Revolutions of 1848 in the Italian states


[edit] The Italian states in 1848

Italy was one big land mass with no name in 1848. Any person that claimed Italy to be theirs was able to be ruler of the land. The most important of these states were the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the South, the Papal States and Tuscany in the Center, and the Kingdom of Sardinia on the island of Sardinia and in the North West (the bulk of the kingdom actually consisted of what is now the Piedmont region of Italy). Furthermore, the Austrian Empire directly ruled the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which included the rich northern regions around Milan and Venice. Most of the rest of Italy was taken up by the small Duchies of Modena and Parma. All these states were absolute monarchies. Nonetheless, society in Italy was generally friendlier to people of limited means, and, sometimes, to women, than other European states of the time. Even the poor often owned their own tiny pieces of land, and in the north women had slightly higher status than elsewhere, taking part in public affairs.

The Italian peninsula was more agricultural than most of Europe, apart from Russia, which did not experience revolution in 1848. Farm products were subject to wild price uncertainty due to foreign competition, and the slowness of Italian farming contrasted to more efficient foreigners. There were food riots all through 1840 to 1847; radical groups proliferated in Rome.

[edit] Early rumblings

Politically, some wealthy and educated Italians wished for liberal government and the removal of Austrian rule from the North East. However, this was controversial among those groups of people, with moderates and radical positions both contributing to the debate. Even if both the moderates and the radicals agreed about the expulsion of Austria, the moderates were hoping to form a confederation of kingdoms with a liberal constitution (for example, the cleric Vincenzo Gioberti advocated a confederation headed by the Pope), while the radicals were calling for a revolution followed by the formation of a unified Italian republic; their leader was Giuseppe Mazzini. In the 1830s he organized the La Giovine Italia, an organization which supported several failed insurrections in various parts of Italy.

Some reform, surprisingly, came from the Papal States. Upon his accession to the papacy in 1846, Pius IX was considered a relative liberal, giving political amnesties and other reforms such as a relaxation of the control on the press. For moderates, this sounded as if Gioberti's project was starting to become reality, and the radicals followed their hopes; both groups put a lot of pressure on the various governments. In the winter of 1847–48, kings started conceding moderate constitutions in order to prevent insurrections. By March 1848 (when the last and most important of these constitutions – the Statuto Albertino – had emerged in Piedmont) all the Italian states (with the exception of the Austrian-ruled Lombardo-Veneto) had formally become parliamentary monarchies.

[edit] The Austrian rule in the Lombardo-Veneto

The Lombardo-Veneto region was restless and probably the least corrupt part of Italy, Lombardy's verdant land supported the most concentrated population in Europe, and by 1847 conditions seemed ripe for revolt. Things were made worse when Austria occupied the town of Ferrara in the Papal States in July 1847, but later backed out because of the protests from Pope Pius IX.

[edit] The Revolutions' beginning

Citizens in Milan planned to quit using tobacco or play lottery as of January 1, 1848, both of which fed the Austrian treasury, and Austrian soldiers, angry at the success, soon shot and killed 61 Italians. Citizens armed themselves, and when the news of the insurrection of Vienna came, they expelled the Austrian forces from Milan (March 18-March 22, 1848). But not only in Trieste, in 1848, did the fight assume vast proportions. In some cities of Dalmatia a civic guard was formed. At Spalato the people liberated from prison Antonio Baiamonti and Pietro Savo, two ardent defenders of the Italian cause. The people of Trent, on March 19, 1848, boldly raised the Italian tri-color, defied the shots of the Austrian pickets, destroyed the office of finance, then ran to the city hall and demanded that a commission be sent at once to Vienna to ask the immediate separation of Trentino from the German Tyrol and its annexation to Lombardo-Veneto. The following day, March 20, 1848, the municipality of Trent established the national guard and sent a patriotic appeal to the citizens in which they expressed the wish that the example of Trent should be followed by all of Trentino. In fact at Ala, Rovereto, Riva, and other cities and in the valleys, the inhabitants of Trentino hoisted the Italian flag and decorated their breasts with the tricolored cockade. This is commonly known as the "Five Days of Milan". At approximately the same time similar insurrections took place in numerous towns and cities, and most importantly in Venice, where an independent republic was recreated. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Milanese insurrections, both for consolidating the revolution and for fear that the radicals could stage a social revolution, pledged allegiance to Charles Albert of Savoy, King of Sardinia, and invited him to join his forces with theirs.

[edit] The 1848 war with Austria

After some delays and stalling, on 24 March the Piedmont army crossed into Lombardy, while the Austrian commander, Field Marshal Radetzky decided to retreat into the Quadrilatero, a group of four fortresses (Peschiera, Mantova, Legnago and Verona) halfway between Milan and Venice.

After Charles Albert's move, the Pope, the grand-duke of Tuscany and the king of the Two Sicilies were pressed by people in their respective countries to send troops for the war against Austria.

