Italian Nationalism notes

by Ben Alford

Some notes on Italian Nationalism Pre-1848



Nationalists supported the idea of a united nation bound by a common tradition, language or religion, rather than holding their loyalties towards an individual ruler. In fact, Nationalism undermined the “ancient regime”, although there was not so much concern about who a specific leader should be, but more of a desire for unity. Nationalism was supported mainly by the middle classes inItalywho wanted to preserve their history and culture. After 1815 Nationalism was strongest among people divided into many states and under foreign influence, hence the popularity throughoutItaly.


This idea supported the public’s right to political power, which should be shared with the monarchy. To many, liberalism was only a means to power for those with money – a greater freedom for the individual. Liberalism would see the limitation of the monarch’s power- a constitutional republican government would give the upper/middle classes a say in the running of the country. Therefore Liberalism was not widely supported inItalybecause of a lack of benefits or inclusion of the working classes. Political rights, according to Liberalism, should only extend to those who paid taxes and owned property; hence all lower class people were excluded

Problems facing Nationalism and Liberalism in 1815

Congress of Vienna

After the French Revolution of 1789 Metternich managed to persuade all the major European powers of the time to redraw borders acrossEuropein order to stem the spread of nationalist sentiment. They achieved such stemming inItalyby restoring the prenapoleonic ruling families into their redefined separate states. Heavy taxing on commerce across the borders and lack of good communication led to the confinement of nationalism and liberalism in pockets near the French border. Absolutist duchies that were connected to the Habsburgs of Germany therefore held control over a dividedItaly, which was now seen as a ‘geographical expression’ rather than social or economical.

Geographical Expression

The divided Italian peninsula held little hope of spreading Nationalism or Liberalism not only due to the physical divisions drawn up in theViennaconference but by the Italian people themselves. The vast array of states each with their own sub cultures and dialects held small interest in wanting to unite. Each Duchy had its own grievances or petty differences with the other and the inhabitants preferred to refer to themselves as Piedmontese or Neopolitan rather than Italian. This lack of national loyalty proved to became a problem that Mazzini later came to defeat with the help of their common hatred for German rule and foreign intervention (bitter memories of the French occupation still remained). Apart from those weak common hatreds the Italian population were divided within themselves as much socially as geographically.

Political Apathy

The huge majority of the Italian population consisted of peasants who had the hard toils of everyday life and devotedness to their religion to think about before they could even consider the romantic notions of Nationalism and Liberalism. Most of them couldn’t read or had time to hear others talking about these ideas of unity and freedom, instead they chose to take little interest in the movements and continued on with life as normal. The Catholic domination of the Italian region, especially in thePapal States, also stifled the spread of new ideas and led the population to dismiss Nationalist and Liberalist sentiments in the name of faith.


Italyhad a very backward economy, mainly due to the expensive and bad inter-border trade and the domination of the Austrian empire over the economy. Metternich deliberately wanted to suppress the Italian economy as many felt that its success may lead to Nationalist and Liberalist sentiment in the Italian peninsula.
To add to this, the frontiers were frequently jumping about providing instability to the economic and social state of each Italian state.

 Italian nationalism in the 1830s

There were numerous reasons why Italian nationalism expanded during the 1830s, people were tired of the oppressive Austrian rule and domination and felt that the only way to progress was to become united. The increasing rise of Italian nationalism in the 1830s was linked to the idea of The Risorgimento. The Risorgimento was at the heart of unification and therefore was at the heart of increasing nationalist feelings at the time. The theory of The Risorgimento was that it was the cultural, social and political rebirth ofItaly, and there were many people and growing political groups who supported this idea thatItalyneeded to reform in all of these aspects especially politically.

However, although people agreed that unification was needed forItalyto progress there were many differences in how it should come about between different nationalist groups. There were the Republicans who wanted the abolition of the monarchies in favour of republican/democratic institutions. One of the most well known Republicans at this time was Giuseppe Mazzini. From his nationalist feelings he founded an association called ‘Young Italy’ who worked towards his goals. Mazzini felt that the removal of Austrian dominance was the key to national revival.

There were the monarchists (Piedmontese) who wanted to lead a revolt against the Austrians and set up a Northern kingdom complete with a constitutional government and freedom of press, and they felt they could do this as they were the most economically developed of all the states. This idea of Piedmont-Sardinia supremacy was reinforced by certain political writings, and one of the supporters of this was Cesare Balbo who wrote ‘The Hopes of Italy’. Balbo and the monarchists saw the expulsion of the Austrian rule from the Italian peninsula as an essential precondition for reform.

And finally, there were the nationalists who were in favour of a confederation of Italian states. Outside of Piedmont-Sardinia federalism was seen as the best way forward. An influential supporter and writer of federalist ideas was Vincenzo Gioberti, he believed the Pope should be at the head of the confederation and the Italian national revival, but expressed little opposition to the Austrian rule.

However, there seemed to be agreement thatItalyneeded to reform and progress and this meant that new and different political ideas came to light in order for this to happen.


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