Myth and Reality in the Risorgimento

by Dr Bruce Haddock. University of Wales, Swansea

new perspective. Volume 2. Number 2. December 1996

Summary: Politicians invent and reinvent their nation's History to add historical legitimacy to their power. This is particularly possible with a complex movement such as the Italian Risorgimento. Since 1992, the vigour of politics in Italy has given impetus to a reconsideration of Italian unification. It is now more recognised that differing views of unification were suppressed after 1861 and that an alien north Italian constitutional and administrative structure was inappropriately imposed on the south in which traditional clientele relationships were sustained, not weakened, by greater theoretical equality and opportunity after unification.

VERY MANY OF THE TASKS which professional historians set themselves involve the debunking of received political myths. This should not surprise us. We are all aware that politicians in even the most open societies are likely to pillage the past in order to bolster their positions and interests with the most persuasive arguments available. And if this involves a measure of flexibility or licence, those of us concerned to set the record straight can at least rest assured that ill-informed political comment will generate a seemingly endless stream of interesting research projects.

But what exactly is involved in this discrimination of myths from reality? In the case of dramatic events such as the Italian Risorgimento, where the semblance of a modern state was created out of disparate and unlikely materials in the course of a couple of decades, it is by no means clear what would be left after layers of political illusion had been peeled away. What we unearth in this case is not a straightforward series of events but a motley array of perceptions and aspirations, sometimes elaborated in complex theoretical and historical arguments, more usually the product ofprofound cultural changes and enthusiasms which seemed to generate a momentum of their own. At no point is it possible to isolate political developments from the wider cultural assumptions which lend significance to the Risorgimento as a movement.

Nor is it simply the case that the significance of what was happening at the time was contested by contemporaries; subsequent generations have sought to revise their views of what was at stake in the light both of their own experience and the availability of documentary evidence. Indeed, the political crisis which came to a head in Italy in 1992, triggered by widespread allegations of political corruption, has been associated with the most far-reaching reappraisal of the Italian state since the formal establishment of the post-war Republic in 1948. This has extended beyond newspapers and popular political polemics to historians themselves. They have moved beyond the conventional problem of establishing how the Italian state was formed, and why, to the much more tricky question of the legitimacy of the state. Until comparatively recently the Risorgimento had served as a legitimising myth for the Italian state, susceptible of multiple interpretations, to be sure, but always available when justification is sought for collective political endeavour. What some historians have started to suggest now, however, is that the whole thing might have been a colossal mistake.

Disappointed Men Mourn Unification

Clearly, much has changed in perceptions of the Risorgimento. The patriotic epic which captured the imagination of liberal opinion in nineteenth-century Europe is no longer seriously entertained. The traditional picture of the great triumvirate of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi somehow contributing to the larger and transcending good of the state, despite the personal interests and views which divided them, has ceased to make historical sense. The political settlement contrived for Italy in 1861 involved winners and losers. Mazzini and Garibaldi, for all that they had sacrificed the best part of their lives to the cause of Italian political unity, were aware that they had been out-manoeuvred by Cavour. The enthusiasms and pressures they had created were exploited by Cavour for his own ends. And if they managed to push him in directions he would not necessarily have chosen, the fact remains that neither felt able to endorse the state that Cavour created. Towards the end of his life Mazzini remarked bitterly that he 'had hoped to evoke the soul of Italy and instead find merely her inanimate corpse'. Historians who sought to marginalise the depth of disappointment and disillusion with the new Italian state were clearly guilty of serious distortion.

Reaction against the patriotic epic has taken various forms. In the 1950s a generation of historians influenced by the revisionist Marxism of Gramsci applied sophisticated class-analysis to the Risorgimento, arguing that an unholy alliance of liberal aristocrats, professional bourgeoisie and southern landowners had channelled genuinely democratic enthusiasms in a conservative direction, ensuring that an apparently radical reform would, in practice, secure their entrenched economic and social advantages. But, even from this more critical perspective, unification was still seen as a potentially positive phenomenon. Unification was portrayed as an opportunity for radical reform which was lost due to a combination of political naivete and bad luck. There were lessons to be learnt which subsequent radical and opposition movements could put into practice in their efforts to attain a fundamental shift in the balance of power within Italian society.

Does a United Italy make Political Sense?

Attention has shifted in the last five years from ideology and class to constitutional theory. It is no longer a question, principally, of establishing precisely how successful the liberal state was in achieving the social, economic and cultural goals which the various protagonists had anticipated, but rather of analysing the viability of the state itself. During the Risorgimento there was, in fact, a vigorous debate between unitarists and federalists which was largely disregarded once political unity was attained in 1861. This was a natural response of victors anxious to secure the spoils. Cavour and his followers had always recognised that the consensus fashioned in 1860 was precarious. The last thing they wanted was a wide-ranging discussion of fundamental constitutional issues that might threaten the specific (principally Piedmontese and Lombard) interests which had finally transformed the dreams of nationalists into a political form.

