“Il Risorgimento”, the popular term for Italian Unification, is a complex and contentious term that connects two highly symbolic moments in the peninsula’s history: the crowning of Napoleon as King of Italy in 1805 to the 1861 unification of most of Italy with the military and diplomatic assistance of his nephew Napoleon III and King Victor Emanuel of Piedmont. The complex and contradictory set of myths that insist on the “beautiful legend” of the Risorgimento cover over the very difficulty and controversy of the notion of Italy itself.
The Napoleonic proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy only encompassed the northern part of what we now know as Italy, and it only lasted until his abdication of the thrones of both France and Italy on 11 April 1814. His Italian kingdom was what Christopher Duggan terms “an arena for constitutional experiments, with boundaries being rubbed out and redrawn with such frequency that many people must have been unsure at any given moment exactly whose subjects they were” (92). While “[t]hese changes were made without any reference to the Italian people” (Duggan 93), and Napoleonic rule led to discontent and unrest (being the monarch might mean saving Italy as an entity, but it also meant high taxes and unpopular centralization), foreign conquerors in Italy had a history of being welcomed and supported by Italians. As Denis Mack Smith notes, “the main obstruction in the way of the patriotic movement was not foreign governments,” but rather “the slowness of the great bulk of Italians to accept or even to comprehend the idea of Italy” (The Making of Italy 2). Napoleon’s stint as King of Italy, with its dependence on a revitalized concept of Italy, was an important precursor to the Risorgimento. Even the more negative aspects of French rule ultimately benefited a unified Italy, as Duggan argues, for the anger generated by his treatment of the Kingdom of Italy—divided up and gifted to his family, treated as secondary to the French empire—fed the movement for cultural nationalism, especially when Napoleon tried to impose French as the official language (96). It is important to underline the involvement other European nations had in Italian unification, both diplomatic and military. While some investments were more symbolic and diplomatic (especially that of Britain), Germany, Austria and France engaged in military conflict over Italian territorial claims. Particularly notable are the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, after which Italy gained Venetia, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which finally unified Italy with the gain of the Papal States and Rome. This final war also brought about the downfall of Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon or Napoleon III, as well as the unification of Germany. Unlike Italy, the German struggle for unity did not attract the same intense identifications and passionate romanticised zeal as the Risorgimento, perhaps because Germany was taken more seriously as an economic, modernized nation with stronger military and diplomatic power. As Maura O’Connor points out, the different fates of Germany and Italy in the nineteenth century illustrates the unevenness of economic and political change.
Unification of Italy, and its freedom from foreign occupiers, was achieved in 1861 through the military intervention of Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, together with King Victor Emanuel of Sardinia (Piedmont), who became King of a united Italy through a series of plebiscites (Venice and Rome were not incorporated into the Kingdom until 1866 and 1870 respectively). But unification was both a cultural movement as well as a political phenomenon, and the example of Napoleon’s coronation demonstrates the fraught relationship between culture and politics. In addition, Napoleon’s adoption of the kingship of France underlines another key problematic at the heart of the concept of “Italy”: a belief in Italy as a national entity did not necessarily directly correspond with a movement to free the land from foreign rule. Furthermore, those advocating for political independence did not necessarily want unity; as Martin Clark points out, for many Italian writers and intellectuals, Italy’s diversity meant that “a single Italian state seemed [. . .] . . . not only impossible but also undesirable” (4). Those more inclined towards any kind of national unity favoured federalism (4). But, although unification, liberty and independence—the attested trio of Risorgimento goals—were largely achieved in 1861, this still did not equate to creating Italy as a nation. As Clark observes, “If Italian identity is multiple now, it was even more multiple then” (8).
Napoleon’s moment of coronation gives a flavour of how the campaign for Italian national independence known as the Risorgimento was so very contingent on myth; perhaps, indeed, the Risorgimento could be termed the most mythologized political and cultural movement in nineteenth-century Europe. Even the name Risorgimento (meaning political and cultural “resurgence,” “rebirth” and “resurrection”) was chosen for its symbolic weight by one of unification’s chief architects, Cavour (Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour), as the title of his liberal newspaper (founded in Turin on 15 December 1847), and the term for political unity stuck. Il Risorgimento took advantage of the new press freedoms granted by King Charles Albert of Piedmont (father of Victor Emanuel) in 1847, underlining the important relationship between print culture and Italian nationalism. In Tuscany, the abolition of press censorship by the Austrian Grand Duke Leopold led to another new pro-unification newspaper, The Tuscan Athenaeum (30 October 1847-22 January 1848), founded by Thomas Trollope (son of Fanny, brother of Anthony), modeled on the British Athenaeum. Trollope’s newspaper had a much smaller circulation and profile than Cavour’s, but nevertheless it was significant for its ambition and Anglo-Italian emphasis. The Tuscan Athenaeum, like Il Risorgimento, took advantage of the changing political climate to circulate a pro-Risorgimento message among the middle classes of Tuscany, and especially Florence where the newspaper was published. The Tuscan Athenaeum, however short-lived, was especially distinctive for two things. Firstly, it made a clear editorial call for moderation, spelled out in the very first issue, which associated its message with British liberalism. Secondly, it explicitly articulated the necessity of British interest in Italian politics. The newspaper was directed at mostly a British expatriate readership, and offered translations of Italian patriotic journalism from such other Tuscan newspapers as L’Alba to educate and motivate its audience in the Italian national cause.
