by Pierangelo Gentile (Università degli Studi di Torino)
In 1849, the year of Piedmont’s defeat in the first war of independence, Carlo Alberto abdicated in favor of his first-born Vittorio Emanuele II, who came to power within a complex political scenario. The Parliament of the Kingdom of Sardinia became a stage for mutual criticism between the Left, accused by the Right of having precipitated the country into an abyss, and the Right, accused by the Left of being a tool for reaction. Despite inner struggles, international pressure, the occupation of the eastern front by the Austrians, and the problem of having to pay millions in war compensation to the enemy, the king managed to keep institutions stable, swearing on the constitution. In the context of the Peninsula, Piedmont confirmed its status of land of freedoms: a fact to be highlighted, in the current atmosphere of disaffection for the national process, fuelled by an improbable “we were better off when we weren’t united”.
It must be kept in mind that constitutions were abolished in Naples and Florence; that the republic established by Mazzini and defended by Garibaldi in Rome was destroyed by French cannon fire and returned to the Pope’s theocratic power; that after months of heroic resistance under siege Venice was forced to surrender to the Austrians, exhausted by hunger and cholera.
Thus, hundreds of those who had voluntarily fought for the ideal of national unity had to go into exile to avoid jail or execution. And their only sensible choice was to head for Turin.
After a difficult debut, with a government led by an almost unknown Savoy general, Gabriel de Launay, executive power passed into the hands of Massimo d’Azeglio. By choosing a multi-talented man (already known at the time as a writer and painter) with deeply rooted moderate principles, Vittorio Emanuele demonstrated a will to trust conservative liberals living in accordance with the adage «nothing more, nothing less than the Statute».
Elected on 15 July 1849 for the 3rd legislature, Cavour experienced the debut of the “gentleman king”, as Vittorio Emanuele was nicknamed, having kept his word and confirmed the constitution. He threw himself wholeheartedly into his parliamentary work, trying, in his own words, to earn a reputation as «an honest and sincere man, always ready to fight the intemperance and excesses of all parties». At the time the house had to take a stand on signing the peace treaty and paying Austria 75 millions in damages. There was no time to waste. Despite a conservative government (per Statute ministers answered to the king, not to parliament) the democrats, who were the majority in Palazzo Carignano, opted for parliamentary obstruction. But to save the country d’Azeglio convinced the king to pronounce the “Moncalieri Proclamation” (the town where Vittorio Emanuele resided inside its castle): the king dissolved the disorderly house inviting voters to carefully ponder their choice of representatives because otherwise… otherwise – this was the threat lurking between the lines – there was a risk that a decision might have to be taken regarding whether to keep the Statute or not.
Consultations agreed with the government. Cavour did not encounter any problems and was re-elected on 9 December 1849 within the 4th legislature, thus emerging as one of the leading men of the political area by then identified as the center-right (from the “geographical” area inside Palazzo Carignano’s hemicycle). From that moment it was an ascent. The first success as an orator in the House came on 7 March 1850, regarding a hot topic. Minister of Justice Giuseppe Siccardi had brought for debate to Parliament a law for the abolition of the Clerical Court. It was a matter of principle: did article 24 of the Statute not state that all Sardinian subjects «whatever their title or rank» were equal before the law? So why was a religious tribunal still active allowing the clergy of the Kingdom of Sardinia, also subjects of the Savoy, to avoid civil justice? Thus Cavour approached an issue, the relationship between the State and the Church, which would be central to his career. He did it in style, with a thunderous speech revolving around the benefits of reformism, because «reforms carried out in good time do not weaken authority, they strengthen it; instead of fueling the revolutionary spirit they reduce it to impotence». It was a triumph: long, deafening applause from the stands and galleries; congratulations from his colleagues; handshakes from ministers; felicitations from his adversaries. Once again Camillo put forward his recipe to modernize the State: progress was not to be feared. Channeled and regulated from above by an enlightened political class, it would avoid in that century the ills of a people willing to do anything to conquer its rights, including spilling blood. With a little play on words: revolutionizing the country was possible by being moderate. It was a victory set in stone, in the truest sense. In the middle of piazza Savoia in Turin you can see an obelisk with the following words engraved on it: everyone is equal before the law. The monument is dedicated to the laws introduced by Siccardi. They were underwritten by 800 municipalities throughout the kingdom, and their names engraved in stone celebrated the strength of secularism. Cavour had become a leader.
