by Pierangelo Gentile (Università di Torino)
Camillo Cavour was center stage of the historical-political moment that propelled him into public life. But it is necessary to take a step backwards to understand how fate offered this young aristocratic entrepreneur a new opportunity to indulge his political interests, which had until then remained stifled. From a patriot’s point of view the Forties had left a mark. On the one hand all the republican-leaning revolutionary attempts inspired by Mazzini had tragically failed; just remember the case of the Bandiera brothers who deserted the Austrian Navy, and landed in Calabria to try and stir the local population into an uprising against the Bourbons only to be captured and executed by firing squad. On the other hand, a new way of thinking had established itself: given that insurrections were counter-productive to obtain independence and freedom, as they always ended in blood spilled and did not involve the people that much, it was necessary to aim for a national revolution inspired by monarchic-constitutional values. In other words two things were necessary to achieve independence from foreigners: a king who would lead the patriotic movement and a constitution sanctioning a break with the past, guaranteeing reforms and freedom.
As an alternative to the democratic idea promoted by Mazzini, the moderate ideal came to be, which would profoundly influence Camillo Cavour’s philosophy and course of action. Cavour’s friend Cesare Balbo and also Massimo d’Azeglio, tired of seeing patriots massacred in Romagna, became promoters of this ideal, as well as Vincenzo Gioberti, who theorized a political model called “neo-guelphism”. Its meaning? You might remember that during the Middle ages two factions fought each other: guelphs and ghibellines, the former supporting the pope, the latter the emperor. Gioberti had imagined a new role for the pope. Was Italy not the cradle of Catholicism? The pope would take on an impartial role, acting as president of an Italian confederation defended by the Sardinian King’s army. A bold idea which appeared to come to life when the bishop of Imola Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti became pope in 1846 with the name of Pius IX. After Gregory XVI’s obscurantist era, the election of this prelate from Senigallia appeared to usher in a new era: among his first acts as Pope, Pius IX granted an amnesty to political prisoners and to those exiled from the Papal States; he relaxed censorship; summoned a council with representatives from the provinces; created a civic guard. These innovative gestures, also in the light of the Austrian’s challenging military occupation of Ferrara, were over-interpreted politically and caused a general restlessness in the whole peninsula: public opinion, excited by the legend of the «liberal pope», pushed other monarchs towards reform. Among them Carlo Alberto, who in October 1847 promulgated special laws increasing freedom, especially regarding the press. Finally newspapers would be able to deal with political topics. An achievement which today we take for granted, used as we are to democracy, and living in an era dominated by media; but until then, within the Kingdom of Sardinia, there was no plurality of information: only “Gazzetta piemontese”, the government’s official newspaper was authorized to deal with public issues without undergoing censorship by a body that would evaluate any writing word by word, deciding what could be published and what could not.
A long-awaited moment was coming for Camillo Cavour. He wrote to a friend: «We have crossed the Rubicon, and we have taken the avenue of new ideas. The government cannot turn back after what it has done […]. Willing or not it is following an impulse which in a few years will bring it to establish among us a system of representation». Camillo saw far ahead. Exhilarated by this conquest he immediately started organizing a newspaper of his own.
He did it with his friend Cesare Balbo, diplomat Ludovico Sauli d’Igliano, banker Luigi Bolmida, lawyer Filippo Galvagno and journalist Costantino Reta. The paper would be called “Il Risorgimento” (the resurrection): the word, taken from the religious sphere and which would mark an age, was there to evoke the “resurgence” of the oppressed motherland, ripped apart by centuries of invasions from abroad and internal conflicts. The first issue came out on 15 December 1847, with an article by Balbo outlining the paper’s line: uniting «principles of reform and reformed peoples» on the road to independence through a «strong and orderly moderate approach», far from violence and «excessive popular demands». After having been a businessman, it was with these premises (remember the juste milieu?), that Cavour started a new career as a journalist. Public opinion appeared to hold influence on politics; daily newspapers directed it, although we certainly are not talking of a mass phenomenon: at the time periodicals were synthetic, made up of just 4 pages, selling 2-3 thousand copies and costing about a third of a worker’s daily wage. It was aimed at an elite group, but it still was an amazing fact. Cavour fully understood the power of the press: once in power he would favor a press agency called Stefani, from the name of its founder, Venice exile Guglielmo Stefani, the ancestor of the current Agenzia Nazionale della Stampa Associata, ANSA (National Associated Press Agency).
