Mazzini’s ‘Young Italy’



The situation facing the forces of liberalism and nationalism in Italy in 1830 was apparently more hopeless than that facing the same forces in Germany. The German Confederation, however inadequate as a form of national expression, did at least provide a common meeting place for the delegates of the princes; in Italy there was no such confederation, but all the states were totally independent of each other.

The Arrest of the Carbonari by Italian School, 19th century, colour lithograph

The Arrest of the Carbonari by Italian School, 19th century, colour lithograph

In Germany a few states had constitutions; in Italy there was not a single elected assembly in the whole peninsula. In one sense, however, the Italian nationalists were to have a more clear-cut case to fight for than the Germans had. A foreign power, Austria, occupied two of the richest and most Italian of Italian regions—Lombardy and Venetia. Austria made a more convincing common enemy for all Italians than France made for all Germans. But the revolutions which broke out in Italy in 1831 were mainly concerned with the securing of a change of government in the individual states, and were anyhow limited to central Italy.

In February there were risings against the rulers of the small duchies of Parma and Modena, and in Bologna and the nearby towns of the Papal Legations, as the outlying northern part of the Papal States was called, there was a movement to abolish the temporal power of the pope. In the duchies some of the revolutionary leaders had vaguely nationalistic aims, but the movement did not spread to Lombardo-Venetia. One of the leaders in Bologna wrote that the revolution must be, `in the end, national, not municipal’, but no one in the Papal States was more explicit. The more tangible aim in the legations was to get rid of the pope’s corrupt judicial system. On the death of the pro-Austrian pope, Pius VIII, in 1831, an anti-Austrian cardinal was elected, and became Gregory XVI.

Pope Gregory XVI

Pope Gregory XVI

In spite of a determination not to be dominated by Metternich, Gregory was as conservative in his domestic policy as his immediate predecessors had been. He had no intention of surrendering any of the temporal power, or of reducing the clerical control of the administration. His reign as pope was one of the most static and least imaginative in the history of the papacy. A revolutionary assembly was elected in Bologna, but both this and the government established there—which called itself the Provisional Government of the Italian United Provinces—were dispersed by Austrian intervention, as were those in Parma and Modena. The liberals of Bologna, mostly from the professions, were not men of action, though many of them belonged to the Carbonari. The older secret societies, of which the Carbonari was the chief, were largely discredited by the failure of 1831.

Initiation of a 'carbonaro'

Initiation of a ‘Carbonaro’

One young member of the Carbonari, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72), who was captured and imprisoned briefly in 1831, spent his days of forced solitude in planning a new secret society which would be less theatrical than the Carbonari, younger in its members, and more clearly dedicated to the concept of a free and united Italy. For the first time Italian nationalism received an articulate aim: freedom from Austria and the priests, and unity as a democratic republic.’ Released from prison, but exiled, Mazzini went to Marseilles, where he founded his new underground society, calling it La Giovine Italia, or Young Italy.

Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini,oil on canvas,  by Italian School, 19th century

Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini,oil on canvas, by Italian School, 19th century

Its immediate aim was to build up all over Italy little groups of idealists who accepted Mazzini’s nationalist doctrines and would be ready for the revolution when it came or for any sacrifice demanded of them. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s the followers of Young Italy grew in number. As the nationalist educator of Italian middle-class youth Mazzini had a role of immense significance. But specific attempts at revolution failed. The authorities of Sardinia-Piedmont discovered a conspiracy in 1832. Charles Albert, who had become king the year before, was believed to have liberal sympathies, but did nothing to encourage such beliefs, suppressing the rising with some energy. Mazzini meanwhile moved to Switzerland and in 1834 tried to organize an invasion of Piedmont through Savoy by a small force of exiles. The attempt was again put down by the authorities with little effort. In the 1840s a nationalist movement of a very different kind developed in Italy.

Italy 1829

If European romanticism had produced the anti-clerical nationalism of Mazzini, it produced after 1840 a movement usually referred to as neo-guelfism—a movement which looked to the pope lead a regeneration of Italy. In political terms the movement was somewhat impractical from the beginning, but in historical terms it was true that the popes of the middle ages had often protected Italy from foreign aggressors, and a cult of the middle ages was one of the aspects of the romantic revival of these years. The leading figure in the neo-guelf movement was the Piedmontese abbot, Vincenzo Gioberti.

An exile until 1833, in 1834 Gioberti had attacked the Mazzinians after the failure of the Savoy expedition. Gioberti believed that an armed rising of the Mazzinian kind, even if it succeeded initially, would lead only to Austrian intervention. His own proposals were made in a work published in 1843, called The Moral and Civil Primacy of the Italians. As its title suggests, the book was a eulogy of Italian history and culture, which were contrasted with the prevailing lowly political state of Italy. The remedy Gioberti proposed was for the princes of Italy to retain their sovereignties, but to unite into a confederation under the presidency of the pope.

Vincenzo Gioberti

Vincenzo Gioberti

There were weaknesses in Gioberti’s scheme: in the first place, he accepted the survival of the princes and dukes only because he believed it would be too difficult eject them, though, of course, he wanted them to introduce broad reforms in their own states; in the second place, the role given to the king of Sardinia was a vague one: Gioberti described him as ‘the sword of Italy’, but was not more explicit; in the third place, it seemed unlikely in 1843 that the pope would accept the presidency of Italy; and finally, Gioberti made no mention of Austria, who could not be excluded from his confederation without war.


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