Cavour, from independence to the reunification of Italy

by Pierangelo Gentile (University of Turin)

During the first months of 1859 Cavour worked flat out. To Bianca Ronzani, the love interest that would last for the rest of his life, he wrote: «I have been working like a martyr, I’m utterly exhausted. I have faith in the deed’s final result but there are many, huge, terrible issues still to be overcome». The agreement signed with France needed to be “guided” to provoke a casus belli. Words and intentions were not enough. And as the days went by, the winds of war had gradually abated. Among the European powers that be Russia had even promoted the idea of holding a conference to solve the Italian problem peacefully. A possibility that would invalidate all the politics the Count had been weaving. Cavour was aware of the responsibility he had publicly taken on. He got to the point where he laid out his will making his nephew Ainardo the sole beneficiary and once again considered suicide. Then events turned, unexpectedly.
His provocations aimed at Austria had borne fruit: instead of waiting for the volunteers stationed on the eastern border to be disarmed as ordered by Napoleon III – the Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps) at the orders of general Garibaldi – the Austrian government had issued an ultimatum. It was 23 April 1859. The second war of independence started, an event which for three months concentrated power in the Count’s hands as he acted as Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Home secretary, minister for War and head of the Navy. For those who witnessed those memorable days, like cabinet secretary Isacco Artom, Cavour was almost suffering from delusions of omnipotence: he had a bed taken to the Ministry of War, «and at night, wrapped in his dressing gown, he would run from one ministry to the next with orders for the artillery, for diplomatic correspondence or at times even for the police».
He frantically followed the advance of the French-Sardinian army from Turin, not without clashing with the king who was jelous of his own prerogatives as a warrior being put into question by the prime minister. Montebello, 12 May; Palestro, 31 May; Magenta, 4 June. These three battles opened to the allies the doors of Milan on 8 June. It looked like a victory parade, but it had a price to be paid in blood; Garibaldi with his hunters advanced north taking Varese, Como, Brescia and Salò; further south, close to the shores of lake Garda, in Solferino and San Martino, on 24 June 1859 one of the bloodiest battles of the Risorgimento was fought: 2400 dead and 12.000 wounded among the allies; 2300 dead and 10.000 wounded among the Austrians. Jean Henri Dunant from Geneva, who witnessed the battle, was shocked by the violence of the fighting and the inadequacy of the medical services; that day set the foundations for establishing the International Red Cross. The Austrian Emperor’s defeat was close at hand: the Hapsburg troops were by now caught by the flanking maneuver of the French-Sardinians positioned on the Quadrilatero line on land (the fortresses of Peschiera, Verona, Mantova, Legnago) an on sea a few miles from Venice.

That’s when an unpredictable turn of events occurred; on 11 July 1859, without consulting his ally, Napoleon III met with Franz Joseph of Austria in Villafranca (not far from Verona) to sign an armistice. For Cavour it was a bolt out of the blue. A few factors had brought the French to that decision: pressure from public opinion at home, skeptical about a conflict that appeared to offer no real advantages; the not so unfounded fear of an Austrian-Prussian invasion from the Rhine border; finally a completely unforeseen situation which had developed in Italy, messing up the agreements reached in Plombières: the liberal insurrections in Florence, Modena and Parma, that had forced rulers to hastily flee, and had lead to the establshment of provisional governments, determined to ask for the unconditional annexation to the Kingdom of Sardinia.
Cavour rushed to the headquarters in Monzambano to dissuade Vittorio Emanuele from signing a treaty regarded as «ignominious». To no avail. The meeting was carried out in a very tense atmosphere. Nigra witnessed it: Cavour angrily lashed out at the king. Vittorio Emanuele, resolved to pursue the concrete results that had been achieved had him removed. Cavour had no choice but to hand in his resignation. Disheartened, beaten, physically exhausted by the efforts sustained over the months, he retired to Leri, resolved to stay on the side lines. His government was replaced by a team chaired by general La Marmora, but politically reliant on home minister Urbano Rattazzi; thanks to the king’s support, the barrister had managed to carry out his revenge against the Count who had ousted him from government a few years before. But the La Marmora-Rattazzi government, totally inadequate to take on the challenges it faced, did not last long: just six months. Once the idea of a possible international congress to put order in Italian affairs took hold at a European level, it was inevitable that the name Camillo Cavour would return to the spotlight. The congress was never convened; nevertheless it was urgently necessary to call back the Count, the only figure of authority able to solve the myriad problems still unsolved after the annexation of Lombardy to the Kingdom of Sardinia.

