March 17, 2022

The Fight for the Unification of Italy

The Fight for the Unification of Italy

March 17, 1861. After more than a decade of revolution, the Kingdom of Italy is officially founded on what is known as the Day of Unity.


Cold Open

It’s a spring morning in 1860 on the island of Sicily.

On a vine-strewn hillside, an army of one thousand rebels stands in preparation for a battle. Leading them is an Italian revolutionary named Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Garibaldi shields his eyes from the blistering sun and peers out across the valley.

In the distance, some 3,000 Neapolitan soldiers march through the haze, their military coats gray against the yellow hillside. Garibaldi gives the signal to his troops.

The rebels send a volley of gunfire into the oncoming soldiers. There’s a brief moment as the Neapolitans prepare their artillery. And then – 

Cannonballs thud into the hillside around Garibaldi and his men, followed by the crackle and blast of musket fire echoing throughout the sun-bleached valley. As the Neapolitans unleash the full strength of their arsenal, Garibaldi orders his men to hold the line and stand firm. But they don’t listen…

They charge down the hill toward the enemy – their bayonets gleaming, their red uniforms bright and bold. This was not the plan.

Garibaldi orders a trumpet blast to call the troops back, but his band of rebels again don’t listen. These men are volunteers, not trained soldiers, and they’re fighting for something they believe in; something they believe is worth dying for.

As Garibaldi watches them crash into the enemy lines, he feels equally inspired. So he slings his musket across his chest and unsheathes his sword… and follows his enthusiastic compatriots into battle.

The fighting is dogged and fierce. But despite being outgunned and outmanned, Garibaldi’s red-shirted rebels push the Neapolitans back to their original position. But then, the enemy regroups and takes aim.

Garibaldi’s second-in-command urges retreat. Garibaldi turns to him, his blue eyes blazing with conviction, bellowing: “either we make Italy here, on this spot, or we die in the endeavor!

And with that, the rebels mount another charge, forcing the Neapolitans into a hasty retreat.

The Battle of Calatafimi in May of 1860 will herald the first victory of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily. Soon, the green, white, and red of the Italian flag will flutter above the hillside, making a significant step in Garibaldi’s ultimate goal: unifying the Kingdom of Italy.

At the time of the battle, Italy is a fragmented patchwork of sovereign states – ruled by aristocratic European dynasties, including the Spanish House of Bourbon, which governs the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily.

But support for Italian unification has been growing, a movement spearheaded by the likes of Garibaldi and his allies. After decades of simmering revolutionary sentiment, a final push toward unification begins in 1860, leading to a series of bloody battles across the peninsula, until finally, the land is united under one king, and Italy officially becomes a unified country on March 17th, 1861.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 17th: The Fight for the Unification of Italy.

Act One: A Geographic Expression

It’s September 1814, about forty-six years before the Battle of Calatafimi.

Delegates across Europe have come to the city of Vienna to attend the peace conference. Inside the opulent banquet hall of the Ballhausplatz, princes, dukes, and barons discuss the balance of power on the continent.

The future of Europe is being decided here – amidst powdered wigs and gilded chandeliers – and the main question of the day is how to prevent history from repeating itself.

Until recently, the future of European hegemony was in the hands of one Frenchman: Napoleon Bonaparte. By 1812, Napoleon’s Empire stretched from Spain in the west to Russia in east. He defeated the monarchies of Prussia, Austria, and Spain, as well as the Italian states, disseminating French ideals of republicanism along the way.

But following Napoleon’s downfall, in 1814, Europe’s Great Powers, including Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, Russia, and the recently restored monarchy of France are eager to reinstate the old aristocratic regimes and to stem the revolutionary tide of democratic liberalism spreading across the region.

Here in Italy, at the Conference of Vienna, ambassadors from these European powers work to divide up the Italian Peninsula. Prior to the rise of Napoleon, the peninsula was checkered by independent states ruled by dukes and princes. To maintain a healthy balance of power, the ambassadors at the gathering re-divide the peninsula among the four European royal families.

The Austrian Hapsburg Empire acquires the northeast. The House of Savoy claims the northwest. The Pope recovers his territories in central Italy. While in the south, the Spanish branch of the House of Bourbon reassumes control of Naples and Sicily.

But even as Italy is divided up among royal families, the first stirrings of unity are emerging. Things started to change during the Napoleonic occupation when the Italian states were grouped under one “Italian Republic”. Prior to Napoleon, the modern-day Italian language was only spoken by scholars and intellectuals. But in the wake of Napoleon’s downfall, this language slowly but surely starts to replace regional dialects, and a distinct Italian identity begins to take root.

