Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Lombardy Venetia 1848-1849

Lombardy Venetia 1848-1849 In March 1848 Lombardy Venetia, which had been a part of the Austrian Empire since the Congress of Vienna, experienced widespread anti-Austrian uprisings. On March 18 the Milanese population rose against the Habsburg government and, after five days of intense street fighting, forced the Austrian marshal Radetzky and his troops to evacuate the city. While republican democrats played a leading role in the combat, the more conservative elements, the moderate aristocrats, dominated the Milanese provisional government created on March 22. In Venice a popular revolt (March 21-23) had driven the Austrians out, and Daniel Manin proclaimed a Venetian republic. Enthusiasm and support for the revolution spread throughout Lombardy-Venetia and all the major cities except Mantua and Verona liberated themselves and established town councils controlled by local aristocrats.

On March 23, after hesitations, King Charles Albert of Piedmont decided to send his army into Lombardy. While initially this conservative ruler did not want to associate himself with the Milanese revolutionaries, he later became fearful of a republican victory in neighboring Lombardy and by intervening hoped to control developments there. He also wanted to annex Lombardy to Piedmont, thus fulfilling an old Savoyard aspiration. On March 26 the Piedmontese forces entered Milan. Charles Albert's hesitations led, however, to a very indecisive military campaign and an opportunity to eliminate Radetzky's retreating army was missed. The Austrians withdrew to the Quadrilateral ring of fortresses in Mantua, Peschiera, Legnano and Verona where it could rest and wait for reinforcements.

The Milanese provisional government led by the moderate leader Count Gabrio Casati identified with the great landowners, noble and bourgeois, and was determined to protect their interests. The moderates were preoccupied with the strength of the popular movement both in the city of Milan and the countryside and made every effort to check it and undermine any influence of the democrats and republicans. Thus, peasants who supported the revolution and reached Milan in order to join the fighting forces were rejected and barred from the civic guard and ordered to return home. The formation of a central provisional government in Lombardy on April 8, replacing all the city governments, strengthened the moderates' grip on the political power.

Meanwhile, the moderates and Piedmontese officials exerted pressure to merge Piedmont and Lombardy. The moderates viewed a union as a way to curb the republican threat. The republican camp, on the other hand, was divided on this issue. A group of republicans led by Carlo Cattaneo distrusted the Piedmontese monarch and opposed a fusion with Piedmont. Cattaneo was primarily concerned with the defense of political freedom of his own region and supported an independent Lombard republic tied with other Italian states on a federal basis. Another republican leader Giuseppe Mazzini, who had recently arrived in Milan from exile, advocated, on the other hand, accepting the moderates' line and joining forces with the Piedmontese to expel the Austrians out of Italy and achieve Italian unification. Unlike Cattaneo's group, Mazzini tended to accept the moderates' leadership for the time being and sacrifice temporarily his republican ideas if Charles Albert were to be fully committed to the struggle for Italian independence. Mazzini rejected a plan proposed by Cattaneo to overthrow the provisional government, replace it with a democratic government, and ask for French military aid. This divi sion further exacerbated therepublican weakness and their inability to challenge the moderates.

On May 29 a referendum on the union question was held in Lombardy, and a vast majority of 561,002 voters supported an immediate union while only 681 people voted for its postponement. In Venetia, which in early June came under attack by Radetzky's forces, a similar development took place. The Lombard provisional government had earlier proposed to convoke a united Lombard-Venetian constituent assembly which the more conservative town councils of Padova, Vicenza, Treviso, Rovigo forced Manin to accept. When Milan announced the referendum, these towns, alarmed by the rapid Austrian advancement in the Venetian terraferma, voted overwhelmingly for annexation without awaiting the convening of a constituent assembly. The Venetian republic remained isolated, watching helplessly as the Austrians were reoccupying the terraferma. An increasing number of republicans became convinced that only through uniting with Piedmont would Venice receive the necessary aid for its defense. On July 4 the newly established assembly of Venice approved the annexation.

Piedmont's territorial expansion was, however, very short lived. In June Marshal Radetzky, with the help of reinforcements, was able to capture all of Venetia aside from Osoppo and Venice and made preparation to enter Lombardy. Charles Albert, on the other hand, had no real plan of action; his army was ill supplied and led by poor officers. In July Radetzky received another 20,000 soldiers and was superior to his opponents in army size and firepower. As he advanced, Radetzky was welcomed by many peasants who were disillusioned with the provisional government which kept some of the heaviest taxes and imposed on them a greater burden of the war costs than on the great landowners. Requisitions by the Piedmontese army and an extension of conscription in June and July only increased the peasants' alienation from the authorities and a new shout, 'Viva Radetzky' could be heard.

On July 22 Radetzky attacked the Piedmontese forces and, after five days of fighting, defeated them in the battle of Custoza. The Piedmontese fell back to Milan whose population, fearing that Charles Albert would abandon them, tried to organize a resistance. Though the king promised to defend the city, his army was too demoralized and disorganized to fight and retreated to Piedmont together with tens of thousands of Lombard refugees. On August 7, Radetzky's Troops entered Milan. The defeat at Custoza effectively eliminated the union of Piedmont and Venice. Throughout the winter of 1848-1849 Venice was blockaded by the Austrians. In March 1849 the Piedmontese government renewed the hostilities with Austria but was defeated decisively at the battle of Novara after less than a week of fighting and had to seek peace. Following Novara, the Austrians appealed to Venice to surrender but the Venetians refused. In the long run, however, Venice could not resist; the Austrians bombarded it, supplies ran short, famine spread, and epidemics broke out. After some negotiations, the city surrendered on August 22, 1849, and Manin and other leaders were allowed to leave. The 1848-1849 revolutionary period in Italy was over.
Alexander Grab


G.F.H. Berkeley, Italy in the Making Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940, III.

Giorgio Candeloro, Storia dell'Italia moderna. La rivoluzione nazionale Milan, Feltrinelli, 1975, III.

Franco della Peruta, "I contadini nella rivoluzione lombarda del 1848", in Democrazia e socialismo nel Risorgimento, Rome: Riunite, 1973, 59-108.

Paul Ginsborg, Daniel Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848-49 London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Alan Sked, The Survival of the Habsburg Empire: Radetzky, the Imperial Army and the Class War 1848 London and New York, 1979.

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

JGC revised this file ( on October 22, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1999, 2004 James Chastain.