The Dawn of Italian Independence

EVEN if there be no reality to that symmetrical hypothesis which gives immutable laws for the regular and connected development of a nation or a race, the united expression of which, in all races and in all times, some call the philosophy of history, we cannot but recognize an almost uniform sequence of conditions, though we may refuse to call it a law, in the history of all the great nations. We see a sort of broad formula. to which the history of each separate race is more or less conformable in the various steps of its rise, progress, and decline. Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, the two great trilogies of antiquity, confirm this principle, and it is illustrated by a host of lesser nations. Each race rises from a dim obscurity, a hidden, confused reservoir of great forces, gradually forms and moulds itself hy conquering adversity and resisting peril, until at last it reaches the pinnacle of its greatness. The first steps of its decline are gracefully hidden in a pleasing efflorescence of material prosperity, when the arts are most encouraged and letters shine; then it sinks gradually into decay, until some external conqueror comes as the apparent cause of its sudden downfall. We say that Greece broke the power of Persia, that Rome conquered Greece, that the northern barbarians overthrew Rome ; but in each case we refer only to the immediate cause of downfall, not the primary one. That is to be found in the internal condition of the nation itself, and not in any outward circumstance. It is this fact which makes the catastrophe seem complete and irremediable ; which marks the political life of that nation as ended, and turns the attention of the world to its successor. We say it has fallen not to rise again, and the general verdict of history proves us right.

But what if, in the nineteenth century, we are to see an exception to the rule ? What if we are to see a fallen nation, with the heritage of a great past, a nation which for centuries has been crushed to the earth, which has suffered the lowest degradation in the political scale for hundreds of years, rise from its chains, and if not become great, at least hold a high place among the great nations of the earth ? This is what Mr. Thayer, in his enthusiasm for the young Italy of to-day, would have us believe, and it is a view that the record of each year of the new Italian nation seems to confirm. From the moment when the London Conference of 1867 recognized her as the sixth great power, Italy as such, Italy as a national unity, returned to the stage of the world’s history, and time alone can tell how important a part she is to play.

But the work 1 before us does not deal with this pleasant season of the nation’s history, the time when something begins to be realized from all the struggles and suffering of the long agony of foreign rule and internal oppression. It is the story of these struggles and of this suffering that the author tells us, the darkest and most obscure period of modern Italian history, — the period when all Europe was engaged with the fierce death struggle of the Old, and the first life pangs of the New; when the great spectre of Reaction was walking to and fro in the continent, grinding down its peoples with a force bred of fear, keeping them from breathing, from the dread that one free breath would give them a power it could not control, and a new life which meant certain death to the old. The French Revolution had taught one lesson, Napoleon had taught another; but to those “who learn nothing and forget nothing,” these landmarks in the progress of man’s development had taught nothing. Instead of seeing in them potent signs of the great change which had taken place in the undercurrents of society, they recognized only their events, — only the circumstances which attended them, and not the real meaning of the hidden power which these events expressed. They thought that if the expression of it could he prevented by judicious means, the power would lie as if it were not, and the privileged few could still control the. turbulent mass beneath them. That they were able to continue this self-deception, this ignorance that seems folly to us of the present day, as long a time as they did, at first seems incomprehensible. Especially is this the case when we consider the great forces they were holding in leash. But the explanation is easy, and shows what at first sight is a paradox. In a measure, these reactionists were right. The people of Europe needed control, or at least they needed guidance; not a Napoleon, perhaps, certainly not a Metternich, but a Moses to lead them out of the wilderness, and into the promised land of freedom. They were not ready for self-government, even for so much of it as is represented by a nineteenth-century constitutional monarchy. They needed education in governing themselves, and were as unfit to realize the golden dreams of Mazzini and the prophets as children are to regulate their own lives. A people that has been in practical political servitude for centuries cannot be made free by the fiat of itself or of another. The attempt is soon crushed by tyranny, as history has always shown. To adopt a popular government requires a people capable of governing. This is not the reason why the crowned heads of Europe, in the early nineteenth century, refused to let their peoples govern themselves ; but it is the principal reason why these rulers were able for so long to prevent their peoples from having even a share in the government of themselves. On one side was perfect organization, mutual sympathy of aims and methods, control of the existing administration in all its parts, and a firm and united intention to keep that control. On the other was disorganization, sectional and individual rivalry, ignorance of ways and means, questionable material to work with, inexperience and uncertainty, even vagueness of aim and object, and an indeterminate longing for a freedom which, when attained at rare intervals, left its possessors doubtful how to act. They were unable to make use of it, and therefore unable to retain it. Metternich ruled because he knew how to rule ; Mazzini and his followers did not govern, because they did not know how to govern. These are the hard facts which history must recognize. At first sight they seem sad and to be regretted, but they are really not so ; for out of the struggle, out of the failure and all the suffering it involved, came the power which enabled the sons of Mazzini’s followers to do precisely what the earlier patriots could not accomplish. It gave them knowledge bred of suffering ; it gave them experience bred of failure ; it trained the character of the new generation, so that they could accomplish where their fathers simply “agitated.”

