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Constitutions and Parliaments, Italy 1848-49

CONSTITUTIONS AND PARLIAMENTS, ITALY 1848-49 From Sicily to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia demands for constitutions and parliamentary government figured prominently in the revolutions of 1848-49. In addition, there were calls for a national constituent assembly in which representatives from all over Italy would endeavor to reach agreement on a common document imposing a degree of unity on the disparate states. By the spring of 1848 insurgents had wrested constitutions from the unwilling rulers of Naples, Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany, and the Papal States. All took the French constitution of 1830 as their model, while, ironically, the French were revolting and abrogating the 1830 charter. Granted at the pleasure of the ruler, these Italian constitutions provided for a bicameral legislature, the upper house appointed by the sovereign, the lower elected by limited male suffrage, and left extensive powers in the hands of the ruler. Few provisions guaranteed basic rights to citizens, and citizenship itself could be exercised only within circumscribed limits. In Sicily which first in Europe revolted on January 12, 1848, constitutional demands had different goals, as the Sicilians wanted to restore their 1812 constitution. With the exception of the Piedmontese-Sardinian (considered a less radical term than constitution), which weathered the post-1849 reaction, none of these constitutions survived the revolutionary biennium. First in Europe Sicilians revolted on January 12, 1848. Separatism, as well as liberalism, inspired many Sicilians who demanded the restoration of their 1812 constitution, promulgated when the island was under British protection. As the conflict between Sicilians and their king Ferdinand II in Naples intensified, the islanders established a provisional government and called for the convening of a general parliament to adapt the 1812 constitution to the existing situation. Belatedly, Ferdinand promised a constitution, but refused however to recognize the validity of the 1812 document. Undeterred, the Sicilian parliament continued to deliberate and on April 13, 1848, deposed Ferdinand II. Though the confrontation between king and rebellious subjects escalated into armed conflict, the parliament in Palermo took no measures to reinforce the island's defenses and proved unequal to the emergency. By May 1849 the Neapolitan army had won control of the island and restored the king's authority. The constitution was abrogated. The parliamentary leaders were imprisoned or escaped into exile.

In Naples King Ferdinand II retained considerable control over constitutional developments. Moreover, the Sicilian revolt created a state of emergency and allowed the king to strengthen his army, which he was then able to use to suppress the Neapolitan parliament. Calls for a constitution rose early in 1848. Initially Ferdinand tried to ignore the agitation, but as it increased he unwillingly granted a constitution on February 10, 1848, swore to uphold it, and authorized elections to parliament by a limited suffrage. The constitution provided for an elected chamber of deputies, but placed no limits on the king's power and authority. The liberal middle-of-the road chamber elected in April 1848 immediately clashed with the king over its demand to amend the constitution. Ferdinand finally agreed as barricades rose in the center of Naples, Sicily proclaimed its independence, and revolutionists in Calabria established a provisional government. But in May the king declared the elections null and void, suppressed the recently won freedom of press and public assembly, and ordered the arrest of many of his critics. New elections on 15 June returned a more cautious parliament which supported the king's actions against the Sicilian rebels for whom the Neapolitans had little sympathy. As relations with Sicily worsened, the king prorogued parliament. Before it could reassemble a royal decree, citing the Sicilian emergency and the bloody revolt in the Papal States, remanded its reconvening until February 1, 1849. When parliament finally met again, it came into conflict with the king and his ministers over taxes. Losing patience the king dissolved it on March 12, 1849. By summer 1849, the Sicilian revolt having been suppressed and liberal constitutional regimes routed elsewhere in Italy except for Piedmont-Sardinia, Ferdinand put an end to the Neapolitan constitutional experiment, arrested many former parliamentarians and sentenced them to long prison terms. He never formally revoked the constitution, as Neapolitan bishops ruled that the king could not rescind it unilaterally without breaking the oath he had taken to uphold it, which the deeply religious Ferdinand was unwilling to do.

