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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Sept. 2003
The Bourbons (part 3) (parts 1 and 2)
The fall of the House of Bourbon and the Kingdom of Naples in 1860 is part of the success of the risorgimento, the movement to unite Italy into a single nation. This success is due primarily to three persons: a theoretician, a politician, and a soldier.
The theoretician, the ideologue, the one who preached national unity, was Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72). He was not a particularly practical man, and he spent much of his life in exile, proclaiming from abroad the idea of Italian unity as a fulfillment of destiny, one which he apparently saw as a nebulous combination of ancient Italian glory and reasonable aspirations to modern nation-statehood.
The politician of the risorgimento, a person as shrewd as Metternich and Bismark, was Camillo Benzo Conte di Cavour (1810-61) the prime minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont. Northern Italy in the mid-1800s was a patchwork. There was Piedmont, Lombardy, Modena, Venezia, the Papal States, etc. etc., each a sovereign state. It was Cavour who had the political acumen to handle the problem of northern unity before turning to the greater one of unifying north and south. He was, however, a conservative and calculating man, one who favored a gradual process of unification over revolution.
The politician Cavour might have
had his way if the soldier, Giuseppe Garibaldi
(1807-82), as a young man in the 1830s, had not
wandered into a tavern where the theoretician,
Mazzini, was holding forth to fellow members of the
revolutionary group, Young Italy.
"At that point," recalled
Garibaldi in later years, "I felt as Columbus must
have felt when he first sighted land."
As a pirate, patriot, soldier of fortune, lover and guerrilla fighter from Italy to South America, Garibaldi had a patent on the swashbuckle. He survived imprisonment, torture, severe wounds and exile. As a general, he was fearless, commanding respect and loyalty from his men by fighting right alongside them in hand-to-hand combat. He was a man of action with an acute sense of justice and a childlike belief that good would triumph over immorality and corruption. He didn't want to win battles for politicians —he distrusted them. He was simply and truly out to smite evil. He was what most twelve-year-old boys want to be when they grow up, and if you ever have a strange dream in which you are beset by enemies and plagued by wrongdoers, and your dreammeister lets you choose whomever you want for help, take Garibaldi. Ask Cavour and Mazzini. They took him, and they didn't even like him. He was that good.
Thus, in May of 1860,
Francis II, King of the Two Sicilies had excellent
reason to worry. Garibaldi, over the objections of
the ultra-cautious Cavour, had just smuggled a small
and almost unarmed (!) group of men out of the port
of Genoa aboard two leaky tubs and set off to
liberate the Italian south. He would start in
Sicily, in support of a local uprising, and work his
way over to the mainland and on up to the capital,
the city of Naples. He cajoled and threatened
weapons and ammunition out of the commanders of a
few armories along the way as he plodded south
toward Sicily, where his famous "Thousand redshirts"
(1,089, to be exact) would take on a regular army
twenty times that number. (Garibaldi set sail from
Genoa on May 5 and landed in Sicily on May 11.)
The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had a sizable army and the largest navy in the Mediterranean. Socially and politically, however, it had been standing still since the post-Napoleonic Restoration in 1815, surviving the Carbonari revolution of 1820 and successfully resisting calls for reform only by being propped up by the Austrian army and Swiss mercenaries. Many of the kingdom's liberals and intellectuals had left, and by 1860 even King Francis could sense what was coming. In June of that year (after Garibaldi had already taken Sicily!) he revived the constitution of 1848 and relinquished his absolute powers. There was even talk of an alliance between a liberalized Naples and the Piedmont kingdom of northern Italy—an Italian federation, of sorts. This, indeed, would have been a watered-down risorgimento, but it would have thwarted Garibaldi.
Even northern politicians, primarily Cavour, while theoretically in favor of Italian unification, were aghast at the thought of a popular revolutionary army led by a thousand redshirted lunatics storming up the peninsula, spreading a message of instant universal brotherhood. Garibaldi, after all, in his youth had had to do with a mystic band of Christian communards, the St. Simonians, who, years before Karl Marx, had preached: From each according to his capacity; To each according to his works; The end of the exploitation of man by man; and The abolition of all privileges of birth.
Garibaldi landed at
Marsala and a few days later engaged a superior
force near Calatafimi. He threw caution to the winds
(he didn't have very much of it to begin with),
said, "Here we either make Italy or die", and led a
ferocious bayonet charge uphill, literally
overrunning the enemy.
And that was more or less that. Sicilian irregulars in rebellion against the royal forces had been watching the engagement from nearby hillsides. They liked what they saw. Soon Garibaldi's forces were swelled by a ragtag collection of rebels armed with guns, axes, clubs and whatever else could kill a Bourbon. Together they marched on Palermo and by ceaseless guerrilla street fighting drove the Bourbon commander into asking for an armistice, the only condition being that royalist forces be allowed to leave the island for the mainland.
With 3,500 men under him, Garibaldi then crossed to the mainland on August 19 and started the 300-mile slog in the heat of summer up towards Naples, his reputation preceding him by leaps and bounds. Peasants were already calling him the "Father of Italy," mothers brought their babies out to be blessed by him, and there was an air of natural invincibility about him as he moved north.
