Italy before and after Napoleon

by Ben Alford

What wasItalylike before Napoleon?

Until 1796,Italyis divided into many states for historical reasons:

  • Foreign control of land inItaly. eg.Spainin the South.
  • City states were the basis for wealth and government since the 15th century onwards.
  • The Papacy had always retained control over its own land.

Napoleonic occupation, 1796-1815

1796, Napoleon invadedItalyand by 1799 the whole of the peninsular exceptVenetia(Austrian). The result:

  • DividedItalyinto three:
    • TheKingdomofItaly.
    • TheKingdomofNaples.
    • The rest was absorbed into the French Empire.
  • Representative government was introduced along French lines with elected assemblies. The old states had been autocratic and conservative.
  • Italian laws were standardised with the French legal codes.
  • There was a shift of power from the upper classes to the middle classes.
  • These caused both nationalism (pro-Italy and anti-France) and liberalism to grow. An early factor in the development of the Risorgimento (the movement to uniteItaly).

1815, Napoleon is defeated at the Battle of Waterloo:

  • The Congress of Vienna is set up, representing the conservative forces ofEurope, and led by Metternich of Austria.
  • The Congress of Vienna restoresItalyto its pre-Napoleonic state. Reasons:
    • To make it difficult forFranceto regain its former power.
    • To stop nationalist and liberal movements growing by restoring autocracies.

Italyreturned to its pre-Napoleonic state

The states ofItalyfrom 1815 onwards, with much Austrian influence over most:

  • NaplesandSicily(the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), the South ofItaly:
    • Ruled by Ferdinand I, a Spanish Bourbon.
    • The area was poverty-stricken, largely rural, mostly illiterate peasants.
    • Autocratic rule; cruel and `efficient’.


  • ThePapal States:
    • Pope has temporal control, as well as spiritual control (ie. control of both Church and State). Popes were invariably Italian.
    • The clergy had a stronghold over freedom of expression: the Inquisition and torture.
    • The Pope was despotic and relied on Austrian force to keep control.
    • Very backward, mostly rural, 2% literacy rurally.


  • Modena,ParmaandTuscany:
    • Three independent duchies (areas ruled by dukes).
    • Fairly good rulers, but all linked to the Austrian Habsburgs




  • LombardyandVenetia:
    • A new kingdom formed under an Austrian viceroy (a `vice-king’) — direct Austrian control.
    • The richest part ofItaly.
      • Lombardywas the most fertile province for agriculture.
      • Venetiawas the richest trading centre.
    • Government was well-organised: a strict police force, organised spying, censorship, no freedom of speech, thousands of political prisoners, as well as high taxes and dissatisfaction.


  • Piedmont(aka. theKingdomofSardinia):
    • Ruled by King Victor Emmanuel I.
    • Conservative and reactionary, but popular since he was Italian (from the House of Savoy). This was the only truly Italian-ruled state.
    • A fairly poor country.

The revolts of 1820

Revolt inNaples, 1820


  • 1815, Ferdinand I is restored.
  • 1818, Ferdinand increases his power: censorship, freedom of expression impossible. He is also in financial trouble, so cuts back on public spending.
  • 1820, revolution inSpaincauses a revolution inNaples, led by a priest, and supported by 100 cavalry NCOs (non-commissioned officers), 30 Carbonari (a secret society of nationalists). Gained support, General Pepe took over.


  • Ferdinand grants a new constitution.
  • The Carbonari promise to reform the Church and redistribute land to peasants.

Revolt inSicily, 1820


  • Movement inSicilyfor separation fromNaples.
  • Riot inPalermofollowing the riot inNaples.
  • Middle class opposed separatism, and were prepared to use force againstSicily.

Austrian action:

  • Metternich was worried about the success of the revolt inNaples.
  • Ferdinand `asked’ him to intervene.
  • Austrians invaded and regained control. Severe repressions followed of the revolt leaders.

Revolt inPiedmont, 1820


  • Victor Emmanuel I wiped out all traces of French improvement and returned to old, autocratic and conservative ways.
  • The spark for the revolt was news of theNaplesrevolt.


  • Victor Emmanuel I abdicates in favour of Charles Albert, who ruled as regent.
  • Charles Albert grants a liberal constitution and supports the revolt.
  • 1821, the Austrians intervene and put the revolt down (with Piedmontese help) at the battle of Nevara.
  • Charles Felix (the brother of Victor Emmanuel I) is now king. He reimposes an autocratic and repressive regime. He remains king until 1831.Piedmontis returned to a conservative state.

All the 1820 revolts have failed.

The revolts of 1831

General points:

  • Mixed causes, as before.
  • Ideas of unification more advanced, but still based on the Carbonari.
  • Sparked off by events inFrance.
  • Liberalism still important as well.

Revolt inModena:

  • Masterminded by Enrico Misley, who wanted a unitedItalyand constitutional government. However, he was betrayed by Duke Francesco IV ofModena, who had offered support.
  • Riots ensued, spreading toParma, and were put down by local troops. Savage reprisals followed.
  • The revolt had failed.

Revolt in thePapal States:

  • Professional middle classes opposed clerical rule (anti-theocracy).
  • Savagely repressed by papal troops.

Assessment of 1820/31 revolts:

  • Weakened by being localised/ parochial.
  • Movements were not co-ordinated.
  • Mainly middle classes interests after initial revolt: support lacking.
  • Middle class had no army. The Austrians did.



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