And following the Congress of Vienna, nationalist sentiment only increases, giving rise to a secretive network of revolutionary societies, called the Carbonari; its members all want the same thing: an end to the rule of absolutist monarchy, and the unification of Italy under one constitution.

Throughout the 1820s, members of the Carbonari instigate armed revolts against the Hapsburg, Savoy, and Bourbon monarchies. In the course of these revolts, supporters of Italian unification adopt a red, white, and green flag – inspired by the flag of France – as a symbol of liberty and unity.

But the monarchists try their best to repress this revolutionary fervor. The Hapsburgs, who rule the northeast and some of central Italy, entirely repudiate the notion of Italian statehood. Austrian Chancellor Franz Metternich believes the word “Italy” is “a mere geographic expression” and nothing more.

But Metternich underestimates the scale of the unification movement sweeping the peninsula. Some people know that “Italy” is more than just geography. And soon enough, one prominent member of the Carbonari will emerge as a hero of Italian unification, and a thorn in the side of the monarchy.


It’s 1833, in Genoa, northern Italy.

Twelve men stand before a firing squad. They’re all members of a revolutionary group called Young Italy – a nationalist organization responsible for plotting to overthrow the Savoy monarchy. The plot was foiled, and its architects were sentenced to death.

As an officer shouts the signal, there’s a crack of rifle fire, and the twelve men drop like stones.

The monarchists foiled Young Italy’s scheme, but they failed to kill the ringleader of the plot, the founder of Young Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini. The 28-year-old Mazzini is an ardent member of the Carbonari. He was arrested years ago, in 1827, for spreading revolutionary propaganda. And after being released in 1831, he was exiled to Switzerland, but there he promptly established Young Italy. And by 1833, the group has amassed some 60,000 followers.

When Mazzini hears about the execution of his twelve followers, he doesn’t cower. He grows even more determined to overthrow the Savoy monarchy and achieve a united Italy. So he organizes another plot.

This time, he plans a two-pronged invasion of Genoa. Mazzini will lead troops from Switzerland in the north. While another member of Young Italy leads a second invasion by sea. This man is a 26-year-old merchant navy captain, named Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Garibaldi joined Young Italy in 1833 after meeting Mazzini and becoming galvanized by the cause of Italian unification. Garibaldi vowed to make it his life’s goal to liberate his homeland from foreign monarchies. He is smart, charismatic, a man of integrity, and Mazzini was glad to have him on board.

But the two-pronged attack in Genoa will also fail. Mazzini will again be arrested, along with Garibaldi who will be sentenced to death.

Act Two: Risorgimento

It’s April 1848, fourteen years after the failure of the two-pronged invasion.

A ship cuts through choppy waters across the eastern Mediterranean. On board are a group of Italian revolutionaries who are returning to their home on the peninsula. Among them is a bearded man with steely blue eyes and a poncho slung around his neck.

Giuseppe Garibaldi has spent the last twelve years in South America, where he fled after being sentenced to death for his role in the failed insurrection in Genoa. But Garibaldi made good use of his time away from Italy. He took command of a group of exiled Italian soldiers, known as the Italian Legion, and joined independence movements across the South American continent.

Today, Garibaldi and his Italian Legion are sailing back to Italy to join a wellspring of anti-monarchy revolutions sweeping Europe. When Garibaldi heard that unrest was breaking out in the Italian states, he seized the opportunity. He hopes that the moment has finally arrived to topple the monarchies and unite Italy.

Garibaldi and his men head to Milan, where rebels from the north-western region of Piedmont are leading a revolt against the occupying Austrian-Hapsburgs. This revolt will become known as the First Italian War of Independence. Garibaldi takes command of a small force of rebel soldiers and joins the revolt. But after suffering a crushing defeat against Austrian troops in March 1849, Garibaldi is again forced to flee, this time, south, to Rome, where he is greeted by a familiar face…

Giuseppe Mazzini, Garibaldi’s old friend and mentor, has recently become head of the Roman Republic, a democratic city-state created after the ousting of Pope Pius IX in 1848. For Mazzini, controlling Rome is a major symbolic step towards unification.

But trouble is on the horizon.

News of the events in Rome have reached France, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, now rules as an elected president. France is a predominantly Catholic nation, so Louis Napoleon decides to please his Catholic citizens by dispatching an army to topple the new Roman Republic, and to restore order under the old Pope, Pius IX.

On June 1st, 1849, the Siege of Rome begins.

30,000 French troops surround the city. Under the bombardment of French artillery fire, Garibaldi’s 7,000 volunteers defend Rome courageously, but they cannot withstand the onslaught. Soon, French soldiers breach the city walls and wage war in the streets.

