Before we get to the books, very briefly, what are we talking about when we’re talking about the history of the Risorgimento or Italian unification?
That’s not an easy question at all, and scholars tend not to agree with one another on the answer. Even the chronology is controversial. The term ‘Risorgimento’ refers to the process of unification that led to the creation of the Italian nation-state. We can easily identify a date for that—the Kingdom of Italy was officially born on 17 March 1861.
But the Risorgimento starts much earlier, and does not end in 1861. Usually scholars tend to identify the beginning of this process with the arrival of French troops on Italian soil in 1796, followed by the so-called ‘Jacobin Triennium’ of 1796-1799. The unification is not completed with the birth of the Kingdom of Italy. There is the annexation of Veneto in 1866 and of Rome, a crucially important step, in 1870. In fact, to get to Italy as we know it today, we must wait until the end of the First World War, when Trieste and Trento, which up until then had been part of the Austrian Empire, were incorporated into the new Kingdom. So, many scholars have argued that, if we want to look at the whole process of the Risorgimento from start to finish, we must reflect on this very long 19th century, from the 1790s up until the end of the First World War.
Your own books have focused on the history of the Jewish experience of being Italian over a very long period of time. Does that give you a particular perspective on the Risorgimento, or how to interpret it?
Yes. I believe it does. When we think about Italy and Italian culture we tend to focus on the majority, and the majority of Italians were at the time—and still are, at least on paper—Catholic. The unification of the country happened through an open war between the new nation-state and the Catholic Church that culminated in the conquest of Rome in 1870 and in the end of the temporal power of the papacy. This conflict between state and church was among the main features of Italian political life in the second half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the influence of Christianity on Italian culture is undeniable.
“The term ‘Risorgimento’ refers to the process of unification that led to the creation of the Italian nation-state”
Yet there were religious minorities at the time, as there still are, most notably the Jewish and Waldensian communities. Jews were present in certain areas of the peninsula since pre-Roman times, although they have always remained quite a tiny minority in terms of numbers—between 30,000 and 40,000 people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Looking at Italian history and, in particular, at the national patriotic narrative and the Risorgimento through the lens of minorities allows us to shed new light on the contradictions, difficulties and conflicts inherent in that process and its representation.
Let’s move on to the books. First up is Alberto Banti’s The Nation of the Risorgimento: Kinship, Sanctity and Honour in the Origins of Unified Italy. Why have you chosen this book?
For many reasons—Alberto Mario Banti was my supervisor for my PhD, but that is not the main one! This book came out in Italian in 2000 and the English translation has recently been published by Routledge (2020). It really is a seminal book that has changed the narrative regarding the Risorgimento. If we look at the decades from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century, we see that the Risorgimento was neglected by scholars or, to put it better, scholars tended to focus on its socio-economic aspects and to ignore nationalism and the national patriotic narrative.
Marxist scholars, unsurprisingly, really focused on this idea of the Risorgimento as a failed bourgeois revolution, building on Gramsci’s interpretation. They explicitly argued that nationalism was not an important factor in this process.
We must remember that republican Italy didn’t find it very easy to deal with the legacy of fascism, especially when it came to defining the roots and nature of Italian nationalism and discussing its development.
In the 1990s the conversation had become quite stagnant. Alberto Banti’s book shook it up and gave it new life, partly thanks to a new methodological approach, but also because the times had changed, not only in Italy, but internationally. There was a new interest in nationalism and the origins of nationalism dating at least from the 1980s/1990s, with a vigorous international debate among historians and sociologists. Taking inspiration from international scholarship, Banti refocused the conversation about the Risorgimento on nationalism.
Of course, he did not do so by going back to the hagiographic narrative that was typical of the second part of the 19th century, in which the Risorgimento and the martyrs to the cause of the unity and independence of the nation were glorified.
His proposition was to use the tools of cultural history to take the national patriotic narrative very seriously and to understand why it was so appealing at the time, so much so that many—men mainly, but also women—decided to give their lives for this cause. Through his research, he’s trying to understand the reasons why this narrative could (and did) change people’s lives. In the book, Banti identifies key texts that form, in his opinion, the ‘canon’ of the Risorgimento and proceeds to the deconstruction of the national patriotic narrative through the analysis of the intertextual connections and morphological similarities. These are mainly literary texts—poetry, novels, opera libretti and songs.
