Yes, March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day.
And a happy St. Patrick’s Day to all!
But March 17 is also the birthday of Italian unification.
Italy as a nation will be 160 years old on March 17th.
June 2, 1946 is the birthday of the modern Italian Republic – Constitution Day – but March 17, 1861 is the day Italy became a nation state.
On that day in Turin, the first Italian Parliament declared Italy independent, Victor Emmanuel II its King and Rome as its capital city.
The unification of Italy had taken half a century beginning with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Unification was opposed by the Austrian Habsburgs, which ruled Northern Italy and the Papacy which ruled central Italy.
After war between Piedmonte and Austria in 1858 in the north and Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily in May 1860 events rapidly came to a climax.
Garibaldi’s volunteers took and held Palermo and marched on Messina which fell in a week. Garibaldi then crossed the Straits of Messina landing at Reggio Calabria where the garrison of the Kingdom of Sicily quickly surrendered.
Garibaldi, by now leading about 25,000 marched northward toward Naples, cheered by throngs and joined by rebels. As he marched on the Kingdom of Naples, the peoples of Apulia (my people!) and Basilicata declared their allegiance to the Kingdom of Italy. Naples fell as troops of the Kingdom of Sardinia marched South through the Papal States led by Victor Emmanuel, joining up with Garibaldi’s rag tag army.
Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel at Teano
Garibaldi met with Victor Emmanuel at Teano and pledged his allegiance – it is considered the birthplace of the Italian nation as we know it. Garibaldi entered Naples beside the King to tumultuous crowds and immediately retired, leaving the unification of the Italian peninsula to Victor Emmanuel. Garibaldi sacrificed his hopes for a republican Italy in return for a united Italy. The republic would not come until after two world wars.
What would have happened if Garibaldi had continued his march northward toward Rome? If had declared a Republic of the South under perhaps Mazzini? Would the history of Italy have been markedly different? Who knows.
The future King took the fortress at Gaeta, the last holdout of the Kingdom of Naples, several months later.
The fall of Gaeta brought the unification movement to the brink of fruition — only Rome and Venice remained to be added. On February 18, 1861, Victor Emmanuel assembled the deputies of the first Italian Parliament in Turin.
As part of his first speech to the new parliament King Victor Emmanuel spoke of Italy:-
It is no longer the Italy of the Romans, nor that of the Middle Ages; it must no longer be the battle-field of ambitious foreigners, but it must rather be the Italy of the Italians”.
On March 17, 1861, the Parliament proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II King of Italy, and on March 27, 1861 Rome was declared the capital of a united Italy, despite that it was still ruled by the Pope, defended by the French and was not yet part of the new Italy. That would come later. But by naming Rome as his capital, Victor Emmanuel had served notice.
Victor Emmanuel II – King of Italy
Venice was ceded to Italy after Austria lost the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. In 1870, after two attempts by Garibaldi to seize it, the Italian Army finally occupied Rome. The French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and Rome was ripe for the taking.
Florence was the capital of Italy from 1861 until the fall of Rome; the Italian national anthem has the words of Gofreddo Mameli, Italian poet and patriot, who died at Porta Pia at the age of 22 where Italian troops led by the Savoia broke thru and entered into the eternal city
Italian unification was a long time coming – but it arrived on March 17, 1861. Many of those who fought for it wanted a Republic rather than a Monarchy. A Republic would not come until 1946 – but the Italy you see on the map today began 160 years ago.
March 17 is a day of freedom and national self-determination for two peoples.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
And happy Italian unification day.