Piedmont in the 1850s
Mark Rathbone asks why the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia emerged in the 1850s as the likely unifier of Italy.
In 1849, no one in Italy would have put any lire on the kingdom of Piedmont emerging as the catalyst of Italian unification. In March of that year, its army had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Austrian Empire at Novara. Its king, Charles Albert, was so dispirited by the utter failure of his attempt to establish control of northern Italy by fighting a war against Austria that he abdicated. So why, just a decade later, was his son and successor, Victor Emmanuel II, able to launch a further war against Austria, beginning a train of events which unified Italy under Piedmontese leadership?
Five widely differing factors offer the key to understanding this remarkable process: a constitution, a marriage, a political movement, a means of transport and a war. This article will attempt to explain each of these and how together they enabled Piedmont to emerge as Italy’s unifying force by 1859.
The constitution was already in place in 1849. It had been granted by the ill-fated Charles Albert in March 1848, and was known as the Statuto. One of several constitutions granted by the monarchs of Italian states in the feverish atmosphere of revolution that permeated the peninsula (and much of the rest of Europe) in early 1848, its importance lies in the fact that it was the only one to survive beyond 1849. Granted by Charles Albert in the hope of gaining popular support while fending off popular revolution, it retained many of the powers of the monarch.