In particular, he identifies the presence of what he calls ‘deep figures’—kinship, sanctity and honour—as the core structure of an intrinsically gendered national patriotic narrative. Just to give a quick example, if we look at the structure of the national patriotic narrative, we see that the nation is portrayed as a family, whose members share common lineage. This image has an immediate pre-rational appeal and creates an emotional connection to the national patriotic narrative. And at the same time, it evokes the nation as a genealogical, biological community.
This aspect of Banti’s approach was very innovative at the time. The more traditional paradigm, endorsed particularly from the 1940s onwards, told us that, actually, the nation of the Risorgimento’s legacy was a civic, voluntarist definition of Italian identity, with almost no ethnic, racial or biological elements. Banti has convincingly and successfully managed to reverse this paradigm.
And that goes well beyond just linguistic unity, right?
Absolutely. Banti claims that the Italian national patriotic narrative is based not only on the idea that Italians share a language, culture and common memories, but really very deep biological connections. This book is so important because it revamped the discussion surrounding Italian nationalism. Unsurprisingly it was received very well by some scholars and very badly by others. For both supporters and critics it has opened new paths of research on Italian nationalism. Its publication produced a consensus that it was time to reappraise Italian nationalism.
Kinship, sanctity and honour are, arguably, very unbourgeois values. Honour is traditionally seen as an aristocratic trait and sanctity tends to be related to religious practice of one kind of another. Within the context of some kind of liberal/bourgeois idea of Italian unification I’d have thought sanctity would be more associated with the Catholic Church and therefore marginal, or even hostile, to the values of the Risorgimento. Was Banti, being deliberately provocative in trying to overturn received ideas of the classic liberal/modern revolution?
Yes, he is being deliberately provocative, for sure, although I wouldn’t say that ‘honour’ is an unbourgeois value. I guess it all depends on how we define it. If we go back to George Mosse’s studies on the connections between nationalism and sexuality and on the key role respectability had in the self-fashioning of the bourgeoisie, it is evident that a very specific definition of honour related to socially accepted sexual behaviours was in fact typically bourgeois.
As concerns ‘sanctity’, Banti has in mind the continuous and omnipresent religious references in the national patriotic narrative that bear a strong and undeniable connection to Christianity. Very good examples are the concepts of sacrifice and martyrdom, that come from religion although they are not only religious concepts. Both are crucial to the structure of the national patriotic narrative and to its gendered nature. All men are called to sacrifice their lives for the fatherland, and by doing so they become martyrs that will enjoy eternal life.
Is he arguing that it was these cultural tropes that allowed the Risorgimento to become a very broad-based movement, rather than a narrow movement of the elites?
Yes, he is, although this is a point that can be quite controversial because it opens the very complex question of reception. How can we analyse how these texts and images were in fact received and interpreted by contemporaries? We cannot forget that the overwhelming majority of Italian people could not read at all at the time and did not even speak Italian. Tullio De Mauro, an important Italian linguist, argued that, at the time of the unification in 1861, only about 2% of Italians actually spoke Italian. Only the TV managed, in the 1950s, to achieve the linguistic unification of the country. Having said that, we certainly need to distinguish between urban and rural contexts.
Banti came back to the thesis that the Risorgimento was not an elite phenomenon in an important book that he co-edited with Paul Ginsborg, a British scholar based in Florence. This is volume 22 of the ‘Annali’ of the ‘Storia d’Italia’ published by Einaudi in 2007.
That’s astonishing that only 2% of Italians spoke Italian in the 1860s. That’s presumably counting dialects as non-Italian. Is that right?
The next of your books on the history of Italian unification is Antonino de Francesco’s The Antiquity of the Italian Nation: The Cultural Origins of Political Myth in Modern Italy (2013). This is about Italy’s imagined relationship—or lack of relationship—with ancient Rome, isn’t it?
Yes and no. We cannot really understand this book without going back to the debate that followed the publication of Banti’s book. As we have seen, Banti depicts a homogeneous version of the national patriotic narrative. And he also claims, and claimed very explicitly in more recent publications, that we can trace a continuity between the nation of the Risorgimento and, for example, the nation of fascism.