Under Garibaldi’s charismatic leadership, the soldiers of the Roman Republic fight with spirit – defending Mazzini’s vision for a free, democratic society. But ultimately, the French prove too powerful. Mazzini, Garibaldi, and other members of the Republican leadership fall back into the Roman Assembly, where they must decide their next steps.

Drenched in blood from battling the French, Garibaldi urges retreat, stating: “wherever we may be, there will be Rome.” Mazzini looks out at the crumbling ruins of the ancient city, which once stood as a symbol of democracy. Now it is riddled with bullets and pockmarked by artillery blasts. With a heavy heart, Mazzini agrees with Garibaldi. Unification will come; but not today.

Once again, both Mazzini and Garibaldi flee Italy. Mazzini escapes first to Switzerland, and then to London, where he will publish revolutionary journals. Garibaldi, still hounded by French and Austrian authorities, ends up in retirement on the island of Caprera in the Mediterranean.

And with Mazzini and Garibaldi out of the picture, the Italian unification movement appears to have sputtered to an end. But soon, a third crucial figure will take center stage, a politician from northern Italy, who believes the best way to achieve unification is not through violence, but through diplomacy.


It’s July 1858, in the town of Plombieres-les-Bains in eastern France.

Louis Napoleon of France is holding a clandestine meeting with the Prime Minister of Piedmont – a man named Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour. A far cry from the romantic figure of Garibaldi, Cavour is portly and middle-aged, with pink cheeks and wire-framed spectacles. Though descended from a long line of Savoy aristocrats, Cavour is a liberal reformer, dedicated to the cause of Italian unification.

Cavour has arranged this meeting with Louis Napoleon to negotiate a treaty between France and Piedmont. Cavour wants to oust his enemies, the Austrian Hapsburgs, from the Italian peninsula. But to do that he needs the help of the French. A cunning diplomat, Cavour convinces Louis Napoleon that by driving the Austrians from northern Italy, France will emerge as Europe’s leading power.

Louis Napoleon is persuaded.

The Franco-Piedmontese alliance launches what will become known as the Second Italian War of Independence. And this time, unlike as in the First, the Austrian Hapsburgs are defeated. They are driven from their domains in Lombardy, before relinquishing their central Italian territories to Cavour and Piedmont. 

The victory gives Cavour hope for the total unification of the entire peninsula. But there are still vast portions of the south under the dominion of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty. 

Cavour cannot simply launch an invasion of another sovereign state. He would be ostracized by the European establishment. What Cavour needs is someone who isn’t afraid of upsetting the status quo, someone who has a long track record of picking fights with sovereign powers – he needs Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Act Three: The Kingdom of Italy

It’s May 1860, in the Mediterranean Sea.

Two steamships plow through the waves, heading south. At the prow of one ship stands Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi has assembled an army of 1,000 volunteers to invade Sicily and overthrow the Spanish branch of the Bourbon monarchy.

But Garibaldi is not acting on Cavour’s orders. He has undertaken this daring maneuver all on his own. And after landing on the island of Sicily, Garibaldi’s men win their first battle against the Neapolitan defenders, before going on to take the capital city, Palermo.

When Cavour hears that Garibaldi has defeated the Bourbon occupants of Sicily, he grows excited. Total unification is closer than ever before. And then when Garibaldi’s army lands on the southern tip of the Italian mainland, Cavour urges the king of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel II, to send an army to welcome him.

On October 26th, 1860, in the town of Teano in the southern region of Campania, Garibaldi’s tired, weary rebel army meets with the forces of Victor Emmanuel, and the two leaders shake hands. It’s a symbolic moment. Garibaldi has compromised his most fervent anti-monarchy beliefs for the sake of unification – because if Italy can unite even if under one Italian King, then Garibaldi is happy.

The combined forces of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel go on to defeat the remaining Bourbon troops. And once his mission is complete, Garibaldi returns to the island of Caprera, refusing to accept a financial reward for his heroic exploits. For Garibaldi, unification is now all but assured – and his work, at long last, is done.

But although the peninsula is effectively united, Italy has yet to be proclaimed a nation. That moment comes on March 17th, 1861. In the Palazzo Carignano in Turin, the newly elected Italian parliament meets for the first time. King Victor Emmanuel II stands before the assembled ministers and declares the Kingdom of Italy an independent country. He will rule as its monarch, while the Count of Cavour will be Italy’s first Prime Minister. The grand hall erupts in applause.

Unification of Italy did not happen in a day; it was a decades-long fight characterized by revolts, reforms, and war. But that struggle, and the heroic actions of men like Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour, is celebrated on this Day of Unity, March 17th, 1861.


Next on History Daily. March 18th, 1965. Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov becomes the first person to complete a spacewalk.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.