Italian Revolution of 1848

The revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 began in Italy. There, republicans in various Italian states who desired to free Italy from its domination by Austrian and other conservative regimes fought for a year and a half before being defeated. The 1848 revolutions marked the beginning of a movement that would succeed in unifying Italy during the 1860’s.

Summary of Event

In 1848, revolutions broke out in nearly every capital in Europe, as a movement for nationalism gave rise to the “springtime of nations.” Revolutionary demands ranged from moderate constitutionalism to radical socialism, from the liberation of individuals to the liberation of entire nationalities. Among the revolutions of 1848, Italy’s was prompted more by desire for national independence than for economic improvement. Known as one of the most democratic and liberal nations of Europe at that time, Italy was under the suzerainty of a number of reactionary rulers. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was under Ferdinand II Ferdinand II , the despotic Bourbon king. The Papal States Papal States;and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848] were ruled by the pope. The duchy of Tuscany was under the hegemony of Austria, as were the provinces of Lombardy and Venetia. Only the kingdom of Piedmont, under Charles Albert Albert, Charles , was relatively independent. The Italian revolutionary movement included a variety of factions as constitutional monarchists gained control in Sardinia-Piedmont and republicans emerged victorious in Venice Venice;republicanism in and Rome. Revolutions of 1848;Italy
Italy;revolution of 1848
Mazzini, Giuseppe
[p]Mazzini, Giuseppe;and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848]
Austria;and Italy[Italy]
Italy;and Austria[Austria]
[kw]Italian Revolution of 1848 (Jan. 12, 1848-Aug. 28, 1849)
[kw]Revolution of 1848, Italian (Jan. 12, 1848-Aug. 28, 1849)
[kw]1848, Italian Revolution of (Jan. 12, 1848-Aug. 28, 1849)
Revolutions of 1848;Italy
Italy;revolution of 1848
Mazzini, Giuseppe
[p]Mazzini, Giuseppe;and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848]
Austria;and Italy[Italy]
Italy;and Austria[Austria]
[g]Italy;Jan. 12, 1848-Aug. 28, 1849: Italian Revolution of 1848[2560]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 12, 1848-Aug. 28, 1849: Italian Revolution of 1848[2560]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 12, 1848-Aug. 28, 1849: Italian Revolution of 1848[2560]
Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848]
Garibaldi, Giuseppe
[p]Garibaldi, Giuseppe;and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848]
[p]Metternich;and Italy[Italy]
Ferdinand II

Radetzky, Joseph

The causes of the 1848 revolutions go back to the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) Congress of Vienna (1814-1815);and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848] and the restoration of reactionary rule by which Austria dominated the peninsula. The Vienna Settlement was enforced in Italy by Metternich, the Austrian minister of foreign affairs. Abortive revolutions in 1820-1821 and 1830-1831 signified growing discontent with arbitrary rule, censorship Censorship;Italian of the press, and the secret police, particularly among the enlightened middle class. Secret societies such as the Carbonari Carbonari and Young Italy Young Italy assumed leadership in the movement for change, or Risorgimento. It seemed to be only a matter of time before political propaganda and nationalist literature would blend with anti-Austrian bitterness to create an inflammatory situation.

The Revolutions of 1848

A significant turn of events occurred as a result of the election, on June 1, 1846, of Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, former bishop of Imola, as Pope Pius IX Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848] , contrary to the wishes of Metternich Metternich
[p]Metternich;and Italy[Italy] and the Austrians. This quiet, unassuming man became the symbol of hope to thousands of discontented people searching for legitimate leadership. A month after his election, he contravened custom by including political prisoners in his amnesty decree. Widespread approval and enthusiastic popular reaction to this action seemed to indicate that a new age had dawned for Italy.

The pope, however, was not a revolutionary and was unwilling to be a leader of the revolutionary movement. His reforms were only of the sort to improve the administration of his state. He established a council of state and a civic guard. He improved schools, prisons, communications, and street lighting, and provided for freedom of the press (under the direction of a body of lay censors, a consulta or advisory body of laymen under the presidency of a cardinal). With the Papal States setting the pace, liberals gained freedom for the press in Florence and Pisa, received permission to have a civic guard in Lucca, and enthusiastically demonstrated in favor of an Italian bishop in Austrian-controlled Milan Milan . Metternich Metternich
[p]Metternich;and Italy[Italy] responded with military expansion in Lombardy, and Austrian troops occupied the garrison of Ferrara, a town in the Papal States. Expectations of reform, combined with an attack by Austria on the heroic figure of the pope, kindled the revolutionary spirit.

The year 1848 opened with cries for a constitution in Piedmont and boycotts Boycotts;and tobacco[Tobacco] against Austria’s tobacco monopoly in Lombardy. On January 12, a revolt broke out in Palermo, Sicily. Confronted with defeat, Ferdinand II granted the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies the Spanish constitution of 1812, modeled on the French constitution of 1791. Naples Naples;revolution in (one of Ferdinand II’s Two Sicilies) provided the spark that inflamed the entire country, as one state after another demanded a liberal constitution. By March 16, Tuscany, Sardinia, Piedmont, and Rome were implementing such reforms as freedom of speech, amnesty for political prisoners, liberty of the individual, and representative government.

