Camillo Benso di Cavour

Camillo Benso di Cavour
Camillo Benso di Cavour

Count Camillo Benso di Cavour was an Italian statesman who forged the unified Kingdom of Italy. Cavour was born in northwestern Italy in Turin, the capital of Piedmont-Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy. Cavour was earmarked for an army career, and he enrolled in the military academy of Turin.

Because of his liberal views, however, he had to leave the army in 1831. He then administered the family’s estate. Cavour traveled widely in Europe, visiting France, Switzerland, and Great Britain, and his journeys reinforced his dislike for absolutism and clericalism.

Witnessing the constitutional monarchy of France under King Louis-Philippe, he became a strong supporter of constitutionalism. Originally, Cavour was interested in making Piedmont powerful rather than pursuing Italian unification.

Convinced that economic reconstruction had to precede political change, he argued for free trade and railroad construction in the Italian Peninsula. His mind gradually changed, and he began to dream of a united Italy free of foreign influence.

With the election of the liberal Pope Pius IX in 1846, Cavour felt that the chance to advocate reform had come. Generally, Cavour did not believe that the pope would play a leading role in the unification movement. Instead, Cavour looked to King Charles Albert of Piedmont to implement the national program.

In 1847 Cavour founded Il Risorgimento (“The Resurgence,” later a term for the unification of Italy), a newspaper advocating liberalism and unification. As editor, Cavour became a powerful figure in Piedmontese politics.

During 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe. Demonstrations in Genoa called for liberalization of the state, and Cavour supported the demands for a constitution in Il Risorgimento. Pressured by the influential paper and by the dissent in his kingdom, Charles Albert complied on February 8, 1848.

Cavour then urged the king to declare war against Austria, which ruled much of Italy at the time. Word arrived that the people of Milan on March 18, 1848, had initiated a war against the Austrians. Bowing to pressure from Cavour’s party, Charles Albert declared war on Austria.

Piedmont was defeated, but liberalism and nationalism were still strong. Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II. Under the new monarch, Cavour’s career flourished. He became minister of agriculture and commerce in 1850 and minister of finance in 1851, finally becoming prime minister at the end of 1852.

Cavour capitalized on the antipapal sentiment in Italy following Pius IX’s refusal to wage war upon Austria. The defeat of 1848 also convinced Cavour of the need for a powerful ally to separate Austria from Italy.

Cavour worked hard to strengthen the state, reorganizing its army, financial system, and bureaucracy. He also encouraged the development of industry, railroads, and factories, making Piedmont one of the most modernized European states of the time.

In 1854 Piedmont entered the Crimean War as an ally of Great Britain and France in exchange for promises that the future of Italy would be considered an urgent issue with international scope. In 1856 Cavour presented the Italian case before the peace Congress of Paris.

He succeeded in isolating Austria, compromising France in the Italian question, and getting the condition of Italy discussed by the great powers, who agreed that some remedy was in order.

Cavour now saw that war with Austria was merely a question of time, and he began to establish connections with revolutionists of all parts of Italy. He sought to ingratiate himself with Napoleon III, emperor of the French, whose support he considered crucial to avenge the defeat of 1848–49.

Napoleon sympathized with the plan for a northern Italian kingdom, and in July 1858, the two plotted against Austria. Piedmont would be united with Tuscany, a truncated Papal State, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Napoleon promised that if Austria were to attack Piedmont-Sardinia, France would come to its aid.

Cavour immediately set to provoking Austria into war, and in April 1859 Austria attacked. However, after victories at Magenta and Solferino, Napoleon signed an armistice, without informing his allies. The treaty allowed Austria to keep Venetia, but Piedmont received only Lombardy.

Cavour, unwilling to accept the terms, resigned. The situation soon reversed itself when the citizens of Tuscany, Modena, Parma, Bologna, and Romagna voted in March 1860 to become part of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Cavour returned to power in January 1860. Soon afterward, the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi led his famous army of 1,000 adventurers into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Neapolitan government fell, and Garibaldi entered Naples in triumph. Following the collapse of the Neapolitan kingdom, Cavour engineered its annexation.

Statue of Camillo Benso di Cavour
Statue of Camillo Benso di Cavour
He also managed to occupy the greater part of the Papal States, avoiding the city of Rome because Napoleon was pledged to protect the pope. Cavour’s dream, save for Rome and Venetia, was now realized, and Italy was nearly united.

On March 17, 1861, Cavour had the Piedmontese parliament proclaim Victor Emmanuel king of Italy. The parliament also proclaimed Rome the future capital, hoping to resolve the question through an agreement with the church. Three months later, Cavour died.

Cavour’s political ideas were greatly influenced by the Revolution of 1830 in France, which proved to him that a monarchy was not incompatible with liberal principles. A strong belief in liberalism, an extensive knowledge of technology, and the dream of a unified Italy allowed Cavour to unite Italy and to modernize his country both politically and technologically.

When he died, his work had been carried far enough that others could complete it. Cavour is undoubtedly the greatest figure of the Risorgimento. It was Cavour who organized it and skillfully conducted the negotiations that overcame all obstacles.