De Francesco reacts against this interpretation strongly. His main point is that there was no single Italian nationalism. His book is all about analysing the varied and multifaceted interpretations of this phenomenon over a long period of time, going well beyond the Risorgimento.
“At the time of the unification in 1861, only about 2% of Italians actually spoke Italian”
As well as reacting very strongly against Banti’s interpretation, he challenges the opposite idea that we can easily and unequivocally distinguish between the nation of the Risorgimento and the nation of fascism as though these were two distinct and non-communicating constructs.
Going back to your question regarding Rome. This particular theme—the myth of Rome—was very popular, especially towards the end of the 19th century and during the fascist period and is only one of the main themes of this book. There are at least two other focal points in this book, namely the debate on the origins of the Italian nation and the conversation surrounding its ethnic composition. Needless to say, the three are interconnected.
Doesn’t he identify a strong narrative within the Risorgimento that located the origins of the Italian nation in pre-Roman Italy, is that right?
Yes. The book explores the notion of ‘antiquity’, often connected to the idea of ‘autochthony’, and how scholars and intellectuals working in different disciplines reflected on these issues, often locating the origins of the Italian nation in pre-Roman times. The topic was debated throughout the 19th century and in fact since the end of the 18th century. For example, Vincenzo Cuoco traced these origins back to the Etruscans, which allowed him to claim that the Italian nation could rely on some kind of ethnic unity—on top of the cultural glories. On the contrary, others such as Giuseppe Micali focused on the differences between the ancient peoples that inhabited the peninsula, challenging the idea of an ethnic unity. Of course what is interesting is not only the study of what these people wrote, but also the analysis of how their work was received, interpreted and used during the Risorgimento and in the early 20th century. I always tell my students that we must contextualise the work of historians, and not only our primary sources.
Italian Fascism obviously drew very heavily on the history of Rome. Is he suggesting in this book that those pre-Roman or non-Roman origins allowed for the development of different types of national narrative and that these would not have been sympathetic to fascism’s view of the nation and therefore the Risorgimento has to be seen as rooted in a very different view of the country and can’t simply be seen as a precursor to Mussolini’s concept of the nation?
Yes. He’s definitely claiming that we cannot trace a direct continuity between the Risorgimento and fascism, precisely because he claims that the Risorgimento is much more multifaceted than Banti would have it. He also highlights the contradictions between these different understandings of the Risorgimento, of the Italian nation and its origins and how these can be the foundation of very different political projects and versatile political imagery.
I wanted to ask you something related to this aspect of Italian history, which may not be touched on in the book. The 15th century was when Italy had last been independent of foreign occupation and was a period of great cultural achievement but, at the same time, political division. To what extent was the Italy of the city states of the Middle Ages and the larger territorial states of the Renaissance an inspiration during the Risorgimento?
That’s a very good question. It was indeed a difficult heritage. It was a moment when Italian cities developed as internationally important cultural and economic centres and sometimes Italian cities united against foreign invasion, but it was also a time when Italy was divided. Italy in fact did not exist as a political entity. These images actually play a very important role in the cultural and political imagination of the Risorgimento especially insomuch as they are linked to Romanticism and to Romantic aesthetics.
If we look at some of the novels and poems that are chosen by Banti as part of the ‘canon’ of the Risorgimento, we can find that they are full of images evoking precisely this past. Sometimes these are turned into glorious images of Italians resisting the foreign invader, like the Lombard League against the [Holy Roman] Emperor in the 12th century. At the same time, you find very powerful descriptions of Italians being like a herd of cattle without an identity, an easy prey of foreign invaders. In fact, in order to have the nation it is not only important to have the flesh and blood of the people; it is also important to have an awareness that the nation exists. This idea that Italians did exist at the time, but were a flesh with no name and no awareness of themselves, is also quite common. For example, in a very famous—in Italy at least—quotation from Manzoni’s Adelchi, Italians are described as ‘un volgo disperso che nome non ha’—something like ‘a scattered heard with no name’.
Let’s move on to Risorgimento in Exile: Italian Emigrés and the Liberal International in the Post-Napoleonic Era (2009) by Maurizio Isabella. What light does this book shed on the history of Italian unification?