Consequences of the Imposition of 'Foreign' Laws

But the effective imposition of Piedmontese constitutional and administrative structures on the whole of Italy had consequences which liberal leaders had not anticipated. The Piedmontese élite had little understanding of the social and economic needs of southern Italy, or of the cultural assumptions which informed day-to-day life. They had simply assumed that the introduction of a modern legal system would automatically eradicate the archaic social practices which they supposed had stunted the development of southern Italy. It was presumed that hierarchical relationships between patrons and clients were incompatible with a legal system which respected the equality of all citizens before the law.

Continued Power of Clientele Relationships

The reality, however, was very different. No matter how 'modern' a legal system might look on paper, it nevertheless had to be made to work in practice. In the context of southern Italy, we should ask ourselves what the impact of widespread illiteracy might be on the functioning of such a system. Indeed, the problem is even deeper than that because it was not simply that most people could not read; even spoken Italian would not have been intelligible to people whose everyday language was one of the many dialects. Illiterate farm workers were, in practice, dependent upon the local landowner for access to the law. And yet it was precisely the local landowner whom the law was designed to protect them against. Far from breaking down traditional patron/client relationships, the new system actually increased the dependence of the poor on local notables.

Nor was this personal dependence restricted to the legal sphere. The administrative weakness of the new state was such that central authority could only be exercised through local notables. The fortune of an individual in relation to taxation, education, employment, conscription to the army and a host of similar issues could thus be dependent upon the discretion of the person from whom he rented his home and to whom he was very likely to be indebted for the purchase of primary materials. Just as in the past, therefore, the society functioned as a complex network of clientele groups, despite the new rights which were formally enshrined in the law and the impersonal language which was used to describe the relationship between the individual and the state.

Economic Effects on the South

The initial impact of unification on the south was, in fact, drastic. The removal of tariff barriers exposed emerging southern industries to competition from the north, with disastrous consequences for employment and future expectations. Indeed, it is the case to this day that competitiveness in the south has never been able to match northern levels. Industrial development has continued to depend upon subsidies from central government, reinforcing the power and patronage of local élites which act as intermediaries between the centre and local bureaucracies.

1861-5: The Silent Civil War

The political balance between north and south, however, took some time to establish itself. Dislocation in the early years after unification (1861-5) was so intense that half the resources of the Italian army were devoted to the maintenance of law and order. Official propaganda attributed unrest in the south to endemic brigandage; but, in fact, the infant state was locked in what amounted to a civil war. The government was reluctant to recognise that lawlessness might be a manifestation of a far deeper malaise. The intrinsic difficulties of legal and economic adjustment were compounded by the hostility of the Church, which had not accepted the legitimacy of the state, and the disaffection of demobilised Bourbon troops who had no employment prospects whatever.

The Unitary State as an Article of Faith

It may well be that these intractable problems would have taxed the resources of the best-run state. The new rulers of united Italy, however, felt so unsure of their position, and were so badly informed about the real situation in the south, that they could only react defensively. They could not question the nationalist rhetoric that had been such a driving force behind the Risorgimento. The assumption that political unification would automatically trigger a social, economic and cultural renaissance had become an article of faith. To question aspects of the process of unification or its outcome was tantamount to rejecting the Risorgimento as a movement. Unification on the terms of the 1861 settlement was treated as the only possible solution to the Italian question. Even constructive criticism had the taint of disloyalty. And reservations about the unitary state as such were regarded as a tacit endorsement of political fragmentation and foreign domination.

One of the principal problems in the early years of the unified state was that the range of political discussion was excessively narrow. This is doubly unfortunate when contrasted with the ferment of ideas which had contributed to the Risorgimento. No one would have suspected in 1865, for example, that federalist ideas had dominated thinking about a prospective Italian state in the 1840s, or that earlier federalist analyses of what could go wrong with a unitary state had, in the event, proved to be remarkably prescient.

The Exclusion of Dissident Voices

In effect, the history of the Risorgimento was rewritten by the victors in the 1860s, leaving controversial thinkers to be castigated or ignored. Indeed, figures who had been centrally involved found that their roles had been all but written out of the grand narrative which legitimised the Italian state. Carlo Cattaneo (1801-69), for example, was treated as an isolated eccentric. Yet he had been one of the principal leaders of the uprising in Milan in 1848 and the most authoritative contemporary commentator on the significance of that dramatic year. He was disregarded because he rejected the unitary state as an appropriate model for Italy and had little sympathy for the naive enthusiasms of orthodox nationalists. What Cattaneo sought was informed discussion based upon precise details and the best available theories. He saw political reform not as an end in itself but as a means towards concrete improvements in society and the economy. He made a name for himself as the editor of the influential Milanese journal Il Politecnico (1839-44), introducing an Italian audience to the most advanced economic, social and technical ideas available in Europe. Most important of all, he had always opposed Piedmontese aggrandisement in Italy. He saw no advantage whatever in replacing Austrian domination of northern Italy with even more obscurantist rule by Piedmont. He argued consistently that the interests of the Italian people would only be served if the achievement of independence from foreign rule guaranteed political liberty. It was thus not simply a question of creating an Italian state but of creating the right sort of state. The political fragmentation of Italy since the collapse of the Roman empire should be seen not as a problem to be overcome but as an opportunity to extend popular involvement in decision making. This would only be achieved, in Cattaneo's view, if a federal form of state were adopted.

