Cavour; drawing by David Levine

Historians of modern Italy are often pessimistic. When, like all other historians, they have sought to find a dominating theme, a key that would open all the locks, they have seized upon that of failure. Italy has been described as the country of failed revolutions, the rivoluzione mancata. The Jacobin revolution, the industrial revolution, the socialist revolution, the fascist revolution, the antifascist revolution—all have been seen as unsuccessful. And not only the so-called revolutions, but also all the other “turning points” where modern Italian history has failed to turn have been similarly described. The liberal parliamentary state, the resolve to make Italy an important imperial power, the intervention in two world wars, the membership in the European community, the evolution of the Italian Communist party: all these episodes, according to this interpretation, are part of a succession of betrayals, disasters, defeats, or disappointments.

In this melancholy catalog it is undoubtedly the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy that have caused the greatest disillusionment. This is all the more remarkable because the aspirations of the Italian people toward freedom from foreign rule and nationhood, which are usually spoken of as the Risorgimento, were once hailed as a unique achievement. The creation of a united kingdom of Italy in 1861 (though still lacking Rome and Venice) was seen as the masterpiece of all liberal movements and it became part of accepted mythology to describe the three creators of Italy, Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi, as “her Brain, her Soul, her Sword.”

But this was a long time ago. The Marxist philosopher Gramsci thought that the new Italian state was a bastard creation, dominated by a cowardly ruling class. Alberto Moravia described the Risorgimento as a petty affair, a mean little enterprise. An entire school of historians readily subscribed to the view that united Italy was fatally flawed from its origins and could not realize the promises intrinsic to its conception. “What went wrong with the Risorgimento?” has become a stock question in examinations, and it is rare to find a student who rejects the question altogether and casts it back at the examiners. That the Risorgimento was a failure is taken for granted.

All this is of great importance for the reputation of Cavour. When this Pied-montese died in 1861 at the age of fifty, only a few months after the proclamation of Victor Emmanuel as king of Italy, he was invariably regarded as one of the ablest and most successful of statesmen. Even those who had reason to disapprove what they saw in Italy expressed confidence in his wisdom. Lord Shaftesbury, for example, had been distressed in the 1850s to learn that a man had been sent to prison by the Piedmontese authorities for having distributed copies of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. But he always trusted Cavour, and when Cavour, after temporarily resigning from government, returned to power in 1860, he wrote to tell him that “the feeling in England among all classes who desire the welfare of Italy is one of joy and gratitude to God for your return to office.” Some fifty years later the English historian George Macaulay Trevelyan was writing of Cavour as the wisest and most beneficent statesman of his century “if not of all time.”

But if Italian unification, as accomplished by Cavour, had been a blunder, and was the first episode in the long list of mistakes that was to characterize Italian history, then Cavour’s reputation must suffer. Far from being the symbol of success and sagacity he becomes, at best, the man who missed a great opportunity, and at worst, the man who turned the Risorgimento into a disaster. It is natural that we should turn for guidance to the new biography of Cavour by Denis Mack Smith. This is not only because Mack Smith is everywhere recognized as an authority on the period, whose study of Cavour and Garibaldi in 1860 was of outstanding importance, but also because as a general historian of Italy he has been one of the most influential critics of the Risorgimento and of the form that unification took. He has described these events as a victory for the intellectuals, the liberals, and the middle classes, but not as a victory for the uneducated, the poor, the Catholic masses, and all those who lost a paternal, protective ordering of society. He has always been conscious of the flaws that were deeply embedded in the work of Italian liberals and patriots and it is such a historian whom one might expect to make a judicious appraisal of Cavour’s achievements.

This is the first biography of Cavour to appear in English for sixty years. Nor has Cavour as a subject been more fortunate among his fellow countrymen, since it was only in 1969 that Rosario Romeo began the lengthy task of producing a four-volume study of Cavour’s life and times. Edward Dicey, who published a memoir of Cavour within a few weeks of his death, remarked that the modern passion for biographies had not yet descended upon Italy. Research into a great man’s antecedents, the story of his parents’ lives, or the records of his childhood, was a thing foreign to the Italian mind, and he explained that he had read an account of Cavour written by an Italian who presented two contrasting versions of his subject’s origins. The one stated that he was of ancient family and lineage; the other that he was the son of a small tradesman from Nice. The writer had not taken the trouble to inquire which of the versions was the correct one since he regarded the matter as of no importance.


But the facts of Cavour’s life are not in doubt. He was the second son of a prominent Piedmontese nobleman who served both Napoleon and the royal house of Savoy. He spent many years traveling outside Italy, especially in France and England. He greatly admired the writings of the liberal Tocqueville, and as a statesman he was most appreciative of conservatives, such as Guizot and Sir Robert Peel. He managed the family estates. He wrote articles for newspapers and reviews, he gambled with various degrees of success, he was often idle and unemployed.

