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Analyse the aims, motives and policies of Cavour between 1852 and 1861

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  • Category: Italy Rome

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Cavour was a very important, if not key player in the reunification of Italy in the 1800s. His role in Italian unification is widely debated, as are is aims and underlying motives. Many hold contrasting views as to whether he was an Italian nationalist or merely a Piedmontese expansionist, and the subject is still a controversial one to this day. The existence of many wide-ranging sources which often challenge each other on the subject does not make the task of determining what drove Cavour any easier for scholars. It is often agreed, however, that Cavour was a very important catalyst in the unification of Italy, wittingly or not. In this essay I shall examine Cavour’s role in Italy in the period between 1852 and 1861, and attempt to determine his intentions.

After holding various posts in government and parliament alike, Cavour became premier or prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1852. As prime minister, Cavour undertook many reforms which many deemed controversial at the time. His reforms largely liberalised the state, and also modernized it in many ways. Prior to Cavour’s becoming prime minister, Piedmont-Sardinia had introduced reforms which ran counter to the Church, the most striking example of which was the abolishment in 1848 of ecclesiastical courts, as well as the introduction of civil marriage (as opposed to Church marriage).

These policies were met with protests from the pope at the time, Pope Pius IX. What was started in 1848 was continued with Cavour during his time as premier: a new policy by Cavour ordered the closure of half of the monastic houses within Piedmont-Sardinian territory. Cavour also conducted other reforms, including modernization of transport by building many miles of railway (Piedmont alone had over 800km of railroads at one point), economic alterations (reducing customs duties, founding state saving banks) and agricultural improvements, military development (the number of Piedmontese troops increased from 5,000 to 50,000).

It can be seen that the policies and reforms introduced by Cavour have a liberal trend, testimony to Cavour’s moderate nature. It can be seen that he was a very liberal man as he wanted to limit the power of the Church (and subsequently reduce the Pope’s power), aimed to facilitate and encourage trade and modernize industry as well as revitalize the economy. These reforms seemed to meet success, as trade in Piedmont is recorded as having doubled during the 1950s. His connubio or political alliance with Urbano Ratazzi of the left-centre also testified as to his political inclinations. Piedmont, during his period in office, was also the only state in Italy to allow and encourage free speech and free press, as exemplified by his founding (in 1947) of the Liberal Daily, “Il Risorgimento”.

Camillo Cavour was also, during his time as prime minister of Piedmont, responsible for involving Italy in international affairs, and raising the attention of foreign powers to the power struggle that was effectively going on in the peninsula during that time. An example of this is his involvement in the Crimean War in 1855, in which he allied himself with England and France, sending troops to help the two major powers in their war effort (it was not a large force, but it certainly was a token contribution which earned gratitude from the major powers, and it helped include Italy once again in European affairs) earning prestige for Piedmont.

It is evident his motive for doing all of the above was to raise Piedmont-Sardinia’s profile internationally, seeking to project a liberal image abroad and raise support of Italian patriots at home.

In 1856 Cavour presented the Italian case before the Congress of Paris and the “tribunal of world opinion” (exposing his case to the world and attempting to get international support for his cause). Naturally, Napoleon III was present, and Cavour used this opportunity to ingratiate himself with the emperor, whom he saw as a potential ally. By this point Count Cavour had realised that international support would be essential to him in the furthering of his cause, and that he needed a strong ally such as France, one of the main powers in Europe at that time, to do this. It is of interest to note that Napoleon III had been a member of the secret Carbonari society in the Papal States and elsewhere during 1930-1931, which sought to win liberal, constitutional and national reform. This coupled with the fact that foreign action in support of Italy would also win him support at home and that his attempted assassination involved him more deeply in Italian politics, means that Napoleon’s support for Cavour was almost guaranteed. It is probable that Cavour knew this, and thus took full advantage of the fact.

By now it seemed Cavour had earned himself some adversaries as well, however, such as prominent political figures Giuseppe Mazzini and Pallavicino. An illustration of this rivalry lies in this extract of a letter Mazzini sent to Cavour in 1856:

“Between you and us, sir, an abyss yawns. We represent Italy, you the old, covetous, faint hearted ambitions of the house of Savoy. We desire above all National Unity. You, territorial aggrandisement for Piedmont…”

This shows that Cavour was already under suspicion from hard-line republicans and Italian nationalists to be supporting Piedmont more than Italy as a whole.