Contemporary Reappraisal of Regionalism

The political climate in 1861 was such that Cattaneo, along with other federalist or radical theorists, was effectively excluded from the political discussion of Italy's future. Nor was the federalist contribution to the Risorgimento properly recognised until comparatively recently. What we have seen since the late 1980s, however, is a new (and more jaundiced) perception of unification and its implications for subsequent Italian political development. The difficulties encountered by the Italian political establishment precipitated a fundamental reappraisal of the way the state had emerged. Contemporary critics of the Italian state, some of them specifically endorsing federalist ideas, looked back to earlier nineteenth-century federalists for inspiration and guidance. Whether or not federalist proposals for constitutional reform have been endorsed, the force of federalist analyses of the Risorgimento has now been acknowledged. This has led to a much more positive view of the significance of the regions in modern Italian history. Where regional sentiment had once been seen as an out-moded attachment to tradition, it is now seen as a source of strength, enabling civil society to flourish in Italy despite weak and sometimes corrupt central administration and control.

Taking Stock of Current Revision

The Risorgimento now looks very different from the heroic struggle depicted in late nineteenth-century historiography. But can we be sure that historians are now closer to the truth? There is no doubt that our current grasp of detail, especially in relation to regional history, is unparalleled. Yet we should expect to re-examine some of our most basic assumptions in the light of developments in politics and culture. It is likely that contemporary interest in European integration will encourage innovative studies of the interdependence of states and economies in the nineteenth century. And close observation of the process of state-building in eastern and central Europe will sharpen our understanding of the relationship between clientele groups and central authority.

The Need to Reconsider Accounts of the Past

In the last resort, however, a complex 'event' such as the Risorgimento is always susceptible of widely different interpretations. We cannot separate what happened from different perceptions informed by shifting circumstances. Agents themselves will have changed their minds about the significance of what has occurred and may even question their own motives and wisdom. As historians we can regard ourselves as such better informed. Hindsight necessarily gives us a fuller picture. But it remains a picture seen from a particular vantage point. We cannot all expect to see a picture in precisely the same way, though some of its features are so firmly established that we can hardly imagine circumstances that would lead us to revise our judgements. Yet when we try to set the picture in its widest context, we recognise that we are dealing with a movement which was contested at the time and remains a tangled skein of competing views. The challenge of historical interpretation is surely to accept that we always need to take another look.

Words and concepts to note

aspiration: aim, pursuit of an admirable goal.

democratic: government which is answerable to elected representatives.

hierchical: steps of power and authority.

endemic: constantly recurring.

attributed: belonged to.

brigandage: activities by bandits who live outside the law.

intractable: unmanageable.

rhetoric: persuasive speech and argument.

obscurantist: a person opposed to the spread of the truth.

jaundiced: prejudiced.

archaic: old, obsolete.

Questions to consider

w In what ways was Italy united in 1861?

w Could the means of unification further or hinder social, economic and cultural unity in Italy?

w 'Comparable to the Prussian unification of Germany, Italian unification was no more than Piedmontese imperialism.' Do you agree with this statement? (In considering your answer you may find it useful to consult 'Bismarck and Cavour Compared' by Bruce Waller, in History Review, No 16, September 1993.)

w 'The silencing of Cattaneo and other federalists was a necessary policy.' With the historians' advantage of hindsight, to what extent can this claim be sustained?

Further Reading: Lucy Riall, The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society and National Unification, London, 1994; Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, Cambridge, 1994; Harry Hearder, Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento, 1790-1870, London, 1983; Stuart Wolf, A History of Italy, 1700-1860, London, 1979; Derek Beales, The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy, London, 1971; John Gooch, The Unification of Italy, London, 1986; Denis Mack Smith, ed., The Making of Italy, 1796-1870, New York and London, 1968; Bruce Haddock, 'Italy: Independence and Unification without Power', in Bruce Waller, ed., Themes in Modern European History, 1830-1890, London, 1990.

Myth and Reality in the Risorgimento by Bruce Haddock. © new perspective 1996

Dr Bruce Haddock is the author of An Introduction to Historical Thought, 1980, and Vico's Political Thought, 1986. He is currently working on a study of political ideas in nineteenth-century Italy.

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