Maurizio Isabella is an Italian scholar based in the UK. He teaches at Queen Mary. Just like De Francesco, he claims that there is no such thing as a homogeneous Italian nationalism, but his research has a different focus. In particular, he argues that we should go beyond the identification of the morphological similarities to analyse in depth the variety of political projects that were produced in the first half of the 19th century. The same images and cultural constructs can in fact be used to build very different political projects.
Isabella’s book focuses on exiles between 1815 and the 1830s, on the peculiar mindset generated by the condition of exile and how it influences these individuals’ political imagination. He describes his work as being the “collective intellectual biography of a generation of exiles”, before Mazzini.
Mazzini’s the one I’ve heard of.
He arrived in London in 1837, inaugurating a new season of political exile.
Isabella shows how the political project of the Risorgimento was made—at least in part—abroad, in South America, in Britain, in France. He argues that without looking at transnational connections, at the circulation of people and ideas we get a very limited understanding of the origins and characteristics of Italian nationalism. Nationalism does, in fact, transcend national boundaries. This is why this book has been really influential and has altered the scholarly debate.
Did the fact that so many influential people in the Risorgimento were exiles shape the type of country Italy became in very particular ways? Or did the experience of exile shape the politics of the Risorgimento in particular ways? I’m thinking of the contrast with Germany, which was unified by people who were living on German soil.
Isabella claims that the fact that these people were in exile actually changed the way in which they looked at the Italian situation, because the status of being in exile complicates the identity of these people and creates daily contact with foreign ideas, concepts and social situations. Now, it is very difficult to say in a very concrete way how much practical impact these projects born abroad had on the development of events in Italy, but that is not particularly relevant for Isabella’s thesis because he’s looking more at how the idea of the Italian nation was formed and what characteristics it acquired in this constant exchange with foreign inputs. He’s looking at how these exiles managed to influence the perception of Italy and of the Risorgimento abroad. They are not just passive recipients of something that comes to them. They are also reshaping and reframing the Italian question abroad, while actively taking part in the cultural lives and social networks of their places of exile.
He has a very interesting chapter on travel literature, where he shows how these exiles react to the accounts of travel to Italy, or the Grand Tour, and to certain stereotypes that are continually represented in this kind of literature regarding Italy, Italians and their ‘backwardness’ and how they tried to change the conversation, to offer a different perspective. He claims that they were, at least in part, successful in doing so.
“The political project of the Risorgimento was made—at least in part—abroad, in South America, in Britain, in France”
He also argues that these exiles don’t share a common political project. They responded to what was happening in England or in France. They tried to articulate their specific political, social and economic projects for the new Italy, but they didn’t represent a monolithic block at all. But posthumously they are inserted into a long genealogy of heroes and martyrs for the fatherland, where they become part of the national patriotic Pantheon. And that idea is promoted by Mazzini, who represents himself as an exile in London, but is able to build on this previous generation of exiles. He brings them with him into this national patriotic Pantheon.
Of course, Mazzini was a very controversial figure, particularly because of his republicanism. Mazzini himself was inserted into the national patriotic Pantheon quite late, at least 20 years after his death, because his republicanism was really very difficult to digest.
When did Mazzini die?
He died in 1872 in Pisa, in the home of Janet Nathan Rosselli, whose parents he had met in London in the late 1830s. The Nathan Rosselli family—a Jewish family—supported and protected Mazzini and his legacy from the time of his exile and into the new century.
1815-1830 was the period of reactionary triumphalism in Europe. Presumably the restored French monarch, Metternich and Castlereagh were not very keen on these Italian exiles. But was their cause taken up by liberals in England and France who were opposed to absolutism and clericalism?
It depends a bit on where, what and who we are talking about. These figures are not all the same. They did not share a common destiny and they differed in how successful they were in getting access to important political circles, conversations, salons and networks in their places of exile. But I would say, based on what Isabella tells us in this book, that they were quite successful. For example, in the case of England, they were particularly interested in discussions regarding the participatory nature of the British system and the importance of political parties. The idea of a political party was not very welcome in 19th century Italy, so the exiles were very interested in studying them. They didn’t necessarily aspire to replicate the same system, but they studied the system and reflected on how it might be adapted in the future in Italy.
Those who were in exile in England also found very fertile ground for their opposition to the power of the Catholic Church. There was a lot of sympathy for that position. Another issue on which these exiles found common ground with other political actors, both in England and France, was in their—very often uneasy—attempts to come to terms with the legacy of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. So, in that sense, they were very much involved in a broader European conversation about the legacy of the French Revolution.