On 16 January 1860, also thanks to support from the English representative in Turin sir James Hudson, Cavour was once again entrusted with government. He threw himself into the political arena with even more energy. Artom remembers it well: Cavour worked tirelessly until 3 AM, sleeping just two hours a night; at first light he resumed with the most delicate meetings, those that needed to be conducted away from prying eyes. Thus he achieved a first important result, negotiating with Napoleon III the transfer of Nice and Savoy before the annexations of Central Italy. Thus on 11 and 12 March 1860 referendums were held in Emilia and Tuscany according to the formula: «Join Vittorio Emanuele’s constitutional monarchy or establish a separate kingdom »; in Emilia 426,006 people voted to join; 756 for a separate kingdom; in Tuscany, 366,571 to join and 14,925 for a separate kingdom. Cavour’s political strength was confirmed by elections held on 25 March 1860, the first in the kingdom extended to the new provinces. It was a triumph for him. He was elected in eight constituencies: Turin, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Bologna, Brescia, Vercelli and Intra. Thus he began to reap the fruits of his success; but he also was the recipient of heavy criticism because of the transfer of transalpine provinces to France sealed by a treaty on 24 March. He knew that handing over Italian-speaking Nice would make him very unpopular. He wrote to Nigra: «To me the Nice affair is a repetition of the events tied to the marriage of princess Clotilde. I will not be part of a third episode of this kind »; because of this event Vittorio Emanuele once again went to war against his prime minister, during an official visit to Florence. He was so rude to the Count that the latter told him to «go to hell». Then the Count wrote him a letter which is a masterpiece in pride: «Your Majesty, after the words You addressed me with yesterday, any minister would have by now handed in their resignation. But I am not any minister, because I feel I still have too many duties to honour with the Dynasty and Italy […]. Thus, I shall stay».

Garibaldi, born in Nice in 1807, sent his own gibes for the government’s decision. But in spring 1860 the Hero of the Two Worlds would provide the Count with plenty more to worry about. The general decided he would lead a democratic new revolution. Two Sicilian exiles in Turin started working in the shadows: Rosolino Pilo and Francesco Crispi. They convinced Garibaldi to lead an expedition to strike the Bourbon kingdom in its weakest spot: Sicily, a land that had never fully accepted to be ruled by Naples. During the night between 5 and 6 May 1860, two steamboats, Piemonte and Lombardo, left the harbour in Quarto, Genova, carrying a thousand men wearing red shirts. The “Mille” (Thousand): all volunteers, from lots of regions (mostly from the north), and from different backgrounds (half of them middle class and intellectuals and half working class), veterans of the 1848 and 1859 campaigns, armed with what they could find. Naturally Cavour was informed about the expedition, considered «a very serious event» which «could not and should not be prevented», «openly supported by England and weakly contrasted by France». When Garibaldi landed in Marsala, Cavour waited for events to unfold. He wrote to the governor of Tuscany Ricasoli: «We can’t prevent [Garibaldi] from waging war against the king of Naples. It may be good, it may be bad, but it was inevitable. If we had held Garibaldi back with violence he would have become dangerous. What will happen now? It is impossible to say. Will France oppose him? I don’t think so. And will we? We can’t openly support him, nor can we oppose individual efforts in his favour; so we have decided not to allow further expeditions from the ports of Genoa and Livorno; but we will not prevent weapons and ammunition from being sent, although they should be sent with caution. I do not deny the issues of the ill-defined line of action we are following, but I could not suggest another one without worse and more dangerous problems».
Garibaldi’s strength, self-proclaimed dictator in Salemi in the name of Vittorio Emanuele, showed in battle: Calatafimi; Palermo; Milazzo; Messina. In very little time the island came under his control. Seeing this unchallenged advance by democracy many European chancelleries were alarmed. Cavour was forced to review his strategy. Some even suggested he give battle in Parliament, proclaiming the annexation of Sicily thus taking away the initiative from the red shirts; but Cavour knew the dangers of such a move, for himself and for Italy: he would have saved his prestige but lost Italy. He would rather lose his popularity and reputation than the Cause he had believed in until that moment. He was aware of Garibaldi’s greatness: «If tomorrow I would enter in conflict with Garibaldi, I might have most of the old diplomats on my side, but European public opinion would be against me, and it would be right, because Garibaldi has performed for Italy the greatest services a man ever could: he gave Italians self confidence, showed Europe that Italians know how to fight and die on the battlefield to take their motherland back».

