Mazzini Founds Young Italy

Giuseppe Mazzini’s founding of Young Italy gave the fragmented Italian unification movement a clear focus, stronger organization, and eager recruits.

Summary of Event

The Risorgimento was the long process whereby the six governments that shared the Italian peninsula in 1815 eventually disappeared, as a single unitary kingdom of Italy arose. Among the various political and military leaders who emerged during this process, the names of three tower above all others: Giuseppe Mazzini, Count Cavour, and Giuseppe Garibaldi. In assessing the complex relationships among these three men, one might label Mazzini the spiritual inspiration, Cavour the careful statesman, and Garibaldi the popular soldier—a spirit, a mastermind, and a sword who fomented revolutionary change and founded modern Italy. Young Italy;founding of
Mazzini, Giuseppe
[p]Mazzini, Giuseppe;and Young Italy[Young Italy]
Italy;Young Italy
Italy;unification of
[kw]Mazzini Founds Young Italy (1831)
[kw]Founds Young Italy, Mazzini (1831)
[kw]Young Italy, Mazzini Founds (1831)
[kw]Italy, Mazzini Founds Young (1831)
Young Italy;founding of
Mazzini, Giuseppe
[p]Mazzini, Giuseppe;and Young Italy[Young Italy]
Italy;Young Italy
Italy;unification of
[g]Italy;1831: Mazzini Founds Young Italy[1640]
[c]Government and politics;1831: Mazzini Founds Young Italy[1640]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1831: Mazzini Founds Young Italy[1640]
Cavour, Count
[p]Cavour, Count;and Young Italy[Young Italy]
Garibaldi, Giuseppe
Victor Emmanuel II

Giuseppe Mazzini was, perhaps, an unlikely revolutionary hero. Born into a comfortable professional family in the northern Italian port city of Genoa in 1805, he was a rather sickly child who spent much time in the company of books and adults. Nevertheless, the studious youth absorbed revolutionary ideas from his reading about the French Revolution (1789) French Revolution (1789);and Italy[Italy] and from the reform-minded adults around him. Genoa had been a part of Napoleon I’s French Empire French Empire;reforms in and had undergone numerous progressive reforms. Those reforms were abolished after 1815, when the Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna (1814-1815);and Italy[Italy] placed much of northern Italy under the control of the conservative houses of Savoy Savoy (Piedmont) and of Habsburg (Austria). Middle-class liberals such as the Mazzinis’ circle quickly began to yearn for the days of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” once more.

As early as 1821, sporadic revolts began in northern Italy against the control of Piedmont and Austria. Austria;and Italy[Italy]
Italy;and Austria[Austria] Mazzini thus grew up in an atmosphere filled with political dissent and resentment against the German-speaking foreigners in Vienna Vienna whose armies crushed Italian aspirations toward self-government. Intellectually, Mazzini began to combine opposition to all existing governments, desire for political freedom, and Italian nationalism into one noble cause. From the time he was in his early twenties, he wore only black clothing, expressing his mourning over the loss of Italian freedoms. In 1830, he joined the secret conspiratorial society of the Carbonari Carbonari , a loosely organized group of liberal and radical revolutionaries. He attended illegal meetings, distributed banned newspapers, procured weapons, and took part in riotous antigovernment demonstrations.

Giuseppe Mazzini.

(Library of Congress)

A passion for Italy became the driving force of Mazzini’s life. He was arrested and spent six months imprisoned in a local fortress. During this enforced solitude, he pondered Italy’s future and realized his life’s calling: to dedicate himself to the mission of freeing Italy. To that end, he took as his motto “God and the People.” He believed that God had intended humankind to find individual freedom by combining in nationhood. Once all peoples had achieved political liberties and combined into national communities, they would pursue humanitarian goals and live in peace with one another.

Mazzini charged that earlier revolutionaries, such as the Carbonari Carbonari , had failed because they overemphasized individual rights and freedoms. He now exhorted Italians to emphasize duty, the sacred duty to make Italy a single nation under one government. These ideas illustrated major themes of the liberal variety of nationalism that dominated the first half of the nineteenth century. To Mazzini and his followers, nationalism ultimately meant cooperation among all peoples, not competition or warfare. These views reflect the powerful influence of the Romantic movement and of contemporary utopian socialism, with its stress on cooperation and community values. Unlike many other liberals, Mazzini had strong faith in the masses of the people and believed they would rise up and overthrow the “tyrants” oppressing Italy. He was a firm republican and even when the king of Piedmont lent his prestige and power to the unification movement, Mazzini opposed monarchy and rejected the leadership of Piedmont.

