Aug 2011 Journal

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The Italian connection

This year saw the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy in 1861, which, along with the unification of Germany ten years later, transformed the map of Europe and the international political order of the Continent. The unification of Italy was closely intertwined with events in pre-unification Germany, especially the power struggle between the two principal German states, Austria and Prussia, and formed an important dimension to the history of German-speaking Mitteleuropa in the nineteenth century.

The historical connection between Germany and Italy reached back almost 1,000 years, to the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, usually dated to the coronation of Otto I as emperor in 962, which itself harked back to the coronation of the Frankish King Charlemagne as emperor in Rome in 800. Under the medieval Empire, German emperors ruled over both German and Italian territories, giving rise to such notable conflicts as that between the pope and the emperor and the competing parties of Guelphs and Ghibellines. Such famous events in German history as Emperor Henry IV’s walk to Canossa (1077) to beg forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII, and such careers as that of Emperor Frederick II (‘stupor mundi’ - ‘the wonder of the world’), were played out in Italy. Eventually, the dream of a transnational empire fell away and, in the early sixteenth century, the empire was renamed the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation). It was dissolved in 1806.

The influence of Italy on German culture was never stronger than in the eighteenth century, when the art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann famously defined art in terms of his neoclassical ideal of ‘edle Einfalt und stille Größe’ (‘noble simplicity and serene grandeur’). This formulation, deriving from Winckelmann’s pioneering studies of Mediterranean, Greco-Roman art, gave rise to the widespread German perception of Italy as the land of beauty, symmetry and sunlit clarity, where the harmony in the proportions of works of art reflected the happy lifestyle of a people that, unlike its conflicted counterpart in the gloomy regions north of the Alps, lived in harmony with itself and with the natural world around it. The influence of Italian culture on German writers is evident in celebrated works like Goethe’s Italian Journey, while the yearning for the Mediterranean ideal permeates the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, however, Austrian power lay heavily across Italy. In 1706, Lombardy, in the form of the Duchy of Milan, had passed to the Austrian Habsburgs and, with the extinction of Venice as an independent power by Napoleon, the area of Venetia also came under Austrian rule. After 1815, Austria controlled these important territories in north-eastern Italy as the puppet Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. Italy, divided into numerous states, remained, in Austrian Chancellor Metternich’s dismissive words, ‘a geographical expression’, its aspirations to national liberty and autonomy stymied by Habsburg power. In the small duchies of central Italy, and even in the Papal State (based in Rome), Austrian influence also remained decisive. Freedom-loving Italians perceived it as ruthlessly, evilly tyrannical; the fate of Puccini’s Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi, one recalls, turns in part on the outcome of the Battle of Marengo (1800) between the Austrians, natural allies of the wicked Scarpia, and the French under Napoleon.

The Italians and the Germans were the principal national groups in Western and Central Europe that did not have a unified, independent state of their own. The Germans lacked both the romantic appeal of such suppressed victim nationalities as the Poles or the Irish and the rallying force of charismatic leader figures, which the Italians undoubtedly possessed, in the persons of Giuseppe Mazzini, the ideologue of Italian independence, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the revolutionary nationalist commander. Austrian efforts to preserve the status quo of 1815 in Italy and Austrian dominance over the peninsula were threatened by repeated insurrectionary attempts. In 1830, a year of turbulence following the revolution in France that overthrew the restored Bourbon monarchy, there were uprisings in Italy, which were quickly and brutally suppressed by the Austrians.

But nationalist agitation continued, fomented by such organisations as the conspiratorial Carbonari (coal-burners) and Mazzini’s Young Italy. When a more serious wave of revolution spread across Europe in 1848, again sparked by a revolution in Paris, it found a ready response in Italy, where armed opposition to Austrian rule broke out in both Milan and Venice. In Milan, a popular insurrection succeeded in expelling the Austrian garrison and maintained itself for some four months, until it was subdued by the Austrians under Field Marshal Radetzky (immortalised by Johann Strauss’s march). In Venice, the revolutionaries under Daniele Manin, the converted son of a Jewish father, seized power and held out under siege in the city until the following year.

After 1848, the cause of Italian independence became increasingly entwined with the territorial ambitions of European powers and the dynastic ambitions of European ruling houses. These were to exercise a large measure of influence over the course of events that led to Italian unification and independence. The rising power within Italy was Piedmont, the area around Turin, known as the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, and ruled by the House of Savoy. In 1848, the King of Piedmont, Charles Albert, sought to take advantage of the weakness of the Austrians in Lombardy by declaring war on them; he was defeated by Radetzky at Custoza. When he renewed hostilities in 1849, he was again defeated at Novara and forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Victor Emmanuel II.

However, the consolidation of Austrian power proved temporary, for the revolution of 1848 in France had brought to power the adventurer Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled as Emperor Napoleon III. He decided to resume the struggle with Austria for power and influence in northern Italy that had been so successfully prosecuted by his uncle, the great Napoleon I. To this end, he enlisted the support of King Victor Emmanuel and his able prime minister, Camillo Cavour. In July 1858, Napoleon III and Cavour concluded the secret pact of Plombières, under whose terms France would support Piedmont in the event of an Austrian attack; Piedmont would acquire Lombardy and Venetia, in return for Nice and Savoy, which would be ceded to France.

The Austrians, characteristically, obliged by opening hostilities in 1859. They were defeated at the battles of Magenta and Solferino, and forced to conclude peace with the French at Villafranca. However, Napoleon reneged on his agreement with Cavour, and Piedmont acquired only Lombardy, while Venetia remained Austrian. The first stage of Italian unification had thus been achieved with the help of France, partial though that proved to be. But the democratic, radical-nationalist dimension of the Italian Risorgimento, embodied by Mazzini, had been severely compromised by the power-political machinations that surrounded the war of 1859.

In 1860, Garibaldi’s forces attacked and overcame those of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which ruled Sicily and the south of Italy, with Naples as its capital. Victorious, Garibaldi handed southern Italy over to the king of Piedmont, opening the way for the proclamation of a united Italy. When the first parliament of a united Italy met in Turin in March 1861, it proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II king of Italy – Rome, the nominal capital, remained outside the new nation, as Napoleon III, bowing to Catholic sentiment in France, sent a garrison to maintain the independence of the Papal State. Indeed, when Garibaldi attempted to march on the city in 1862, he was defeated at Aspromonte by Italian government forces.

The final stages of Italian unification were achieved with the assistance of the state that proved to be the nemesis of Napoleon III’s France: Prussia. When the Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, engineered the confrontation with Austria that led to war between the two German states, he secured an alliance with Italy. In April 1866, Italy agreed to join Prussia if war against Austria was declared within three months, an alliance that effectively bound the allies to create grounds for aggression within that time. The Austro-Prussian war was decided in the latter’s favour by the decisive battle of Sadowa (Königgrätz) on 3 July 1866. Though the Italians were defeated by the Austrians on land at Custoza and at sea at Lissa, they nevertheless emerged on the winning side and acquired Venetia.

When Prussia went on to defeat France in 1870, the fall of Napoleon III stripped the pope of French support, and Rome itself at last became part of Italy. But the unification of Italy in 1861, like that of Germany in 1871, though supported by popular enthusiasm, was less than democratic in its implementation. The manipulation of the plebiscite by which the south approved its accession to the northern kingdom in 1861, memorably portrayed in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, left a lasting rift between the two halves of the country. And when a later dictator, Mussolini, hitched Italy to Hitler’s war chariot, he led the country to utter disaster.

Anthony Grenville

next article:The AJR: 70 Years On