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Celebrating Italy’s long journey toward unity


The Parliament of the Kingdom of Sardinia proclaims Vittorio Emmanuele King of a unified Italy. 

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

Italy is well known for its centuries of rule under various Roman emperors. After the fall of Rome in A.D. 476 the country was divided into a number of city-states ruled by the Pope in Rome and families such as the Medicis in Florence, the Doge in Venice and other wealthy and powerful families throughout the various regions.

Eventually, with alliances through marriage and other pacts, the country morphed into smaller kingdoms. Sardinia, Lombardia, Venezia and Sicilia were all highly coveted and often invaded because of their location and wealth. Rome and central Italy fell under Papal rule and a long succession of rulers from a variety of royal families from Normandy (France) and Spain. There were other invaders as well who sought control including the Moors from Africa, rulers from the Byzantine empire and the Greeks who left a lasting influence in Sicily and other areas of the southern region of the peninsula. The Hapsburg Empire (Austria) was a key player in the Lombardy and Venice regions and their influence extended to what is today the southern part of Tyrol.

Painting re-creates the moment when Garibaldi disembarked in Marsala, Sicily, on May 11, 1860.
Painting re-creates the moment when Garibaldi disembarked in Marsala, Sicily, on May 11, 1860.

France and Spain fought for years over control of vast areas of the country.  Austria, with the help of Russia, pushed out the French but they came into power again with the rise of Napoleon. He divided the country into three areas. The northern regions of Piedmont, Liguria, Parma, Piacenza, Tuscany, and Rome were placed under control of the French Empire. A newly created Kingdom of Italy, which consisted of Lombardy, Venice, Reggio, Modena, Romagna, and the Marshes, was ruled directly by Napoleon. Finally, the Kingdom of Naples was placed under the rule of Joseph Bonaparte. In 1814 the Congress of Vienna redistributed the various regions into the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Parma, the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Slowly the idea for a unified Italy began to take shape.  By mid-century the movement for unification, also known as the Risorgimento, had taken root. In 1848 there were several uprisings, led mostly by the professional classes but they were crushed by the Austrians. It would not be until 1859 that another push for unification was planned by Sardinia’s Prime Minister, Count Camillo di Cavour.

Italian states in the north voted in 1859 and 1860 to join the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia while they also ceded Savoy and Nice to the French. Giuseppe Garibaldi (a native of Piedmont) put together an army who landed in Sicily and then marched north to Naples where they overthrew the Bourbon rulers. He then turned over these territories to Victor Emmanuel II, who was the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. The final vote occurred on March 17, 1861, when the Chamber of Deputies of the then Kingdom of Sardinia approved the draft law of the Senate which gave Vittorio Emanuele II the title of King of the Kingdom of Italy.  The final piece of unification occurred in 1870 when Rome and the papal states became the last areas incorporated. In 1871 the Italian capitol was moved from Florence to Rome.

 This year will mark the 160th anniversary of the unification of Italy. On Nov. 23, 2012, Italian lawmakers passed a bill to name the celebration “National Day of Unity, of the Constitution, of the anthem and of the flag.”

The celebration of unification is a civil event and is not a public holiday, as is the founding of the Republic of Italy in 1946. More solemn and highly celebrated events of the anniversary occur every 50 years, from its original date.

In 2011, a commemorative stamp was issued to mark the 150th anniversary of the unification.
In 2011, a commemorative stamp was issued to mark the 150th anniversary of the unification.

The 50th anniversary of the unification of Italy was celebrated in March and April of 1911. In the cities of Rome, Florence and Turin themed exhibitions were set up. Turin featured an International Exhibition of Industry and Work. Among other initiatives was the publication of a series of commemorative stamps.

The 100th anniversary of the unification of Italy was in 1961. It had a decidedly lower profile and mostly took place in Turin. Three exhibitions were presented with the “Historical Exhibition of the Unification of Italy, ” the” Exhibition of the Italian Regions “and the” International Labor Exhibition.”

The 150th anniversary was celebrated in grand style with the declaration of a national holiday. Major events took place again in Turin along with commemorations in Milan, Naples, Genoa, Florence and Rome. Venice, Palermo and Bologna were also involved. Celebrations began a year earlier on May 5, 2010 in Quarto dei Mille (Genoa), to commemorate the expedition led by Garibaldi who sailed out from Quarto to Sicily where he led his army up the coast to Naples.

Among other anniversary initiatives there was a new commemorative 2-euro coin and the establishment of the “Cup of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy.” This honorary trophy was presented to the first place cyclist in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, to the winning team of the Italian Cup in 2010-2011 and to the driver who won the 2011 Italian Grand Prix.

In 2020, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gave an inspiring message to mark this occasion.
“One-hundred-fifty-nine years ago the unification of Italy was proclaimed. Since then, our country has faced a thousand difficulties: world wars, the fascist regime. But the Italians, with pride and determination, have always been able to get up and start again. With their heads held high.” This year, 160 years after Italy unified, Italians can still hold their heads high and take pride in their many achievements.

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