As director of daily newspaper “Il Risorgimento”, Cavour started a harsh political battle, especially against his adversary Lorenzo Valerio, who on the pages of “La Concordia”, expression of the most radical liberalism, accused him of being a “doctrinaire”, that is, an excessively moderate man who did not have enough trust in the people. The same people that were awakening, like in Sicily where with an insurrection in Palermo they had obtained from the king a constitution, or in Florence, where street protests had forced the Grand Duke to grant the same. In Turin they did not stand idly, and the directors of the different papers almost took on the role of party leaders. They met at the Europa Hotel (on the corner between piazza Castello and via Roma) to discuss what further reforms could be requested from the king. It was a troubled meeting; but when it looked like a resolution to expel the Jesuits (the Order accused of influencing sovereigns) and establish a “civic guard” – an institution based on the conscription of middle-class youth, devoted to raising the concept of a “nation in arms”, defending the motherland from insurrectionaries and Austrians alike – Cavour took the stand: the State did not need partial reforms, but one, sole, great reform: a Constitution. Cavour’s bold proposal took those in attendance by surprise, but in the Count’s mind the concession by the king of a fundamental law of the State took on the shape of an action to contain the «progressive motion of passions». At the time the upteenth revolution was under way in France, overthrowing the monarchy to proclaim a republic. Carlo Alberto was in no way in favor of a constitution, and was so unhappy with his former page boy’s initiative that he had him arrested. In the end, also encouraged by his Conference council (a sort of council of ministers but of a consultational nature since the king’s power was absolute), and influenced by a peaceful demonstration held by 30.000 people who marched through the streets of Turin wearing tricolor cockades, on 4 March 1848 the king of Sardinia granted the Statute. The name given to the constitution had been chosen to moderate the people’s fervor. “Constitution” was a dangerous term that recalled the extremes of the French Revolution, prelude to the fall of monarchies; but “Statute” was a word which referenced Savoy tradition: back in the 15th century, duke Amedeo VIII of Savoy had already issued a series of laws called Decreta seu Statuta. With «a King’s loyalty and a father’s love», Carlo Alberto granted a constitution containing 84 articles which would become the legal foundation of the kingdom of Italy in 1861 and remain in force until the Republic was proclaimed in 1946. Parliament was a complete novelty, and a Lower House was established in Palazzo Carignano and a Senate in Palazzo Madama.
The Lower House was elective, although only 1,7% of the kingdom’s population, all men, had the right to vote, chosen among those who paid more than a certain amount of tax or had an education (just over 80.000 could vote out of 4,8 million inhabitants). Members of the Upper House were all appointed by the king, with senators chosen from 21 categories.
In March 1848, on the notes of the Canto degli Italiani composed by Michele Novaro on the verses written by Goffredo Mameli (the Italian anthem, written in Turin, as celebrated by a commemorative plaque in via XX Settembre), people in Milan revolted against Radetzky during the famous Cinque giornate (five days) (18-22 March), building thousands of barricades in the city streets, while in Venice the people proclaimed the Republic of San Marco. Carlo Alberto decided to declare war against the Habsburgs, dreaming of a crusade against the Austrians that would make him a champion of independence, but also to avoid that a republican government be established in Lombardy, which would have trapped the Kingdom of Sardinia in a vice, as it already bordered with the second French republic to the west. He took a tricolor band and waved it from a balcony of the Royal Armory facing a crowded piazza Castello.
