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The unification of Italy 1850-1870 Essay

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The unification of Italy was one of the most significant events of the period 1850-1870.

The crucial moments of the conquest of the Italian unification were articulated by the initiative of the Vittorio Emanuele II’s house of Savoy, led until 1861 by the clear political action of Cavour and then by the right-wing historical governments, which succeeded in taking advantage of the favorable international situation.

At first the French were interested in superseding the Austrian hegemony in Italy, which led to a second victorious war of independence.

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The Prussian defeated Austria and France. This allowed first the conquer of Veneto and Rome, then the domination of the generous democratic initiative of Mazzini and Garibaldi, who had to sacrifice their democratic principles in the name of national unity.

Who was Vittorio Emanuele II?

His origins are surrounded by mystery; he was born in Turin on 14 March 1820, the son of Carlo Alberto and Maria Theresa of Habsburg- Lorraine. When he was two he moved to Florence with his family.

A legend narrates that one night the future king was sleeping when his nanny, trying to drive away a mosquito with a candle, went too near his cot and set it on fire.

According to the official version the child was only slightly burnt whereas the nanny died. This reconstruction leaves legitimate doubts at least with regard to two circumstances: first the cot was completely destroyed by fire, second the nanny died in the accident whereas the child was almost uninjured.

The news immediately spread that the child was dead and his parents, worried about the dynastic succession, had replaced him with another child.

Legend apart, Vittorio Emanuele was the heir to the throne and as such was educated; but the future king had neither great interest in nor bent for studying; he wasn’t born to be an intellectual.

When he finished his studies he married Adelaide, the daughter of the Duke of Habsburg.

In spite of the formal education he received, Vittorio Emanuele II was “common”: a straightforward and jovial man, who felt himself at home not at court nor in the aristocratic salons but in the company of hunters.

In connection with this, a gaffe of his at the French court is famous: turning to Empress Eugenia he said: ” I’ve heard that Parisiennes don’t wear knickers. This is paradise to me.” 1

He was a vain man who loved compliments and applause and often took his ministers’ merits.

The king had an eventful sentimental life, but a woman represented continuity in his life: Rosa Vercellana, the famous “Bela Rusina”.

She was born a woman of the people and had the king marry her with a civil rite in 1877. This love was a difficult problem to manage for all the governments that alternated over the years.

Indeed the king would have married his beloved immediately after his wife’s death, but this would have certainly been a bad blow for the international image that the young kingdom of Sardinia was trying to affirm.

In 1861 unified Italy entered the scene as a politically young state with Vittorio Emanuele II representing the symbol of the long and troubled unification process just concluded, as well as being the emblem of the nation.

As it has been written: ” Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi made Italy, but Vittorio Emanuele made it possible “.

His role of guarantor of the institutions that the official propaganda made every effort to present as ” Above parties ” assured to the monarch ample space of political maneuvers.

In this field his most significant interventions were in foreign policy: the Constitution gave him the supreme command of the army and the faculty of declaring war and stipulating peace, alliance or commercial treaties.

In 1862 projects were made for an expedition led by Garibaldi to promote and support a popular insurrection in Greece and Dalmatia. After that, Vittorio Emanuele II exploited the international crisis in 1866 to make his perhaps most emblematic intervention: the stipulation of an alliance between Italy and Prussia to fight Austria.

Vittorio Emanuele II signed agreements against the Parliament’s advice, and the defeats of Lissa and Custoza confirmed the worries of Parliament; fortunately the Prussian victories overturned the war outcome and allowed Italy to acquire Veneto.

The 1866 defeat reduced for some years the political weight of the king and the personal autonomy that he had looked for in the recent past; so much so that in 1870, when the Franco-Prussian war began, he had to give up the idea of intervening at Napoleon’s side because of the firm opposition of the Lanza-Sella government.

Besides his desire to be the center of attention in international agreements, Vittorio Emanuele II also had an important role in the Italian home politics thanks also to the spontaneous aggregation of more moderate elements around his figure.

As he grew older some aspects of his character worsened. For example his intolerance of etiquette led him to behave strangely.

Hunting and associating with people foreign to high society and with women would always remain his favorite pastime.

With ministers and Parliament he was one moment condescending, the next irritated.

He always tended to overestimate his personal role in the conversations with diplomats and foreign journalists. In fact Vittorio Emanuele II had a smaller power than he thought or pretended he had.

The king suddenly died in Rome on 9 January 1878.

The historian and journalist Silvio Bertoldi wrote about him: “Vittorio Emanuele II was really popular as no other king of Italy would ever be.”2


My two main sources for this research on Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy are: “I Savoia” by Gianni Oliva and “I Savoia Re D’Italia” by Denis Mack Smith.

Both books are classics: Gianni Oliva teaches contemporary history at the “Scuola d’ Applicazione d’ Arma” in Turin and is a well-known scholar of history of military institutions and of the Resistance

Because of his kind of education he tends to have a more benevolent opinion of the king, often overlooking some of his faults in his relationship with the ministers.

