Challenges to National Unity in Italy, c. 1845 – 1930

Achieving national unity in Italy faced countless internal and external challenges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The French and Austrian occupation in the North and Spanish occupation in the South meant varying linguistic, cultural and political influences affected the lives of the Italian population, making the process of unification a very arduous one. The South was much less urbanised, isolating it from the flourishing infrastructure and development of Northern cities such as Turin. With a lack of political consensus and coordinated military strength amongst revolutionary figures such as Mazzini and Garibaldi, attempts of unification had failed on several occasions. However, while political, economic and social issues were central in threatening the unification of Italy, it was the dominance and authority the Papacy held before and after unification that posed the greatest challenge to the confederation of the Italian states. Commanding a mass following for centuries, the Pope had always had a strong influence on Catholic believers and their lifestyles. Whilst unification of kingdoms ultimately meant creating governance equal to the power, or even greater than, that of the Pope, it was a controversial matter since for centuries it was the Church that protected and unified people through faith.

Social differences between the North and South

It is important to consider that a major difficulty in creating national unity was the Northern and Southern divide that had long existed throughout the provinces of Italy, which had intensified poor economic infrastructures of Southern regions. Southern areas of Italy were under a great disadvantage as they were affected by poor climate, lack of constitutional organisation and abnormally high crime rates. Deemed by Mack Smith as “different levels of civilisation”, the problems in the South could easily be considered as posing a strenuous challenge to unity throughout the peninsula. Whilst Lombardy was benefiting from the strong trade links between neighbouring countries, Naples was regularly experiencing poor crop yields and heavy deforestation – a phenomena bound to have lasting effects for the advancement of future generations. By the year 1860 however, a plebiscite in the mainland South demonstrated the majority of people’s desire for unity under Victor Emmanuel, with 1,302,064 voting for amalgamation. This signifies that it was not the lack of interest in unification, but more the inability and inconsistencies present throughout the areas of Italy that resulted in divisions, both socially and politically.

Economic constraints

The Italian peninsula lacked raw materials and dynamic trade markets, which therefore led to complications in maintaining a productive industry. Economic strains were consistently apparent, especially in the South of Italy where conditions only seemed to be worsening. Although politics were never initially the focal concern of peasants – who were largely illiterate and interested in more direct matters such as the costs of living – dire conditions and rising unemployment led to public revolts in 1848 in the Southern cities of Palermo and Cilento with masses campaigning for a parliament and press freedoms. Despite being a turning point in Italian history, these revolts did not amount to much as after a year of social unrest, the status quo remained unchanged. A reason for the failure of these revolts was the fact that the participants all had differing agendas and were a divided force. Peasants wanted jobs and financial development to improve the transport links, trade markets and infrastructure of the cities they lived in whilst intellectuals and rebellious students were involved to attain political independence from the Bourbon rulers of the area. The discontented youth began to desire a need for national unification under one state in order to reap the benefits of a nationalized governance and the celebrated Giuseppe Mazzini, leader of the Risorgimento (a movement for the unification and independence for Italy), was a reason for this. He presented ideas through social mediums such as newspapers and pamphlets to convince people that unification was in the best interests for the wellbeing of the Italian people. Though he gathered a lot of attention and respect, people still failed to work together to set goals and achieve them. By the end of 1848, divisions amongst people still persisted, “province was divided against province, class against class”. Therefore, economic volatility evidently posed a challenge to integration, as people were concerned with their own plans and immediate gratification.

The Mafia and criminal activity

The aforementioned economic instability also propagated several social issues throughout the provinces of Italy, which led to numerous challenges in achieving unification. One difficulty faced in Sicily after Italian unification was the formation of the infamous Mafia. As John Dickie states, “the origins of the mafia are closely related to the origins of an untrustworthy state.” This highlights that the formation of the Italian State in 1861 was not through the most efficient means and presented several flaws. As a very young country, Italy was yet to establish an effectively functioning governmental institution that incorporated all provincial systems. With 95 per cent of the population speaking a wide range of languages, constructing a new state was difficult. The gradual growth of the so called ‘Mafiosi’ group took advantage of this situation and led to the development of a separate, superior sect that remained unaffected by State powers. For many years through the late nineteenth century the Mafiosi became the authority, with countless members of the group infiltrating political parties, businesses and trade unions. Since their aim was to gain power and financial means by “cultivating the art of killing people and getting away with it”, the safeties of ordinary citizens were in danger. As allegations involving killings by the Mafiosi arose amongst the Sicilian population, police organisations became increasingly unhelpful and untrustworthy. Evidence against crimes was often ‘lost’ and criminals were rarely successfully identified. People therefore progressively lost faith in the State’s alleged provision of protection and safety under a common law, resulting in social harmony and unification to become a distant fantasy.

