In 1848 most of the cities of Italy were convulsed by revolution. The Austrians were driven from Milan and Venice and the Pope Pius IX, who had initially appeared to be a liberal, fled from Rome. King Charles Albert of Piedmont tried to seize the initiative by declaring war on Austria. But everywhere the revolutions failed. The Austrian army reoccupied the lost cities, and the unfortunate Charles Albert, defeated, abdicated the throne. In the south, King Ferdinand II shelled Palermo into submission (a feat that earned him the nickname of “King Bomba”), and then dismissed and imprisoned the liberal ministers whom he had only recently appointed. Gladstone, on a visit to Naples, memorably denounced his conduct as “A negation of God erected into a system of government”. Meanwhile a French army of 30,000 men, supported by Austrian and Neapolitan troops, was sent to restore Rome to the dubious benefits of Papal rule. Leading the defence of the city was Garibaldi.
Guiseppe Garibaldi was born in Nice (then part of Sardinia-Savoy) in 1807. He had qualified as a naval captain, but in 1834 had been sentenced to death in absentia for his part in a nationalist insurrection and had fled to South America. There he had learned to be a brilliant guerrilla commander in the civil wars in Uruguay before returning to Italy. It was in South America that he first dressed his followers in the famous red shirts, obtained from a company that supplied slaughterhouses. In 1849 he won the admiration of liberals throughout Europe for his defence on the Roman Republic against overwhelming force, before being obliged to withdraw in July. For months he evaded the Austrian forces before escaping overseas, though those of his followers who were captured by the Austrians were shot, and his beloved wife Anita died in the marshes near Ravenna. Garibaldi never forgave the Austrians. For the next few years Garibaldi was treated as a hero in Britain and the U.S.A., but the dream of Italian unity was still no more than a dream in the minds of idealistic republicans. Then in 1859 a new opportunity in Italy presented itself.
We shall probably never know why the French Emperor, Napoleon III, decided to sign a treaty committing himself to war with Austria, on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont and his brilliant, Machiavellian Prime Minister, Count Cavour. Quite probably the Emperor was psychologically a prisoner of the name he had inherited from his famous uncle. After the French monarchy was overthrown in the revolution of 1848 he had been elected President of the Republic for no visible reason other than his name, and then a few years later had staged a coup and proclaimed himself Emperor. But ten years after his election, he had failed to do anything “Napoleonic”, unless joining with Britain in the Crimean War is deemed to count. So why not intervene in Italy? This was where his great uncle had first made his name, fighting and defeating the Austrians back in the 1790s. In his younger days Louis Napoleon had been associated with republican Italian societies like the Carbonari, but so far his only intervention there had been to send a French army to reclaim Rome for the Papacy in 1849. Then in 1858 he was lucky to survive a bomb thrown in the street by an Italian extremist named Orsini. But despite this he met secretly with Cavour at Plombieres that summer, and, without the French foreign minister being informed, they plotted for war in Italy. Some means would be found of provoking a war between Austria and Piedmont, following which 200,000 French troops would intervene to drive the Austrians from Milan and Venice. This secret treaty was made to resemble some deal from an earlier century by the additional provisos that Savoy and Nice would be handed over to France, and King Victor Emmanuel’s 16-year-old daughter Clotilde would be given in marriage to Napoleon’s cousin, who was 19 years her senior and rejoiced in the strange nickname of “Plon-plon”. (The unfortunate Clotilde was labelled by cynics “The first casualty of the war”. The marriage was not a great success)
Yet no sooner had Cavour begun to engineer a confrontation with Austria than the Emperor got cold feet and tried to renege on his promises by suggesting that the dispute should be solved by international arbitration. Cavour was in despair, but the situation was saved by the Austrians, who not only insisted on punishing the Piedmontese but then moved their troops so slowly that they had failed to crush them before the French armies had crossed the Alps. The Emperor accompanied his armies as nominal commander-in-chief, but once more revealed his un-Napoleonic side by looking on appalled by the slaughter and the suffering of the wounded as the Austrians were defeated in the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino in June 1859. Garibaldi meanwhile led a guerrilla campaign along the Alpine foothills that successfully outflanked the Austrians, driving them from Brescia and Bergamo. The superstitious peasant soldiers of the Austrian army feared him greatly.
But Louis Napoleon, much shaken by his experience of battle, now signed a separate treaty with the Austrians at Villafranca. King Victor Emmanuel gained Milan for Piedmont, but the Austrians were left in possession of Venice. Many Italian nationalists regarded this as outright betrayal. On the other hand, it is clear that neither Cavour nor Napoleon was thinking in terms of Italian unification: the Catholic Church in France would never have accepted any loss of the Pope’s temporal power; the Russians and Prussians were deeply hostile to what had happened, and even Queen Victoria was alarmed at what looked like a major extension of French power’
Under the terms of the Plombieres agreement, a plebiscite was now held in Nice, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody it was announced that there had been a large majority in favour of a transfer to French rule. Garibaldi was furious at the handing over of his native city and he had not forgiven the French for crushing the Roman Republic a decade earlier. He seriously contemplated a war against the French to recover Nice, but was persuaded by his friends to look elsewhere. Next year an opportunity presented itself..
(To be continued)
(To be continued)