On 18 February 1861, Victor Emanuele, the soldier King of Piedmont-Sardinia, began to call himself the ruler of a united Italy after stunning success in unifying a country which had been divided since the sixth century.
A solid military leader, instigator of liberal reform and superb spotter of brilliant statesmen and generals, Victor Emanuele was a worthy man to hold this title.
Until Emanuele “Italy” was a name from an ancient and glorious past that held little more meaning than “Yugoslavia” or “Britannia” do today. Ever since the fall of Justinian’s short-lived new Western Roman Empire, it had been divided between numerous nations who were often at each other’s throats.
In more recent memory, parts of the modern country had been owned by Spain, France and now the Austrian Empire, which still held sway over the north-eastern part of Italy. However, like its northern neighbour Germany, the divided nations of Italy did have some cultural and historical links, and – crucially – a shared language.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the most ambitious and forward-looking of these nations was Piedmont-Sardinia, a country which included Alpine north-western Italy and the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
After coming off worse in a confrontation with Napoleon at the end of the last century, the country had been reformed and its lands enlarged upon the defeat of the French in 1815.
The first tentative step towards some unification was taken in 1847, when Victor’s predecessor Charles Albert abolished all the administrative differences between the disparate parts of his realm, and introduced a new legal system that would underline the growth of the kingdom’s importance.
Victor Emanuele’s early life
Victor Emanuele, meanwhile, was enjoying a youth spent in Florence, where he showed an early interest in politics, outdoor pursuits and war – all important for an active 19th-century King.
His life, however, was changed along with millions of others by the events of 1848, the year of revolutions that swept across Europe. As many Italians resented the degree of Austrian control in their country, there were major uprisings in Milan and Austrian-held Venetia.
Charles Albert was forced to make concessions to win the support of the new radical democrats, but – seeing an opportunity – gathered the support of the Papal States and the kingdom of the Two Sicilies to declare war on the tottering Austrian Empire.
Despite initial success, Charles was abandoned by his allies and suffered defeat against the rallying Austrians at the battles of Custoza and Novara – before signing a humiliating peace treaty and being forced to abdicate.
His son Victor Emanuele, who was not yet thirty but had fought at all the key battles, took the throne of a defeated country in his stead.
Emanuele’s first important move was the appointment of the brilliant Count Camillo Benso of Cavour as his Prime Minister, and playing along perfectly with the fine balance between the monarchy and his British-style parliament.
His combination of ability and acceptance of the monarchy’s changing role made him uniquely popular amongst his subjects, and lead to other Italian states looking towards Piedmont with envy.
As the 1850s progressed, the growing calls for Italian Unification were centered around the young King of Piedmont, whose next clever move was convincing Cavour to join the Crimean War between an alliance of France and Britain and the Russian Empire, knowing that doing so would give Piedmont valuable allies for the future if any new struggle with Austria should arise.
Joining the Allies proved to be a vindicated decision as they were victorious, and it earned Emaneule French support for the coming wars.
They did not take long. Cavour, in one of his great political coups, made a secret agreement with Emperor Napoleon III of France, that if Austria and Piedmont were at war, then the French would join.
War with Austria
With this guaranteed, the Piedmontese forces then deliberately provoked Austria by conducting military manoeuvres on their Venetian border until Emperor Franz Josef’s government declared war and began to mobilise.
The French quickly poured over the Alps to assist their ally, and the decisive battle of the Second Italian War of Independence was fought at Solferino on the 24 June 1859. The Allies were victorious, and in the treaty that followed Piedmont gained most of Austrian Lombardy, including Milan, thus strengthening their hold on the north of Italy.
The next year Cavour’s political skill secured Piedmont the allegiance of many more Austrian-owned cities in the centre of Italy, and the scene was set for a general takeover – starting with the old capital – Rome.
When Emanuele’s forces headed south, they soundly defeated the Pope’s Roman armies and annexed the central Italian countryside, whilst the King gave his support to the famous soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi’s mad expedition south to conquer the Two Sicilies.
Miraculously, he was successful with his Expedition of the Thousand, and as success followed success every major Italian nation voted to join forces with the Piedmontese.
Emaunele met with Garibaldi at Teano and the general handed over command of the south, meaning that he could now call himself King of Italy. He was formally crowned by the new Italian parliament on the 17 March, but had been known as the King since the 18 February.
The job was not yet finished, for Rome – which was defended by French forces – would not fall until 1871. But a landmark moment in history had been reached as the ancient and divided nations of Italy found a man and a leader that they could rally behind for the first time in over a thousand years.