The Risorgimento political philosophy was also circulated through another important channel: the journalism of the revolutionary and charismatic Giuseppe Mazzini. He enjoyed only a brief period of direct political power, as a member—along with Carlo Armellini and Aurelio Saffi—of a triumvirate of the Roman Republic after the ancient Roman model (9 February 1849– 3 July 1849). This opportunity to form a republic was seized following the assassination of the Papal Minister of Justice, Pellegrino Rossi, after which Pope Pius IX fled to Gaeta (on 24 November 1848) for the protection of Ferdinand II of Naples. The Roman Republic instituted a number of important reforms, such as freedom of religion (the Pope had only permitted Catholicism and Judaism) and the abolition of the Pope’s temporal power. The Republic was seen by patriots as a model for an independent Italy, but the experiment in a radical new constitution ended when French troops entered the city in support of the Pope and defeated the Republican army (led by Giuseppe Garibaldi). This episode is considered one of the most significant experiments in republicanism, popular democracy and constitutional reform in Italy’s history. But it also gave Mazzini his only political office. After the fall of the Republic he went again into exile and largely watched events in his native country from the sidelines (mostly in England). Nevertheless, Mazzini was an important player in the articulation of a national Italian identity, especially in his support of insurrections, coups and assassinations. He founded what was in effect the first modern Italian political organization, Giovine Italia (Young Italy), a revolutionary, popular pro-democracy group that espoused unification and republicanism. Along with La Giovine Italia, the party’s newspaper, Mazzini also encouraged a wave of patriotic journalism across Europe for, as Lucy Riall notes (32), he believed “in the unity of thought and action” (the title of one of his journals, founded in 1858 in London, was Pensiero e Azione [Thought and Action]), and tirelessly romanticized his self-image, his revolutionary violence, and even his defeats (which were represented as heroic failures). His political ideology created a new language for Risorgimento politics, as Riall comments, which was contingent on the symbolism of “nation” and “republicanism” and “il popolo” (the people), and on the circulation of a romantic ideal of the Italian struggle (32). Furthermore, his rhetoric frequently had a religious flavour, even as it campaigned against the Papacy as obsolete and an obstacle to unity and democracy (Lovett 13-14). In the British press, Mazzini frequently publicized his democratic unification politics; The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900, for example, lists over forty essays by him in such periodicals as The Westminster Review, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, The Monthly Chronicle, and The British and Foreign Review. Mazzini’s entry into British print culture heavily relied on British intellectuals and writers who did not always agree with his politics, such as Carlyle. A canny politician, Mazzini circulated and manipulated his romantic image and ideals through European print culture; indeed, “Il Risorigimento” as a movement operated both inside and outside Italy, and this diversity was crucial to its success.
Mazzini’s hold over the very concept of the Risorgimento, however, was not absolute. While his revolutionary zeal inspired patriotic deaths (such as the famously disastrous incident of the Bandiera brothers in 1844), and the devotion of many foreigners (such as the American journalist Margaret Fuller and the British journalist and campaigner Jessie White Mario), he had some vocal detractors. The Austrian politician Prince Klemens Fürst von Metternich, for example, termed him the most dangerous man in Europe (Mazzini would have made a compliment out of his enemy’s condemnation), and many others were uncomfortable with his encouragement of political violence. Indeed, Mazzinian insurrectionary politics were counter to the moderate liberal agenda, which in the 1850s gained the clear momentum. Mazzini’s influence waned after the failure of the Roman Republic and with the rise to political power of Cavour, who successfully campaigned for Italian unification under his Sardinian King and with the support of an uneasy French alliance.