However, Charles Albert made the mistake of waiting for plebiscites proclaiming the annexation of various cities to Piedmont, rather than pursuing a fast and decisive victory on the Austrians. Meanwhile, the pressure on the Pope seemed to ease, and Pius IX changed his mind, stating that he could not endorse the war of a Catholic country (the Kingdom of Sardinia) against another (Austria). For this reason, at the beginning of May he pulled his troops out, and was soon followed by the other Italian rulers.

The war narrowed to Piedmont versus Austria. In spite of the enthusiastic help from various revolutionaries (such as those in Venice and the voluntaries led by Giuseppe Mazzini), military fortunes reversed, and the Austrians started gaining ground. However, with Vienna a mess and Hungary in rebellion, the Austrian government ordered Radetzky to make a truce, an order he ignored. The Italian leadership was so bad that Radetzky is reported to have ordered his gunners to spare the Italian generals, reasoning they might as well be on his side.

The Italians were finally routed at the Battle of Custoza at the end of July, and fell back to Milan. The Austrians granted the right of civilians to leave, and Milan lost half its population. Charles Albert decided to abandon the city (which fell on August 7) and signed an armistice with Radetzky, who, given the pressing situation on other fronts, agreed to a return to the old border on the Ticino river.

In 1849 Piedmont alone launched another campaign against Austria, which rapidly ended with a defeat at the Battle of Novara on March 23, 1849. Once again, Austria had to refrain from asking territorial concessions, but Charles Albert was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Victor Emmanuel II and go into exile. However, the constitution he conceded was not abrogated, and in the following decade Piedmont was the only Italian state with a parliamentary regime.

[edit] The Roman and Venetian republics

Even though the war between Austria and Piedmont stopped in August 1848, the situation remained uncertain: Venice was holding ground against Austria, Sicily was fighting against King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, and there were new insurrections in cities such as Bologna.

The most important of these new insurrections was in Rome, where on November 15, 1848 Pellegrino Rossi, Prime Minister of the Papal States, was assassinated.

While a crime wave was avoided, no one took charge. Pope Pius IX fled to the fortress of Gaeta, under the protection of King Ferdinand II. In February 1849, he was joined by Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany who had to flee from there because of another insurrection.

In Rome, the authority that did take over passed popular legislation to eliminate burdensome taxes and give work to the unemployed. Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini came to build a "Rome of the People," and the Roman Republic was proclaimed. Even if he had failed in economics, he succeeded in inspiring his people to build a better nation, living in humble quarters, giving most of his salary to hospitals, and eating at second-rate restaurants.

Mazzini dramatically improved the status of the poor, taking some of the Church's large landholdings and giving them to grateful peasants. He inaugurated prison and insane asylum reforms, freedom of the press, secular education, but shied away from the "Right to Work", having seen this fail in France.

Runaway inflation might have doomed the Republic, and sending troops to defend the Piedmont from Austrian forces put Rome at risk of attack from Austria. But the Roman Republic would fall to another, unexpected enemy. In France, President Louis Napoleon (who would later become emperor Napoleon III) needed the endorsement of the Catholics, and decided to send troops to restore the Pope.

The French arrived April 20, 1849 but Garibaldi's attack sent them back to the ocean. A siege constricted Rome through June, and it was over in early July. While the French were moderates, they were considered liberals all the same, and the Pope did not return until 1850 when assured of no French meddling in his affairs.

Garibaldi escaped to the United States, only to return in the 1850s to help complete Italian unification under the lead of Piedmont. Mazzini fled to England; his days as a revolutionary were over.

When Rome fell, only Venice remained. The Austrians had blockaded the city during the winter of 1848–49. Blockade runners passed through – for a time. On May 4, the Austrians began destroying the Venetian defenses. Soon no food could get in. The city surrendered in the end of August, after what is viewed as a heroic defense.

It is debatable whether Charles Albert of Savoy acted out of true Italian nationalism, or simply Piedmontese expansionism. What became clear, however, was that to achieve unification, Italy needed international help against the Austrians. She could not, as Charles Albert had argued, "go it alone".

[edit] The end of the Revolutions in Italy

In the territories which were re-conquered by Austria, many were publicly flogged, and over 900 were executed for owning firearms. Wealthy revolutionaries could pay large fines or lose their property. Similar repressions took place in most parts of Italy where the kings had been overthrown.

While Italy did moderate, independence from the royalty was dead – for about a decade. The moderate regime in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia managed better concessions against the Austrians than would be expected, but the Revolutions in Italy had sputtered to a seeming close. The "Risorgimento", the Italian nationalist movement, however, would triumph within twenty years.


Carnovale, L. (1917). Why Italy Entered into the Great War (1 ed. Vol. 1). Chicago, IL: Italian-American Publishing Co,

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