Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier Oil on canvas, 1863
Battle of Montebello

The great international hope of the Italian patriots was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. Known as Napoleon III (though Napoleon II, like the boy Louis XVII, had never been crowned), his credentials were promising. His paternal uncle (Napoleon) had been King of Italy, his maternal uncle (Eugène) had been Viceroy of Italy, and he himself had spent childhood winters in Rome, where his mother had taken her sons after separating from their father, the former King of Holland. Italy thus became a second homeland to him. As a youth he considered himself an Italian patriot, planning an insane plot in Rome in 1830 and participating a year later in insurrections further north. Thereafter he turned his conspiratorial attentions to France, where, following a couple of farcical attempted coups, he became President of the Second Republic and four years later, in 1852, Emperor of the French. Although in 1848 France had for once stayed out of a conflict in Lombardy, the prospect of one day fighting on the soil of the first napoleonic triumphs remained a temptation difficult to discard.

Cavour was desperate for Napoleon’s help, convinced that the emperor was the one sovereign in Europe prepared to assist the project he persistently referred to as ‘the aggrandizement of Piedmont’. Since his fruitless adventure in the Crimea, the prime minister had become increasingly bellicose, talking repeatedly about expelling the Austrians from Italy and marching on Vienna. By the late 1850s, Napoleon was eager to promote the first part of this scheme, though he made various annoying demands of his putative ally. After Felice Orsini, a former Mazzinian, had tried to blow him up in Paris in early 1858, he insisted that Piedmont impose a censorship stricter than Cavour wanted, and as a result a small and harmless republican journal in Genoa was closed down. Earlier he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British to expel Mazzini from London although he, who had himself once been a refugee in England plotting conspiracies for the continent, might have felt some empathy with the Italian revolutionary.

Napoleon had a number of motives for bringing a French army back to the plains of northern Italy. One of them may have been atavistic: warfare in the Po Valley between the great Catholic powers of Europe was a tradition going back so far that it seemed almost a normal form of international behaviour. A more important one was national and political. France’s military prestige after Waterloo had not been sufficiently restored by its campaign in the Crimea, and it required a more solid victory on a more traditional battleground to regain pre-eminence in Europe. Such an outcome might bring a further bonus in the shape of territory, in particular Nice and Savoy, which Cavour was prepared to concede if he obtained Lombardy and Venetia. A third motive, also important, was the emperor’s own need for prestige. Determined like his uncle to establish the Bonaparte dynasty among European royalty, he insisted that Victor Emanuel’s young and high-minded daughter Clotilde should marry his middle-aged and dissolute cousin Prince Napoleon. Although not nearly as military or militarist as the first Napoleon, he also felt the need for a little personal gloire to increase his popularity at home. In this particular quest he succeeded, his victories against the Austrians in 1859 and the subsequent peace being celebrated with bonfires across his empire.

Yet there was another, more altruistic motive. Remembering his youth in Italy, he came to share some of the country’s patriotic aspirations, even if he hoped that a future north Italian state would depend on France as an ally. Unusually for anyone, especially a sovereign, his attempted assassination made him feel more sympathetic to the cause of the aspiring assassin. He tried hard to save Orsini from the guillotine and, when this proved politically impossible – Orsini’s bombs had missed their target but killed eight bystanders – he asked the Italian to appeal to him in a public letter to support the patriotic cause. Thereafter Napoleon was willing to fight for that cause so long as Cavour could make it appear that Austria was the aggressor.

In July 1858 the French emperor and the Piedmontese prime minister met secretly at Plombières, a spa town in Lorraine, where they broadly agreed on how a future Italy might be organized. After their war with Austria they envisaged that the peninsula would have three sizable states: Piedmont, expanded to include Parma, Modena, Lombardy-Venetia and the Romagna; Tuscany, enlarged by the addition of Umbria and the Papal Marches; and the Two Sicilies, where the Bourbons might be removed and replaced by the emperor’s cousin, Lucien Murat, a son of King Joachim. It was not an impossible plan though it was naive to expect the Marches, with few historic links to Tuscany, to submit to Florence on the other side of the Apennines. Apart from Austria, the chief loser in the scheme would be the papacy, which would be deprived of most of its territories, but the pope, as a compensatory gesture, might become president of an Italian confederation.

