Age of the Sage site banner

Count Camillo Cavour
Italian unification

Count Cavour &
Risorgimento Italy

Cavour (Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour) was born in Turin, Piedmont, then part of the kingdom of Sardinia, on August 1st, 1810. As a younger son of an aristocratic family it was expected of him that he would seek a career in the army or another gentlemanly profession.

For several years after 1826 Cavour was a lieutenant of engineers in the Sardinian army. By these times he had developed liberal and anti-clerical views so the succession to the Sardinian throne of Charles Albert, whose own views were thought to be somewhat conservative and clericalist, caused Cavour to resign his commission in 1831.

From these times Cavour interested himself in politics, foreign travel and practical agriculture. He took notice of the way a July revolution of 1830 in France was followed by the historic French monarchy adopting a liberal and constitutional aspect under King Louis Phillipe. He became convinced of the benefits of constitutional monarchy in relation to either monarchical despotism or populist republicanism. He applied his knowledge of agriculture to the family's estates and greatly raised their productivity. This aspect of his life being continued through his sponsorship of a Piedmontese Agricultural Society. Cavour also promoted modernisation in industry and industrial infrastructure being a champion of the development of factories and the use of steam ships and railways.

In 1846 there was a papal succession with the new pope being a person who was thought to hold relatively liberal and somewhat "Italian" nationalist views. Previous holders of the papal dignity had been notably conservative and had recently allowed the Austrian minister Metternich to effectively intervene in the Papal territories and more widely in the Italian penisula in the suppression of such populist radicalisms as liberalism, republicanism and nationalism. This intervention moreover occured against a background where the Austrian Empire directly and indirectly controlled many territories in the Italain peninsula.

Several early measures adopted by the incoming Pope, including a political amnesty, tended to encourage an acceptance that there was now, unprecedentedly, a "liberal" Pope and the associated view that liberalism and Italian nationalism now had something of a patron in office in the Vatican. In 1847 Cavour helped to found the newspaper Il Risorgimento (The Resurgence), a Turin based journal that advocated constitutional reform and had liberalist and nationalist leanings.

In January 1848 there was a spate of unrest in support of liberalism and constitutionalism in Sicily, then incorporated in a Kingdom with Naples (also known as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies). In response to these events Cavour urged constituional reform in Piedmont. On February 8th king Charles Albert awarded a "Charter of Liberties" to his kingdom.

Cavour as editor of Il Risorgimento was widely influential in these times. The year 1848 was proving to be a "year of revolution" across much of western Europe. By mid March King Louis Phillipe of France had abdicated and his prime minister, Guizot, had resigned. The longtime "architect of reaction" Metternich had resigned and was destined for exile. Many rulers of greater or lesser German states had awarded constitutions. The Magyars of Hungary were attempting to show a legislative independence of the Austrian Empire of which the kingdom of Hungary was then a part.

On March 19th news reached Turin that Milan was in revolt against the Austrian Empire and Cavour urged that Charles Albert order the Sardinian army to support the Milanese revolt. On 25th March the Sardinian monarchy declared war on the Austrian Empire.

In "war elections" of June 1848 Cavour became a member of the Sardinian chamber of deputies where he chose to present himself as a conservative. Cavour lost his seat in the chamber upon its dissolution in January 1849. In March 1849 the Sardinian, and "Italian" forces, were overthrown by a resurgent Austrian Empire at a major battle of Novara. Charles Albert abdicated in favour of his son Victor Emmanuel. In the July 1849 elections associated with this succession Cavour was again returned to the chamber of deputies.

During the ministry of the Marchese Massimo d'Azeglio Cavour served in such important cabinet and ministerial positions as Agriculture and Finance and showed himself to be a politician of high ability but eventually resigned after a disagreement with d'Azeglio.

On 7th March 1850 Cavour had made a speech in the chamber where he had suggested that "Piedmont, gathering to itself all the living forces of Italy, would soon be in a position to lead our mother-country to the high destinies to which she is called." Cavour used his freedom from responsibilites of office to travel to England and France to ascertain to positions of their statesmen and their public opinion about the possibility of Piedmont seeking to place itself at the head of a movement intended to draw other territories in the Italian peninsula into a constitutional association under the Sardinian monarchy.

