Giuseppe Mazzini, born in Genoa on June 22, 1805, was the intellectual source behind the Risorgimento, or resurgence. The son of a doctor, he completed his legal education in 1827 at the University of Genoa and became a practicing lawyer. He was a romantic revolutionary and an avid reader of drama and history.
His writing was not just intended for the elite but for the masses. As a lawyer, he had tried cases for the disadvantaged. The annexation of his native republic of Genoa into the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1815 dismayed him, and Mazzini had a burning desire to make Italy an integrated republic.
An avowed antimonarchist, he favored a republican tradition. The task of unifying Italy divided into the kingdoms of Piedmont-Sardinia, the Two Sicilies, Lombardy-Venice, the Papal States, and smaller grand duchies was unappealing.
Mazzini joined the revolutionary carbonari (literally coal burners), whose members signed their oaths to rebel with blood. The bulk of carbonari members were drawn from the middle class and were responsible for insurrections in the 1820s in Naples, Sicily, and Piedmont.
Mazzini was declared an outlaw and imprisoned at Savona in 1830. After his release, he appealed to King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia to liberate the Italian states from Austrian rule. In 1831 he went to Marseille, France, as an exile and gathered fellow Italian emigrants.
There he began organizing the movement to unify Italy from abroad, and he spent most of his years as an exile. Mazzini established a political society, La Giovine Italia (Young Italy), based on the ethical principle of a strong faith in God and commitment to progress, sacrifice, and duty.
Branches of Young Italy sprang up in various Italian cities and by 1833 its membership reached 60,000. Only people under the age of 40 were eligible. In 1834 he set up a revolutionary organization called Young Europe to unite movements like Young Poland, Young Germany, and Young Italy.
Mazzini believed that a mass movement could drive foreigners from Italy, and an Italian republic could be established based on the principles of democracy, equality, and social reforms. He combined his political philosophy with action in hopes of making his dream of Italian unification a reality.
In 1832 Mazzini made an attempt to foment a rebellion in the Sardinian army. He was sentenced to capital punishment in absentia. He was expelled from France and from his new home in Switzerland. He organized another insurrection against the government of Sardinia in 1834, which also failed. His Young Europe movement made him a cult figure and prophet of nationalism throughout Europe.
In 1837 he moved to London, where he lived for many years. He published a newspaper, Apostleship of the People. Attempts were made to revive the Giovine Italia, which was languishing due to series of abortive attempts at rebellion. In his writings, Mazzini talked of a national consciousness of Italy.
The mantra of the February Revolution that swept Europe was nationalism. It prompted Mazzini to make another attempt at the political unification of Italy. For him, the revolutions of 1848 fulfilled a mission for humanity.
He came back to Italy after the Austrians were ousted from Lombardy. The impact of the revolution was felt all through Italy. The people of Milan welcomed Mazzini, who served for awhile with another Italian revolutionary, General Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The adherents of Giovine Italia in Rome rebelled in November 1848 and drove out Pope Pius IX, who fled to the Neapolitan area. The democratic Roman Republic was put into place, with Mazzini at the helm, instead of the Papal States. It was the crowning glory of his career.
Elected as a triumvir of the republic, Mazzini carried out his social reforms with efficiency and an authoritarian streak. On July 1, 1849, the popularly elected Assembly passed the constitution of the Roman Republic. But Mazzini’s dream was short-lived as French troops, who responded to the appeal of the pope, besieged the new republic.
Mazzini surrendered on July 3. Italy almost returned to its pre-Revolutionary status, divided into sovereign principalities, and a disillusioned Mazzini returned to London. He disliked the “narrow spirit of nationalism,” and deplored the usurping of leadership by the politicians of Italy and Germany afterward.
The revolutionary phase of Italian unification was over and the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia took leadership in proclaiming the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. The amateur revolutionaries failed, and the path was cleared for professional politicians to take leadership of Italy’s unification, much to Mazzini’s dismay.
He continued to strive for democracy and an agenda of social reforms. Mazzini was arrested in 1870 and lived in Pisa for two years under a pseudonym. He died of pleurisy on March 10, 1872.
Mazzini remains a respected figure in Italy, whose ideals were active into the 1990s under the banner of the republican party. Mazzini’s philosophy influenced not only nationalists in Italy, but nationalists abroad as well. Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi, an important figure in the Indian freedom movement, for example, was influenced by Mazzini and worked for both political and social emancipation in his struggle against British colonial rule.