By: Tom Frascella February 2013
I would like to start this article by noting that March marks the end of the sixth year since we began developing the history section on our San Felese website. We have much to add but I would like to take the time to thank our members Mark and Jennifer who developed and keep the website operating and have patiently helped me transition my articles to our site.
I would also like to say that I am very excited to begin the seventh year of the history project as in my mind it represents a new phase in the story. Going forward I expect annually to focus on twenty year segments of history and how those times impacted our ancestors. In April the articles of the next year will begin to address the goings on in southern Italy and the United States for the period 1830-1850.
This period in history saw the development of the key players and leaders in what eventually lead to the successful unification of the Italian peninsula. It also is the birth period of those first individuals who would emigrate to the U.S. from Lucania and specifically from San Fele starting in the 1850’s. So the events of these two decades proceed, but form part of the immediate circumstances that lead to their emigration.
The Italian politics of the peninsula were extremely complex in the 1830-1850 period. As such it is far to complex a subject to explain and do justice to in this format. For my purposes I would suggest that the peninsula was divided into three sections. The first area was the northern part of Italy, which was largely under the dominance and influence of Austria. The second area was the central part of Italy which was under the control of the Vatican which could rely on the support primarily of France but also Austria. Lastly, the southern part of Italy, including Sicily, which at that time was back in the control of the Bourbon monarchy.
The Bourbon Monarchy of southern Italy as we have already seen could call on the military support of the Austrian government. The Bourbons relied heavily on Austrian troops to put down the Carbonari based rebellions of the late 18th century and mid 1820’s. Italy had not had a unified central; government since the Roman Empire and in the intervening centuries most Italians identified themselves by their region of birth and had no real sense of a national identity. So while Carbonari inspired rebellions were common, they were regional not national in scope. The political and social climate began to change in Italy with the arrival of a young Italian political theorist by the name of Giuseppe Mazzini. It is to early political career of Mazzini that this article is dedicated as a way of talking about the change in politics that began to happen starting around 1830.
Giuseppe Mazzini was born in northern Italy in 1805. He was the son of liberal and well educated parents, his father a university professor. Giuseppe was a bright young man, and impressive student who entered university at the age of fourteen. Around 1828 he began writing political essays for a small northern Italian newspaper. About this time another round of Carbonari based revolts seized several cities in northern Italy. The government viewed the newspaper that Mazzini was writing for as subversive and shut it down. Mazzini then went to work for a second newspaper and continued his political writings. In 1831 he became a member of the secret society of the Carbonari.. Later that year, he was arrested and spent six months in prison. It was during this imprisonment that he began to theorize about a broader based revolt, one that would unify Italy into one Republic.
His release from prison in 1831 was conditioned on a choice of either essentially house arrest in a small Italian village where he would be prohibited from publishing anymore political essays or exile. Mazzini chose exile in Geneva. It is from Geneva that Mazzini together with several other Italian political exiles formed a new political organization which he named “ La giovine Italia” or Young Italy. This organization was designed to attract the young of Italy and to instill a sense of “national” identity.
The movement gained almost overnight interest among young Italians especially in the north. As was previously written the world was experiencing a mini ice age which would last from the late 1700’s thru 1850. The climate shift caused widespread crop failures in northern latitudes. In response northern Italy had increased wheat production to export as a cash crop. The increased farm production required increased labor and so the rural population of northern Italy experienced a 20% increase between 1810 and 1850. Undoubtedly, Mazzini’s writing found an enhanced population waiting to be influenced.
Mazzini moved his organizations headquarters to Marseille in the later part of 1831. It is estimated that by 1833 “ La giovine Italia” had over 60,000 members. With Mazzini urging some of his followers began to plot a rebellion in 1833. Unfortunately the plot was discovered before it could be launched and the ringleaders arrested by the Savoy government. Many of the leaders of the initial group of plotters were executed, Mazzini himself was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
Undeterred Mazzini moved back to Switzerland and together with other exiles began to plot a second revolt attempt. A new group of young leaders from Giovine Italia were to attempt to start a revolt in Piedmont while a second thrust lead by another new member named Giuseppe Garibaldi was to attempt to start a revolt in Genoa. Both attempts again failed, easily put down by government troops. Garibaldi avoided capture, was tried in abstentia and also condemned to death, he fled the country and went into exile. Despite these failures and setbacks Mazzini remained convinced of his cause and method. While still in exile in Switzerland Mazzini together with political refugees from Italy, Poland and Germany formed a new organization which he named Young Europe. As the name would imply Mazzini’s political thought was taking him to conceive of a federation of European National States, an idea very much ahead of its time. All of the revolutionary activities did not go unnoticed by the Swiss authorities who arrested Mazzini in 1834.
The Swiss agreed to release him only upon his promise that he would leave the country, so he left for Paris and upon arrival was almost immediately arrested by the French government. He remained imprisoned in France for three years until it was agreed and arranged that he move to England in 1837. Interestingly, during the 1830’s among those who joined Giovine Italia were Napoleon’s two nephews, living in exile in Italy.
From London Mazzini continued to preach revolution and reorganized Giovine Italia. There were a number of continued failed attempts to get a revolution started between 1837 and 1840 most notably in Sicily, Abruzzi, Tuscany and Lombardy. In 1843 he organized a riot for independence in Bologna and later attempted to organize a revolt near Cosenza, in the Kingdom of Naples. This attempted uprising is interesting in that it was betrayed when British agents advised the Bourbon Monarchy of the plot and the leaders arrested and executed shortly after landing in the south.
In 1848 Mazzini used the success of the Milan uprising against the Austrian government to return to Italy as did Garibaldi. The Piedmonte monarchy also tried to use this success as well, starting the First Italian War of Independence. Mazzini who was not a Monarchist, and therefore did not support the Piedmontese Monarchy eventually left Milan joining Garibaldi in Bergamo. In 1849 revolutionary forces achieved a brief success in declaring a Republic of Rome and forcing the Pope to flee to Gaeta. Mazzini became a leader in the Republic, which came to an end when French forces arrived in support of the Pope. The French forces defeated the Italian republican forces lead by Garibaldi. This must have been doubly disappointing in that France was lead by Napoleon III who as a young exile in Italy had been a member of Young Italia. Both Mazzini and Garibaldi again were forced into exile.
From the above I hope that the reader gets the sense that Italian nationalism and revolutionary fervor were constantly afoot in the 1830-1850 time frame. While defeat came more frequently than victory there was no quit in the resolve. What is clear is that unfunded, poorly equipped, and without external international allies the popular cause kept failing. For those who would compare the Italian experience of this period to the American Revolution we have to remind ourselves that the intervention of the French was a critical difference as was the distance from England to America. If the Italians had had one international ally of significance who could have aided even with military supplies the outcome of their efforts would have been very different. One of the facts that surprise many people is that the United States considered immigrants from Italy between 1800 and 1880 to be political refugees and classified them as such. If you look at the core political elements of both the Carbonari and la Giovine Italia movement it is clear that they are Constitutionalists and Republican in their political leaning. Also, although not very many Italian exiles came to the U.S. before 1865, those immigrants that did tended to be Abolitionist and pro civil rights in their view. Post 1865 the slavery issue ceased to exist in the U.S. but for those later Italian immigrants, civil rights and liberty remained important issues as they were coming from a struggle for such rights that had extended over decades and for which thousands had given their lives.
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