Cavour

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Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1851) - 'Cavour' pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, ka-VOOR, IPA: /kæv ˈuːr/ - was an Italian politician who was prime minister of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia from 1852 to 1859 and from 1860 to 1861. He played a leading part in the events which led to the unification of Italy in 1860-1861, and was the first prime minister of the unified state of Italy from March 1861 until his premature death in June of the same year.

Cavour was born into an aristocratic family in Turin, the capital of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, and was educated at the Military Academy there. In 1827 he became an officer in the Corpo Reale del Genio (Royal Corps of Engineers) but resigned his commission four years later. While in the army he had become familiar with the works of the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose liberal ideas influenced his own thinking. Between 1834 and 1843 he spent much of his time travelling in France and England, where he studied the economic development of these (relatively) industrialised countries. He also took steps to deal with the economic problems of his native region, experimenting on his own estate with new forms of agriculture and arguing for the improvement of the transport network through the construction of canals and railways.

After the wave of revolutions which spread across Europe in 1848-1849 and the popular insurrections in a number of Italian cities at this time, the political climate in Italy became more sympathetic to liberal ideas, and Cavour decided to enter parliament. He quickly rose to prominence within the Chamber of Deputies, winning the support of moderates on both the left and the right, and was appointed Minister for Agriculture, Commerce, and the Navy in 1850, Minister of Finance in 1851, and Prime Minister in 1852.

As Prime Minister Cavour sought to improve Piedmont's financial position and to promote economic growth, particularly through the development of the railway network. He also reorganised the army and introduced certain changes in the legal system. He was a moderate whose liberal policies envisaged gradual reform, and he was implacably opposed to extremists and revolutionaries such as Garibaldi and Mazzini, who campaigned for change through popular insurrection.

Cavour's foreign policy was directed to securing the expansion of the kingdom of Piedmont through an alliance with the French, without whose assistance the Austrians could not be driven out of northern Italy. Piedmontese involvement in the Crimean War (1853-1856) on the side of Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire opened the way for closer relations between Cavour and the French Emperor Napoleon III, and in 1859, in the Second War of Italian Independence, the Piedmontese and French armies defeated the Austrians at the battles of Magenta and Solferino. However, when Napoleon III and the Piedmontese king Victor Emmanuel II signed the Treaty of Villafranca, which allowed the Austrians to retain virtual control of the regions of Tuscany and Emilia, Cavour resigned as prime minister in disgust and retired into private life. The government of his successor, General Alfonso della Marmora (1804-1878), soon fell, and in the following year, Cavour returned as Prime Minister. Reopening negotiations with France, he agreed to cede the territories of Nice and Savoy to France in return for French approval for the Piedmontese annexation of Tuscany and Emilia, thereby securing the whole of northern Italy as part of the kingdom of Piedmont but unwittingly precipitating the series of events which resulted in Italian unification.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, angry that Nice, his native city, should be ceded to the Franch, began to recruit an army of volunteers to prevent its annexation. However, peasant uprisings having in the meantime broken out in Sicily, he abandoned this plan and decided, without Cavour's agreement, to use the volunteer force he had assembled to support the rebellion in Sicily. He landed at Marsala on the west coast of Sicily on 11th May, by the end of the month had taken the capital Palermo, and after the battle of Milazzo on 20th July and the capture of Messina in the east, was in complete control of the island. As there had also been insurrections in Calabria and Basilicata on the Italian mainland, Garibaldi decided, again contrary to Cavour's wishes, to continue his campaign against the Bourbons by taking his army across to the mainland. The crossing was completed by 21st August, and Garibaldi advanced virtually unopposed as far as the city of Naples, forcing the Bourbon king Francis II to flee.

Cavour, keen to regain the initiative from Garibaldi, found a pretext for invading the Papal States (i.e., roughly the modern Italian regions of Lazio, Umbria, Marche, and the southern half of Emilia-Romagna) and defeated the Papal forces at the battle of Castelfidardo on 18th September. Victor Emmanuel joined his victorious army and on 20th October at Teano, near Capua, met Garibaldi, who ceded all the Bourbon territory he had conquered to the king, thus bringing the greater part of the peninsula under Piedmontese rule and effecting the virtual unification of the country. In January 1861 there were elections for the first Italian parliament, on 17th March Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed king of Italy, and on 23rd March Cavour became Italy's first prime minister.

The pressures of political life had already damaged Cavour's health, and the demands of his position as prime minister of the new state of Italy led to further deterioration. He fell ill with malaria, was weakened by the medical treatment he insisted on receiving, and died of a stroke on 6th June.

Cavour was an enlightened and hard-working politician and a cunning diplomat. His domestic policies improved economic and social conditions in Piedmont, and his foreign policy succeeded in its aim of expanding the Piedmontese kingdom in northern Italy. He was, however, unsympathetic to the cause of a united Italy, believing that without the prior creation of an adequate economic infrastructure to support it, the political unification of the country would be premature.

See further Risorgimento, Garibaldi, and Mazzini.