After five days of street fighting in Milan Milan , a constituent assembly under the leadership of Carlo Cattaneo met on March 22. The Venetians followed suit and successfully reestablished the Republic of Saint Mark. Lombardy and Venetia had to contend with Joseph Radetzky Radetzky, Joseph , the famous Austrian general who occupied the garrisons guarding the border between Italy and Austria. On March 24, Charles Albert’s army entered the struggle. Volunteer armies from all over manifested the nationalist character of the age.

The conflict with Austria turned the revolution of 1848 from the cause of political constitutionalism in each state to the general cause of Italian unity. Neither cause was victorious. Unfortunately for the outcome of the revolutions of 1848, the peasantry was not included among the revolutionary classes, accounting for the absence of a truly national uprising.

Pius IX’s Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848] moderate liberalism was overshadowed by his role as spiritual pontiff, which would not allow him to join in a war against Roman Catholic Austria. On April 29, 1848, he officially dissociated himself from the nationalist war. This caused considerable outcry, as the pope was accused of betraying the Italian cause. King Ferdinand II of Naples Naples;revolution in , exploiting the pope’s announcement, executed a countercoup and abolished the constitution. Charles Albert’s Albert, Charles forces, a loosely coordinated army of volunteers and professionals of every political persuasion led by conservative Sardinian generals, faced a superior army under Radetzky Radetzky, Joseph and an unsympathetic countryside moved by fear of Austria. In early August, after a humiliating defeat at Milan Milan , an armistice was signed marking the end of the first period of fighting.

The pope’s “betrayal” resulted in radical anticlericalism in Rome. After his prime minister, Pellegrino Rossi Rossi, Pellegrino , was assassinated on November 15, the pope, fearful of discontented mobs and disguised as a simple priest, fled to the Bourbon kingdom to the south. Political confusion in Rome ended in February with the proclamation of the Republic of Rome. A pure democracy, with universal suffrage and directly elected assemblies, was headed by a “triumvirate.” Giuseppe Mazzini, prophet of the Risorgimento and founder of Young Italy Young Italy , was the chief triumvir. This young republic, however, was faced with insurmountable obstacles, including the reaction of Catholic Europe to the pope’s exile.

France and Great Britain had warmly greeted the moderate beginning of the Italian revolutions. British public opinion, inspired by the writings of Mazzini, had influenced the foreign policy of Lord Palmerston, Palmerston, Lord
[p]Palmerston, Lord;and Italy[Italy] the British foreign minister, which was based upon achieving a northern Italian kingdom that could act as a check on both France and Austria. The French government was split on the question of intervention. Although French republicans sympathized with Italian independence, the Sardinian kingdom controlled Nice and Savoy Savoy , territories the French had hoped to regain. Mutual distrust united Great Britain and France in a shaky alliance intended to mediate the conflict, but such efforts were unsuccessful in both 1848 and the renewed hostilities of 1849.

With Austria secure in the north, the possibility of outside intervention centered on the problem of republican Rome and an exiled pope. France, anticipating Austrian intervention, dispatched an army to Roman territory, where it clashed with Roman forces led by Giuseppe Garibaldi Garibaldi, Giuseppe
[p]Garibaldi, Giuseppe;and revolutions of 1848[Revolutions of 1848] . As a result of republican sympathies in the French Assembly, a representative was sent to negotiate a settlement with Mazzini, who accepted French protection on May 31. Louis Napoleon Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Italy[Italy] Bonaparte, elected president of France on December 19, 1848, but upset by the humiliation of French arms at the gate of Rome, betrayed the republican ideal, and, disregarding the treaty with Mazzini, brought about the downfall of the Republic of Rome with superior arms in July, 1849. Venice Venice;republicanism in , the last outpost of republicanism, suffering from food shortage, cholera, Cholera;in Italy[Italy] and sustained attack, capitulated to the Austrians on August 28.


With French troops protecting the pope in Rome, Austria once again entrenched in Lombardy and Venetia, and legitimate monarchical rule restored to central and southern Italy, the Italian revolutions appeared abortive. It fell to a later generation to achieve the revolutionary ideal of a unified Italy. The politicization of the Italian peoples during 1848, however, contributed to their success in achieving national unity in that later generation. The national ideal for Italy was the one concept that survived the defeats and disappointments of 1848, and it was an idea that remained in the hearts and minds of the people for the next two decades, gathering power.

Further Reading

  • Di Scala, Spencer. Italy from Revolution to Republic: 1700 to the Present. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. General history of Italy that includes a section on the Risorgimento unification movement and the war with Austria.
  • Mack Smith, Denis. Mazzini. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. Scholarly work on one of the leading figures of the Italian revolutionary movement.
  • Riall, Lucy. The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society, and National Unification. London: Routledge, 1994. Treats the Italian Risorgimento and the movement toward unification.
  • Robertson, Priscilla. Revolutions of 1848: A Social History. New York: Harper & Row, 1952. Social and intellectual history of the 1848 revolutions in Europe.
  • Sigmann, Jean. 1848: The Romantic and Democratic Revolutions in Europe. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Focuses on the year 1848 and the European revolutionary movement.
  • Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848-1851. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Focuses on the economic and political background to the 1848-1851 revolutions.
  • Stearns, Peter N. 1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. Discusses the class background of the revolutions in France, the Habsburg Empire, Italy, and Germany and their impact.

Neapolitan Revolution

Mazzini Founds Young Italy

Mazzini Begins London Exile

Blanc Publishes The Organization of Labour

Paris Revolution of 1848

Prussian Revolution of 1848

Swiss Confederation Is Formed

Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in Sicily

Italy Is Proclaimed a Kingdom

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