Mazzini’s role in the Risorgimento is vitally important, however, for what it tells us about how crucial myth, romance and print culture were to the unification movement, and indeed, in his conflict with Cavour and the liberals, how fractured that very movement was. Italian and British revisionist historians of the twentieth century, such as Denis Mack Smith, Christopher Duggan and Martin Clark, focus on the relationship between Mazzini and Cavour to demonstrate that the Risorgimento was, in fact, not an inevitable nationalist movement for unity, but rather a series of non-teleological, complex events (see, in particular, Clark 4), whose wars were largely fought between foreign powers (such as the crucial battles of Magenta and Solferino in June 1859). Indeed, many prefer not to use the term Risorgimento at all, seeing it as a problematic phrase that supports and simplifies a complex nationalist mythology concealing the real power behind unification: the dynastic expansionist interests of Napoleon III and Victor Emanuel. The main driving force behind unification in the 1850s, Cavour, pursued arguably underhand and devious politics that were driven by the urge to expand Piedmont’s territories in the south and expulse Austria, something that revisionist historians have termed derogatorily the “piemontesizzazione” of Italy. In addition, the revisionist accounts of unification emphasise it as a minority movement of the elite middle classes (what Piero Gobetti in Risorgimento senza eroi describes as a “failed revolution,” and what Antonio Gramsci calls a “passive revolution” that bypasses the economically disenfranchised) conducted by northern Italy at the expense of the interests of the south (seen as a backward “Mezzogiorno”). For example, while pro-unification print culture is widely accepted by historians as crucial to nationalist unity, Martin Clark notes that only 2.5% of the population could speak Italian and, indeed, few Italians actually wanted unification (4). Maxime Du Camp writes of overhearing crowds in Naples, following the plebiscites, shouting “Long live Italy,”, but then members of the crowd asked him what “Italy” was (Gilmour 199). Gilmour’s recent study underlines the problem of the very concept of Italy, noting that Metternich’s description of Italy in 1847 as merely “une expression géographique” has some truth, for at that time it was made up of eight independent states that had last been united by the Romans (158).
Extravagant gesture, hagiography, dramatic spectacle and myth-making were critical to the concept of the Risorgimento, just as much so as military action and diplomatic treaties. Accounts of the battles, for example, were re-written to privilege the Italian patriotic nature of the interventions. In particular, the Battle of Magenta was proclaimed a stunning heroic victory for Italians that forced the Austrians to retreat from Lombardy, but the only Italian dead were apparently soldiers fighting for the enemy Austrian army, not something that the “patriot legend” could incorporate (Mack Smith, “Documentary Falsification” 181). On the French side were 200,000 troops, commanded personally by Napoleon III, with a tiny contingent of Piedmontese (Clark 75): the battle was a French (not an Italian patriotic) victory.The Tuscan painter Giovanni Fattori, from the Macchiaiolo school (meaning “stain” or “spot,” referring to the representational style that emphasized light and shadow, and which was a forerunner to the French Impressionists), who had fought in the 1848 revolutions (as with many of the Macchiaioli), depicted the battle in his Italian Camp During the Battle of Magenta [Figure 3]. This painting, representing the calm, stoic fortitude of Piedmontese soldiers in the foreground of the battle, won Bettino Ricalsoli’s national Concorso (competition) for the best patriotic military picture. Fattori privileges the Italian contribution to the battle in the very title and leaves the bloody battlefield to the smoky distance (this was a battlefield, by the way, so bloody, that it shortly afterwards gave its name to the dye magenta). The Battle of Magenta was also amply represented in the British press as a joint French and Sardinian victory; for example, the Illustrated London News leader for 11 June 1859, while citing contradictory telegraphic communications from all sides on the battlefield, emphasizes the role of Victor Emanuel with its account of his heroic entry into Milan with Napoleon after the battle, an entry that signalled the freedom of Lombardy and a great victory for Italian independence. A few weeks later, on 2 July 1859, the newspaper printed an illustration by M. Beauce and described the battle as, “for the allies [. . .] more than an ordinary victory, and for the Austrians more than an ordinary defeat” (8), made all the more dramatic by the description of Magenta itself as “a little town in Lombardy” (8). The newspaper quotes an official French communication thought to be written by Napoleon himself, triumphant at the battle’s display of “prodigies of valour” (8) that involved taking more than a thousand prisoners. By 1860, the Illustrated London News uses the term “magenta” to describe a heroic victory, when it begins a description of a debate in the House of Commons thus: “Mr. Gladstone won his Magenta gallantly, and with extraordinary damage to the enemy.” The Battle of Magenta entered the “beautiful legend” of the Risorgimento as a resounding Italian patriotic triumph; as Gilmour wryly comments, the pictures of the battle that adorn the Risorgimento museums across Italy, like Fattori’s, like the Italian educational textbooks, turned it into a Piedmontese victory, although Victor Emanuel’s army in fact arrived at night when the battle was over (185, 259). Napoleon III—dismayed with the heavy casualties at Magenta and then Solferino, with the Lombards’ reluctance to be liberated, and with the military incompetence of the Piedmontese (who did not possess accurate maps of Lombardy, and who could garner only a tenth of the promised 200,000 patriotic volunteers [Gilmour 187])—suddenly (and unexpectedly to his allies) made a Peace at Villafranca in July. But Magenta entered into the Risorgimento historiography as a brave patriotic Italian victory, as a decisive blow for independence, liberty and unity.
