Last Updated on March 8, 2021 by Helga Dosa
The 19th century was a time of great change for Italy, as the modern world emerged, so it’s natural to wonder how was life in Italy during the 19th century. 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 Italy involving the many city-states that have been united in the modern country of Italy.
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 the unification of Italy ended with the Franco–Prussian War in 1871.
History of Italy in the 19th Century
The Beginnings of Unification of Italy
The intellectual and social changes that were questioning traditional values and beliefs started in the late 18th century in Italy. The liberal ideas coming from other countries like Britain and France were spreading rapidly through the Italian peninsula. Vittorio Emmanuele II, the first king of Italy with his most notorious concubine Rosina were also supporting this movement.
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 meantime, King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia joined the war and attempted to drive the Austrians out of the country. It looked like the Italian unification timeline was near. Austrians however eventually managed to successfully defeat Charles Albert in the battle of Novara in 1849, slowing the country’s run towards independence. Victor Emmanuele II however managed to win the battles so he then became the first king after the unification 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 became 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 handed over the region of Lombardy to King Victor Emmanuel II.
Two years later, thanks to the troops of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the peninsula was unified under the Savoy crown. Turin became the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy; Rome was not to become part of unified Italy until 1870. As you can see, the Italian unification timeline was quite long with many different playgrounds.
Italian 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 the 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.
Food in Italy
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.
Life in Italy during the 19th century: Italian Art
Italian music in the 19th century
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 movement of the unification of Italy, 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.