The process of Italian unification was the result of nearly 60 years of events, daring action and revolutionary ideas. Here is a timeline of the key moments leading to and sealing Italy’s unification.
At the Congress of Vienna, the powers that had defeated Napoleon-Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain-draw a new geopolitical map of Europe. Their objective is to renegotiate the spheres of influence and balance all powers to ensure a period of peace-and to restore monarchical absolutism to protect against future revolutionary revolts.
On January 1, 1820, a revolt breaks out in Cadiz, Spain, led by troops leaving for South America, who demand that the Spanish Constitution of 1812 be re-established. Ferdinand VII is forced to do so in early March. The uprising is the first of a series of revolutionary acts that spread across Europe in the first half of the 1800s. The Constitution of Cadiz becomes a model for the Italy’s growing nationalistic sentiment.
Members of the liberal unification movement around the peninsula begin demanding a constitution, which is granted in the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Monarchs of the two kingdoms, however, request the Austrian military’s help in repressing nationalistic sentiment and revolts. The revolutionary armies are defeated and the monarchies’ powers are fully restored.
A second wave of revolutionary sentiment begins to spread from Modena to Perugia thanks to the support of the liberal aristocracy, the bourgeois classes and considerable popular consensus. Provisional governments are created with the aim of enacting a governmental constitution in the insurgent Italian provinces. Revolts are violently suppressed by the Austrian army, which restores the reign of monarchs in their respective states.
The political society established by Giuseppe Mazzini, La Giovine Italia (‘Young Italy’), organizes the first revolts aimed at creating a unified republic by promoting a popular insurrection in Italy’s reactionary states. Mazzini’s movement is suppressed and several patriots are arrested; others go into exile abroad, among them
Giuseppe Garibaldi, forced into exile in South America, where he fights for independence in Uruguay.
A new wave of nationalistic revolts organized by Mazzini’s men is suppressed, and many revolutionaries are arrested or killed. In the meantime, Vincenzo Gioberti proposes a new road toward a unified Italy: one Italy under the rule of the pontiff.
The Bandiera brothers organize a revolt to create an ‘independent, united and democratic Italian republic with Rome as its capital.’ However, there is insufficient support and their revolutionary activities are violently suppressed.
The election of Pius IX brings a new era of hope to Italy’s moderate reformers. As a result, Gioberti’s theory attracts new supporters, while Mazzini’s nationalistic vision enters into crisis following the movements’ failed revolts, which lead to many deaths.
The economic crisis spreading across Europe reaches the peninsula. Increases in the costs of food result in episodes of unrest among the populace. The Italian states each react in a different way. Moderate reforms are introduced in the Papal States, Tuscany’s Grand Duchy and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Conservative models are advanced in the other states and in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, and all revolutionary attempts are violently suppressed.
The new European political order of the Congress of Vienna is damaged by a wave of revolutionary sentiment that spreads to the entire continent. The first revolts occur in Paris, where the Second Republic is established. Nationalistic sentiment then spreads to Berlin and Vienna, where Prince Metternich falls from power, leading to a new liberal government that grants a constitution. The revolutionary wave reaches the states and duchies in Italy, weakening Austria’s reign in the peninsula.
The reactionary armies defeat the constitutional and republican governments established in the last 20 years. Austrian armies are defeated in Lombardy-Venetia, Parma, Modena and Bologna, the Marche region, Romagna and Tuscany. Upon invitation of the republican government of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the French army returns Rome to the pope, causing a general sense of bewilderment among the French and Italian populace.
The Kingdom of Sardinia approves the Saccardi laws, damaging ties with the Catholic Church. Pius IX returns to Rome. Garibaldi goes to New York City in exile, while Mazzini flees to London. In the Austrian-dominated Lombardy-Venetia and in the Kingdom of Sardinia, postal reforms result in the introduction of the
Allied with France and Great Britain, the Kingdom of Sardinia enters the war against Russia, sending a military expedition to fight in the Crimean War. The goal of the Savoy monarchy is not territorial expansion but to secure diplomatic support from the French and British to help Italy respond to Austrian interests in the peninsula. In the meantime, cholera reaches epidemic levels and thousands of people die.