Although this struggle of the old and the new was going on in slightly different forms and with varying success in nearly every country of continental Europe, no case serves better to illustrate the truth of what we have said than the history of the Italian states from 1815 to 1848. Here we have the various warring elements that were constantly striking against each other, ceaselessly fermenting beneath the surface, kept down by the crust of an absolutist rule only superficially strong. Like the formless, seething masses under the thin covering of a volcano nearing eruption, all were ready to burst beyond control from many crevices, at the first break in the covering. In Italy, it was the age of conspiracy, of agitation, of secret societies, and of much plotting, and it was only the inherited sectional rivalry of the Italian states, and the lack of a great leader to guide and whom all would follow, that prevented it: from being an age of great revolution. With the traditions of over a thousand years the Italians inherited a provincialism, a sectional rivalry, which amounted almost to hatred; and this is one of the most important factors to be considered in getting a true estimate of the confused events of their long struggle for independence. It explains many apparent contradictions; gives the reason for many failures when success seemed almost assured, and when united action was so necessary as to seem inevitable. In many ways the character of the modern Italian can be compared with that of the Greek of the age of Pericles: ardent; easily swayed by what touches the emotions ; brave, but fickle; with passions easily raised, but quickly cooled ; brilliant in mind, but unsteady of purpose; intensely patriotic and eager for freedom, but with difficulty comprehending the broad conception of the emancipation of a whole race. The great idea of nationality is in many countries a product of the nineteenth century, and in none more so than in Italy. Prophets proclaiming Italian nationality, Italian unity, appeared, and had devoted followers ; they aroused a personal love and enthusiasm which is one of the great memories of the present Italian nation ; but what they accomplished before 1848 is sadly out of proportion to their sufferings and their sacrifices. Italy had no Baron von Stein to make practical the dreams of those who preached a united Italian nation. Even the moderate scheme of Ghiberti and the Neo-Guelphs met no support. It was too much for one party, the people ; too little for the other party, the prophets. It was full of contradictions and impracticable, founded as it was on that modern anomaly, a papa-re, a pope-king, therefore destined to failure ; for in matters temporal the modern papacy has unfortunately turned the rock of the Church to a shifting sand, no fit foundation for a new nationality. The other alternative, the strong, cohesive power of a military, constitutional monarchy, we now see to have been the means destined to succeed ; but the author of this book well points out the almost frantic opposition which had to be overcome before such a possible savidur of Italian independence could be endured, rather than welcomed, in the times of Custoza and Novara.

The rise to power of the little kingdom of Sardinia, or, as Mr. Thayer very properly prefers to call it, Piedmont, can in many ways be fitly compared with that of Brandenburg and Prussia. Both performed similar missions for the respective national unities which they now dominate, and both represented similar elements in the various states which were to constitute a new nation. Each held the more rugged, warlike stock of their respective races; each started with the idea of individual aggrandizement; and each had thrust upon it a part in a larger drama than was at first contemplated by either. In Piedmont, the character about which most interest centres is that of Charles Albert, the king who was by turns monk, soldier, patriot, autocrat; the man who pledged his future policy to Metternich at Verona in 1822, and yet the man who sacrificed Piedmont and himself to Italian unity and his honor after Goito in 1848. A “ nineteenth-century Hamlet” our author calls him, and the comparison is a good one ; for a character more full of contradictions, of uncertainties, of paradoxes, it were difficult to find. He was allowed only to catch sight of where the promised land lay in the sunshine, before his life went out in disappointment and failure, leaving the fulfillment of his dream to his son, Victor Emmanuel, who, though made of grosser clay than his father, was still the re galant’ uomo.