Particularly notable, along with patriotic re-telling of battles, were the mythologizing of the major political figures to craft a narrative of heroic patriotism. One major player in unification, the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, was especially and famously adept at massaging his personality cult, as Lucy Riall’s recent biography admirably demonstrates in detail. Perhaps most notable was Garibaldi’s famous campaign in the south with the expedition of the “Thousand,” an army that in fact (and despite patriotic legend) had grown to over 21,000 by the time it defeated the 25,000 badly organized Neapolitan troops in Sicily (Gilmour 194). In George Macaulay Trevelyan’s account of the key Battle of Calatafimi, the “Thousand” heroically defeated the Neapolitans who greatly outnumbered them. Before the battle, when the bugler blew the réveillée of Como, “[t]he unexpected music rang through the noonday stillness like a summons to the soul of Italy” (254); although, as Gilmour puts it, Garibaldi made “an unprovoked attack on a recognized state with which his country, Piedmont-Sardinia, was not at war” (192-3). “It was indeed a heroic enterprise but it was also, incontrovertibly, illegal” (Gilmour 192). Cavour, represented as the architect of unification, in fact opposed a united Italy until the late 1850s; in 1856, for example, he denigrated a Venetian pro-unification patriot for favouring “the idea of Italian unity and other such nonsense” (cited in Gilmour 179). His change of heart, revisionist historians insist, was part of his expansionist plans for Piedmont, which resulted in annexation of other Italian states to Piedmont—rather than Italian unification, these historians argue, the final wars of independence in 1859-60 resulted in the Piedmontization of Italy. Cavour’s annexing meant “the imposition of northern laws, customs and institutions on distant regions with no experience of their workings” (Gilmour 198). Massimo d’Azeglio (a prominent Sardinian politician) calculated that, despite the overwhelming show of support in the plebiscites (which arguably put the question of unity in a biased fashion, not mentioning annexation), only a fifth of Neopolitans wanted to be annexed (Gilmour 197). And then there was the King himself, promoted by d’Azeglio as “il re galantuomo” (the gentleman king), and celebrated as the heroic “father of Italy” in countless statues all over the Italian nation. [See, for example, Figure 4: Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, Bergamo, Italy]. Mack Smith and David Gilmour point out how very far from the truth this image was (the former, for example, reports that the King told a British Ambassador “that there were only two ways of governing Italians, by bayonets or bribery” [“Documentary Falsification” 185]). And, as we have seen, Mazzini forged his image as a tragic outsider, a romantic nationalist, a patriot tragically exiled from his beloved land. Italian patriotic heroism sustained the “beautiful legend” of the teleological, inevitable movement to unification and liberty, as it depended on depicting the four prominent political players—the passionate zeal of Mazzini, the politican acumen of Cavour, the gentlemanly kingship of Victor Emanuel and the revolutionary heroism of Garibaldi—as complimentary and working in the end for a common goal, despite their clear difference of agenda and philosophy.
While Risorgmento print culture helped create such celebrities for the Italian literate classes, the concept of Italian independence was circulated in Britain by many authors in the nineteenth century. The complexity of the term “Risorgimento,” and the very problem it underscores about the concept “Italy,” was fed by British writers who inscribed and questioned the concept of “Bella Italia,” or beautiful Italy, which had a long tradition of mythologization in British literature. The feminization and aestheticization of Italy troped her as a beautiful, neglected, tragic woman, perhaps most famously in Lord Byron’s description of Venice in Canto Four of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), where the city is figured as a tragic, abandoned “Ocean queen” (Canto 4, stanza 17, l. 7). Italy as a romantic concept was circulated through a variety of genres, especially poetry, travel writing, romantic novels and journalism, and many of the most prominent Romantic-era, pre-Risorgimento British works addressed the subject of the Italian peninsula, such as (alongside Byron’s) Hester Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789), Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci (1819) and “Ode to the West Wind” (1820), Felicia Hemans’ The Restoration of the Works of Art in Italy (1816), Lady Morgan’s Italy (1821), Mary Shelley’s Valperga (1823), Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s The Improvisatrice (1824), Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuyée (1826), and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850). A major shift in representing Italy occurred after the publication of Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy (1807) in French, translated into English by Isabel Hill in 1833 with Corinne’s poems rendered metrically by Landon. Corinne, an Anglo-Italian improvisational poet (an improvisatrice), struggles to reconcile literary accolade with private romantic happiness and dies of a broken heart. As the full title suggests, Corinne represents the fallen Italian nation under the Napoleonic Wars, powerfully identifying Italy as a tragic victim with the struggles of woman’s independence in the early nineteenth century.