The failure of the military expedition in Pisacane and of the insurrections led by Mazzini mark the end of his leadership of the democratic movement. The Italian National Society is established, which seeks to unite democrats and moderates with the shared aim of freeing Italy from the auspices of the Savoy monarchy. The Kingdom of Sardinia pursues a diplomatic policy aimed at isolating Austria on the international stage and increases military presence along the Lombardy-Venetian border.
An Italian patriot’s failed assassination attempt on Napoleon III does not damage the alliance between France and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Instead, it convinces the French emperor to help the forces of Italian nationalism through military action, something that Count Cavour, then prime minister of Piedmont, had insisted on for some time. Cavour and Napoleon III sign a secret agreement, known as the Patto di Plombières (‘Pact of Plombières’), in which the two agree to a joint war against Austria. Still in exile in London, Mazzini dissociates himself from the Franco-Piedmont plan.
Napoleon III and Victor Emanuel II agree to form a military alliance against Austria and the second war of independence in Italy breaks out. Once Lombardy is freed from Austrian rule, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, Romagna, Marche, Umbria and the provisory governments ask to be annexed to the Kingdom of Sardinia. Fearing a military attack by Prussia and because of the surprising revolutionary activities in central Italy, Napoleon III signs an armistice in Villafranca with the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph.
Garibaldi organizes the expedition of 1,000 men (the Mille) to liberate the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the Papal States. The expedition was a success and in three months, it defeats the Bourbon army. Victor Emanuel II, however, meets the Mille in Teano to prevent them from going to Rome, which was under the protection of the French. Garibaldi hands over power of the Bourbon government to the king and it is annexed to the Kingdom of Sardinia. Except for Rome and Venetia, the Italian peninsula is united.
The Italian state is born. Proclaimed the King of Italy, Victor Emanuel II assembles the deputies of the first Italian Parliament in Turin on March 17, 1861, and on March 27, 1861, Rome is declared capital of Italy, though it is not yet a part of the new nation. In the south, anti-Savoy sentiment led by the former Bourbon
soldiers gives rise to brigandage. They are joined by a group of peasants, disappointed by the unification movement, and a bunch of bandits.
Garibaldi organizes an expedition to conquer Rome, but he is stopped by the Italian army in the Calabrian mountains of Aspromonte and is injured in the attack. Meanwhile, Italian unification proceeds with administrative reforms and the adoption of a common monetary system. Episodes of brigandage continue in the south, supported by the Bourbons and the clerics, through the heavy use of their army.
The Italian parliament proclaims martial law in the south in order to allow extra force against brigandage. To definitively repress the movement, which has the semblance of a civil war, it will take 10 years, with thousands of arrests and executions.
French troops gradually retreat from the Papal States as the Italian government has renounced its wish to take Rome as its capital. The agreement between Italy and France results in the transfer of the capital city from Turin to Florence.
The Austrian-Prussian war gives Italy an opportunity to become allies with Prussia in an attempt to liberate Venetia, still under Austrian rule. The third war of independence breaks out. Despite defeats of the Italian army in Lissa and Custoza, Prussia wins the war, annexing Venetia to Italy. Even though Garibaldi defeats the Austrians in Bezzecca in Trentino, following orders from the king, he is forced to withdraw because the war had already ended.
Garibaldi cannot forget about Rome and the idea of making it the capital; he attempts to conquer it with an expedition of volunteers. The pope is protected by the French, who stop the expedition in Mentana, at the gates of Rome. Garibaldi returns to Caprera.
France declares war on Prussia and withdraws its last troops from Rome. Napoleon III is defeated in Sedan, and the Italian government takes advantage of this to send a military expedition to fight the Papal States. On September 20, the artillery breach Porta Pia allowing soldiers to occupy Rome. The city falls, marking the end of papal rule there. Latium is annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
Rome is made the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. The parliament approves a law that declares the pope the new nation’s spiritual leader.