The Italian states of 1848 saw a series of pivotal revolts, spurred by the country's desire to overthrow the conservative rule of the Austrian Empire. The Italian state of Piedmont served as the center of this intellectual, liberal revolution, but revolts in other parts of the country made for a multi-pronged struggle. Like its far-reaching geography, the reasons for the Italian revolution of 1848 span far and wide, from hunger to taxation and more. This lack of a central, unifying drive may partially account for the revolution's failure -- Italy would not ultimately complete its unification until 1870.
Problems of the Peasantry
As is often the case during historic revolutions, the hunger and poverty of the lower classes in Italy of 1848 served as the central spark of revolution. Due to very meager seasonal harvests in 1846 and 1847, poor Italians faced hunger paired with dramatically inflated food prices, causing many demonstrations. Meanwhile, the peasants lost long-held communal land to the wealthy, conservative ruling class and industrial workers struggled with lay-offs as a result of over-production. These factors led to still more riots and protests in both rural and industrial areas across the country.
Pope Pius IX, elected in 1846, also played a central role leading up to the revolutions of 1848. Although Catholic cardinals elected Pius for his moderate stance – a compromise between the conservatives and the revolutionary reformers – one of the Pope's first acts was a highly publicized release of political prisoners. This act, although typically practiced by former popes, inspired the masses, inciting crowds in Rome to chant “O sommo Pio” – “oh, supreme Pius.” Perhaps encouraged by this reaction, Pius -- who also served as as a secular monarch of the Papal States -- made steps toward a unified Italy by questioning the country's justice system, recruiting a council of lay advisers and entering a customs union with Tuscan and Piedmont, which promoted free trade among its members and common tariffs with among nonmembers. These progressive actions from Pius encouraged a populous hungry for change to pursue revolt.
A Unifying Drive
The prosperous state of Piedmont-Sardinia, which featured a more modern, liberal government compared to other Italian states of the time, served as an early driving force for unification in Italy. While the king of Piedmont, Charles Albert, acted as a cautious ruler, he did join Pius IX's customs union and supported Pius's reforms of the legal system. Egged on by demonstrations in Piedmont, Turin and Genoa demanding a constitution – this coupled with demands for reform and new constitutions throughout France, Germany and Austria – Charles Albert presented such a document, called the “Statuto,” in 1847. The document, influenced by the American, English and Belgian constitutions, finally gave the radicals and reformers of Italy civil rights to stand on, which strongly bolstered their drive for unification and a representative government.
The distinct problems of each of Italy's numerous states fed the desire for revolt in 1848. For instance, many Sicilians had a deep-seated enmity for their rulers in Naples, who they blamed for a disastrous outbreak of cholera in 1836 that resulted in about 65,000 deaths. Likewise, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia resented high taxation from Austrian rule; at the time, roughly one-third of the Austrian Empire's taxes revenues came from these two wealthy states. This collection of heated issues finally came to a head in March of 1848, with the declaration of a republic in Venice and skirmishes in Milan forcing out the Austrian garrison.
- Italian Unification Class with Mr. Podesta: Episode 7 – The Causes of the 1848 Revolutions
- Purdue University: The Revolutions of 1848-49: A Timeline
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Italian Unification
- Ohio University: Popular Participation, Italy, 1848-49
- Dictionary.com: Customs Union (Collins English Dictionary)
- Suffolk County Community College: Unification of Italy
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images