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Sardinia-Piedmont, Kingdom of, 1848-1849

Sardinia-Piedmont, Kingdom of, 1848-1849

Under the leadership of the House of Savoy and its ministers, Piedmont-Sardinia played a key role in the Risorgimento and the first war of Italian independence, 1848-1849. Forged by the dukes of Savoy who in 1720 acquired the island of Sardinia and the title of king, their capital Turin, at the opening of the nineteenth century was more French than Italian. Nonetheless in the quest for national leadership this northwestern kingdom enjoyed some advantages. Its monarchs were ambitious, exercising a greater degree of independence than any other Italian rulers, and their influence extended by a strong army, a long military tradition, and an efficient bureaucracy. Following the restoration of 1814 and the Congress of Vienna, it was enlarged by absorbing Genoa. By 1815 this kingdom of three and a half million people was both a maritime and Italian power.

Charles Albert, who assumed the throne in 1831, entertained expansionist if not patriotic ideas. He moved the state toward free trade and his ministers concluded twenty-six navigation and commercial treaties between 1832 and 1846. In 1843 the Piedmontese priest Vincenzo Gioberti, who had fled an earlier repression at home, wrote On the Moral and Civil Primacy of the Italians, proposing that Italy regain its national greatness under the leadership of the pope and the military support of Piedmont. The neo-Guelph program maintained that the pope could simultaneously serve as the temporal ruler of Italians and spiritual head of the church. The Piedmontese Cesare Balbo disagreed, and in his On the Hopes of Italy (1844) stressed that Piedmont rather than the papacy had to provide the leadership for the new Italy. His position was supported by two fellow Piedmontese, Massimo D'Azeglio and Camillo di Cavour. Charles Albert confided to Massimo D'Azeglio that when the opportunity arose he would commit his life, his children's life, his treasury, and his army to the Italian cause.

Following the election of Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti as Pius IX in 1846, the neo-Guelph dream seemed to materialize. The enthusiasm for Pius which ensued, as well as the competition with Rome for leadership, simulated Charles Albert to hasten his reform program, removing many of the restrictions on the press. When a successful revolution in Naples early in January 1848 constrained Ferdinand II to grant a constitution, Charles Albert was forced to follow suit in February. Early in March the provisions of the statuto were announced as Cesare Balbo presided over Piedmont's first constitutional ministry. This orderly Piedmontese transformation was interrupted by the outbreak of the revolution against Austrian domination in Lombardy, precipitating the five glorious days of Milan. On March 23, Charles Albert donned the tricolor scarf sent to him by the people of Milan as his troops crossed the Ticino. In his proclamation to the people of Lombardy the king trusted in the aid of God who had given Italians Pope Pius IX, and has placed Italy in a position to make itself. The revolution in Milan and the Piedmontese declaration of war against Austria unleashed a wave of enthusiasm in the peninsula, as the people in each of the Italian states pressed their princes to support Charles Albert's war against Austria. General Radetzky soon faced the Piedmontese army, swelled by volunteers from the Duchies and Lombardy, in the west, the Neapolitans and the papal forces in the south, and the troops of the recently re-established Venetian republic, in the east.

The Italian euphoria ended as divisions, defections and disappointment ensued. In April 1848 Pius IX announced in an Allocution that he would not wage war upon Catholic Austria, encouraging Ferdinand II of Naples to with draw his troops from the campaign. Many of the volunteers drifted away as the struggle continued, leaving Charles Albert's forces to fight against the Austrians. General Radetzky, who received reinforcements, assumed the offensive and on July 25, the Piedmontese were defeated at Custozza. Or iginally Charles Albert, who retreated to Milan, sought to defend the city, but early in August accepted an armistice which provided for withdrawal from Milan.

In Turin as well as Milan Charles Albert's leadership and even his commitment to the national cause were questioned. Gioberti, in league with the radical national political club of Turin, called upon the king to break the armistice and renew the war with Austria. But once called to power in December, this ex-priest decided to secure a diplomatic rather than military solution to the country's dilemma. Cavour concurred, writing that while Italy could have "gone it alone" against Austria, Piedmont by herself could not make Italy. Theking's generals agreed with Cavour, noting the disparities in training and preparation of the Piedmontese and Austrian armies. The Rattazzi ministry which followed the Gioberti cabinet disagreed, and pressured the disheartened Charles Albert to reopen the war on March 20, 1849. Three days later the Piedmontese forces were routed by General Radetzky,s army at Novara, and Charles Albert asked the Austrians for terms. Disturbed by the disastrous campaign, and convinced that General Radetzky harbored a profound hatred for him, Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son Victor Emanuel, going to his exile and death.

The campaign which opened with such high expectations in 1848 ended with the Austrian occupation of Lomellina and Alessandria in 1849. The Austrians might have imposed harsher terms but for the watchful position of England and France who were determined to preserve Piedmont as a buffer between France and Austria. Consequently Piedmont returned to the position and frontiers provided by the treaties of 1815, constrained to give up all claims to the territories which had briefly formed part of the Kingdom of Northern Italy. Piedmontese ambitions remained as Victor Emanuel kept his father's statuto and nourished his nationalist and expansionist sentiments. Cesare Balbo observed that their country never concluded permanent peace with Austria, but only signed truces that lasted ten years at most. Cavour promised that the Piedmontese would learn from the experience and errors of 1848-1849, prophesying they would do better next time. Their predictions materialized, for within ten years the Piedmontese, with the help of Napoleon III and the French, opened the second war of independence that led to the creation of the Kingdom of Italy.

Frank J. Coppa


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Hearder, Harry. Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento, 1790-1870. London: Longman, 1986.

Martin, George. The Red Shirt and the Cross of Savoy. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1969.

Monti, Antonio. La politica degli stati italiani durante il Risorgimento. Milan: Villardi, 1948.

Le relazioni diplomatiche fra L'Austria e il Regno di Sardegna e la guerra del 1848-1849. III serie: 1848-1860. Volume I: 24 marzo 1848--11 aprile 1849. Ed. Angelo Filipuzzi. Rome: Instituto storica italiano per l'eta moderna e contemporanea, 1961.

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