Not until the liberalization of the Pied-montese constitution in 1848 did he make any attempt to enter politics, and then success came slowly. Whether because of his uncertain temper, or because he quickly revealed the extent of his intense ambition, or because he was regarded as the pampered son of the aristocracy, he was not a popular figure and it was with difficulty that he got elected to the Chamber. In dealing with the uncertainties of the 1848 revolutions Cavour showed the same confusions as his contemporaries, urging, for example, that the Piedmontese army should persist in its war against the Austrians and maintaining that it could easily be victorious. But after the resounding defeat of the Piedmontese at Novara in 1849 he protested at the folly of such a policy and demanded an official inquiry into what had happened (although once this inquiry had taken place he thought it would be most injudicious to publish it).

Dicey recalled how Rosetti’s near-contemporary history of Italy from 1815 to 1849 makes mention of Garibaldi and Mazzini, and of many minor figures. But nowhere in its pages is there any allusion to Count Cavour. He was little known outside his own circle, and it was not until October 1850 that he was given a ministerial post. But two years later he became prime minister, and from then until his death he remained the dominant political leader in Piedmont and an important figure on the European scene.

It is not difficult to explain this sudden rise from obscurity. He apparently understood about finance and he promised that he would soon balance the books of the budget (a promise that he had not fulfilled by his death in 1861). He was accepted as the most able speaker in the Chamber, a fact that might be thought of more as a commentary on his fellow members than as testimony to his oratory. His voice was monotonous and his command of words limited. To make up for this deficiency he would interpose a cough between sentences, thus destroying any pretension toward eloquence. But above all he quickly mastered the art of parliamentary management, and he enlarged his political status and undermined that of others by an alliance, known as the connubio, or marriage, between his own center-right party and the liberals of the center-left. A circumspect man, he was, as Denis Mack Smith points out, secretive, adept at starting rumors, skillful at pressing his advantage.

The occasion for his accession to the post of prime minister was the proposed law to make civil marriage legal. The king suddenly discovered, at the Vatican’s prompting, that he could not in conscience accept this measure, although it had passed the lower house of Parliament by a large majority. It has been said that Cavour saw this as his chance to take power and that he gave assurance to the king that he would not press forward with this law, although he did not approve of the king’s constitutional position in blocking legislation. Thus Cavour appears not only as a ruthless politician, but as one who was also unscrupulous and ready to relax his principles in order to further his career. Mack Smith is restrained in his comments about this episode, describing Cavour’s position merely as “ambiguous.” His enemies could accuse him of damaging the authority of Parliament and conniving at a royal veto in order to win power; his supporters could claim that he was saving the spirit of the constitution by reconciling monarchy and legislature.


This restraint is all the stranger because Mack Smith does not hesitate to point out the many errors that Cavour went on to commit. Thus it has often been said that Cavour’s decision to enter the Crimean war and to send Piedmontese troops to fight against the Russians was a masterpiece of subtle diplomacy. But Mack Smith shows that this decision was taken hastily in 1855 when he discovered that the king was secretly negotiating with the French and trying to win guarantees for specific Piedmontese gains if Piedmont declared war on Russia. In order to get the better of this royal initiative Cavour immediately persuaded his cabinet to announce the decision to enter the war without any guarantees, thus losing all bargaining power. When he attended the peace negotiations at the Congress of Paris in 1856 he indulged in a welter of intrigue and produced one implausible scheme after another, eventually persuading himself that England was willing to wage war against Austria on behalf of Piedmont, in which he was wholly mistaken. During a hurried trip to London it was discovered that he was trying to bring pressure to bear on the English government by passing information to the Tories in Parliament—a maneuver that must have caused Lord Clarendon to reflect on his belief that Cavour was one of the few foreigners he had met who was like a well-educated English gentleman. Mack Smith records many other gaffes, along with the opinions of those who found Cavour vain, mendacious, unprincipled, greedy for power and money. What emerges from Mack Smith’s book is a tellingly hostile portrait.

But the main question remains whether or not Cavour was interested in creating a new Italian state. Before the 1848 revolutions he worked for a newspaper called il Risorgimento, but one has to ask if he believed in the resurgence or renaissance of Italy. No one doubted that he wanted Piedmont to change from being a somewhat primitive state into being a state distinguished by its prosperity and progressiveness. He inaugurated a considerable program of investment in public works, such as railways, roads, and canals; he spent money on the army; he reduced the role of the Catholic Church in the state. It is not surprising that increasing numbers of people thought that if Italy was to be united, then it could only be united under the leadership of Piedmont.

