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In the 18th century, Italy was still divided into smaller states, but differently than during medieval times when the political entities were independent and were flourishing economic and cultural centers almost unrivaled in Europe. During the 18th century, all of them were submitted, in one way or another, to one of the greater hegemonic powers. This process of conquest and submission began during the early 16th century, when France was called on by the Duke Milan to intervene in his favor and from there never stopped.
This was the geopolitical picture in Italy when the tumult of the French Revolution crossed the Alps, and the military campaigns of the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte would initiate a chain of events that would have massive reverberations across Italy throughout the 19th century. The different Italian states on the peninsula experienced Napoleonic rule in the early 1800s, followed by a brief restoration that led to widespread political upheavals in the 1820s. As the 1840s came to a close, the Italian peninsula was in major disarray. In 1847, the Austrian Chancellor Klement von Metternich referred to Italy as merely a “geographical expression”, and to some extent, he was not far off the mark. The inhabitants did not speak Italian; only a literate few wrote in the Italian of Dante and of Machiavelli, and a mere estimated two-and-a-half percent spoke the language. The rest spoke their own regional dialects, which were so distinct from one another as to be incomprehensible from town to town. Similarly, most future Italian citizens knew nothing of the history of the peninsula, but instead learned of their own local traditions and histories.
The events of 1848-1849 began to pull the peninsula together, however. In January, 1848, Sicily had a major revolution, which provoked widespread uprisings and riots, after which the kingdoms of Sardinia, the Two Sicilies, the Papal States and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany all were granted constitutions. In February, the Pope fled Rome and a three-month long Republic was declared, headed by Giuseppe Mazzini. In March, a revolution in Venice led to the declaration of a republic. In April, Milan also rebelled and became a republic. Soon, the Austrian government clamped down again on the peninsula with such intensity that not even the most optimistic would have been able to fathom the nationalist Risorgimento movement would unify Italy a little more than a decade later.
The Italian state may have come together thanks to ideals, but the success of the Second Italian War of Independence owed a lot of its success to chance, foreign intervention, and the wheeling and dealing of a few powerful men. Its story is long and complex, and the ultimate unification of Italy as it’s recognized today would require no less than four wars.