Issues Relevant to U.S. Foreign Diplomacy: Unification of Italian States


For many centuries, the Italian peninsula was a politically fragmented conglomeration of states. This was the case when the United States announced its independence from Great Britain in 1776. When war broke out between Austria and the Revolutionary French Government in 1792, the French invaded the Italian peninsula, consolidated many of the Italian states, and established them as republics. In 1799 the Austrian and Russian armies pushed the French out of the Italian peninsula, which led to the demise of the fledgling republics.

After Napoleon’s rise to power, the Italian peninsula was once again conquered by the French. Under Napoleon, the peninsula was divided into three entities: the northern parts which were annexed to the French Empire (Piedmont, Liguria, Parma, Piacenza, Tuscany, and Rome), the newly created Kingdom of Italy (Lombardy, Venice, Reggio, Modena, Romagna, and the Marshes) ruled by Napoleon himself, and the Kingdom of Naples, which was first ruled by Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, but then passed to Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat.

The period of French invasion and occupation was important in many ways. It introduced revolutionary ideas about government and society, resulting in an overthrow of the old established ruling orders and the destruction of the last vestiges of feudalism. The ideals of freedom and equality were very influential. Also of consequence, the concept of nationalism was introduced, thus sowing the seeds of Italian nationalism throughout most parts of the northern and central Italian peninsula.

With the downfall of Napoleon in 1814 and the redistribution of territory by the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), most of the Italian states were reconstituted: the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (often referred to as Sardinia), the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Parma, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (fused together from the old Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily). These were largely conservative regimes, presided over by the old social orders.

Although the Italian peninsula remained fragmented through the mid-1800s, the concept of a united Italy began to take root. Secret societies formed to oppose the conservative regimes. Several of these societies also promoted Italian nationalism and the idea of a unified Italian political state. One such society was the group Young Italy, founded in 1831 by Guiseppe Mazzini. Mazzini was an ardent advocate of the necessity for Italian unification through the desires and actions of the Italian people. Thus, the movement of Italian unification, a process referred to as the Risorgimento (resurgence) proliferated by mid-century.

The revolutions of 1848 ignited nationalist sentiment throughout the Italian peninsula. There were widespread uprisings in several Italian cities that year, mostly by the professional classes (such as doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers) as well as students. Lombardy-Venetia and Milan tried to rise up against Austrian rule. Although the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia sent troops to aid the revolt, it was crushed by the Austrians at Custoza in July 1848. The Italian uprisings were unsuccessful and by 1849 the old regimes were once again in place.

Yet, the idea of the Risorgimento continued to gain adherents after 1848. The final push for Italian unification came in 1859, led by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (then the wealthiest and most liberal of the Italian states), and orchestrated by Piedmont-Sardinia’s Prime Minister, Count Camillo di Cavour. A skilled diplomat, Cavour secured an alliance with France. The Franco-Austrian War of 1859 was the agent that began the physical process of Italian unification. The Austrians were defeated by the French and Piedmontese at Magenta and Solferino, and thus relinquished Lombardy. By the end of the year Lombardy was added to the holdings of Piedmont-Sardinia.

The northern Italian states held elections in 1859 and 1860 and voted to join the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, a major step towards unification, while Piedmont-Sardinia ceded Savoy and Nice to France. Giuseppi Garibaldi, a native of Piedmont-Sardinia, was instrumental in bringing the southern Italian states into the unification process. In 1860, Garibaldi cobbled together an army (referred to as the “Thousand”) to march into the southern part of the peninsula. Landing first in Sicily and then moving onwards into Naples, Garibaldi and his men overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and turned over the southern territories to Victor Emmanuel II, King of Piedmont-Sardinia. In early 1861 a national parliament convened and proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy, with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. At this point, there were only two major territories outside of the parameters of the new Kingdom of Italy: Rome and Venetia.

