The Revolutions of 1848 in the Italian states

From Academic Kids

The Revolutions
of 1848
Revolution in France
Revolution in Habsburg areas
Revolution in Germany
Revolution in Italy
Revolution in Poland

The Italian states in 1848

As with Germany, there was no "Italy" at the time of the Revolutions of 1848, but a hodge-podge of states. The most important were the kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south, the Papal States and Tuscany in the centre, and the kingdom of Sardinia in the island and in the northwest (the bulk of the kingdom actually consisted of what is now the Piedmont region). Furthermore, Austria directly ruled the so-called Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which included the rich northern regions around Milan and Venice. All these states were absolute monarchies. Italy was more progressive 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 that had no revolution in 1848. Farm products were subject to wild price uncertainty due to foreign competition, and the backwardness of Italian farming contrasted to more-efficient foreigners. There were food riots all through the 1840's to 1847; radical groups proliferated in Rome.

Early rumblings

Politically, Italians wished for liberal government and the removal of Austria from the North-East. But these movements were restricted to part of the wealthy and the educated, and even this faction was divided into moderates and radicals. Even if both of them 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 1830's 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 govenments. In the 1847-1848 winter 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 - was promulgated in Piedmont) all the Italian states (with the exception of the Austrian-ruled Lombardo-Veneto) had formally become parliamentary monarchies.

The Austrian rule in the Lombardo-Veneto

The Lombardo-Veneto region was restless. Probably the least corrupt part of Italy, Lombardy's verdant land supported the most concentrated population in Europe, and by 1847 things were ripe. Things were made worse when, because of a border dispute, the Austrians took the town of Ferrara in the Papal States in July 1847, but later backed out because of the protests from pope Pius IX.

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 (18-22 March 1848); at approximately the same time similar insurrections took place in numerous towns and cities, and most importantly in Venice, where an independent republic was proclaimed. Instead, 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 the king of Sardinia Charles Albert of Savoy and invited him to join his forces with theirs.

The 1848 war with Austria

After some indecisions, 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 4 fortresses (Peschiera, Mantova, Legnago and Verona) halfway between Milan and Venice.

After Charles Albert's move, also the Pope, the grand-duke of Tuscany and the king of the Two Sicilies were pressed by their internal public opinions to send troops for the war against Austria.

However, Charles Albert made the big 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 (Italy) 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 against Austria: despite the enthusiastic help from various revolutionaries (such as those in Venice and the voluntaries led by Giuseppe Garibaldi), military fortunes reversed, and the Austrians started gaining ground. But 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 Custoza in 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 7 August) 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 Novara on 23 March 1849. Once again, Austria had to refrain from asking territorial concessions, but Charles Albert was forced to abdicate in favour 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 parlamentary regime.

The Roman and Venetian republics

Even if the war between Austria and Piedmont stopped in August, the situation was still 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, the Pope included, took charge, and the Pope fled to the fortress of Gaeta, under the protection of Ferdinand II. In February 1849, he was joined by the Grand-Duke Leopold II of Tuscany who had to flee 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. Garibaldi and Mazzini came to build a Rome of the People, and the Roman Republic was proclaimed. If he failed 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 for free 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, though Garibaldi's attack sent them back to the sea. A siege constricted Rome through June, and it was over in early July. While the French were moderate, they were considered liberals all the same, and the Pope did not return until assured of no French meddling in his affairs.

Garibaldi escaped to the United States, only to return in the 1850s and 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 still remained.

The Austrians had blockaded the city during the winter of 1848 - 1849. 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 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 Mazzini had argued, "go it alone".

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 were the kings had been overthrown.

While Italy did moderate, independence was dead -- for about a decade. The moderate regime in the kingdom of Sardinia managed better concessions against the Austrians then would be expected, but the Revolutions in Italy were over. The Risorgimento, the Italian nationalist movement, triumphed within twenty years anyway. But not in 1848.

Next: Consequences


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