Yet none of this plan could be implemented if a pretext could not be found for starting a war. And how, wondered Cavour, could you provoke a conflict that your enemy didn’t want while pretending it was you yourself who was reluctant to fight? Another difficulty was that public opinion in France and Piedmont was opposed to a war. There was little enthusiasm even among the patriots of Lombardy, where, after a repressive period in the early 1850s, Austrian rule had become more tolerant under the new viceroy, the Archduke Maximilian, later to be the ill-fated and short-reigned Emperor of Mexico. In England as well people were opposed to the idea of a conflict that was looking increasingly like a simple land-grab. When in January 1859 Victor Emanuel told the parliament in Turin about ‘the cry of anguish’ he was hearing from all over Italy – a phrase inserted at the request of Napoleon – the British were not impressed, suspecting rightly that the cries, if they existed, were extremely muffled. The leading figures of the Whig government that came to power in 1859 – Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone – were indeed supporters of Italian independence: Gladstone found it outrageous that the Austrians, ‘glaringly inferior in refinement’, were arbitrarily ruling ‘a race much more advanced’, while Palmerston, the prime minister, remarked that the Austrians had ‘no business in Italy’ and were ‘a public nuisance there’. Yet they did not think Vienna’s occupation of Lombardy merited a European war, and they were concerned that Cavour seemed interested less in Italian freedom than in the expansion of Piedmont.

Alarmed by international opposition, Napoleon lost his nerve and suggested delaying the campaign for a year. Cavour was enraged, especially with the British, whom he accused of egotism and pettiness. When in March the Powers suggested a conference to discuss the situation, he rushed to Paris, harangued the French and threatened as revenge to ally Piedmont with England. He also declared himself ready to start a wider conflagration, to ‘set Europe alight’ to get his own way. One scheme was to encourage an uprising against the Austrians in Hungary, but the 20,000 rifles he sent the rebels by boat up the Danube arrived after the revolt was over.

International pressure persuaded Victor Emanuel and most of his cabinet to accept disarmament, but the prime minister held out until mid-April when France forced him to back down too. Although Cavour’s dreams seemed to have dissolved, they were revived the following week when the Austrians lost their heads and delivered an ultimatum insisting that Piedmont reduce its army and disband its volunteers. On hearing of this blunder, Cavour was so euphoric that, unmusical though he was, he apparently flung open his study window and sang an aria from Il trovatore. In the eyes of a Europe astonished by the Austrian provocation, he had suddenly become the beleaguered statesman rather than the calculating aggressor. Furthermore, the much-desired war could now be fought against an enemy that had forfeited international sympathy and support.

The Habsburg government made a more honourable blunder by waiting three days for its ultimatum to expire and thus missing the chance to capture Turin before the French army arrived. The outcome of the campaign was decided by two battles in Lombardy in June, which ended in victories for France but in which its Italian allies played undistinguished parts. One of them, Magenta, was so sanguinary that it gave its name to the artists’ colour magenta, but little Piedmontese blood helped inspire the name since the army did not arrive at the battlefield until nightfall, after the struggle was over. At the other, Solferino, the sight of wounded soldiers left to die was so horrifying to one Swiss witness that he went home and founded the International Red Cross.

At Solferino the Piedmontese did take part, fighting on the French flank near the village of San Martino. Yet this second contest was also a victory won by Napoleon’s divisions; the Battle of San Martino was at best a draw between Victor Emanuel’s army and a much smaller Habsburg force. For all their country’s martial traditions, the Piedmontese commanders seemed to have no idea how to fight a battle. An artillery barrage and a concerted infantry assault might have compelled the Austrians to retreat. Yet much of the artillery was stationed too far away to be of use, and the infantry brigades, instead of combining in a massed attack, took it in turns to advance, charging with the bayonet and failing to break through.

The poor Piedmontese performance can be partly attributed to Victor Emanuel who, despite his lack of military experience, insisted on his constitutional right to be commander-in-chief. The king possessed courage and exposed himself to the enemy but he demonstrated no qualities relevant to generalship. Officers at the battle found him confused, indecisive and lacking any understanding of the geography of the battlefield. He galloped across the terrain, pursued by his staff, so that his field commanders could not tell where he was when they needed reinforcements. When one of them suggested he position himself on a height so that he could both see the battle and be seen by his troops, he seemed astonished by the idea.

The Piedmontese could claim success, however, because in the evening the Austrians, after repulsing attacks all day, were obliged to fall back in line with their comrades whom the French had defeated; the villages the Italians had failed to capture in combat were thus occupied as the enemy withdrew, and a mighty victory was soon proclaimed. The battle acquired the status of a sort of Italian Austerlitz and was duly consecrated in textbooks and commemorated on site by a Risorgimento museum and a huge tower with a spiral staircase and frescoes of episodes from the ‘wars of independence’. As in most memorials of the era, Victor Emanuel dominates both the frescoes and the sculptures: one painting depicts him being ushered into the Forum by a Roman legionary, as if he were about to join a pantheon with Caesar and Scipio Africanus. Close by is an ossuary containing on one wall of its nave the names of all Italian soldiers killed in 1859; at the east end their skulls are piled high on shelves above layers of human bones.