The other characters in this exciting drama of the struggle of a people for a national life are well drawn by Mr. Thayer, who also does not, fail to recognize the important fact that the prophets of freedom had a double battle to fight. This is almost always the case where a popular movement has its origin in the intelligent class, and is not, simply an expression of the permanent discontent of the lowest elements of society. In Italy, especially in the northern and central states, it was the intelligent middle class, markedly the professional men, with a few liberal-minded nobles, wlio gave their energies, and even their lives, for the cause of national freedom. Not only did they have to fight against the rulers and the privileged class, backed by the ever present reality of Austrian troops with the dark shadow of Metternich in the background, but they had to contend with the equally disheartening difficulty of an apathetic, priestridden peasantry, who had yet to learn that they wanted to be free. The campaign of education had to go hand in hand with the campaign of resistance, and at the same time the turbulent outbreaks of Naples and Leghorn had to be moulded into that " divine discontent ” from which all progress springs. The period was one in which moderate counsels were almost always the best; and though the extremists did a great work in propaganda and in raising the enthusiasm of the inert mass whose aid was necessary to produce the final issue, still most of the tangible successes were the result of the compromise policy of the moderates. The problem of Italy striving to be free was different from that of either France or England in the same position. In these, the people had but to rise in their strength and overthrow the tyranny of a Bourbon or a Stuart. It was their own affair, and there was no question of any really important interference from outside. If the Italian people had had simply the task of overthrowing their local rulers, it would have been comparatively easy ; for the internal rottenness of their administration, if we except Piedmont, and perhaps Tuscany, made them too weak to resist the shock of a popular rising, as was repeatedly shown in the outbreaks of 1820, 1821, and 1831, to say nothing of 1848. But unhappy Italy had been the battleground of Europe for too many centuries to be left to work out her own salvation. Like the Turkey of to-day, she was an international problem, and the fiat of the greatest diplomat of this age of diplomacy declared her “ but a geographical expression.” Moreover, she was, in the eyes of European governments, useful as an example to be harrowed and chastised, so as to show other people the uselessness and the consequences of attempting to throw off the yoke of the divinely appointed rulers of the more important monarchies of Europe. Austria, being first in the field, was the self-appointed mistress to teach the hard lesson to the suffering Italians ; and she did not even hesitate to admonish roughly those sacred majesties who might show the slightest indication of betraying her policy, or in the smallest degree disobeying her orders. It was this external power that rendered the task of the Italian agitators of the first half of the century seemingly so hopeless. The solution of the problem was simply one of brute force; and until some power could be found that could prove itself superior to the armies of Austria, all attempts, though invaluable as educators of the people, were predestined to end in defeat and failure. Charles Albert knew this when he made the desperate stroke which ended in Custoza and Novara, and we see the proof of it in the final solution of the problem, at Magenta and Solferino. It was this grinding despotism of a foreign and an alien power which rendered vain the efforts of the Italian patriots, and which seems sufficient to have broken the spirit and embittered the lives of the most enthusiastic. Like a stone wall it reared itself in the face of all advancement ; and whenever a temporary advantage was gained over local tyranny, it stepped in like a deus ex machina to restore the tyrant and chastise the rebellious. If the Italian people as a. whole had been ready for free and united action, they might have made headway against this evil genius of their race, for enthusiasm when combined with intelligence can overcome great odds. But with a people untrained in war or in government, divided into factions, and those factions again into cliques ; with every ruler at home either an enemy or a traitor, and a reactionist minority ever ready to aid the oppressor, there was room for nothing but failure, and the despair of thwarted endeavor and shattered hopes.

In the book before us, the author has given a fair and impartial account of the events producing the conditions we have described. He has judiciously drawn the portraits of the various leaders in both the liberal and the reactionist camps, characters by the study of which we can perhaps best learn the various tendencies of a time so full of dramatic interest, and also the various principles for which they lived, and sometimes died. If in dealing with his hero, Mazzini. he loses sight a little of the demagogue and the conspirator in the patriot and the reformer, and if he fail somewhat, on account of its later turpitudes, in allowing to the papal power a more dignified position, we can forgive him in view of the frame of mind of righteous indignation which must take hold of any close student of the inner history of Italy during the period of which he treats. For his authorities, he has drawn from the large list of Italian writers on the dawn of Italian independence, and he would have done well to add a bibliography of these to the copious index at the end of the work. Taken as a whole, the book will be of great value to English readers who wish to gain an insight into the complicated events of this period of ferment and transition in Italy. The author has adopted a style well suited to present the picturesque character of the dramatic events he describes, and which makes very interesting reading where one less skillful might easily have become tedious. We can only hope that he may see his way, some day, to continue the work so well begun, and give the brighter side of the Italian medal, stamped with the image of Cavour.

  1. The Dawn of Italian Independence. Italy from the Congress of Vienna, 1814, to the Fall of Venice, 1849. By WILLIAM ROSCOE THAYER. In two volumes. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.