Let’s move on to Lucy Riall’s Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (2007). I’ve got two very obvious questions to ask about this book. First, why this biography, rather than any of the many others you could have chosen? Second, you’ve only chosen one biography and that is of Garibaldi. Why not a book looking at one of the other two towering figures of Italian unification, Mazzini or Cavour? What is it about Garibaldi?
Why this biography of Garibaldi is actually quite easy to answer. This is an uncommon biography. It is a biography of Garibaldi, but it does not intend to recount all the details of his life, because we already know those from the biographies of Garibaldi written in the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. We know almost all that there is to know about Garibaldi’s life.
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What Lucy Riall is interested in is the construction of the myth of Garibaldi and how Garibaldi himself was not only a passive recipient of this mythical construction, but also played an active part in the construction of his public persona and how a cult of celebrity was created around him. This is something that has not been done before. In this sense, Lucy Riall’s book is very innovative. It really contributes to the broader conversation regarding the Risorgimento, regarding celebrity culture, and the Risorgimento and the 19th century in general, because Garibaldi was not only an Italian figure. He was famous in Italy as the ‘eroe dei due mondi’—hero of two worlds—because he was also a very popular figure in South America. So he’s a truly global protagonist.
He had an amazing reception in England as well. He was feted when he came to London in 1864.
Yes, exactly. Another important contribution of Riall’s book is that, through the analysis of the construction of the myth of Garibaldi, it really shows something about the evolution of what we might call ‘mass culture’ during the 19th century and how the evolution of the media provided the means for the construction of this global myth of Garibaldi. This is also why I’ve chosen this book over a biography of Mazzini or Cavour, because I don’t think we have an equally innovative work on these other two figures. It’s not because I think Garibaldi is more important than Mazzini or Cavour. The reason I chose this book is related to the specific characteristics of Riall’s work.
And what does the book tell us about the link between the Garibaldi myth and the Risorgimento and Italian unification? Also, when did he become this huge celebrity? Was it before the siege of Rome or was his profile built up afterwards?
He became a hero and a very well-known figure and celebrity well before then. He started off as a young Mazzinian and then had to go into exile, so there’s a link there with Isabella’s book, although Garibaldi’s a very different type of figure from the ones Isabella analyses in his research.
At the outset, the myth of Garibaldi was started, fuelled and organised by Mazzini himself. Mazzini was strategic—at least at the beginning—about the construction of this myth of Garibaldi. It would not have been successful had he not become very famous for his actions in South America. That is where he learned how to fight and became popular for his military successes and abilities. It was there and then that he became the well-known Romantic figure that we can all picture in our minds. That was all well before the Roman question and the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860.
And in Latin America, he’s fighting in Uruguay, right?
Mainly, and in Brazil before that. He becomes this popular hero because he is seen as someone who fights on behalf of the people. And, at the very beginning, he is also a republican; he starts off as a Mazzinian, but that changes in the 1850s.
Doesn’t that change because, when he invades Italy from the south, it’s only by accepting the rule of the Piedmontese monarchy that he can win? He effectively gives up his republicanism for Italian unification. Isn’t that right?
Yes. In practical terms that’s exactly what happens. According to Lucy Riall, he’s actually also quite a skilled politician, which goes a bit against the traditional image that we have of Garibaldi as someone who was not particularly cultivated, not an intellectual, for sure, or even a deep thinker, and not a true politician.
Lucy Riall doesn’t claim that he was the best politician or diplomat, but she asserts that he showed considerable ability in Sicily and southern Italy in the way in which, for example, he dealt with the local Catholic Church, and in the way he managed his own image. That’s another interesting point made by the book. He was very active in the construction of his own public persona and his public image. As Lucy Riall shows, he fuelled this kind of worship that that was created around his figure. He was sometimes portrayed as a demi-god. There is a very striking image that is used both by Riall and by Banti, in which Garibaldi is portrayed as Christ—of course his physical features helped with that.
What does modern Italy think of Garibaldi? He’s a very 19th century sort of character, a larger-than-life Byronic hero. It’s not very modern.
