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Cavour’s Diplomacy and the Unification of Italy Essay

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Updated: Jun 12th, 2020

Background of Cavour and Italy

Camillo di Cavour was the leader of the Italian unification. He achieved the goal by being adaptable and embracing diplomatic tactics. He led the successful struggle for the unification of Italy by applying elements of “the resurrection,” a newspaper that he founded in 1847. Cavour was born in 1810 and died in 1861i He was raised as a Roman Catholic, but he gained his inspiration for leadership and political reforms from the British liberal political and economic institutions that acted as his model tools for successful governance.

In Italy, the resurrection movement was also known as the resurgence before Cavour, and his aristocratic politics began using the tools of realpolitik and managed to unite Italy. It all happened under the crown of Sardinia. At the time, Cavour had become a skilled diplomat who was able to change with the circumstances. In addition, he had a single-minded determination to make sure that Italy was unified under the monarchy of Piedmont-Sardinia. It eventually led to the realization of the nation-state of Italyii

There were models of unification proposed by politicians in Italy. The first option was to have a loose confederation of states. In this arrangement, the Pope would serve as the president of the confederation. The second option was to have a republic that would embrace broad electoral and social reformsiii

The key achievements of Cavour

For Cavour, the only way that Italy would survive unification was by relying on stronger powers. For example, he saw France as a capable ally that would provide military aid that would be necessary for driving Austria out of Northern Italy. The opportunity would come after the Piedmont alliance with France and Britain. This happened during the Crimean War that lasted from 1854 to 1856. Thereafter, a peace conference provided Cavour the opportunity to transform Italy’s quest for unification into a European issue. Napoleon III was the ruler of France at the time. He agreed to send French troops to Piedmont.

The troops arrived in Piedmont as support from Europe, and they fought the Austrian Empire. As a result, Austria decided to let go of Lombardy, but it retained Venetia. The achievement of the French Army and the surrender of Lombardy by the Austrian Empire led to rebellions in the other states of central Italy. By 1860, there was a majority call for annexation to Piedmont in a referendum that was negotiated by Cavour.

Another significance of Cavour’s action in the unification of Italy came in 1860 when Cavour was facing a challenge in Southern Italy. A republican revolutionary called Garibaldi had succeeded in overthrowing the Kingdom of Naples. Moreover, he was preparing to invade Rome. At the time, Rome was under the Pope, and Cavour opted to send troops in support of the Pope. The intention of sending the troops was to block Garibaldi and take over the provinces of Umbria and Marches that were part of the Papal Estates. There were also negotiations with Garibaldi on surrendering. Eventually, Garibaldi was convinced that Piedmont would be the best hope for a unified Italy. Therefore, he agreed to transfer the Kingdom of Naples to Piedmont, which made it possible for the proclamation of the United Kingdom of Italy on March 17, 1861. Once again, the diplomacy of Cavour had allowed peace to prevail in Italy.

An understanding of the importance of Cavour’s diplomacy in the unification of Italy

The affairs of Italy during Cavour’s time were not always rosy. Cavour had to provide France with concessions during the negotiations for the formation of the Northern Kingdom of Italy. This would be in return for France’s support in the fight against the Austrian Empire. The fight allowed Sardinia-Piedmont to get Lombardy, but it also caused Sardinia-Piedmont to lose Nice and Savoy. At the time, many politicians in Sardinia-Piedmont thought that Cavour’s diplomacy had betrayed the interests of a unified Italy. However, it was the concessions that would cement the geographic outlook of Italy and lay the foundation for the eventual unification that happened in 1861.

The work of Cavour was not enough to unify Italy, but it played a big role in the quest. The most important contribution made by Cavour towards the success of diplomacy was the conquest that Garibaldi made in the south. At first, Garibaldi was not supporting the quest for unification championed by Cavour because the two differed in their approaches. Garibaldi decided to conquer Naples and unify it with Sicily. According to his plan, the next point of the unification would be conquering Rome and other central provinces to make them one kingdom.

Cavour had little experience and skills of administration when he got into politics. Many people opposing his ideas and leadership cited his novices as their reason for opposition. However, Cavour compensated his lack of experience with a heightened sensitivity to the political climate. He acted carefully and was quick to spot and use opportunities to advance his intentions for the unification of Italy. His preference for practical approaches led his contemporaries to disapprove of him, but the preference was an advantage. It allowed Cavour to present his political counterparts with novel ways of seeing the Italian situation, which eventually helped them to allow Cavour to proceed with his plans.

Cavour was pragmatic; thus, he did not succumb to the problems experienced by Garibaldi, who was obsessed with unification without understanding the sensitivity of his approach to the overall international status quo and the existing politics between countries and states. For example, Garibaldi did not recognize the importance of having France as an ally. On the other hand, Cavour knew that a powerful ally was important in his plan. Therefore, he saw the delivery of Nice and Savoy as part of political exchange. He understood that France’s unlimited help for Sardinia-Piedmont’s cause would last long if there was a significant gain from the relationshipiv

Cavour’s diplomacy allowed Piedmont to receive treatment as a major power. This happened before the expansion to include the central states of Italy. The Austrian Empire was opposed to any sort of unification because it would set precedence for other states under its control to become rebellious and want to be autonomous or join into independent countries. Convincing Napoleon III to oppose the Austrian empire was possible because the ruler of France was keen on supporting nationalism and sympathized with the ongoing struggle for the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia to form the Rumanian state.v

These were examples of the ongoing struggles for the formation of states, which would provide Cavour with an adequate opportunity for bringing the Italian question into the main discussions. Cavour went on to support the issue of the unification of the principalities because France and Britain were already showing support. As he supported them, he knew that doing the opposite would upset his relationship with Napoleon. In fact, he did not have any sympathy for the Rumanian nationalism. He was only supporting the cause as part of his strategy to have France support his cause.