But Cavour did not necessarily believe in this. Mazzini and Garibaldi were both convinced that he was an aristocrat, out of touch with the people, and a Piedmontese who cared little about the rest of Italy. All he wanted, in their view, was Piedmontese aggrandizement, which would lead to an increase in his own importance. The charge that his was an entirely egocentric vision would seem to be confirmed by his reluctance to trust his subordinates within Piedmont, his tendency to keep an incompetent in an important post because he could not be a rival, his fear of delegating power. As Mack Smith points out, someone who took upon himself the responsibility of settling the details of the railway timetable could not supervise the whole field of government, and Piedmont suffered as a result.

No one has doubted that he was hostile to the Austrians, but some of his contemporaries claimed that even this was only part of his desire for personal power. It was said that his scale of values had been corrupted. What was the point of a patriotic movement that depended upon foreign armies and upon an alliance with Napoleon III, himself a despot? He had lost sight of more noble objectives, such as the liberties of subject people and the moral education of the nation. He had no ideal vision of a new Italian nation.

Within the maze of Cavour’s duplicity it is hardly possible to say for certain either what he believed or what he wanted. Mack Smith suggests that he did not really believe in an Italian national identity. A nationalist would not have considered some of the schemes which, at times, he favoured, such as installing a Hohenzollern to rule in Tuscany or supporting Napoleon’s cousin Lucien Murat as king of Naples. (Having accepted this last as a possibility he promptly warned London about the alarming prospect of a new French dynasty establishing itself in the Mediterranean.) He had no acquaintance with the south (when he went to Florence in 1861 this was the farthest he had ever traveled in that direction) and there is no reason to believe that he sought to bring a new life to the impoverished regions there. Sardinia, which was part of the kingdom of Piedmont, was also beset with the evils of backward agriculture, brigandage, malaria, and illiteracy. But Cavour never visited the island and publicly spoke of the Sardinians as lazy, dirty, and unenterprising. He blamed them for being unwilling to help themselves. Probably this was also his attitude toward the south, and he would have preferred that the process of unification (“emancipation,” as he preferred to call it) would stop short of these territories and leave them to be dealt with by future generations.

Garibaldi’s expedition to liberate Sicily in 1860 was exactly the type of initiative that Cavour wished to avoid. He tried to prevent it. When he could not prevent it he tried to weaken it by refusing to allow the volunteers to take effective arms with them. When they had conquered Sicily he tried to prevent them from crossing the straits into the mainland, and he tried to forestall them by organizing a pro-Piedmontese revolution in Naples. All these policies failed. It appeared to him that he could only prevent Garibaldi from marching on Rome by sending his own army into the Papal States and, in one final harebrained scheme, by trying to divert attention from the popular revolution in the south by fomenting an anti-Austrian revolution in Hungary.

The main criticism that can be made of Cavour is that when Garibaldi had succeeded in creating a radical, popular movement, then this was confiscated by the Piedmontese government. Not only was it confiscated, it was perverted. Cavour never believed in the Risorgimento from below. If he believed in the Risorgimento at all it was as something that had to be imposed from above, with all the dynastic conservatism and deceitful liberalism that this implied. The reforms that Garibaldi had envisaged in Sicily were abandoned when the central government took over. The volunteers who had fought successfully for a united Italy were dismissed or disregarded. There was no agreement with the pope, and Cavour’s attempt to bribe one of the cardinals rebounded against him. Two months before Cavour died the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed under Victor Emmanuel II, but Italy was divided geographically, socially, and ideologically.

The facts are recounted by Mack Smith with clarity and conviction. But it is as if, at the last moment, he felt apprehensive of being unjust toward his subject, and he does not draw his conclusions in the devastating way that one might have expected. Instead he says some of the things that can be said in defense of Cavour. He points out that events moved with great speed, that Cavour never had time to study the possibilities of establishing a regional system of government, that he was facing problems that were quite outside his experience. Cavour’s successors, he tells us, included many honorable men, but none of them possessed his vision, his acumen, or his virtuosity. Presumably he is anxious that having been the symbol of the Risorgimento as a success story, Cavour should not be made the symbol of its failure. It is true that in itself the shock of Cavour’s unexpected death caused a loss of confidence and a wave of pessimism in the new Italy. Such organizations as the Italian National Society determined that there should be a great mourning for the lost leader, and they sponsored hundreds of Requiem masses, funeral processions, and other emotional gatherings. They claimed that a nation that wept together must be united. But it was not to be, neither then nor later.

This Issue

June 13, 1985