His next actions did not help to improve his image with them, however, as can be seen by the Plombieres pact of 1858. This was a secret meeting between Napoleon and Cavour in which a deal was struck: In exchange for two Italian regions, Nice and Savoy, France would help Piedmont drive out the Austrians from the territories they occupied, sending 200,000 French troops to this end. The informal part of this pact envisaged Piedmont annexing Lombardy-Venetia and several smaller territories, thus being enlarged into a North Italian Kingdom. Cavour now had to lure the Austrians into battle, which he did by commencing mobilisation. This had the desired effect, as Austria sent Piedmont an ultimatum stipulating that Piedmont should return to peacetime footing. This was refused, and the Austrians declared war.

This is a perfect example of Cavour’s Machiavellian politics, showing how he took advantage of situations and indulged in complex strategies (some might say ‘devious’) to further his own cause. This was later to be called ‘Realpolitik’, or ‘practical politics’. Another instance of this was Cavour in 1856 leading Garibaldi to believe that he was on his side, and that he was “seriously thinking about the great political redemption” of Italy, only to oppose him later. This really shows the extent to which Cavour was a flexible and adaptive politician.

The first two battles against Austria were won by the Piedmontese and French armies, and this was enough to arouse popular support throughout Italy in favour of Piedmont-Sardinia. Many throughout Italy now wanted to join the Piedmontese kingdom, and the Austrians were effectively driven out of Italy. Nevertheless, a number of factors (including the build-up of Prussian forces, threatening France) forced France to sign a peace treaty with the Austrians, the treaty of Villafranca, which Napoleon did without consulting Cavour. Cavour resigned from his position in disgust, feeling betrayed by Napoleon and Victor-Emmanuel II. He returned to his position in January 1860.

Garibaldi’s revolt in Sicily in 1860 was publicly denounced by Cavour, who reportedly felt that if Piedmont-Sardinia was to amass too much power so quickly it would pose a threat to the Papal States and foreign intervention (against Piedmont) would result. Cavour arranged for some unrest to take place within Umbria and the Marches as a cover for the movement of a Piedmontese army into these Church territories “to restore order.” The Piedmontese army proceeded southwards, through some of the territories of the Church, in order to meet with and dissuade an assault on Rome by Garibaldi. When the Piedmontese forces encountered Garibaldi’s, Garibaldi decided to surrender his gains to Victor-Emmanuel II, whom he hailed as “the first King of Italy”.

Plebiscites confirmed that Naples, Sicily and the Papal States to the East of the Apennines wanted to join Piedmont.

At this point, after Victor-Emmanuel II was crowned King of Italy, Cavour declared that the capital of Italy must be Rome and none other. He then proceeded to enter negotiations with the Church so that the Papal States would be included in the newly appointed Kingdom of Italy, offering the Church freedom from taxation, guarantees on its income and a respected position in exchange for a separation of Church and State and King Victor-Emmanuel exercising “governmental control”. The Pope adamantly refused, however, saying this corner of the Earth was “his” and that only Christ himself could make him surrender it.

Cavour died later that year, in June 1861.

In conclusion, it is evident after having examined Cavour’s policies and role in Italy from 1852 to 1861 that he played an extensive and critical role in its reunification. Many historians disagree as to his real motives, which is understandable seeing as how he was very manipulative and flexible, exercising ‘realpolitik’ throughout his political career (which resulted in clouding his real motives and arousing suspicion by many). Some, such as Arthur J. Whyte, view Cavour as a fervent nationalist whose goal was and always had been the reunification of Italy and its restoration to former glory while others, such as L.C.B Seaman, are more sceptical and view Camillo Cavour as a Piedmontese expansionist who merely wanted more land and power for the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, and think that Cavour’s actions contributing to the unification of Italy were purely coincidental.

I think that the truth lies somewhere in between, however: It is my estimation that Cavour wanted power and land for Piedmont, and that immediate unification was not his goal. Conversely I think that this was the case because he viewed the reunification of Italy in the long-term and in many steps, and was too realistic and practical to attempt it in the short-term. These ‘steps’ were subtle and sometimes seemed contradictory, but the ultimate goal underlying his actions was indeed Italian reunification. A source supporting this theory quotes Cavour as saying “United Italy will be our children’s achievement.” In this I think he was a nationalist, but not in the sense that Garibaldi was, for instance, in that he was much more subtle and indirect in his approach.

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