As to Mack Smith – whose fame as major foreign historian of Italy is indisputable – in his book he explores and examines closely for the first time the role of the king. Such a vast, difficult and highly critical research was began thanks to the free access to a great quantity of public and private documents kept in numerous European archives. Mack Smith could read, free of any censure, telegrams, diplomatic notes and secret reports that the ambassadors of the various countries had sent to their governments. These reports laid bare the semi-feudal reality of a monarchy only formally constitutional but in reality held by a despotic and totally irresponsible monarch.

For example Gianni Oliva quotes a sentence of Massimo D’ Azeglio on the figure of the “gentleman king”: ” … we have a gentleman king ….” and ” Vittorio Emanuele II was always pleased to have and deserve that name.3

Mack Smith writes instead”… considered to be a “gentleman king”, Vittorio Emanuele was everything but that, entangled as he was in vulgar love-affairs, and in indecorous financial traffics. Too uneducated and mean for the Italian Risorgimento to which he had linked his name, he proved himself an insatiable devourer of the public money…”4


Vittorio Emanuele became king of Sardinia when he was twenty-nine: it was a tragic moment, the defeated army was retreating, the Austrians were angry and the Italians disillusioned and almost hostile.

But Vittorio Emanuele was not the man to give up hope: he accepted quietly his responsibility and the following day he went to Radetzky.

According to Gianni Oliva, his relationship with Parliament was characterized by verbal, sometimes violent fights, which nevertheless didn’t deteriorate the relationship itself. Oliva talks vaguely about the personal diplomacy through which Vittorio Emanuele carried out his foreign policy.

Smith has a completely different idea. He thinks that the king’s ” personal” diplomacy is called secret and was entrusted to unable amateurs who created confusion in the foreign Italian policy and obscured its prestige. Indeed that is what happened in 1862 when the king sent an emissary to France to inform the Emperor that other agents of the Italian monarchy were preparing an insurrection in Greece, Serbia and Albania; the king also told Napoleon III that the Italian government had not been informed.

In reality the then minister Ricasoli knew what the king was plotting and was determined not to resign before he had done all he could to prevent such a folly. He feared that the whole of Europe would form into a coalition against an Italy in an aggressive state. Such a foolish project aroused the hostility of England and France.

Vittorio Emanuele tried to dissipate every suspicion giving London the amplest assurances, but, as Smith says, the English had learnt not to believe his promises.

The result was that England and France allied to make the Congress of Vienna realize that they should act together to prevent Italy from infringing peace in Europe.

As we said, the Italian author Gianni Oliva has overlooked much also about the deficit of the public budget, whereas the English historian reports the serious situation. Mack Smith reports that Parliament – the Prime Minister being then Quintino Sella – proposed to have the court’s expenses verified; the measures proposed by the minister went against the royal veto.

Besides Sella would have liked above all to reduce the armed forces, because after the defeats at Custoza and Lissa the army and the navy were not “popular” anymore

The people, on the other side, observed that the appanage given to the king was much higher than that received by the British and the Prussian monarchies, and this although the Italian monarchy was six million lire in debt, in addition to the debts guaranteed by the king’s personal properties.

To elude the threat of a public verification of his expenses, Vittorio Emanuele II gave up a quarter of his income, but only if payment could be made without publicity by the government.


To conclude and give a meaning to this research, I think that during his life and political career Vittorio Emanuele II showed a strong personality: he was an ambitious man, wishing to be the center of attention, a great intriguer who, despite his vanity and the inclination to take his ministers’ merits, demonstrated to be a lively man and a brave king who well represented unified Italy and, together with Garibaldi, is still today a hero acclaimed by the nation.

In the political field he always took part, whether actively or not, in the decisions of his governments, even if his relationship with Parliament and his ministers was often conflicting. Taking advantage of the significant powers bestowed on him by the Constitution, he tended to supersede his ministers’ institutional role, but was then reluctant to take the responsibility of his personal initiatives.

I do not think that Vittorio Emanuele II can be considered just a spectator of the Italian unification process: indeed, if the roles of figures such as Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi were fundamental, without the personal contribution of Vittorio Emanuele the Unification of Italy could not have been realized.


Silvio Bertoldi: “IL RE CHE FECE L’ITALIA” Rizzoli – Milano, 2002

Gianni Oliva: “I SAVOIA” Oscar Storia Mondadori – Milano, 1999

Denis Mack Smith: “I SAVOIA RE D’ITALIA” Rizzoli Libri – Milano, 1992

Web Sites Consulted:




1 Id. Silvio Bertoldi: “IL RE CHE FECE L’ITALIA” Rizzoli – Milano, 2002 pg. 151

2 Id. Silvio Bertoldi: “IL RE CHE FECE L’ITALIA” Rizzoli – Milano, 2002, pg. 187.

3 Id. Gianni Oliva: “I SAVOIA” Oscar Storia Mondadori – Milano, 1999, pg. 59

4 Id. Denis Mack Smith: “I SAVOIA RE D’ITALIA” Rizzoli Libri – Milano, 1992, pg. 76-77

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