It’s not. It is an interesting question, but I’m not sure I have a good answer. He’s still studied in Italian schools, but the curriculum in Italian schools still portrays the unification of the country in quite a traditional way, with a central role for the fathers of the nation—Cavour, Mazzini, Garibaldi and King Victor Emmanuel II. To my knowledge, and colleagues may contradict me here, there has not been much innovation in that department.
So anyone who has studied in an Italian school will know, at least roughly, who Garibaldi was. But, I’m afraid, that’s about it. I don’t think he is considered an exciting figure in Italy nowadays and there’s not much enthusiasm for him.
There are lots of statues of him in Italian towns.
Yes, he’s very often on horseback. He also had these very distinctive and easily recognizable clothes, with the hat and the poncho. I am sure he didn’t always dress like that, but this was part of the construction of his image at the time and it has remained in the posthumous representations of him.
Absolutely. Even if you know nothing about the history of Italian unification and nothing about what Garibaldi did, and have never read books about Italy or him, you know what he looked like. Whereas, when you see pictures of Cavour and Mazzini, they are just two frock-coated bourgeois gentlemen. They could be anyone in 19th century Europe.
Let’s move on to the last book on the history of Italian unification, which has only been published in French: Monarchie et identité nationale en Italie (1861-1900) (2010) by Catherine Brice. Why have you chosen this?
I’ve chosen this for two reasons. The more important one is that the monarchy, as an object of study, has been quite neglected by scholars of the Risorgimento, which is counterintuitive because the unification of the country happened as a result of the military leadership of the king of Piedmont. King Victor Emmanuel II was one of the founders of the fatherland and part of this patriotic Pantheon. So, this book covers a very important topic, where I feel there’s a bit of a void in the scholarship of the Risorgimento.
Another, less important reason, is that I wanted to include at least one of my French colleagues who have been studying the Risorgimento. I’ve tried to include Italian scholars, British scholars like Lucy Riall. And, among the Italians who have worked on the Risorgimento, we have some based in Italy and some, like Maurizio Isabella, who are based abroad. There is a strong tradition of French scholarship on the Risorgimento, and I thought it would be nice to include at least one work that comes from that corner.
Another important scholar of the Risorgimento from France would be Gilles Pécout. Actually, I’d like to mention two other important books on Italian unification that I was tempted to include on this list, but had to exclude in the end from my five picks. One book is an impressive piece of research about the national character of Italians by Silvana Patriarca, Italian Vices: Nation and Character from the Risorgimento to the Republic (2010). She’s another Italian based abroad, in the United States at Fordham. The book is about the construction and deconstruction of the Italian national character, with a specific focus on the bad qualities of Italians.
“Piedmontese institutions—and legislation to begin with—were just extended to the whole territory of the peninsula to create the new kingdom”
Another book that I actually wanted to mention when we were discussing the Isabella book is America in Italy: the United States in the Political Thought and Imagination of the Risorgimento, 1763-1865 (2019) by Axel Körner, a German colleague based in London. Körner looks at the importance of transnational ties and exchanges in the cultural and political imagination of the Risorgimento. So, I’ve tried to highlight these transnational exchanges, not only at the time, but also nowadays, among scholars working on similar topics.
Brice looks at the role of the institution of monarchy in the nationalisation of Italians. The periodisation is slightly different from the other books we have looked at because she really starts with a unified Italy in 1861. She analyses the role the monarchy played in the nationalisation of Italians, in the political education of Italians and the creation of an Italian political culture. She also looks at its role in the national patriotic narrative.
Did the Italian monarchy re-establish itself with new, specifically Italian institutions on unification, or was the land of Italy assumed into the institutions of the Piedmontese monarchy?
That’s a crucial question. What happened in practice was that Piedmontese institutions—and legislation to begin with—were just extended to the whole territory of the peninsula to create the new kingdom. So this was really a process of ‘Piedmontisation’ and the royal family remained very much linked to the Piedmontese traditions. Many new Italians reacted against this perceived invasion from Piedmont.
Did the capital of unified Italy stay in Turin initially?
Yes. It stayed in Turin until 1864, when it was transferred to Florence. Then it moved to Rome in 1871, after the conquest of the Pope’s last stronghold. That was a crucial moment, trying to show that this was a new political entity and not simply an extension of Piedmont. But the King, Victor Emmanuel, kept the numeration—the Second—of his official Piedmontese title. He was the first King of Italy, but he was always Victor Emmanuel II, which really emphasises the continuity with the Piedmontese tradition.
