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The Treaties of Villafranca and Zurich (1859): Old Regime Nostalgia on the Road to Italian Unification

By: Randall Lesaffer

In the summer of 1858, the French spa town of Plombières-les-Bains offered a discreet location for a secret meeting between the French Emperor Napoleon III (1808–73) and Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (1810–61), who had since 1852 served as prime-minister to Victor Emmanuel II (1820–78), the king of Piedmont-Sardinia. At the meeting, the two leaders agreed to trigger a war with Austria, then still the dominant power in northern Italy, in the hope of evicting the Austrians from the Italian peninsula. They concocted a plan to divide Italy into three major states. To the north, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia would be expanded by the Austrian Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice as well as Modena, Parma, and the Romagna. The grand-duchy of Tuscany, ruled by the reformist Habsburg Leopold II (1797–1870), would gain Umbria and the Marches from the Papal State. To the south, the Bourbon dynasty would be driven from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and replaced by Lucien Murat (1810–79), the son of Napoleon I’s brother-in-law and the former Neapolitan king Joachim Murat (1767–1815). Together they would form an Italian confederation—after the German Confederation—with the pope as its president. In return for his support in a war against Austria, Napoleon III would receive Nice and Savoy from Piedmont-Sardinia.

Napoleon III and Cavour had very different motivations for their agreement. After the hard-fought victory over Russia in the Crimean War (1853–56), the French emperor was looking for another opportunity to restore France to its erstwhile position of military dominance on the European continent, which it had lost at Waterloo. A return to the Northern Italian battlefields, where the first Napoleon had won his first great victories over the Austrian armies and had laid the basis for his later domination of Europe, was an inspiring thought to his nephew and would-be successor. But Napoleon III was also a fervent proponent of the idea of Italian unification. As a young man, he had been an active revolutionary on the peninsula, involving himself with a wild plot to overthrow the papal government in Rome and an actual insurrection further north in the early 1830s. A failed assassination attempt in Paris in January 1858 by an Italian radical, Felice Orsini (1819–58), did nothing to dissuade him from his fervour but actually convinced him of the need to take the steam out of the radical-revolutionary machine in Italy by ensuring its unification from above. Napoleon III wanted to guarantee the French Empire’s stake in the process by inflicting a military defeat on the Austrian Empire. On top of the territorial compensation this attack would bring from Piedmont-Sardinia along the south-eastern border of France, he also desired to restore the dynastic empire of his uncle by the ascension of a Murat in Naples and the proposed marriage of his cousin Napoleon-Jerome Bonaparte (1822– 91) to the Piedmont king’s daughter, Maria Clotilde (1843–1911).

From his side, Cavour had little belief or interest in what he considered the chimaera of Italian unity. After the failure to secure commitment to the revolutions that spread over the peninsula in 1848–49 and the crushing defeat of its troops in the ensuing war with Austria, the northern Italian kingdom retained an ambiguous position regarding unification. As the strongest military state, which moreover remained a constitutional monarchy after the collapse of the revolutions of 1848, the kingdom was the centre of the hopes of Italian nationalists and liberals—its capital, Turin, the refuge of revolutionary exiles and the hub of their aspirations. Its prime minister, Cavour, was not averse to using these energies to hedge his plots, which were, however, aimed at the service of far more traditional goals. Cavour’s policies aimed at the eviction of the Austrian Habsburgs from the Po Valley and the expansion of the kingdom to Lombardy and possibly beyond, in the hope of elevating Piedmont-Sardinia to the rank of almost a great power. In this sense, he was more of a latter-day Frederick II (1712–86) than an early-day Bismarck (1815–98). Cavour followed a policy, often bordering on brinkmanship, of acquiring the support of France and Great Britain.

The deal of Plombières left Cavour with the problem of luring Austria into a war while deflecting the blame to Vienna. In the end, the military build-up by Piedmont-Sardinia made the Austrian government lose its nerve and caused it to put a demand for disarmament on the table. In the ensuing war, the French army dealt two crushing defeats to the Austrian armies at the battles of Magenta and Solferino. The ineffective and lacklustre operations of the Piedmontese army, in combination with French fears about the emergence of Piedmont-Sardinia as a veritable competitor for dominance over Italy, convinced Napoleon III of the need to reach a speedy resolution to the war.

After brief negotiations, an armistice was signed at Villafranca near Cremona on 8 July 1859, just two weeks after the Battle of Solferino (120 CTS 471). Piedmont-Sardinia, which would have preferred to continue spending French blood for its ambitions, had no choice but to accept and sign the treaty. Three days later, the two emperors, Napoleon III and Franz Joseph of Austria (1830–1916), brokered a preliminary peace deal (120 CTS 491). Under its conditions, it was agreed that Austria would cede most of Lombardy, barring the fortresses of Mantua and Peschiera, to France, which would then transfer it to Piedmont-Sardinia. The deal also stipulated that an Italian Confederation under the honorary presidency of the pope would be established. Three months later, this basic territorial scheme was finalized in the bilateral peace treaty between Austria and France (121 CTS 145), the bilateral treaty between France and Piedmont-Sardinia (121 CTS 171), and a general peace treaty between the three parties (121 CTS 155), all signed at Zurich on 10 November 1859. The idea of an Italian Confederation was not retained or implemented in the treaties.

Napoleon’s perceived betrayal of his Piedmontese ally did much to end Turin’s ambiguity on Italian unification. The treaties of Zurich affirmed Piedmont-Sardinia’s position as the strongest Italian power and the sole realistic platform for Italian unification. In the months to follow, Cavour, who in early 1860 returned to power after having left in anger because of the armistice, would exploit the revolutions that had taken place earlier in 1859 and 1860 in Tuscany and other principalities of Central Italy to ensure their incorporation into the new Kingdom of Northern Italy. For this, he directed nationalist forces to work toward unification under Victor Emmanuel II. In the spring of 1860, a series of referenda in Tuscany and other ‘liberated’ states rendered astonishingly one-sided results. The same occurred in Savoy and Nice, where official results delivered close to a unanimous preference for annexation to France.



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