Making Italy: How the Disparate North and South tried giving “Italy” a try

by Don H. DOYLE

Italy began its modern national existence as the newly united Kingdom of Italy in the same troubled spring of 1861 that witnessed the break up of what some Europeans began calling the “dis-United States.” The Italians called their struggle for national independence and unification the Risorgimento, implying that modern Italy was to be a “resurgence” of something that came before, something destined to live again once foreign intruders were cast off. America won independence from British rule, and then, by way of treaties, wars, and expulsion, between the 1780s and 1840s the new nation wrested control of the hinterland from Spain, France, Britain, Native Americans, and Mexicans. The Italians had to dislodge several different “foreign” rulers between 1859 and 1870: Austrians in the North, Spanish Bourbons in the South, and finally the French troops defending Rome and the Papal States in central Italy.

Induno The Departure of the Drafted Soldiers

The Risorgimento involved the unification of regions profoundly divided by customs, dialects, and enmities that had developed during a long history of separate city-states, foreign rule, and isolation from one another. Only a small fraction of the population living in the Italian peninsula spoke modern Italian; the rest spoke regional dialects that were often completely incomprehensible to one another. Even romantic Italian nationalists such as Giuseppe Mazzini were all too aware of the legacy of hatred and divisiveness among localities. Domination by foreign powers that had invaded from all directions for centuries was as much a product as a cause of Italy’s internal  fragmentation. “Each city detests its neighbours, and is mortally detested in return,” one Italian explained to the French novelist Stendahl. “Brothers of Italy,” the national anthem composed in 1847 implores, “For centuries we have been downtrodden, and derided, because we are not a people, because we are divided.” “Let’s gather around one flag, one hope.”

In 1860, just as America’s South was preparing to secede, Italian forces under Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded, conquered, and annexed the Italian South to the new Italian nation. Known as I Mille (The Thousand), Garibaldi’s rag tagarmy of volunteers landed in Sicily and won stunning military victories against a Bourbon army that vastly outnumbered them. Isolated from others on the Italian peninsula and exposed to a series of invasions and conquests by foreign powers, the South had existed in a very different historical realm from the rest of Italy. Most northerners saw the Mezzogiorno as a backward, barbarous region enslaved by feudal society and superstitious religion. The annexation of the South aroused a mix of nationalist optimism at forging L’Italia Unità and xenophobic horror at mixing with alien peoples.

In Sicily Garibaldi’s soldiers were astonished to find peasants in bare feet, dressed in goatskins, bowing and kissing hands, feudal acts of humility they now bestowed upon their saviors from the North. These peasants had no idea of the Italian Risorgimento, nor of Italy for that matter. As Garibaldi and his Thousand marched across Sicily they held up one finger to signify “one Italy” and shouted, “Viva L’Italia.” Many Sicilians had it in their minds that Garibaldi was the king and that “La Talia” was the name of his queen. For their part, most northerners were equally ignorant of the southern people they came to unite with Italy. There was remarkably little travel and commerce between northern and southern portions of the peninsula and almost no effort to bridge the gulf of mutual ignorance between the two.

Northerners viewed the Italian South as a “paradise inhabited by the devil,” a land blessed by nature with warm climate and abundant crops but cursed by a people who were barbaric, anarchistic, and morally flawed, a people who could be ruled only by force. “We have acquired a very bad country,” one northerner wrote from the South after unification, “but it seems impossible that in a place where nature has done so much for the land, it has not generated another people.” To many it seemed the southern people they had “acquired” were something altro che Italia (other than Italy). Conquered and occupied by Greeks, Arabs, and others who were alien to Christian civilization and isolated from it for so long, the South of Italy was frequently compared to Africa. “Here we are amongst a population which, although in Italy and born Italian, seems to belong to the primitive tribes of Africa,” was one typical northern reaction.

The South did not join Italy voluntarily or happily. A long civil war involving guerilla bands and unspeakable atrocities on both sides coincided with America’s own struggle during the 1860s and 1870s to subdue its South. Known as the Brigands War, it caused more bloodshed than all the Italian wars of independence and witnessed the rise of the Mafia as mediators between the southern peasants and the government. It is an episode that is usually neglected in the romantic narrative of Italian unification.

“We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.” It is a phrase memorized by Italian school children and attributed by many to Massimo d’Azeglio, the Italian statesman of the Risorgimento era. But d’Azeglio was actually warning Italians about the task of nation building that lay ahead; what he actually wrote was “Fatta l’Italia bisogna fare gli Italiani ,” which translates “Having made Italy requires making Italians.” Italians and Americans would learn that making a nation involved much more than conquering territory and people.

About the Author


Don H. Doyle, is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and next year will be a fellow at the National Humanities Center. The article published in this issue draws on his book Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question (Georgia, 2002). Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he graduated from the University of California, Davis, and took his Ph.D. at Northwestern University. He taught at Vanderbilt University for many years before moving to South Carolina. Professor Doyle was a Fulbright Professor at the University of Rome in 1991, the University of Genoa in 1995, and at Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2004. He is currently writing a book on “America’s International Civil War,” which will examine the important role of foreign opinion and foreign soldiers in the battle of ideas and propaganda abroad.