When Napoleon III warmed up to Cavour and supported Piedmont’s intentions, Austria became worried about the alliance and tried to enter into diplomatic agreements with Piedmont through Cavour. Austria assured Piedmont that it had good intentions for Piedmont. It would also allow Piedmont to live in peace and not interfere with her institutionsvi However, Cavour was careful not to enter into any reconciliation with Austria on behalf of Piedmont. He knew that such an action would jeopardize the existing relationships with France. His reputation was at skate at the time. He needed to maintain an appropriate image to get a favorable public opinion in Italy. He also feared to become irrelevant by trying to play European diplomacy.

Before going into alliance with France, Cavour’s actions had caused tension between Piedmont and Austria. Cavour hoped for a revolution to arise in the mountains of Massa and Carrara and allowed the revolutionaries to cross Piedmont’s border into Massa. This action led to the speculation that Cavour was hoping for a revolution. He would use it to further his interest against Austria. However, a revolution did not occur, and Cavour was quick to change his position and arrest the leaders of the revolution when they returned to Piedmont. His action of arresting them was another move that put him in good relations with the Duke of Modena, who was ruling over Massa and Carraravii

Just like his diplomatic reactions in the case of Massa and Carrara, Cavour was also instrumental in avoiding war, despite aggression from Austria. Cavour was quick to deny any intentions of war; instead, he claimed that Piedmont was innocent in every aggressive attempt that Austria was making. This approach to the dispute and dismissal of outright surrender to Austria created more tension that would make the case worthy of European attention. Other powers, such as Britain, were interested in maintaining European peace. Therefore, they called for a conference to discuss the issues diplomatically. When Cavour went to the conference for peace, he supported the disarmament of Piedmont, yet when he went back to Piedmont; he quietly mobilized armies ready for a war with Austria. On its part, Austria realized that Cavour was using discussions to snatch away its territory. It realized the plan after ceding Lombardy to Piedmont. Therefore, it demanded that Piedmont’s army disarmviii The call provoked Piedmont, but Austria did not have another option at hand. Instead, it opted to go to war.

In the war, Cavour’s diplomacy shined as it was the successive discussions and events in the war that made Piedmont appear the victim. Cavour managed to hide the aggressions that Piedmont was making towards Austria by relying on his pragmatic approaches to politics. Austria became the aggressor when it pulled out of the discussions because it saw them as damaging, while Piedmont turned out to be the supporter of peace. Afterward, it was easy for Piedmont under the leadership of Cavour to gain support from Europe. The alliance with France was possible because Napoleon knew that diplomatic success in Europe would only happen when arms supported it.


The actual destiny of Italy depended and was decided by success in the field, but that success only came because of the diplomatic activities before and after the wars. The success of the unification of Italy happened because Cavour engaged various powers in Europe to support Piedmont’s cause. It also happened because Cavour knew the right way of playing realpolitik. He knew when to support particular events and causes and when to withdraw his support. In addition, he acted as though he intended to go to war with Austria. At the same time, he presented an image of innocence to other powers in Europe.

This allowed Cavour to get enough room to use diplomacy to defeat the interests of particular opposing powers within and outside Italy. He would go with the times when diplomacy was failing. His pragmatic approach to politics would allow him to adopt the technique to suit the current circumstances. For example, although he wanted diplomacy to prevail, he understood that going to war at some point was inevitable. Therefore, he was ready for war at all times, which explains why he would quietly mobilize forces at the time when he was discussing matters of peaceful coexistence between Sardinia-Piedmont and the Austrian Kingdom. Therefore, it is correct to judge Cavour’s diplomacy as the main reason for the success in the unification of Italy.


Del Testa, David. Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists. Westport: Oryx Press, 2001. Web.

Hearder, Harry. Cavour. New York: Routledge, 2013. Web.

Marwil, Jonathan. Visiting Modern War in Risorgimento Italy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Web.

Merriman, John and Jay Winter. Europe 1789 To 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. Web.

Pearce, Robert and Andrina Stiles. The Unification of Italy, 1815-70. London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 2001. Web.

  1. David Del Testa, Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists (Westport: Oryx Press, 2001), pp. 80-106
  2. Ibid, 145.
  3. Jonathan Marwil, Visiting Modern War in Risorgimento Italy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 178-181.
  4. Harry Hearder, Cavour (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 100.
  5. Pearce Robert and Andrina Stiles, The Unification of Italy, 1815-70 (London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 2001), pp. 78-90.
  6. Ibid, 101.
  7. Ibid, 102.
  8. John Merriman and Jay Winter, Europe 1789 To 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, Volume (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006), pp. 46-89.
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