Cavour tried to take the initiative: after an attempt to cause an uprising in Naples failed, urged by Napoleon III to act quickly, he decided to prevent the general’s moves, who after freeing Naples on 7 September 1860, was now heading to Rome. The conquest of the Eternal City by the democrats would have seriously embarassed the Piedmontese government with France (that from 1849 had left a contingent in the pope’s defence), and the moderates would have lost the country’s majority. So on 11 September Cavour ordered general Manfredo Fanti to invade the Papal State. The king’s campaign in Marche and Umbria was over in a flash: on 18 September the Piedmontese army defeated the papal forces in Castelfidardo; on 29 September the fortress of Ancona fell. After outflanking Lazio, it was now time to make Garibaldi “see reason”, as he fought the battle of Volturno against the troops of Frances II and Maria Sofia of Bavaria barricaded in Gaeta and Capua. But October was the Count’s month: he worked tirelessly in parliament to pass the law for the annexation of the provinces of southern Italy. On 21-22 October referendums were held in the south with a very clear formula: «The people want one sole undivided Italy, with Vittorio Emanuele, costitutional king and his legitimate descendants». With a public vote held on a stage in a square with two ballot boxes, one for yes, the other for no the results could be nothing but amazing: in Sicily 432,053 people voted yes, and 667 voted no; in the continental South 1,302,064 yes, 10,312 no. With the meeting in Teano between Vittorio Emanuele II and Garibaldi, held on 26 October 1860, the democratic danger was averted: hailing the Piedmontese monarch as the “first king of Italy” the general, greeted as the king’s “best friend”, delivered Italy to the Savoys and consequently, to Cavour. The Count organized referendums in Marche and Umbria on 4 November; then he resumed his political activity with the first national elections held on 27 January 1861. Once again he was tempted by some to proclaim a “dictatorship” because of the danger of unwanted surprises in the ballot box. But his peremptory words left no room for doubt: «I believe that with a Parliament it is possible to do many things which would be impossible for an absolute power. […] I have never felt as weak as when the Chambers are closed. And I could not betray my origins, reneging the principles of my entire life. I’m freedom’s child, it is to freedom that I owe everything that I am».
His faith in freedom proved him right, although only 240,000 people (out of the country’s total population of 22 million) chose the nation’s 443 representatives. Among them Giuseppe Verdi, elected in Borgo San Donnino, invited by the Count to contribute «to the decorum of Parliament inside and outside of Italy». Another national treasure, after Manzoni, nominated senator on 29 February of the previous year. On 18 February 1861, in the temporary Chamber set up in the yard of Palazzo Carignano, no longer standing, the 8th legislature opened, the first of Unified Italy. A month later, on 17 March, the last law of the Kingdom of Sardinia was issued, number 4671: Vittorio Emanuele II took on the title of King of Italy for himself and for his descendants. It was the pinnacle of Cavour’s greatness: Italy had been accomplished.

Camillo Cavour, prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy, in his studio