Mazzini reserved for Italy a special place among nations. Just as Rome Rome, ancient had been the center of a great empire in antiquity and the center of Christianity, during the Middle Ages, Mazzini expected Italy again to lead Europe forward. Soon after his release from prison, he established in 1831 a new revolutionary society that he called Young Italy (Giovane Italia). He expected Young Italy, armed with his messianic message and personal direction, to succeed where the Carbonari Carbonari had failed. Young Italy had one goal: unification of all Italians in a single republican government with civil and political freedom for all.

Mazzini worked to harness the energies of youth to his dream; Young Italy primarily recruited young middle-class men who bravely (and illegally) went forth to proselytize among all classes of Italians. He poured forth nearly one hundred volumes of writings to provide inspiration and propaganda for his troops. He also urged his followers to action. Young Italy prepared for uprisings and guerrilla warfare by stockpiling weapons and organizing recruits in cells of ten, with officers whose titles reflected those of the ancient Roman army.

After government officials discovered Mazzini’s activities, they exiled him. He left Italy at the age of twenty-seven and spent most of his remaining years in exile, chiefly in Great Britain, where popular opinion favored his cause. However, critics charged that Mazzini soon lost contact with Italian realities and that his mystical doctrines were impractical. Nevertheless, his influence was widespread and his personal dedication inspired thousands, including Garibaldi Garibaldi, Giuseppe , to take direct action.

Mazzini personally participated in the tumultuous events in Rome Rome during the Italian Revolution of 1848 and skillfully led the Roman republic until it was defeated by foreign troops. From Britain, his ideology spread to non-Italians and he blessed the creation of Young Hungary, Young Germany, and Young Europe. He advocated the formation of twelve independent countries in Europe to satisfy the national aspirations of major ethnic groups with recognized histories and cultures.

Italy was ultimately unified under the direction of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy Savoy , with assistance from Garibaldi Garibaldi, Giuseppe and the Italian people. Cavour Cavour, Count
[p]Cavour, Count;and Young Italy[Young Italy] obtained assistance from foreign governments, first France and then Prussia, to expel the Austrians Austria;and Italy[Italy]
Italy;and Austria[Austria] and then gradually fit the separate pieces of Italian territory together between 1859 and 1870. However, Mazzini insisted that Italians acting alone must fulfill their divine duty. He was disappointed that his fellow Italians accepted a monarchy and assistance from foreigners. He bitterly resented the papacy’s determined opposition to all forms of Italian unification and regretted that millions of Italians nevertheless remained faithful to the pope. He became convinced that both liberals and socialists had abandoned their ideals and adopted grasping materialism. His burning devotion to his original ideals never wavered, but most Italians accepted Piedmont’s achievements.


Mazzini remained in exile even after the kingdom of Italy was firmly established and he had been elected to its parliament by grateful citizens. Later, however, he returned to Italy under a false name, stubbornly remaining an outlaw and revolutionary. Such behavior gave some credence to the suggestions that he was ignorant of true conditions in Italy and unrealistic in his goals. Even so, the inspired zeal and persistent agitation of the Young Italy organization that he had created had prepared the foundation for the emergence of a united Italy. As Mazzini hoped, the masses did sometimes rise up against repression, the people adopted the Italian nationalist cause, and the new Italian state was unitary, not federated, and possessed a liberal, constitutional government. Mazzini’s blueprint was not followed in every detail, but none could deny he was a major architect of modern Italy.

Further Reading

  • Albrecht-Carrié, René. Italy from Napoleon to Mussolini. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A readable account of Italian history from 1796 that places Mazzini into the broad context of the Risorgimento.
  • Di Scala, Spencer. Italy from Revolution to Republic: 1700 to the Present. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. General history of modern Italy that includes a section on the Risorgimento.
  • Griffith, Gwilym O. Mazzini: Prophet of Modern Europe. Reprint. New York: Howard Fertig, 1970. A solid, reliable biography that sees Mazzini as a principal source of nationalism.
  • Mack Smith, Denis, ed. The Making of Italy, 1796-1870. New York: Walker, 1968. This volume combines documents from the past with a modern commentary linking the events discussed; interesting selections from Mazzini’s writings.
  • _______. Mazzini. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. Written by a well-known specialist in Italian history, this account of Mazzini and his work is full of narrative detail and analysis.
  • Riall, Lucy. The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society, and National Unification. London: Routledge, 1994. Scholarly study of the Risorgimento movement, with considerable attention to Mazzini’s role.
  • Roberts, William. Prophet in Exile: Joseph Mazzini in England, 1837-1868. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. This work combines Mazzini’s personal story with that of his work abroad.
  • Salvemini, Gaetano. Mazzini. Translated by I. M. Rawson. New York: Collier Books, 1957. Biography that provides a thorough explanation of Mazzini’s thought and doctrines.
  • Sarti, Roland. Mazzini: A Life for the Religion of Politics. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Biography exploring the relationship between Mazzini’s life and his ideas.

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