And, actually, one of the problems that the royal family, the monarchy and the country faced after unification was the need to Italianise this dynastic rule by retelling the story of the royal family, claiming that, in fact, the Savoy family had been close to the Italian people for centuries and was an early supporter of Italian independence and unification. That was quite tricky, because it really required a retelling and manipulation of the past to fit the new situation in which the royal family found itself.
What was the legitimising foundation of the monarchy? I ask because, of course, it unified the country and that was one thing, but was there a constitution that it was sworn to protect? The other thing which was odd about the Italian monarchy’s situation in this respect—and in contrast to almost all other monarchies in Europe—was its relationship with the church. I assume the royal family were practising Catholics, but Catholicism can’t possibly have been the underpinning legitimisation of their rule because their whole purpose was to completely undermine the Papacy. So they were in a strange position, weren’t they?
Yes. They were, indeed. First of all, on the constitution. In 1848 the King of Piedmont-Sardinia, Carlo Alberto, granted a constitution, the ‘Statuto Albertino’—the Albertine Statute—to his subjects. There are many important things to say about this document, but the most important one is that it was not abrogated after the failure of the 1848-49 revolutions. Many sovereigns granted constitutional charters in 1848, but nearly all of them were abrogated as soon as possible, between 1849 and 1852—the Tuscan constitution was the last one. But the Statuto Abertino stayed and so the Kingdom of Sardinia remained a constitutional monarchy. And this was used as a tool for the legitimation of this monarchy and for the role of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as the leader of the Italian unification.
Another important point about it is that the Statuto Albertino granted equal rights to religious minorities—to Protestants and Jews, which became one of the reasons why Protestants and Jews overwhelmingly supported Piedmont as the military leader of the unification process and the house of Savoy as the Italian royal family.
“Margherita was very much involved in philanthropic activities and also became a fashion icon”
The fight against the Catholic Church, which characterized the whole second half of the 19th century—it’s not just limited to 1849-1870—really structures the political life of liberal Italy. It’s very complex. You’re right when you say that the Savoy family was a Catholic family. But King Victor Emmanuel II was excommunicated by Pope Pius IX right after the conquest of Rome. So was the prime minister and a bunch of other important people. So, it became quite difficult for the king to reclaim Catholicism as the main legitimation of his power. You can see this in representations of the king. It is very uncommon and unusual to see images of the king praying, which was a very classic, traditional way to represent a monarch. It is hard to find such images, even at the time of Victor Emmanuel’s death.
But, although there was this ongoing fight with the Catholic Church and the king could not find in Catholicism the source of legitimation for his power, the royal family remained Catholic as did the majority of Italians. Catherine Brice tells an interesting story about what happened when Victor Emmanuel II died in 1878. He died of pneumonia in a matter of days, quite unexpectedly. He was only in his fifties. The nation was not prepared for it at all. And when he was lying on his deathbed he was asked to repent in order to be able to receive extreme unction. The priest was forbidden by the Pope himself to administer the sacrament without official repentance. There was a back and forth for days. It was an important issue, not only for the king himself, but for his family and for the whole country. It seems that the king, in the end, did make a declaration of official apology to the Pope—for all the sorrow that he had caused or something like that. It really illustrates how this conflict between the church and the state played out.
But that was by no means a turning point in the relationship between the church and the state. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century, in 1912, and then later, of course, in 1929 with fascism and the Lateran Pacts that you had a formal reconciliation between the state and the church in Italy.
Was the monarchy used very actively as an icon to unify the country? Did every Neapolitan household have a picture of Victor Emmanuel II on its mantelpiece, next to one of the Virgin Mary—that sort of thing?
Yes. Victor Emmanuel was portrayed very much as the warrior king and father of the nation, a father for all Italians. I don’t know if he was present in all Italian homes, but in many, for sure.
One of the many aspects of the story that Catherine Brice analyses is how the monarchy managed to reach the people and become popular. She analyses, for example, royal tours and the way in which family events, like weddings, funerals and christenings were staged. These are very important events for the royal family, but there were ways of making them important for the nation. She claims that these were even more important than official national holidays because scholarship has found that, in the Italian case, the new national holidays—like the festival of the Statuto celebrating the constitution and the 20th of September celebrating the conquest of Rome—did not become massive popular successes. But royal weddings, funerals and christenings became more popular among the bourgeoisie and the Italian masses.
