The 19th century was a time of great change for Italy, as the modern world emerged. The most prominent events of this time revolve around the rise of the Italian unification movement. Known as the Risorgimento, it was the social and political process that eventually succeeded in the unification of many different states into the modern nation of Italy.


Members of the first Italian Government in Torino


The exact dates of the beginning and end of the Risorgimento are unclear, but scholars believe it began at the end of the Napoleonic era, with the Congress of Vienna, in 1815. The process of Italian unification ended with the FrancoPrussian War in 1871.


History of Italy in the 19th Century

The Beginnings of Unification

In the late eighteenth century, intellectual and social changes were taking place in Italy, questioning traditional values and beliefs. Liberal ideas from other countries, mostly Britain and France, spread rapidly through the peninsula.


Garibaldi’s army in Sicily


The conclusions reached in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna restored pre-Napoleonic status quo. For Italy, it meant Austria dominated once again over various states within its borders, including Venice and Lombardy. The Savoy-ruled Kingdom of Sardinia recovered Nice, Piedmont, Savoy and Genoa, a stepping stone on the way to unification. The Papal States occupied central Italy and the Spanish dominated Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, centered in Naples, ruled the Southern Italy and Sicily.

The situation was tense, as people badly tolerated foreign dominance and ideas of national independence grew. Protagonist of this period was Genoese Giuseppe Mazzini, who spearheaded the revolutionary movement. His idea of an independent nation, his concept of ‘Italia,’ spread fast among the large settlements of the country. After various failed attempts, revolutionary cells following his thought developed throughout the country.

Several reforms took place in the 1840s in the Papal State, Tuscany, Lucca and the Kingdom of Sardinia. However it was too little, too late to slow down the revolutionary movements. The reforms had the opposite effect: they only intensified the resolve of the country’s revolutionary cells. All of this culminated in the infamous 1848 revolutions, which later spread throughout Italy and into Austria, Germany, and France.


Vittorio Emanuele II – first King of Italy – with Rosina
his most notorious concubine.


The First War for the Italian Independence began with protests in Lombardy and revolts in Sicily. This resulted in four Italian republics creating constitutions in 1848. Pope Pius IX fled Rome and the Roman Republic was then proclaimed upon the arrival of Garibaldi. When Mazzini arrived in Rome, in March 1849, he was appointed Chief Minister of the new Republic.

In the meanwhile, King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia joined the war and attempted to drive the Austrians out of the country. It looked like independence for Italy was near, but the Austrians eventually managed to successfully defeat Charles Albert in the battle of Novara in 1849, slowing the country’s run towards independence. King Victor Emmanuel II would succeed his father after the battle and would later become the first King of Italy.


Camillo Benso di Cavour

Count Camillo Benso di Cavour was to become the prime minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1852. It was only because of the count’s leadership and policies that the unification of Italy was possible.

Cavour persuaded Napoleon III of France to plan a secret war against Austria. Soon, a war on Italian soil against Austria began. The French troops helped Piedmont defeat Austria in two important battles at Solferino and Magenta. Austria was soon forced to surrender the region of Lombardy, along with the city of Milan, to Napoleon III. In 1859, Napoleon III then transferred the region of Lombardy to King Victor Emmanuel II.

Two years later, thanks to the troups of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the peninsula was unified under the Savoy crown. Turin became the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy; Rome was not the become part of it until 1870.


Society in the 19th century

The Italians of the Risorgimento

In many ways, the roots of several well known aspects of Italian culture find their origin in the 19th century. The land, the food and the people were all shaped by warfare, struggle and the desire for independence. Most of the men who fought for freedom during this period were peasants, seeking a chance for something better. Northern Italy, mostly under direct influence of Austria and the House of Savoy saw the emergence of industry; however life was hard for most Italians, who remained poor.

Southern Italy fared worse than the North: neglect and the oppression of wealthy European landlords who exploited local peasants to tend their lands, created the basis for the later Mafia organizations.

However, it is often through strife that humans are their most creative. This is most evident in the foods of Italy.


Pope Pius IX blesses his army in 1869



The struggles of the 19th century saw the introduction of many of our favorite Italian foods. Greedy landowners of Northern Italy, decided long ago to feed their workers with cornmeal, which by now was to the North what pasta was to the South. Poverty made tomatoes, once thought poisonous, a staple of Southern Italian cooking. Pasta, already stable part of a typical southern kitchen, would never be the same.

In all areas of the country various wild plants, considered weeds by many, were incorporated into foods in times of want. However, as the 19th century went on, these traditional foods of the poor, became common among all classes.

Some, like the Pizza Margherita, became symbols of the newly created Kingdom of Italy. In 1891, Pellegrino Artusi, at age 71, completed the first Italian food cookbook.


Italian Art in the 19th century

Italian music in the 19th century

Gioacchino Rossini, Italian musician, dies in Paris (1868)


The 19th century was the time of romantic opera, first initiated by the works of Gioacchino Rossini. However Italian music of the time of the Risorgimento was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most influential opera composers of all times. Although modern scholarship has reduced his actual role in the reunificaiton movement, for all intents and purposes, the style of Verdi’s works lends itself to being the soundtrack to Risorgimento.

Toward the end of the 1800 ‘popular’ Italian music start appearing – The worldwide known ‘O Sole mio‘ was written in 1898.



‘O Sole Mio, sang by Enrico Caruso.


Pictures of Life in Italy in the 1800s


Venice between 1890 and 1900. Source: Library of Congress


Washing in Naples, end of the 19th Century. Source: Library of Congress



Turin at the end of the 18th Century. Source: Library of Congress


Piazza dell’Annunziata in Genoa. Source: Library of the Congress


Florence at the end of the 19th Century. Source: Library of Congress


Piazza Minerva in Rome at the end of the 19th Century. Source: Library of Congress


Holiday by Lake Garda at the end of the 19th Century. Source: Library of Congress



  1. Hello Angie!
    I did a little research on google, and couldn’t find much info. It looks like cholera outbreak was a bit later in Campania, from 1835 to 1836, but in 1830-31 there was a worldwide epidemic and pandemic influenza. That might have been the cause. Also consider that at the time the mortality rate for children was really high. My grandparents one century later were already working at the age of 6, so at the time there probably were no age limits for a “bracciante” working in the fields. I would say that from the age of 6 one children were eligible for work.

  2. My ancestors had three children die in the month of March in 1831 in Camigliano. How can I found out if there was an influenza or cholera outbreak at that time? I can’t find an age for these children, but they were listed as bracciale. At what age would children start working in the fields?

  3. I am researching for a novel and hope you can provide answers to a few questions. The setting is pre-WWII in Emilia, south of Modena in a rural area. The character is a landowner, owner of a large casa in a small town. I assume electricity would be possible. Also that the very rich might have a telephone but not many others would. How might the casa be heated? Money would be no object.Would it be possible to have a kerosene-fed stove (I picture a large ceramic one). I will appreciate any insight you can provide. Grazie.

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