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Venice and Rome: 1866-1870

The kingdom of Sardinia has received Lombardy in 1859 by going to war as France's ally. The kingdom of Italy now wins Venetia through a brief alliance with Prussia. The Prussian prime minister Bismarck, in planning war against Austria in 1866, makes a treaty with Italy committing the Italians to come in on Prussia's side should there be a conflict with Austria. Victor Emmanuel needs little persuading, with the prospect on offer of possibly driving the Austrians from Venetia.

In the event the Austrian army in Italy and the Austrian navy in the Adriatic win the only encounters between the two nations during the exceptionally brief Seven Weeks' War.

Italy therefore proves to be an irrelevant factor in Prussia's crushing victory over the Austrian empire. Nevertheless in the treaty of Vienna, in October 1866, Venetia is ceded by the Austrians - to the neutral French emperor, for face-saving reasons, on the understanding that he will present the province to the king of Italy. He does so after a plebiscite has confirmed the wishes of the Venetians.

This leaves only the problem of Rome, where France is also involved. A French garrison has been stationed there since 1849 to protect the pope. In 1870, on this issue too, Prussia helps the Italian cause.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war means that the French garrison is hurriedly withdrawn from Rome, in August 1870. The French defeat at Sedan in September is immediately followed by the deposing of the emperor Napoleon III. Nothing now remains to deter the Italian state from seizing the holy city. Troops break in through the Porta Pia on September 20.

In October a plebiscite in Rome and the surrounding Campagna results in a vote for union with the kingdom of Italy. Pius IX refuses to accept this act of force majeure. He remains in his palace, describing himself as a prisoner in the Vatican.

The provisional capital of Italy since 1865 has been Florence, in an attempt to appease those nationalists who resent the usurping of their cause by the northern kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. Now, in 1871, the Italian government moves to the banks of the Tiber. Victor Emmanuel instals himself in the Quirinale Palace. Rome becomes once again, for the first time in thirteen centuries (since the dying gasp of the western empire in the reign of Odoacer), the capital city of a united Italy.

It is unusual among capital cities only in that it contains a powerful figure and a small parcel of land (the pope in the Vatican) beyond national control. This anomaly is not formally resolved until the concordat of 1929.

Internal politics

The early decades of democratic rule, conducted from Rome as a restored capital city, establish a pattern of politics which remains characteristic of Italy a century later in the years after World War II. Governments are remarkably brief, rarely lasting as much as three years. But the names of the same leading politicians recur again and again as coalitions and cabinets form, dissolve and regroup.

This political system acquires a name, trasformismo ('transformism'), implying that the leading politicians transform their alliances and even their policies in order to remain in power. In practical terms this means balancing a cabinet by including a mix of politicians from both right and left of the political spectrum. It is a political system pioneered from 1876 by Agostino Depretis.

Depretis forms a succession of administrations, with few periods out of office, in the eleven years up to his death in 1887. He is himself on the liberal wing of politics. His measures include extending the franchise and educational reform. He is followed, as premier in 1887 and subsequently as the dominant figure in Italian politics, by a far less conciliatory figure, Francesco Crispi.

Crispi has begun his political career as a radical republican, but an admiration for Bismarck accompanies a gradual move towards monarchy and autocracy as political principles. When Victor Emmanuel II dies, in 1878, Crispi is minister for the interior in Depretis' cabinet. He secures the succession of Umberto I, whose prime minister he becomes nine years later.

Crispi takes an unprecedented degree of power into his own hands, keeping for himself both the home and foreign portfolios in his cabinet. His early measures are in keeping with his radical past (they include the abolition of the death penalty and reforms in prisons and public health policy), but he soon develops a dictatorial streak, reducing the power of parliament and stifling opposition.

When he dies, in 1901, he has a fervent admirer in an 18-year old Italian; Mussolini later reveres Crispi as the father of fascism. But Crispi's years in power are disastrous for Italy.

Crispi's hostility to France, Italy's main trading partner, has dire effects on the economy. His Ethiopian policy brings shame and humiliation to Italy. A peasant uprising in Sicily in 1893 is met with drastic repression rather than any attention to the genuine grievances and poverty underlying it.