In November 1852 there was a cabinet crisis in Turin and Cavour was invited to lead a new ministry. As Prime Minister Cavour promoted industrialisation and liberalism and also conducted the foreign affairs of the country with the aim of facilitating the joining of other territories in the Italian peninsula with the Sardinian state. He allied Sardinia with Great Britain and France in the Crimean War (1854-56) against Russia having received assurances that the situation in the Italian peninsula would be one of the items on the agenda at an eventual peace conference.

During this Crimean War Tsarist Russia received a military check and became diplomatically estranged from Austria. Austria also became diplomatically estranged from England and France. As Austria, in association with Russia, had up to these times been the principal guarantor of the previous settlement of Europe in her own interests the isolation of Austria was now important to Cavour as he hoped to achieve a new settlement in the Italian peninsula. Also of relevance to Cavour's ambitions was the replacement of King Louis Phillippe of France by Louis Napoleon who was a relation of Napoleon Bonaparte and who had had involvements with the Italian liberalist-Nationalist Carbonari in his younger days.

Before many months had passed Louis Napoleon was accepted as Emperor Napoleon III of France and seemed to be sympathetic to attempts to resettle Europe in line with the "National Principle" which Napoleon III held to have been championed by his illustrious predecessor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Cavour resigned from office after there was strong opposition to his policy favouring the suppression of all monastic orders not connected with education, preaching, or charity but, given the support for the other policies he was attempting to promote was recalled to office. There was a suppression of some monasteries as set out in a measure passed in May 1855.

Although Cavour had initially hoped for an extension of the territories of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont such that a fairly large North Italian Kingdom could be established his aims developed into something more ambitious.

"...We shall not have long to wait for our opportunity...I have faith that Italy will become one state and will have Rome for its capital...But remember, among my political friends no one believes the enterprise [vis. the union of Italy] possible..."
(Cavour, in a letter to La Farina, Secretary of the Italian National Society, September 1857)

In January 1858 an Italian, who hoped to encourage opportunities for reform in the Italian peninsula by provoking turmoils in France (and more widely in Europe) through the assassination of Napoleon III, was responsible for several deaths and many tens of persons being injured in an attempt on the life of the French Emperor. This Italian, Orsini by name, expected that subsequent disruptions would probably produce change in the Italian peninsula that would leave it less under Austrian rule and more liberally governed. This attempt on his life, by a person committed to change in the Italian peninsula, contributed to Napoleon III deciding to become more deeply involved in developments there.

At a shadowy meeting at the French resort of Plombieres in the summer of 1858 between Napoleon III and Cavour, ( who was supposed to be on holiday in Switzerland!!! ), the possibility of France gaining territories on the French side of the Alps from Sardinia-Piedmont in return for assistance in reshaping the map of Italia was mooted. Savoy was a particular object of French desire, it had been annexed to France during the revolution, and was held to be within the "Natural Frontiers" of France. (Another aspect to this agreement being the politically inspired marriage of Napoleon III's relatively old and dissolute brother Prince Jerome with Victor Emmanuel's young daughter Princess Clothilde).

Cavour also sought, through contacts with would-be "Italians" living in states in the Italian penisula that were under the sovereignty of Austrian or locally originated rulers, to ensure that any outbreak of hostilities between Sardinia and Austria would be accompanied by revolts intended to displace such Austrian or locally originated rulers.

On January 10th 1859 King Victor Emmanuel made Sardinia's position as a champion of "Italy" clear in a speech delived from his throne that included these words:-

"...that he could not remain deaf to the cry of pain that reached him from all parts of Italy..."

Cavour managed to avoid a Russian proposal that matters be placed before an international Congress and Austria, after initially demanding that Sardinia disarm, entered into a war against Sardinia. Although France and Sardinia were victorious it was at the cost of a formidable toll of lives, including battles the horror of which led a Swiss observer, Henri Dunant, to strive to found the International Red Cross Association.

There were "Italian" risings in Parma, Modena, Florence and Bologna which seemed to offer that far more territory than Napoleon III had anticipated at Plombieres might become associated with Sardinia. The Prussians engaged in military manouevers that, it seemed to French policy makers, might be considered to be a threatening indication of support for Austria.

