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The Italian Sesquicentennial Revisited

Unification Logo

Unification Logo

History abounds with ironies, and one of the most poignant is surely the story of the political unification of Italy. United during the late Roman Republican period (~100 BC), Italy became fragmented following the fall of the Empire in the 5th century AD. It was to remain fragmented for more than a millennium, variously dominated by either foreign or domestic dynasties. The great period of the Renaissance was characterized by the ascendancy of indigenous autocratic rulers and by a the well-known efflorescence in the arts and sciences. The Renaissance came to an end with the advent of foreign rulers, notably the Spanish, the French, and the Austrians.

The ideals of the French Revolution and the dissemination of these ideals during the Napoleonic Era gave a great impetus to irredentist tendencies in Italy. The time had come for a national state, the Congress of Vienna could not put the genie back in the bottle. The Kingdom of Sardinia (which was ruled by the Savoia and included Piedmont, Liguria and Val d’Aosta) took the lead in trying to unify the Peninsula, and went to war three times with the Austro-Hungarian empire, which held large swathes of the territory. The result of these three Wars of Independence (1848 to 1866), together with the conquest and annexation of the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples) in 1860, was essentially the united Italy we know today. The Austrians still clung to some disputed territory in the Northeast (notably Trieste and Trento), but the Italians managed to recover these cities following the first World War, in 1918. Further territorial adjustments were made after World War II, and voila’ contemporary Italy!

The architects of the Unification are four in number, and their names are strewn all over the Italian cityscape. Best-known is probably Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of two worlds, who turned down a request by Lincoln to join the Union armies; then there was the indomitable republican revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini, whose work was mostly done in exile; then the crafty Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, whose clever diplomacy put Italy in the middle of European affairs and resulted in key alliances; and of course the Savoy King, Vittorio Emanuele II, who became the first King of Italy since Theodoric.

Alexandre Dumas and Italian Unification

The military and political events unfolding during the unification of Italy in 1860 are full of fascinating details.  F.W.J. Hemmings, in his biography of Alexandre Dumas (yes, the swashbuckling author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo), writes:

“As recompense for the services he had rendered the cause of Italian unity, Dumas had, almost playfully, made two requests of Garibaldi: that when Naples was taken, he should be issued with a license to shoot game in the Capodimonte reservation; and that excavations at Pompei should be started up again under his personal supervision”.  Subsequently, the official title of Director of Excavations and Museums of the City of  Naples was conferred on Dumas.

However, the nomination did not meet with the approval of the people of Naples, who demonstrated in the streets until, to Dumas’ great chagrin, it was rescinded.

In a letter to Garibaldi Dumas wrote: “Do you want to be King of Naples?  You have almost as good a chance as M. Murat, and a better one than King Victor Emmanuel”

and, again quoting Hemmings:

”What chiefly kept Dumas in Naples, after the collapse of his high hopes of major archaeological discoveries in Pompei, was the editorship of the daily newspaper L’Indipendente, which started publication on October 11, 1960….he was able to compose and serialize a history of Naples between 1804 and 1815, under the title I Borboni di Napoli – a complete misnomer, of course”

Italian Sesquicentennial

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian Risorgimento hero.


This year (2011) is the sesquicentennial year (150th anniversary) of the unification of Italy.  Celebrations and commemorative events are being planned by Italian communities across the world, so, if you live in a city with a notable Italian presence, you may want to be on the lookout for such events.

Most thinking Italians will be aware of a couple of bittersweet ironical twists attending to these celebrations.  First, in the last couple of decades, the Italian polity has witnessed the rise of centrifugal forces which have tended to break up the country.  The fact that Northern and Southern Italy are separated by a deep cultural divide is undeniable: there are many in Italy who would like to realign the political reality to reflect these divisions.  The celebration of the anniversary of the unification, never a significant anniversary before in Italy, serves to combat these centrifugal tendencies.