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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.