It was the evening of 23 March 1848: the start of the first war of independence led by the Savoy and supported by other kings in Italy including the pope. On that day Cavour, “feverish” because of the king’s decision, published in his newspaper an article that would make history. This was how it started: «the supreme hour of the Sardinian monarchy has struck, a time for strong decisions, a time from which the fate of empires and the destiny of peoples depend. Faced by the events […] hesitation, doubt, delays are no longer possible; they would constitute the most tragic of policies. As cool-headed men, used to following the mandates of reason rather than the whims of the heart, after carefully pondering our every word, we must in all conscience declare it: only one avenue is open to the nation, to the Government, to the King. Immediate war, without hesitation!».
In the Cavour household, twenty-year-old Augusto, the young family heir proudly wearing the shiny uniform of a second lieutenant of the Guards regiment took his beloved uncle’s patriotic invitation quite literally: a fervent Italian patriot, he died in the battle of Goito defending Vittorio Emanuele Duke of Savoy. Cavour was deeply upset by the news of his nephew’s death; he barely had the strength to write a letter to Giacinto Corio, trusted collaborator of his farming projects, asking him to organize a Mass in the church at Leri for the intercession of Augusto’s soul. Then he took his nephew’s uniform and religiously put it inside a display case; he had the fatal bullet set inside a small desk monument; he commissioned a scene showing Augusto’s last moments to painter Giacomelli: three mementoes he would keep with him for the rest of his days. Victory in battle had cost the Cavour family «the purest of […] blood». This distress was also fuelled by the feelings held for those lawyers who slandered aristocrats «in streets and cafés», while these paid tribute to the motherland getting killed in the fields. Cavour’s words revealed social divisions: on one side the aristocrats, completely loyal to the dynasty and bound by duty who had left for the front; on the other an intellectualized bourgeoisie, mostly lawyers, of radical orientation, who discussed and criticized the government’s and the army’s actions, not just on the streets but also in the House, the first ever, opened on 8 May 1848. A scandal occuring in that temple of representative power made up of 204 elected members from which Camillo (member of the commission for electoral laws) had been excluded, beaten in three constituencies (Vercelli, Cigliano, Monforte) by three lawyers: Ferraris, Stara and Sineo.
Upset by his nephew’s death, disheartened by the fact he had been the only newspaper director who did not get elected as an MP in the first, historical legislature, disappointed by a «weak and irresolute» king, Cavour almost went back to a his career as «a farmer […] more gratifying and pleasant». But it was clear by then that many acknowledged him as the leader of the liberal-moderate movement. In the additional elections of 26 June 1848 he was elected in the constituency of Turin and on 4 July he held a critical speech on the law merging the Kingdom of Sardinia with Lombardy and four provinces in Veneto conquered by the Piedmontese: he was too fearful of an element which could tilt the Statute towards democracy.
Between 1848 and 1849 it was a very difficult time for the Kingdom of Sardinia. Military support from the other Italian monarchs had been withdrawn (including Pius IX, scared by the threats of a schism by the Austrian clergy), so Carlo Alberto found himself fighting alone against the mighty imperial eagle: he lost in Custoza and was forced to endure the shame of an armistice which returned Milan to the Habsburgs. The political situation was unstable: five governments followed one another over just nine months (March-December 1848); the first legislature crumbled after just seven months (May-December). Even 1849 started under the worst of omens. Under pressure from the left wing in government, but determined to start the war again, if only to salvage honor, Carlo Alberto was defeated by Radetzky in Novara in just three days and forced to abdicate. Although Cavour had been elected councillor in Torino, he had not been confirmed as a member of parliament in the elections held in January for the second legislature. He did not stand by idly: he chaired the aid committee for the people of Brescia massacred by the Austrians. He openly despised the hyper-democratic party that had seized power; a party he judged to be cowardly, stupid and disorganized, that had done all it could to lose the country. He wrote to Parisian writer Mélanie Waldor, with whom he had a brief relationship: «Excessive pride can lead me to make mistakes, but I am profoundly convinced that had my counsel been heeded, if I’d held power, I would have saved the country without any strokes of genius and by now the Italian flag would be flying on the Styrian Alps». It was the dawn of a new era, a “preparation” for the reunification, which would go down in history books with the name of its architect: it was the eve of the “Cavourian decade”.