Although the peoples of the Italian peninsula spoke the same language, they had not been politically united since Roman times. Over the centuries, ambitious foreign conquerors had turned Italy into a battleground, occupying parts or all of the peninsula. By the early 1800s, nationalism inspired Italian patriots to dream of ousting foreign rulers and reuniting Italy.
Giuseppe Garibaldi leads his Red Shirts against troops of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Frequent warfare and foreign rule had led people to identify with local regions. The people of Florence considered themselves Tuscans, those of Venice Venetians, those of Naples Neapolitans, and so on. But as in Germany, the invasions of Napoleon had sparked dreams of national unity.
The Congress of Vienna, however, ignored the nationalists who hoped to end centuries of foreign rule and achieve unity. To Prince Metternich of Austria, Italy was merely a “geographical expression,” not a nation. Moreover, a divided Italy suited Austrian interests. At Vienna, Austria took control of much of northern Italy, while Hapsburg monarchs ruled various other Italian states. In the south, a French Bourbon ruler was put in charge of Naples and Sicily.
In response, nationalists organized secret patriotic societies and focused their efforts on expelling Austrian forces from northern Italy. Between 1820 and 1848, nationalist revolts exploded across the region. Each time, Austria sent in troops to crush the rebels.