A fortnight after the battle, Napoleon suggested a truce and a meeting with his opposite number, the Habsburg Franz Josef. The two emperors met at Villafranca near Verona and, without consulting Victor Emanuel, agreed on the terms of a peace. Austria would retain Venetia; Piedmont would acquire Lombardy except for the fortified towns of Mantua and Peschiera; the Habsburg rulers of Tuscany and Modena would return to the thrones from which they had recently been deposed; and an Italian confederation would be established which would include Austria in its role as a ruler of Italian territory.

After his two victories Napoleon might have carried on the war with the expectation of conquering Venetia. Yet he lacked his uncle’s imperviousness to the sight of casualties and he was sickened by the carnage of Magenta and Solferino. He was also alarmed by signs that Prussia might enter the war on Austria’s side if the conflict continued. A third factor in his decision was disillusionment with his Piedmontese allies. Led to believe that he would be fighting a war of liberation, he was disappointed to find that the Lombards seemed unanxious to be liberated. He was also disgruntled with the military performance of the Piedmontese. After Solferino he had planned to continue eastwards to the four Austrian fortresses known as the Quadrilateral, and he had allotted the task of capturing the north-western one, Peschiera, to his Italian allies. The Piedmontese should have been well equipped for the job because they had recently bought a siege train from Sweden, but unfortunately they had forgotten to bring it with them on campaign. After Napoleon learned of the oversight and was informed the artillery would not arrive for another three weeks, he decided to end the war.

The fiasco over the siege train was not the only error for which Cavour, acting as minister for war as well as prime minister, was partly responsible. Perhaps his most egregious mistake was his failure to prevent his unseasoned and incompetent monarch from commanding the army. Other shortcomings were apparent in his handling of supplies and administration. The Piedmontese did not possess enough horses, and those they did have often went lame because there were not enough horseshoes. The army had neither reserves nor enough uniforms nor even proper maps of Lombardy; its soldiers were shod in boots that baked in the summer heat, making them feel they were wearing wooden clogs. At Plombières Cavour had offered Napoleon an army of 100,000 but in the event he could provide only half that number. The Piedmontese had also boasted that the cause would attract 200,000 volunteers, but only a tenth of that figure turned up – and there were not nearly enough weapons even for them. Those 20,000 rifles sent to the Hungarians would have been more useful at home.

Victor Emanuel accepted the armistice, but Cavour reacted so violently to its terms that observers believed he had become unhinged. He ranted at the king and tried to force him to carry on the war without the French. When Victor Emanuel rejected this lunatic idea, his prime minister resigned and retired to his estate at Leri, where he settled down to study Machiavelli. Regretting the impetuosity of his actions, he was soon plotting a return to power.

While planning the campaign against Austria, Cavour had simultaneously been preparing expansion into central Italy. His project was greatly advanced by a strange day in Florence, 27 April, when a peaceful demonstration of local patriots, supported by some soldiers, led within a few hours to a revolution and the fall of the Habsburg–Lorraine dynasty. Leopold II, the grand duke, had lost some of his popularity in 1849 when an Austrian army brought him back to power and quartered itself in Tuscany for several years at the state’s expense. Yet the grand duchy’s regime remained benign and tolerant enough to annoy the pope, who often rebuked Leopold for being too kind to Jews and Protestants. On the morning of the 27th few of the grand duke’s subjects wanted him overthrown except for some radicals and republicans concentrated in Florence and Livorno. Even moderate patriots, headed by Baron Ricasoli and other liberal aristocrats, were happy to keep him if he was prepared to ally his duchy with Piedmont. At noon on that fateful day, Leopold accepted this condition. Alarmed by the size of the demonstration and the hoisting of the tricolour flag, he even agreed to join the war and appoint a government of liberal conservatives. As these concessions did not assuage the demonstrators, moderate leaders suggested that the grand duke might prevent revolution and save his dynasty by abdicating in favour of his son. We cannot know whether this tactic would have worked because Leopold refused to try it: instead of abdicating, he decided to leave the duchy altogether. After two dynasties and more than three centuries of grand dukes, Tuscans watched the departure of their last sovereign with much bewilderment and some sorrow.

In Tuscany the situation was thus ready to be exploited, but Cavour knew he needed evidence of popular support there and elsewhere in central Italy if his expansionist policy were to be acceptable to the rest of Europe. Lombardy had proved to be an embarrassment: Milan had not been engulfed by the patriotic fervour of 1848, and there had been no ‘Five Days’ of heroism and self-sacrifice on the barricades. The correspondent of the London Times saw no unrest in Lombardy and was unable to see signs of anti-Austrian sentiment even in parts of Piedmont: in Piedmontese country districts he even witnessed people welcoming the Austrian troops, helping them cross a river and reproaching them for not arriving earlier; they abhorred their own government, they explained, because it overloaded them with taxes to maintain an army they did not want and could not afford.