He was head of a right-wing party (although modern political parties as we understand them now would not see the light until the late 1800s) which could not avoid being part of government in that area.
After challenging Henri Avigdor to a pistol duel on the banks of the river Dora because of some newspaper articles he had deemed offensive, Cavour had the opportunity to become minister. This actually happened in sad circumstances: a place in government became available after the sudden death of his childhood friend Pietro Santa Rosa, who presided over the Ministry for Agriculture, Commerce and the Navy. Thus, despite Vittorio Emanuele’s perplexity, who had fully understood Cavour’s character, («do you gentlemen not see that this man will topple the lot of you?»), the decree was signed on 10 October 1850. Camillo took the mandate seriously: he quit as director of “Il Risorgimento”; left the board of the National Bank, which he had established by merging the banks of Turin and Genoa; he froze all his private business ventures which were quite extensive, including milling, chemical industry, insurance and railways. A prime example of unblemished honesty. Used to hard work Cavour threw himself body and soul into his new duties: he was convinced the country needed an economic drive so he committed himself to facilitating the exchange of goods and building infrastructure such as ports, railways and canals. Thus, a number of commercial treaties were signed with France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, England, Zollverein (the German states’ customs union) Sweden, Norway and even Austria.
The infrastructures built in the following years thanks to Cavour include the military arsenal in La Spezia, the Turin-Genoa railway line, the Frejus tunnel, the Cavour channel near Vercelli.
That “fighting rooster” (as he had been nicknamed by the English ambassador in Turin) was going to bring havoc to his own cabinet: he had little esteem for Minister of Finance Giovanni Nigra. He even threatened to resign, knowing full well he was by then irreplaceable. So d’Azeglio was forced to capitulate and entrusted the Ministry of Finance to the Count on 19 Aprile 1851. Cavour had grand designs: first of all, to free the kingdom from the financial “tyranny” of the Rothschild bankers in Paris, expanding the credit line to the Hambros in London. Then, to increase his majority: he did it in the home of barrister Michelangelo Castelli, his friend and associate in the operation, without the consent of the prime minister in February 1852; he thus achieved the “connubio” (the union/marriage) as the agreement was denounced in the House by Ottavio Thaon di Revel, leading member of the conservative Right. A grand political alliance in which Cavour’s center-right opened to the center-left led by Alessandria barrister Urbano Rattazzi. Its purpose was to create a parliamentary majority in the center in order to isolate all extreme fringes, radicals to the left and clerics to the right, thus guaranteeing stability to the country. There’s no doubt about it: while ruling the house Cavour had played a masterstroke, even overcoming Vittorio Emanuele’s reluctance towards Rattazzi, who had been elected minister in 1849 and was considered responsible for the defeat in Novara.
For lazy d’Azeglio the election of “left-winger” Rattazzi as speaker of the house was the last straw: he brought about a crisis in the government to get rid of his troublesome colleague. Forced to resign Camillo did not waste any time: he went on yet another, long journey in England and France to make himself known and spread his vision. Across the channel he established contact with the most important British politicians including Disraeli, Cobden, Gladstone and Minto In Paris he got a chance to win over the appreciation of someone who would be ruling the European scene for the following 20 years: Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, who as president of the French republic had organized a coup in order to prepare the way for an empire, the second empire of Napoleon III. It was a great international investiture. So without the Count d’Azeglio’s second government didn’t last very long, just five months, between May and October 1852: it fell miserably over the debate on a law for civil marriage , another measure against clerical privilege. The vote of the Senate speaker, encouraged by the king who was tired of conflicts with the Church, was crucial in determining the proposal’s failure and the government’s fall.
D’Azeglio left the road clear for his «ungodly rival». Vittorio Emanuele hoped in a conservative coalition that would lead to fixing relations with Rome. But how to do it without Cavour? It was impossible, his political strength was unstoppable. On 4 November 1852 the Count became Prime Minister.