Some more recent research has looked into the role of the heir to the throne, Prince Umberto, and his wife Margherita in popularizing the monarchy and trying to reach the people through the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the royal family and the way Umberto and Margherita—and their relationship—are portrayed. Margherita was very much involved in philanthropic activities and also became a fashion icon, presenting herself as a model of bourgeois femininity.
Interesting—quite similar to Victoria and Albert and their descendants on the British throne. The Italian monarchy disappeared at the end of the Second World War. Is it missed?
No, I wouldn’t say so. The monarchy was compromised with fascism. That was why Victor Emmanuel III abdicated. There were only, really, three kings of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, Umberto I and Victor Emmanuel III. His son, Umberto II, reigned for only a month or something before the monarchy was abolished in a referendum. In 2002 a constitutional change has allowed the descendants of Umberto II to come back to Italy, putting an end to the exile that was forced on the whole family after 1947. The current generation was deemed to be quite harmless.
There were some plans, weren’t there, in the middle of the 19th century, for Italy to be unified under the papacy?
Yes. That’s right. There were a variety of political projects that imagined the new Italy as a federation, or confederation, of states under the Pope. The most important and probably the most famous was Vincenzo Gioberti’s plan. These ideas flourished under a very specific pope, Pius IX. At the very beginning of his pontificate—he became pope in 1846—it looked like he would be an innovator, a liberal pope very open to the modernization of the political system in the Papal States and to promoting projects for the unification and independence of Italy. That gives me the opportunity to mention another important book that has come out recently about the myth of Pius IX by Ignazio Veca. It’s called Il Mito di Pio IX: Storia di un Papa Liberale e Nazionale—‘The Myth of Pius IX: History of a Liberal and National Pope’. It was published in 2019 and is all about the construction of the myth of the ‘liberal Pope’ and how Pius IX himself contributed to the creation of the myth. And it’s about how that myth evolved and, later, collapsed because, in reality, Pius IX became one of the most reactionary popes in in the history of the Catholic Church.
Was he still in power in 1870 with the first Vatican Council?
Yes. He died in 1878, exactly the same year as Victor Emmanuel II.
So he promulgated the declaration of papal infallibility.
Exactly. And the Syllabus of Errors in 1864. He also promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
One final question. Could unification have happened in any other way and, given how it did happen, what are the legacies of the process for contemporary Italy?
I don’t think it could have happened any other way, given the circumstances of the time, but, of course, it’s difficult to work with the ifs and buts of counterfactual history.
There are many legacies, for sure. Just to give you one: there is an ongoing debate surrounding the Risorgimento, in southern Italy especially. This debate was re-energised in 2017 when the Regional Council of Puglia approved a motion presented by the Five Star Movement proposing a ‘day of memory’ on 13 February to commemorate the southerners who were the victims of the Risorgimento, because they fought defending the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Bourbon royal family against this invasion from the north.
This has fuelled a very interesting conversation, not just among scholars, about the legacy of the Risorgimento, especially in shaping this north-south divide and the southern question. That remains an open wound in Italian life. The perception of the divide has changed over time, but the idea that there is an intrinsic difference between the north of the country and the south is still very much present and this does, indeed, have its roots in the Risorgimento, in how it happened and how the political elites of liberal Italy managed—or did not manage—to integrate the south into this new unified country.
It feels symptomatic of a broader European malaise that there are people living in liberal democracies feeling nostalgic about Bourbon absolutism. Was the relative wealth of northern Italy and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies much closer in the mid-nineteenth century? Has this gap emerged since unification?
Yes and no. The north and south were much closer in terms of socio-economic structure at the beginning of the 19th century and the gap has become bigger and bigger since, but many important differences in the socio-economic structure were already present and can be traced back to more ancient times.
Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that you that you can blame the non-industrialization of the south on the unification of the country.
No. It was a terribly complex question and a terribly complex problem that the political elites of the time faced and it was not the only one. So, I would not support a simplistic judgment. But we are certainly still living with this legacy. This remains one of the main problems of contemporary Italy.
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