While many male writers wrote about Italy—and, after the Romantic era, these include Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Thomas Trollope and Henry James—women writers in particular found Corinne’s association of Italy and the feminine both seductive and problematic. Two pro-Risorgimento women writers in particular challenged the over-aestheticisation of Italy: Theodosia Garrow Trollope in her articles for the British Athenaeum (later collected in her Social Aspects of the Italian Revolution ), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her overtly political 1860 volume, Poems before Congress (see especially “Napoleon III in Italy”). If Italy could be termed a mere geographical expression, its status as a cultural entity—even as their government adopted a largely laissez faire policy—was insisted upon by the numerous British writers who were sympathetic to the Risorgimento movement. Both Garrow Trollope and Barrett Browning contributed to the cult of Risorgimento celebrity, especially in their portrayals of King Victor Emanuel as the overseer and guarantor of what Trollope calls the “rose-water revolution” in Tuscany, which was as peaceful as it was successful (3, 1), but they also insisted that the concept of Italy should be divorced from its romantic effeminacy—of course, a problematic combination. Literary critics and cultural historians such as Maura O’Connor argue that the concept of English nationhood in the nineteenth century was contingent upon cultural, imaginative and political discourses of Italy. The “romance of Italy,” O’Connor argues, was instrumental “in the project of imagining a bourgeois, liberal, and, above all, English social order during a critical historical period when class society was being reconfigured and the parameters of national identity were being renegotiated in Britain” (1). British writers looked to the Risorgimento in Italy, with which they sometimes fiercely identified, to address thorny issues of English nationhood which, Marjorie Morgan contests, were constructed precisely through the notion of travel, suggesting that nationhood itself emerged in the nineteenth century as a mobile and fluid concept, challenging the very notion of national purity and borders (for how this relates to the construction of the Victorian poetess, see also Chapman). The Risorgimento, a malleable concept, became incorporated into the notion of Englishness, civic identity, and indeed the Woman Question, as women writers appropriated the discourse of political and cultural resurgence to articulate their own struggles in Victorian Britain (see Lootens, Cronin, Schor).
As a problematic and complex intertwined political and cultural movement, the Risorgimento was portrayed in nineteenth-century Whig historiography as inevitable, organic, and triumphant, especially by such British historians as George Macaulay Trevelyan. And it is also clear, if startling, that the Italian official records were deliberately doctored to support this historical re-writing: “it is undeniable that a good deal of written risorgimento [sic] history was slanted to protect the reputation of [the] heads of State,” as well as to cultivate and protect the “beautiful legend” of national identity (Denis Mack Smith, “Documentary Falsification” 185, 186). As with the very term “Risorgimento” itself, such a teleological narrative of events involved a significant amount of mythmaking. For some recent historians, indeed, the Risorgimento was less of a resurgence and more a civil war. It is possible that the Italian independence movement of the late 1840s and 1850s will be renamed, because its complex mythologization under the name of Il Risorgimento formed a deeply problematic Italian nationalism, particularly in the north’s political and economic dominance over the south of the peninsula. Clearly, the uneven mythologization of a unified, liberated and independent “la bella Italia,” had markedly different resonances inside and outside of Italy, underlying the profound unevenness of the romance of Italy. The power of the symbolism embodied by the label Risorgimento gives a telling sense of how crucial narrative, celebrity, and print culture were in the formation of European nationalism; but the power of the label Risorgimento has also distracted historians, until very recently, from the cost of a united state that was so heavily contingent on romantic mythology.
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
published February 2012
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The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900. Web database.
 Here I would like to thank both Maura O’Conner and Annemarie McAllister for their many insightful suggestions on this timeline entry.
 The Bandiera brothers, Austrian naval officers, absconded in 1844 under the influence of Mazzinian revolutionary zeal to join a reported uprising in Calabria and declare a republic. Their venture was tragically misjudged; the Calabrian insurrection was minor and had been suppressed before their arrival. They were found and executed. Mazzini had discouraged the brothers, but he nevertheless turned their executions into a glorious martyrdom (see Gilmour 157-8).