Meanwhile Crispi is constantly on the verge of being engulfed in a banking scandal which is first exposed in 1892. In spite of his best efforts to suppress any enquiry, the judiciary in 1897 recommends that he should be prosecuted. A commission clears him of personal embezzlement but reveals his protection of his friends in shady deals. The Ethiopian disaster has already forced his resignation as premier (in 1896). In 1897 Crispi retires from political life.

Giovanni Giolitti, the third dominant figure in this period of Italian politics, is like Crispi heavily implicated in the banking scandal but survives. Becoming prime minister five times between 1891 and 1921, he is as adept as any of his predecessors at forming the shifting coalitions which keep him in power. His policies are mainly reformist. In 1909 he is only narrowly defeated in his attempt to introduce a progressive income tax. In 1911 he brings in universal male suffrage and a national insurance act.

Giolitti's foreign policy is as aggressive as Crispi's and brings Italy almost as little real benefit. But a declaration of war against a weakened Turkey does deliver, in 1912, a much desired Mediterranean colony in the form of Libya.

Foreign policies

Until 1871 the main preoccupation of Italian politicians has been, first, the establishment of a nation and then the addition to the new nation of Venice and Rome. During this same period the main priority of foreign policy has been to remain free of fixed alliances, enabling the fledgling state to play off the European powers against each other as the situation may require.

But new circumstances bring new ambitions. If Italy is to take her place as a leading European nation, she must - or so it seems to the politicians - engage in the diplomatic game of alliances. Similarly she should compete for the spoils of empire. The scramble for Africa gathers pace in the 1880s, but several years before this Italy is already closely involved in Tunisia. From 1869 she shares jointly, with France and Britain, responsibility for Tunisian finances.

Of the three nations Italy has the best claim, in terms of investment, to become the colonial power. But France and Britain do a deal behind Italy's back, and France secures control of Tunisia with a sudden coup in 1881. The resulting sense of outrage in Italy has a profound effect on the nation's foreign policy.

Abandoning Italy's non-aligned stance, the government of Agostino Depretis opens negotiations with Germany and Austria. The result is a Triple Alliance, signed in May 1882, by which the three nations agree to support each other if attacked by foreign powers and to maintain a benevolent neutrality if any of the three has to declare war. The alliance with Austria is seen as particularly beneficial to Italy. It protects Venice from Austrian claims and gives a seal of approval to Italy's seizing of Rome.

An underlying theme of the alliance, Italian antagonism to France, is further developed when Crispi comes into power in 1887. Instinctively anti-French, and a fervent admirer of Bismarck, he repudiates in 1888 a commercial treaty with France. The result harms Italy very much more than France, which until now has taken 40% of Italy's exports. The French can find these supplies elsewhere. But the Italian economy suffers a severe dip.

Crispi is equally aggressive on the imperial front. With Italy foiled in the Mediterranean over Tunisia, he attempts to make gains on the Red Sea. Italian shipping firms have been developing the coast of Eritrea from 1869. During the 1880s Italian merchants and troops press further inland. In 1889 Crispi builds on this success, using it to sign a treaty with the emperor of neighbouring Ethiopia.

Overstating the terms of the treaty (at any rate according to the Ethiopian interpretation of what has been signed) Crispi declares to the world that Ethiopia is now an Italian protectorate. Ethiopia immediately denies this and in 1893 repudiates the entire treaty. The result is a war which ends in humiliating disaster for Italy. The Italian defeat at Aduwa in 1896 leads to the resignation of Crispi.

Italy's final attempt at imperialism is more successful, though achieved at a heavy cost. By the first decade of the 20th century Italian ambitions in Africa are focused on Libya, still ostensibly part of the enfeebled Ottoman empire. In 1911 Italy claims the right to station troops there, to protect Italian citizens, and immediately follows this announcement with a declaration of war on Turkey.

In the autumn of 1912 the Turks, distracted by troubles closer to home in the Balkans, cede much of Libya to Italy. The rest of the province is soon seized by Italian troops. But the entire campaign has been conducted against strenuous opposition from the local tribesmen. Libya never settles down in its brief period under Italian rule.