The influence of the Papacy

However, although the economic and social issues apparent in Italy aggravated the prominence of already present societal divisions, the dominance of the Papacy was one of the most significant and ongoing challenges towards achieving and maintaining national unity. Seen by Catholics as God’s representative on Earth, over the years the Popes had made clear that the unification of the kingdoms of Italy were “contrary to God’s wishes”. Establishing such an idea meant forming a negative view toward unification amongst much of the nation, which posed a weighty challenge in rousing any form of interest in endeavouring to unify the states of the peninsula. Anyone who intended to go against this judgement was deemed to be going against the divine cause of protecting the Church and with a high percentage of the population remaining faithful to the Catholic religion; this was a very controversial matter and did not have nationwide support. Nonetheless, this view steadily evolved when Count Camillo di Cavour entered the political climate. It is clear that he considered the Church as the only noteworthy opponent of the state after unification, as his driving political doctrine was ‘a Free Church in a Free State’. This was the cornerstone of the Italian government’s approach in attempting to construct relations with the Pope. The interactions to come over the next decade involved nothing more than compromise on the behalf of the State and the lack of willingness to cooperate from the Holy See.

Geographically, the Papal States had divided the peninsula from East to West through the middle; it was a physical boundary for unification and understandably had to be dismantled in order to combine the North and South of the headland. The integration of Rome was also substantial as it was symbolically the most appropriate capital for the new Italy. Whilst the State posed just and ethical reasoning for the requirement of Rome, the Pope would often end communication with the King or reply with phrases such as “non possumus” – meaning we cannot. As a measure of compromise, The Law of Guarantees was introduced in May 1871 that declared the Pope could still have an independent sovereign and had the rights to receive an annual donation of 3,250,000 lira for maintenance of the Holy See. The Pope did not recognize this law, as he refused to recognize the Italian State, and yet did not object to receiving the hefty financial aid. Hence not only was the State consistently accepting the Pope’s every need, it was also giving away a huge amount of its much needed resources to respect the authority the Papacy commanded.

The tensions between Church and State were only ever reduced when finally in 1929, the Church recognized the legitimacy of the State. This did not mean however, that the supremacy of the Church was ever abridged. The suggestion this provides is that the Church, above anything else, permanently retained the right to deny the legitimacy of the State and exist unaffected by its surroundings, undermining the authority of the newly formed State. The international backing for the protection of the Vatican and the Pope meant that military action or force was out of the question with regards to State action against the Holy See. Consequently, it is the Church that posed the greatest challenge in unifying the Italian State, as Rome could never be only the concern of the Italian nation. Rome was always going to be the concern of the entire Catholic world.


In conclusion, the process of integrating the Italian provinces into one nation state was a very problematic one. It faced political conflicts both domestically and internationally and resulted in several intense social, economic and religious struggles throughout the decades leading up to the final stages of unification; the acquiring of Rome. Whilst collectively they all posed a substantial challenge against constructing national unity, the factor that posed the greatest strain was the Papacy’s ongoing claims of sovereignty over the Papal States.  There is a clear correlation between the length of time it had taken to attain the papal regions to its strong influence and power in Italian societies, therefore posing the greatest challenge against amalgamation. Pope Pius IX’s authority and mass following throughout and after the process of papal integration into Italy demonstrates this. The reason for the prolonged duration of the complete annexation of the Papal States was that it consistently presented itself as an obstacle to unification, whereas matters such as economic strain were steadily resolved with reformation and centralization by the government and the social threat of the Mafia gradually subsided with the fortification of the State. Although total unification of Italy had been finalised territorially by 1870, the social unification of people’s beliefs and loyalties remained incomplete; the power of Catholicism was never abolished, it simply coexisted with the constitution. The notion that national unity was still hindered by the Church even after formal unification signifies that it was always the greatest challenge; internal divisions remained amongst the people and social cohesion was never immediately achieved.

Written by Aila Bicer


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Mack Smith, Denis. Modern Italy: A Political History (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press 1969)