In 1866 Italy joined Prussia in a campaign against Austria (the 1866 Austro-Prussian War) and thus won Venetia. In 1870, taking advantage of the fact that France (the country responsible at the time for guarding the Papal States) was distracted by involvement in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the Italian army entered Rome. That year, Rome and the Papal States were incorporated into Italy and the Risorgimento completed. During the summer of 1871, the Italian capital moved to Rome from Florence (it was moved from Turin to Florence in 1865).

Major Events

Franco-Austrian War, 1859.

After striking an alliance with Napoleon III’s France, Piedmont-Sardinia provoked Austria to declare war in 1859, thus launching the conflict that served to unify the northern Italian states together against their common enemy: the Austrian Army. The Austrians suffered military defeats at Magenta and Solferino, and a ceasefire was agreed to at Villafranca. In the peace negotiations, Austria ceded Lombardy to France, which then ceded it to Piedmont-Sardinia.

Proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, 1861.

The aftermath of the Franco-Austrian War brought about a series of plebiscites in the northern Italian states. By going to the ballot box, the states voted to join Piedmont-Sardinia, with the ultimate goal of unifying the entire peninsula. It should be noted that Piedmont-Sardinia was one of the more powerful states in the peninsula, as well as having one of the most liberal political systems. Garibaldi’s march to “liberate” the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1860 brought the southern peninsula into the fold, and the new Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed on March 17, 1861, with the royal family of Piedmont-Sardinia as the new ruling monarchs of Italy.

U.S. Recognition of Italian Independence, 1861.

The United States officially recognized the Kingdom of Italy when it accepted the credentials of Chevalier Joseph Bertinatti as Minister Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Italy on April 11, 1861.

Addition of Venetia, 1866.

The Kingdom of Italy added Venetia to its holdings in 1866 following the Austrian defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War.

Incorporation of Rome, 1870.

French troops were the main barrier to Italian occupation of the Papal States after 1867; however, when France declared war upon Prussia in the summer of 1870, the Italians took advantage of the situation. With French resources allocated to the struggle of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Napoleon III ordered his troops out of the Italian peninsula. The Italians entered the Papal States in September 1870 and, through the backing of a plebiscite held in early October, annexed the Papal States and Rome to the Kingdom of Italy.

U.S. Legation to the Kingdom of Italy moves to Florence and then Rome, 1865-71.

When the Kingdom of Italy moved its seat of government from Turin to Florence in 1865, the U.S. Legation followed. During the summer of 1871, the Italian capital moved from Florence to Rome, reflecting the completion of unification. George P. Marsh, as U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary, oversaw the move of the U.S. Legation from Turin to Florence in 1865 and from Florence to Rome in 1871.

Overall Impact upon U.S. Foreign Policy

The history of recognitions (and the establishment of relations, where applicable) between the United States and the Italian states impacted several different areas of U.S. policy, including:

Trade and Commerce. The industrialization process that swept through the northern United States in the early nineteenth century spread through the northern and central Italian states in the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, the Italian states (and after 1861, the Kingdom of Italy) and the United States both sought to cultivate trade and commercial ties for mutual benefit.

Immigration and Citizenship. By the 1870s Italian immigration to the New World (both to the United States as well as to Argentina, amongst other South American countries) began to increase. Indeed, some of the “fathers” of modern Italy spent time in the United States. Garibaldi spent enough time in the U.S. to gain a U.S. passport, and was offered a commission in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

U.S. Civil War. The unification of the Italian states impacted the foreign policy of the United States in numerous ways. Perhaps the issue that had the most immediate impact upon U.S. foreign policy in the early 1860s was over the question of recognition of the U.S. Confederacy. The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed just as the U.S. Civil War began. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to ensure that the new Italian state did not recognize the U.S. Confederacy. Washington also worried that, with Italy’s long coastline, Confederate ships might seek shelter in Italian waters. With this in mind, the Italian government gave “strong assurances that no Confederate ship would be admitted to Italian ports unless it was a question of adverse weather conditions or other vis major.”