Before 1861, Italy was not a united nation but only, as the Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich put it, “a geographical expression”. The Vienna settlement has restored Austrian domination over the Italian peninsula and had left Italy fragmented into a number of states.
Like in other countries in Europe, the 1848 revolution in the Italian peninsula failed. It failed for many different reasons one of them being that Charles Albert king of Piedmont thought that he didn’t need any foreign help to drive out the Austrians out. He believed in, ‘l’Italia fara da se’. When in March 1849 the Piedmontese army was again defeated at the battle of Novara, king Charles Albert abdicated in favour of his son Victor Emmanuel II.
Victor Emmanuel II succeeded his father as king of Piedmont and Sardinia in 1849 and in 1852 he appointed Count Benso Camillo Cavour as prime minister. Camillo Cavour soon realized that Piedmont by itself was too weak to defeat the Austrians and needed foreign help. He, therefore, set about strengthening Piedmont by improving its trade, agricultural and armed forces.
Many believe, that the army that he sent in 1855 to help England and France during the Crimean war was to win support from the Allies when Piedmont would need it. However, piedmont was asked by the Allies to send troops. This would weaken her as a threat to Austria, who would then be more likely to join the alliance against Russia.
In 1858, Cavour invited Napoleon III to visit Piedmont where they concluded the pact of Plombiers. It stipulated mainly three clauses:
- Victor Emmanuel’s daughter was to marry a cousin of Napoleon III
- France was to help Piedmont drive the Austrians out of Northern Italy
- Piedmont was to obtain Lombardy and Venetia from the Austrians, in return for his help, France would be given Savoy and Nice.
Napoleon III plays a very important role in the Unification of Italy as without him the Austrians would have never been able to leave the Italian peninsula. There are many motives behind Napoleons III involvement in the unification. Many say that after an attempt for his life by Felice Orsini, he felt sorry for the peninsula. However, the best explanation is probably based on the expulsion of Austria, as he wanted Austrian power to decrease in Europe and then he would use Piedmont as a client state. Napoleon III never wanted a unified Italy because this would lead to a rival in the Mediterranean and that the Papal States would be destroyed thus angering French catholic opinion.
In 1859 Cavour mobilized the Piedmontese troops, and Austrian forces invaded Piedmont. In june the Austrian forces were defeated by the Piedmontese and French troops first at Magenta and then at Solferino. However, Napoleon III suddenly changed his mind about the commitment with Italy and concluded a secret truce with the Austrians at Villafranca. It stipulated that Austria should keep Venetia but Lombardy would be given to Cavour. Cavour was so angry that he resigned from Prime Minister and refused to honour the Pact of Plombieres.
However, in 1860 Cavour was back in power and again came to an agreement with Napoleon the III by which Savoy and Nice would be given to France, in exchange for France’s help in annexing the duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany. The annexation of these three duchies was fairly easy because they the duchies wanted to become part of Piedmont. That same year a rebellion broke out in Sicily and Giuseppe Garibaldi and his thousand red shirts sailed to Sicily in order to defeat the Neopolitan army. In a few days Garibaldi defeated the Neopolitan army at Calatafimi and by the end of July all Sicily was under Garibaldi’s hands.
Napoleon III was greatly alarmed at Garibaldi’s success and asked England to stop the Italian patriot from crossing the straits of Messina. However, the British didn’t stop Garibaldi and his army from crossing and kept the Straits free. Cavour also feared that if Garibaldi marched on Rome, a war with France would be provoked.
Towards the end of 1860, Victor Emmanuel II met Giuseppe Garibaldi at Teano, where he handed over all of his conquests to the Piedmontese king.
In February 1861, the first Italian parliament met at Turin, where Victor Emmanuel II was officially proclaimed King of Italy. Venetia would be annexed with Italy in 1866 by Bismarck as recognition for Italy’s help in the Austro-Prussian war, while Rome was joined to the rest of Italy in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war when the French withdrew their garrison from Rome.