Determined to conjure a better display of patriotism in the central duchies, Cavour ordered Giuseppe La Farina, the secretary of the National Society, to arrange ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of support for the Italian cause. Although La Farina assured the prime minister that he could do this, the National Society proved incapable of organizing such affairs in the cities of the Po Valley. To the consternation of Cavour and the frustration of Napoleon, who felt he had been duped, patriotic enthusiasm in the summer of 1859 was neither strong nor widespread.

Austria’s defeat at Magenta and the withdrawal of its garrisons from the Papal States had, however, created a revolutionary situation. The rulers of Parma and Modena fled their capitals, and in their duchies, as well as in Tuscany and the Romagna, provisional governments led by local patriots were established. These then organized assemblies of more patriots who rejected the terms of the Franco-Austrian agreement at Villafranca, formally deposed the ducal dynasties and demanded annexation by Piedmont. The crucial figures were Bettino Ricasoli in Florence and Luigi Carlo Farini in Modena, who acquired dictatorial powers in their cities and, at a time when Cavour was sulking on his estate, managed to undermine the armistice and maintain the momentum of the patriotic movement. Well-timed support for them soon came from the Whig government in London, which sanctimoniously rejoiced at ‘the gratifying prospect of a people building up the edifice of their liberties, and consolidating the work of their independence, amid the sympathies and good wishes of Europe’.

Cavour was still so much the dominant politician of Piedmont that in January 1860, despite the reluctance of the king, he was back in office. With his extraordinary talent for improvising and adapting to circumstances, he saw a chance to discard the provisions of both Plombières and Villafranca and by means of plebiscites of annexing central Italy to Piedmont. He disliked Ricasoli, who was haughty and principled and disrespectful of himself, but he realized that his cooperation was essential. With Tuscany, Piedmont would become the kingdom of northern Italy; without it, it would be just a bigger Piedmont.

Ricasoli was a Florentine patriot who had long supported the idea of Italian unification. Yet he wanted a genuine union – what he called ‘fusion’ – rather than mere annexation by Piedmont. Many Tuscans felt, as he did, that they were more Italian and more civilized than the Piedmontese, and they did not want to play a subordinate role in the new entity. Cavour tried to calm these anxieties by promising them autonomy, but Ricasoli remained hesitant about holding a referendum on annexation. A proud and high-minded man, his austerity tempered only by his pleasure in making Chianti wine, he had a fateful decision to make. The choice was between a ‘finis Etruriae’, the ending of a long tradition of independence, or preserving it and risking Tuscany’s reduction to an unimportant statelet, perhaps a sort of Monaco surrounded by a new country that might become one of the great nations of Europe. Ricasoli agonized over the dilemma but he stuck to the national patriotic cause. Yet even after Tuscans had voted by a large majority to accept annexation, he was in a melancholy mood, wondering whether his fellow countrymen might one day curse the union he had brought about. Later he said he found the Piedmontese ‘yoke’ more antipathetic than the Austrian one because the new rulers could not understand how Tuscans wished ‘to be Italian and to feel a new Italian spirit’.

In the spring of 1860 patriotic fervour in northern and central Italy was undoubtedly stronger than it had been the previous summer. In the Tuscan plebiscite only 15,000 people preferred a separate kingdom to annexation by Piedmont, and in Farini’s Emilia – a new region consisting of Modena, Parma and the Romagna – the minority was officially only 756, an impossibly low figure. Further plebiscites were held in Nice and Savoy, which had been promised to Napoleon first at Plombières and later in return for French support for the Italian annexations. Cavour had been forced to pretend that no promise had been made partly because Nice was Garibaldi’s home town and partly because it would have been awkward to explain to Savoyard soldiers, whom he needed for the war, that they would be fighting for the privilege of exchanging their nationality. When the plan became public in March 1860, Garibaldi denounced it, pointing out that ‘in 1388 Nice joined itself to Piedmont on condition that it should never be alienated to any foreign power’. The most famous of all Nizzards also allowed himself to become involved in a daft plot with an English adventurer called Laurence Oliphant. On the day of the plebiscite, the two men decided to sail to Nice with 200 volunteers, smash the ballot boxes in the city and burn the voting papers, after which, according to Oliphant’s unverified and unreliable account, Garibaldi would have declared himself president of an independent Nice. Fortunately for the great man’s reputation, the plan was thwarted by a summons to Sicily and a journey to immortality. Oliphant went by himself to Nice, where he noticed that the polling station he visited was devoid of ‘no’ voting papers. In that city those voting for annexation by France outnumbered those against it by 100 to one, while the ratio in Savoy was more than 500 to one. As in Emilia, only pressure and manipulation could have obtained affirmative majorities of 99 per cent.