There is much discussion even today about exactly how a relatively small band of Garibaldini, augmented at most by a few thousand irregulars picked up along the way, managed to make their way up the peninsula against what, at least on paper, appeared to be an overwhelmingly superior force. It is probably best to view Garibaldi's victory as resulting from a combination of factors. First, Garibaldi, himself, was a master of the hit-and-run harassing tactics that would one day become known as "guerrilla warfare." He was also a firm believer in Napoleon's dictum that "morale is to material as ten is to one"—and his Redshirts had morale to burn. They were the righteous bringers of a new nation, and there is little doubt that large numbers of the long-suffering peasantry in Calabria and Puglia (perhaps less so as he moved further north towards Naples) genuinely viewed them as liberators.
The confused situation in
the Bourbon military also worked to Garibaldi's
advantage. There was massive desertion among
royalist troops, many of whom felt that they were
now bound up in defending a lost cause.
Additionally, the officer corps had been bitterly
split for at least a decade between old-guard
royalists and those who felt that the time for a
united Italy had come at last.
All this, and more, combined to produce the unlikely sight, on September 7, 1860, of Giuseppe Garibaldi and a small group of companions entering Naples unopposed, by train (!) from Salerno and then in an open carriage from the station to the Royal Palace. They were miles ahead of the army. The king had fled to Gaeta the day before and the city and remaining troops welcomed the Risorgimento by giving Garibaldi a hero's welcome.
A Bourbon force of about 20,000 troops had remained loyal to the king and gone north with him. Initially, the king had intended his retreat as somewhat of a strategic withdrawal. He had no intention of surrendering his kingdom without a fight. His army, near Gaeta, was, however, also being pressed from the north by the advancing army of King Victor Emanuel of Piedmont, who had finally decided to get on the bandwagon of unification before Garibaldi got all the credit. Thus hemmed in, the Bourbons made a desperate effort in early October to break out and retake their kingdom by storming south at the Volturno River. Garibaldi was called upon for one of the few times in his life to fight a pitched battle instead of one of his guerrilla actions, and to defend instead of attack. He commanded troops along a twenty-kilometer front against a superior attacking force and held.
On October 25th, near
Capua, Garibaldi greeted Victor Emanuel of
Piedmont's Royal House of Savoy with the words,
"Greetings to the first King of Italy" and
surrendered his conquests—Sicily, half the Italian
peninsula and the vast Neapolitan Royal Navy
(considerably superior to northern Italian fleets of
the time)—without the slightest hesitation or
thought of reward for himself—simply because it was
the right thing to do.
For their efforts,
Garibaldi and his superb men were completely and
utterly snubbed by the new rulers of Italy. The
egalitarian initiatives such as free education and
land reform that Garibaldi had set up during his
brief reign as "Dictator of Naples" were
revoked, provoking for another decade in much of the
south what almost amounted to a civil war as recently
liberated subjects of the Bourbons took to the hills
to escape their liberators from the north.
Garibaldi didn't like the way things had turned out, but figured it was just more injustice he would have to straighten out when he got around to it. He spent the last twenty years of his life actively trying to do just that in one way or another, in one place or another. He would fight more battles, be arrested and imprisoned (he escaped) and even be elected to parliament. He didn't have a political bone in his body, and he continued to be saddened and confounded by the politics of those who refused to do the right thing. The Kingdom of Naples, which Garibaldi had handed to Victor Emanuel on a silver platter, was officially dissolved on Oct. 22, 1860, when Neapolitans voted by plebiscite to become part of Mazzini's "new Italy…united for all Italians".
The last military action by the Bourbons against the armies of united Italy was as heroic as it was useless. After the battle of Volturno, Francis II and his faithful men and officers retreated to Gaeta, circled the wagons and prepared to go down fighting. From November 1860, to February 1861, the city was subjected to a ferocious bombardment. Without the slightest chance of withstanding a siege, much less ever getting their kingdom back, and with no ulterior strategic goal, the Bourbons of Naples resisted and fought the way brave men do who have nothing to lose. Napoleon III of France implored them to give up, as did even the attacking Italian commander, Bersaglieri commander Cialdini, who said that he would be honored to fight against such valiant troops if it weren't a case of Italian against Italian.
After 8,000 of his men had fallen in the siege, the King told those who wanted to leave to do so. Almost no one left. Histories of the siege are replete with truly moving accounts of the young queen Maria Sophia on the ramparts, herself, encouraging the defenders and refusing to eat so that her food could be given to the wounded. Apparently, when honor had been satisfied, for one can think of no other reason, Francis agreed to surrender. He and his wife went into exile in Rome as guests of the Pope. When the Papal State fell in 1870, they settled in Paris. He died in 1894, his wife in 1925.
The Bourbon dynasty was
the high point as well as the end of the existence
of southern Italy as a separate nation. Today, 140
years after the irresistible Risorgimento
(bearing in mind, of course, that judgments about
"irresistible" are always easier after the fact)
forcibly incorporated the Kingdom of Naples into
greater Italy, it is still difficult to draw
dispassionate conclusions that balance the former
existence of the South as a separate and respected
European state against the subsequent advantages as
part of a single greater nation.
There is a good 19th-century political cartoon plus accompanying article from Harper's Weekly about Garibaldi's conquering of the Kingdom of Naples atmain index