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Cavour, Count Camillo Benso di (1810-1861)

Cavour, Count Camillo Benso di (1810-1861) The figure who forged the Kingdom of Italy, designe d the constitutional structure of the unitary state and served as its first prime minister was the second son of an aristocratic Piedmontese family. Born in Turin when it was under French control, he was sponsored in baptism by Napoleon's sister Pauline, and her husband, Prince Camille Borghese, after whom Camillo was named. Both Camillo and his older brother Gustavo were initially educated at home. Whereas Gustavo, as the first son could expect a position in the administration or the diplomatic corps in Piedmont, Camillo, as the second son of a nobleman, was earmarked for a career in the army, even though his interests were more political than military. In 1820 he enrolled in the military academy of Turin, and in July 1824 was named a page to Charles Albert, the king of Piedmont (1831-1849), who opened the first war of independence against Austria. Camillo resigned from the army at the end of 1831.

He administered the family estate at Grinzane, some forty kilometers outside the capital, ser ving as mayor there from 1832 to the revolutionary upheaval of 1848. He traveled widely in Europe, though not much in Italy, visiting France, Switzerland and Great Britain. Convinced that economic reconstruction had to proceed political change, he stressed the advantages of free trade and railroad construction in the peninsula. Suspicious of the Papacy, he did not support the Neo-Guelph program which dreamed that the pope would play a leading role in the unification movement. Instead, Cavour in the 18 40s jo ined the ranks of those who looked to Charles Albert to effect the liberal and national program in Italy. Following the election of Pius IX in 1846, the Piedmontese monarch allowed the congress of scientists meeting in Genoa in September to issue a series of patriotic pronouncements.

In 1847, when Carlo Alberto introduced a series of reforms, Cavour took advantage of the revised press law to establish the newspaper Il Risorgimento. As 1848 opened with revolution in Palermo and dem onstrations in Genoa calling for liberalization of the Piedmontese state, a group of journalists met in Turin to support their demands. Cavour led the call for a Statuto, proclaiming the need for constitutionalism in the columns of the Risorgimento he edited. By a decree of February 8, 1848, Charles Albert complied.

As Piedmont initiated its constitutional regime under the leadership of Cavour's friend and business associate Cesare Balbo, word arrived that t he people of Milan on March 18 had initiated a war of national liberation by rising against the occupying Austrian forces. On March 23, 1848, in a momentous article in the Risorgimento, Cavour called upon his king to join the national crusade, arguing that the supreme hour for the Piedmontese monarchy had arrived. Carlo Alberto concurred and entered the conflict. Cavour, who entered the new Piedmontese parliament in June 1848, was dismayed by his country's military defeat at Custozza in July, the armisti ce with the Austrians and the evacuation of Milan. Cavour warned against resuming the war without French assistance, but his words were not heeded. The reopening of the war on March 20, 1849, was followed by the defeat at Novara on March 23 and the abdication of Carlo Alberto in favor of his son, Vittorio Emanuele.

Cavour capitalized on the anti-Papal sentiment in Italy following Pius IX's refusal to wage war upon Austria in 1848. The failure of 1848 also convinced him of the nee d for a powerf ul ally to dislodge Austria from Italy. In October 1850, at the age of 40, Cavour entered the ministry of Massimo D'Azeglio as minister of agriculture, industry and commerce. Following his connubio or political alliance with Urbano Ratazzi of the left-center, Cavour was able to dislodge D'Azeglio from power, becoming prime minister at the end of 1852. Seeking to project a liberal image abroad and to win the approval of patriots at home, Cavour continued his policy of limiting th e privileges of the Catholic church. During the course of the Crimean War, he ranged Piedmont alongside England and France, and in 1856 presented the Italian case before the Congress of Paris and the tribunal of world opinion. In Paris the Count sought to ingratiate himself with Napoleon, whose support of he considered crucial to avenge the defeat of 1848-1849, while seeking the adherence of exiles from the restoration of 1848 such as Daniele Manin, who formed the national society. The latter organization provided popular support for Cavour's anti-Austrian, national campaign in 1859-1860.

In July 1858 Cavour met Napoleon III at Plombières where the two plotted a war against Austria and the reorganization of the Italian peninsula. An enlarged Piedmont, forming a Kingdom of Northern Italy, as had emerged briefly in 1848-1840, would be united with Tuscany, a truncated Papal State, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in an Italian Confederation. For his efforts on behalf of the It alian cause, Napoleo n asked for the cession of Nice and Savoy. These provisions were concretized in the treaty of December 10, 1858. The Second War of Italian Independence opened in April 1859, approximately a decade after the close of the First War of Independence, and was decided by the battles of Magenta, San Martino, and Solferino. Following the Austrian withdrawal into the quadrilateral of fortresses, in July Napoleon signed an armistice at Villafranca with Franz-Josef, without consulting his Piedmo nt allies. Cavour, unw illing to accept the terms which left Venetia in Austrian hands, resigned.

Cavour returned to power in January 1860, and in March signed another secret agreement with Napoleon turning over Nice and Savoy to France, in return for French support for Piedmont 's annexation of central Italy. The count allowed Garibaldi's expedition to leave Genoa for Sicily, and following the collapse of the Neapolitan Kingdom, engineered its annexation. He also received French approv al to occupy the greater part of what remained of the Papal States, scrupulously avoiding the French occupied city of Rome and its immediate environs. On March 17, Cavour had the Piedmontese parliament proclaim Victor Emanuel II, king of Italy. Cavour also persuaded the parliament to proclaim the city of Rome the future capital of the kingdom, hoping to resolve the Roman question on the basis of an agreement with the church. He died shortly thereafter, and did not live to see the Italian occupation of Rom e in 1870.

Frank J. Coppa


Coppa, Frank J. Camillo di Cavour. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973.

Il Carteggio Cavour-Nigra dal 1858 al 1861. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1961.

Mark Smith, Denis. Cavour. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Romeo, Rosario. Cavour e il suo tempo. 4 vols. Bari: Laterza, 1969-1984.

Ugolini, Romano. Cavour e Napoleon III nell' Italia Centrale. Rome: Instituto per la storia del Risorgimento Italiano, 1973.

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Krista Durchik revised this file ( on April 22, 1998.

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© 1998 James Chastain.