But these are turbulent years everywhere. The three decades until the Italians are driven out of Libya see two world wars and the rise and fall of fascism

World War I

When World War I breaks out, in August 1914, Victor Emmanuel III is king of Italy (his father Umberto I has been assassinated by an anarchist in 1900) and Antonio Salandra is the prime minister. The Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria has been renewed as recently as 1912. But the mood in the country is less belligerent than in other major powers. Indeed there have been socialist demonstrations and riots in June 1914, prompted partly by resistance to conscription.

In these circumstances Salandra is confronted with an urgent dilemma when Austria declares war on Serbia on July 28. In the spirit of the Triple Alliance Italy should side with Austria. But the letter of the agreement allows for neutrality if one of the three declares war.

Salandra opts for neutrality. To the relief of most of its citizens Italy remains on the sidelines while the other major powers rush to arms in August 1914. But there are dangers too in remaining outside the conflict. No spoils of any war come to those who have taken no part in it. It is assumed on all sides that this war will end quite quickly, and Italy is hoping for a postwar expansion of her northern frontier both in the Alps and around Trieste.


Remarkably, all this is done by the prime minister and the king without reference to parliament, which is not sitting at this period. Moreover there is a strong body of opinion among the deputies and the general public in favour of continuing neutrality. The veteran statesman Giolitti has been foremost in urging this policy, well aware of the enfeebled state of the Italian army after the Libyan campaign conducted under his leadership. But with the king resolutely supporting Salandra, parliament ratifies their policy. On 23 May 1915 Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary (but not, as yet, on Germany).

Giolitti's instinct for caution proves justified. Italy's involvement in the war is limited to a static and costly campaign on the vulnerable northeast frontier with the Austrian empire.

A battlefield of trench warfare, as static and costly as the equivalent in Flanders, becomes established along the Isonzo river. As many as half a million Italians die here during the course of the war, with little to show for their sacrifice. A brief success in August 1916 (the capture of the city of Gorizia) prompts Italy at last to declare war on Germany. But October 1917 brings a major setback when the Austrians, after a victory at Caporetto, push southwest almost as far as Venice. It is a full year before Italy recovers this territory. With the tide of war now clearly against the Central powers, an Italian advance in October 1918 prompts a rapid Austrian request for an armistice. It is signed on November 3. Eight days later Germany too signs an armistice with the Allies.

In the event Italy gets less from the postwar treaty (signed at St Germain on 10 September 1919) than was promised in London, since the northeastern coast of the Adriatic goes to the newly created state of Yugoslavia. But Italy achieves her most important requirements: a border which reaches north to all the Alpine passes (bringing within Italy many German-speakers in the Brenner region), together with the important city of Trieste.

Nevertheless the more nationalist elements in the country feel frustrated, and the mood of unrest is aggravated by the economic damage done to the country in the war. Moreover, in the aftermath of the successful Russian revolution, extremism is the mood of the times. A turbulent postwar period seems inevitable in Italian politics.


Italian right-wing nationalism is first seen, in miniature and slightly comic form, in the crisis over Fiume. This port, on the other side of the Istria peninsula from Trieste, has been allotted by the peace treaty to Yugoslavia but it has a mainly Italian population. Within two days of the signing of the treaty, Fiume (or Rijeka in its Slav name) is seized by a force of some 300 Italian volunteers led by the flamboyant poet Gabriele d'Annunzio.

The European powers are not pleased, but much of Italian opinion is delighted - with the result that the government declines to act. For many months d'Annunzio is left in peace to mouth bombastic speeches in his self-proclaimed role as Italian regent.

In June 1920 the veteran politician Giolitti forms the last of his five administrations, and he at last takes the necessary steps. On Christmas Day 1920 Italian troops bombard the poet's headquarters. Within days he leaves Fiume without putting up any resistance.

But d'Annunzio's example has not gone unnoticed. An ambitious 33-year-old Italian politician takes note of what can be achieved with a small measure of force and a sufficient dash of bravado. He is Benito Mussolini, a failed candidate for parliament but leader since March 1919 of a political party with a marked tendency to violence. He vigorously supports d'Annunzio's swashbuckling adventure and later sees him as a precursor of Fascism.

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