided into were officially transformed between 1796 and 1799 into “sister” republics, but whose sisters? Of the “older” French republic, obviously. Despite being strongly dependent on the transalpine invader (who did not hold back from atrocities and pillaging), the republics were an important political workshop that made Italian patriots aware of being one nation. It was actually during those calamitous times that the Italian flag first appeared on 7 January 1797, in Reggio-Emilia, as the standard of the Cispadane Republic. Once a counter offensive against the French had been established, Austrian-Russian troops led by general Suvorov managed to get the upper hand on those national entities which fell one after the other like dominos. But it was just a hiatus. Who does not recall the famous painting by David of Napoleon crossing the St Bernard pass on a white horse? The French returned to Italy a second time, and thanks to their victory in Marengo, not far from Alessandria, on 14 June 1800, they would rule over the country for a long time. It was the time of Napoleon’s unstoppable ascent: made consul for life in 1802, He was crowned Emperor on 2 December 1804.
A new political order was then imposed in Italy in the early 1800s: a “Kingdom of Italy” was created including the north-east and central part of the peninsula, with its capital in Milan, ruled by France; in the south the kingdom of Naples ruled at first by Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, and then by Joachim Murat, the emperor’s brother in law; other areas we directly annexed to France, like Tuscany, Lazio and Piedmont which would be the 27th military division of the empire until 1814. This is the historical context Camillo Cavour was born in. It usually goes unnoticed, but the first prime minister of a united Italy was born a French citizen and a subject of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was even named after the French governor in Turin, the munificent prince Camillo Borghese – husband of the stunningly beautiful Paolina Bonaparte, the emperor’s sister, captured in marble by Canova – who honored the family by presenting the baby to the baptismal font. A detail revealing just how much the Cavours had gotten close to the imperial eagle: although for centuries they had faithfully served the House of Savoy, Michele Cavour, Camillo’s father, at that time served as first chamberlain of prince Borghese.
This turn should not surprise us. At the time the Savoy had escaped to Sardinia, and many Piedmontese aristocratic families in fear of being defrauded of their assets (which would have meant certain ruin), decided to stay in Turin and serve a power that, although foreign, had lost a lot of its revolutionary charge. In fact, the French had tried to approach, favor and involve the local ruling classes in the administration. The Cavours had little to reproach themselves for when it came to loyalty: Michele and a great-uncle of his called Uberto, better known as Franchino, were members of the Savoy army until the very end, to honor the memory of their ancestors who had distinguished themselves in battle; like Goffredo, who defended the fortress of Montmélian from the attacks by Louis XIII of France in the 17th century, or Michele Antonio, Camillo Cavour’s great-grandfather, who was crippled for life in the battle of Guastalla in the 18th century.
Both these warriors had earned the Order of the Annunziata, the most prestigious Savoy decoration, which made people cousins of the king. When in 1800 there was nothing left to do for the defeated Savoy, uncle and nephew Cavour left Italy and went traveling, so they would have nothing to do with the winners: among many destinations they also visited Geneva, where Michele met his bride to be and future mother of Camillo, Adèle de Sellon, daughter of a rich banker and merchant from Allaman, in the canton of Vaud, who he married on 17 April 1805.
After serving the nation it was time to think about the future, following the aristocracy’s belief that financial interests always come before feelings of any kind. At the time this was vital for the families’ survival; even more so for a House like the Cavour which had experienced ups and downs during its long history; first came wealth thanks to commercial activities carried out in Chieri and other towns, and the rule of Santena. since the 1500s; then in the mid 17th century came the marquisate, bought in cash, close to a modest vineyard on the cliffs of Cavour, a town in the area of Pinerolo; finally debts, as in the late 18th century when Camillo’s grandfather Giuseppe Filippo Cavour married wealthy Filippina de Sales, from Savoy, from the same family as St. Francesco de Sales. It may seem strange but the same blood of a champion of the catholic Counter Reformation flowed in the veins of Camillo Cavour, proponent of the secular State.
In any case, at the start of the 19th century the Cavours were convinced a return of the Savoy was unlikely, and jealous of their status they became more middle class and started to cunningly move within the new situation. They conducted business, established a company, the Società pastorale della Mandria di Chivasso, to breed thousands of merinos sheeps, whose wool would be used to make the uniforms of the Grande Armée; they socialized, attending the parties held at Palazzo Chiablese, in Turin, seat of the court of the Borghese family; they had children, ensuring the survival of their lineage.
Marquis Michele and his bride, Geneva-born Adele had two heirs: firstborn Gustavo, born on 27 June 1806, and Camillo, born on the 10th of August four years later.
The brothers were educated together, not in school, but at home with private tutors as was customary at the time for wealthy families.
Very different personalities immediately emerged. The oldest Gustavo was obedient, thoughtful and diligent; the youngest Camillo at the age of three had already been described by his mother as “fun-loving, strong, noisy, always trying to have a good time”.
So while Gustavo sat diligent and composed at his desk doing his homework, lively Camillo hated it, as he candidly told his tutor: «studying bores me, what can I do, it’s not my fault».
He preferred to get to know the world in person: he went on his first journey to Geneva when he was six. His rebellious nature and dislike of obligations was already emerging, but also his bright mind and his love for Santena. By taking up pen and paper to write to his beloved aunt Victoire, his mother’s sister, who he affectionately called sonchenote, he showed all his fondness for that country house where the family met during the summer months. But on 11 May 1816 the political context had changed once again. Camillo Cavour was no longer a subject of Napoleon the Great, who had been beaten in Waterloo and exiled on St. Helena, but of king Vittorio Emanuele I of Savoy, back in Turin – as recalled by Massimo d’Azeglio in his memoirs – looking «a bit like a halfwit and a bit like a gentleman».