It might not be a national holiday, but March 17th might just be the most patriotic day of the year in Italy – it is the National Day of Unity. Although Italy was the center of the ancient Roman Empire and is known for its treasures dating back millennia, as a country it is actually very young, even younger than the United States. The Kingdom of Italy was officially founded on March 17, 1861.
Before that historic date, the peninsula was fragmented into rival states and regions that had changed hands, allegiances and boundaries frequently over the centuries. These included the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, the Papal States, Kingdom of Sardinia, Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia and Kingdom of the two Sicilies.
Italy’s unification wasn’t a single date, but a period of several decades during which there were first revolts and reforms, as well as wars. The unification or Risorgimento period is roughly defined as occurring between 1815 and 1870.
Napoleon had invaded Italy in 1796 and his defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo paved the way for unification efforts. The 1830s saw unrest and a series of nationalist revolts across the country, but this was largely suppressed. In the mid-1840s, rising nationalism across the whole peninsula reignited revolts.
In Sardinia, its King, Vittorio Emanuele, was gaining recognition due to reforms and public works, while Prime Minister Count Camillo di Cavour built up strategic alliances across Europe. Sardinia allied with Britain and France in the Crimean War, earning it an invitation to the subsequent peace conference. There, Cavour promoted the cause of Italian unification.
This inspired more revolutionary activity. First, Tuscany, Parma, Modena and Romagna voted to unite with Sardinia, but in other areas such as the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples, Cavour had to send in troops to secure victory and succeeded in uniting almost the entire peninsula, although Rome and Venetia didn’t join until 1870.
The first king of the new Italy was Vittorio Emanuele II. Born in 1820, Vittorio Emanuele had become King of Sardinia-Piedmont at the age of 29 and was able to take the throne as Italy’s very first king and reigned until his death in 1878. You can see his tomb at Rome’s Pantheon today.
Giuseppe Garibaldi made a huge contribution to the Italian unification and is considered one of the greatest generals of modern times. He is also known as the “Hero of the Two Worlds” because of his military enterprises in Brazil, Uruguay and Europe. He commanded and fought in many of the military campaigns that led eventually to the Italian unification.
The very first capital of Italy was Turin. Just four years later, however, Florence became the capital city before Rome was finally given the honor in 1871.
So why is March 17th not a national holiday in Italy? Generally, Italy opts to mark the founding of the Republic on June 2nd, rather than the unification itself. It was on June 2nd in 1946 that Italians narrowly voted in a constitutional referendum to abolish the monarchy, thus becoming a democratic republic – a form of government that continues to this day.