In Rome and Tuscany, popular agitation forced both rulers to leave their states in the winter of 1848-49. In Rome the papal charter, granted by Pius IX on March 14, 1848, was abrogated. It failed to meet the people's demands for equitable participation in the government. While it had granted bi-cameral representation, it had given the college of cardinals and pope absolute veto power over parliamentary actions. After the pope's flight from Rome in November 1848, deliberations began on a popular republican constitution. Unique among the constitutions promulgated in Italy during 1848-49, the Roman republican constitution was the only one written, debated, and approved by a constituent assembly, elected by universal manhood suffrage. The Roman legislators expended much discussion and thought on drafting a document that would not only serve the needs of the Roman republic but which could be extended to a future united Italy. So highly did the Roman framers regard their constitution and so determined were they that it not be forgotten that they adopted it as French troops breached the defenses of their city on July 3, 1849.

In Tuscany after the departure of the grand duke at the beginning of 1849, a provisional government was established. The legislative assembly, elected by limited suffrage under the granducal charter, was renamed the constitutional assembly and initiated discussions on a new charter that would be applicable to all of Italy. It also debated merging with the Roman Republic as a first step towards a united Italy. Before, however, this could be effected, both republics came to an end. The draft of a new constitution never progressed beyond the talking stage, as political and military events overwhelmed the republic's leaders.

In Piedmont-Sardinia the constitution or Statuto, was reluctantly granted by King Charles Albert on February 8, 1848, after repeated agitations in Turin and Genoa, the kingdoms's two main cities, and promulgated on March 4. Redacted by Charles Albert's ministers the Statuto provided for a bicameral parliament, the lower house or chamber of deputies to be elected on a very limited suffrage, and the upper house or senate to be appointed by the monarch. A conservative document, reflecting political attitudes of the early nineteenth century, it provided for limited sharing of power between king and parliament, but vested control over important areas of Italian life in the hands of the monarch, left ministers responsible only to the king, and proclaimed Roman Catholicism to be the state religion, though it recognized the right of the Waldensians and Jews, the two religious minority groups in the kingdom, to freedom of worship. It was to be the only Italian constitution to survive the revolutionary collapse in 1849.

By autumn 1849 parliaments and constitutions had ended their brief existence, leaving a controversial legacy. The members of the legislative assemblies elected in the various Italian states had been handicapped by hostility from the rulers and the entrenched ruling classes, internal differences among themselves, and conflicting demands on their resources and limited decision- making authority. Were they to institute reforms, draft a new constitution or modify the existing one, join in a war against Austria, set local interests aside in favor of newly proclaimed national goals, or docilely obey the ruler? Each followed a different pattern. Only the Tuscan and Roman parliaments looked to a future united Italy, but faced with powerful foreign military interference in Rome and internal dissension in Tuscany, both succumbed. In southern Italy, Ferdinand II was able to abolish parliament and ignore the constitution in Naples. In Sicily he profited from the island's limited military resources and failure to deploy them adroitly to defeat the islanders' attempt to institute an independent parliamentary constitutional regime. In Turin parliament and constitution survived because Victor Emmanuel, despite serious personal reservations about constitutions and representative government, was persuaded to preserve the Statuto. During the 1850s thanks to the skillful and moderate leadership of ministers like Camillo Benso di Cavour constitutional parliamentary government was strengthened. In 1861 the Statuto became the constitution of united Italy. It survived until the end of World War II, when finally a popularly elected constitutional convention met to draft a new charter for the republic of Italy. Later critics of the 1848-49 revolutions concluded that lack of a unified purpose and goal had doomed all the constitutional parliamentary governments from the very beginning. With the exception of Tuscany and Rome, revolutioan Italy divided into many states each with its own government, constitution, and parliament.
Emiliana P. Noether


Le Assemblee del Risorgimento, ed. for Chamber of Deputies (15 vols., Rome, 1911)

Giorgio Candeloro. Storia dell'Italia moderna. III, La rivoluzione nazionale [1846-1849] (2d ed., Milan, 1966)

Nino Cortese. Le costituz ioni italiane del 1848-49. (Naples, 1945).

M. Cossu. L'Assemblea costituente romana del 1849. (Rome, 1923).

A. Aquarone, M. D'Addio, G. Negri (eds.) Le costituzioni italiane. (Milan, 1958).

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