Napoleon III made peace with Austria on July 8th 1859 without consulting Cavour. By the terms of this peace Austria was to retain Venetia, the princes of the peninsula who had been deposed in "Italian" revolts were to be restored, and Austria was to hand over much of Lombardy to France. Some days later when Victor Emmanuel II, king of Sardinia, accepted these peace terms, which left Austria powerful in northern Italy, Cavour resigned as prime minister after much intemperate protest.

In August and September 1859, the people of Parma, Modena, Romagna, and Tuscany voted for annexation to Sardinia. Britain made it known that she would not tolerate any French or Austrian intervention intended to reimpose unpopular rulers in central parts of the Italian peninsula. By the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Zürich of November 1859, Austria retained Venetia and ceded most of Lombardy to France. France in turn transferred the Lombardy cities of Peschiera and Mantua to Sardinia.

Despite his intemperate manner of July 1859 towards king Victor Emmanuel Cavour was again invited to become prime minister in early 1860. Cavour sensed that Napoleon III might be induced to accept the adherence of the central Italian states to Sardinia and it proved that, as the price of Napoleon III's consent to such adherences, it was necessary to cede Nice and Savoy (territories of a longstanding association with Victor Emmanuel's dynastic House of Savoy) to France (Treaty of Turin, March 24th 1860). Although plebiscites ratified these transfers doubts were cast on the validity of the reported outcome - Nice, in particular, being considered to be quite strongly "Italian" in sentiment.

On May 5th Giuseppe Garibaldi and a "thousand" volunteers, who had been outraged by the execution of insurrectionists captured in arms by the Kingdom of Naples sailed for Sicily in order to assist the insurrection there. In the event they were generally supported by the populace and the authority of the King of Naples was largely overthrown initially in Sicily and then on the Neapolitan mainland.

By September of 1860 Cavour, worried in case republican elements close to Garibaldi might try to prevent Garibaldi handing over the Two Sicilies to a Sardinian / Italian constitutional monarchy and worried in case Garibaldi's forces intemperately attacked the Papal authority in Rome in order to win that city for "Italy" decided to send Sardinian troops across the territories of the church to "aid" Garibaldi. After arranging for some "disturbances" in the territories of the church that Sardinian forces might help to quell Cavour ordered Sardinian forces to begin their advance across church territories. As this advance continued it happened that these Sardinian forces were obliged to overcome a force that sought to defend the church territories in the name of the Pope.

Cavour, despite his intention that Rome itself should eventually be incorporated into Italia, accepted that Italian nationalism would have to move carefully in order to achieve this objective. Many persons in the Italian peninsula and many outside it accepted that Rome should definitely have a special status as the historical seat of the papacy. A case was made that alongside directly religious considerations Roman territories had been awarded in perpetuity to the papacy by such notable Roman Emperors as Constantine and Charlemagne in the distant past. It was further accepted by Cavour that any direct move to capture Rome at that time would have very likely brought a powerful and determined French intervention into affairs. Cavour did however make a parliamentary declaration in October that stated that Rome must be the capital of Italy and that no other city was recognised as such by the whole country. The parliament itself adopted such a resolution in January 1861.

Following on from Garibaldi's and Cavour's recent involvements in the affairs of the Two Sicilies and the territories of the church most of the territories of the Church, Sicily and Naples opted for union with the Sardinian monarchy. All of the earlier and later adherences of territory to Sardinia as a core state culminated in a proclamation of a kingdom of Italy on March 17th, 1861. Victor Emmanuel II was recognised as the first king of Italia "by the grace of God and the will of the people" in March by an Italian Parliament in session in Turin 1861.

Cavour's diplomacy had by this time earned him the reputation of being one of the most skillful of European statesmen. His strenuous diplomatic and political efforts had involved some cost to his health and, after an onset of fever, he died in Turin on June 6th, 1861 at only fifty years of age.

Cavour is remembered as probably the most significant figure in the Italian Risorgimento or resurgence. The example of Cavour's Realpolitik, where a monarchical state effectively exploited nationalism to secure an expansion of its territories albeit at the cost of some slight compromises with liberalism, may well have been emulated in ways by Bismarck in his own career of sponsoring "Prussian consolidation" leading up to the formation of the second German Empire in 1870-1.

page content divider


Other Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.