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King of Piedmont 1831-1861

The modernisation of the administration of Piedmont began in 1819 but quickly discontinued in the alarms of revolution of 1820. Membership of secret revolutionary societies in Piedmont rapidly increased meaning that a growing number of liberals began to hope for some sort of reforming initiative of the monarchy. There was, however, little chance of such action from Victor Emmanuel I. Charles Albert, the second in line to the throne, however, gave more hope.

Charles Albert was a strange and reserved man who had been brought up in exile in France. Upon his return to Piedmont he saw how archaic and repressive Victor Emmanuel's government was. He showed sympathy for revolutionary students injured in the Turin riots of 1821 and is known to have had contacts with revolutionary officers in the army. In March 1821 the liberals appealed to him to lead the revolution. It appears he agreed, although he later denied it adamantly. Perhaps he did indeed intend to do so but denied it after it failed. It has been suggested (with no clear evidence) that he was acting as a government agent and only pretended to be in sympathy with the revolutionaries in order to obtain information about their plans. This would be in keeping with his notoriously secretive and devious character. The most likely explanation is that he had not made up his mind and was just dithering. So began the legend of Charles Albert.

While he was hesitating a revolutionary committee seized the fortress of Alessandria in Genoa, established a provincial government calling itself "The Kingdom of Italy" and declared war against Austria. The pressure on Victor Emmanuel to grant liberal reforms grew. He refused, but hearing of a second army mutiny at Turin, decided to abdicate to Nice while revolution spread through the kingdom.

His brother and heir, Charles Felix, eventually succeeded him but in 1831 he prematurely died making Charles Albert King of Piedmont. Since 1815 the government had been conspicuously unenlightened and dominated by the Church and it began to look as if this would continue unaltered. Despite his flirtation with rebels in 1821 Charles Albert began his reign as reactionary signing an alliance with Austria and threatening to attack the French liberal government. However in 1848-9 Piedmont was to fight Austria in support of a liberal revolution in Austrian-controlled Lombardy and Charles Albert was to grant his people a constitution, which would be basis of the constitutional monarchy of a united Italy 20 years later.

Historians have tried to find explanations for his change from reactionary to liberal nationalist without success. One suggestion is that all his life he had been a nationalist or perhaps even a secret revolutionary and once he was king was just waiting for a chance to declare it. This is not, however, a very convincing argument and a more likely explanation in that it was due to the inconsistencies and uncertainties of his complex personality.

Charles Albert's whole career was full of contradictions. He was a secretive and unsociable man, a typical introvert who seldom showed any sign of emotion. He was also excessively devout, wore a hairshirt and was much attracted by the more mystical aspects of the Catholic Church. Liable to self-deception, he believed without any foundation that he was cut out to be soldier and leader of men. He could be energetic and enterprising but only on a short-term basis. He lacked the determination to carry things through and frankly put, his view of life was entirely divorced from reality.

The policies made in the early years of his reign illustrate the uncertainties of his political beliefs. On one hand he refused to pardon political prisoners left over from the 1821 revolutions and increased the influence of Church in Piedmont. He extended already severe censorship and as a result Mazzini and Garibaldi left Piedmont in a hurry closely followed by Gioberti, the spokesman for liberal Catholics. Gioberti, who was unable to publish proposals for the Italian Federation under the Presidency of the Pope because of the censorship laws in Piedmont, emigrated in favour of liberal Brussels. Other Piedmontese liberals including Cavour left Piedmont, that "intellectual hell", preferring to live in the greater freedom provided almost anywhere else, including Austrian Lombardy.

On the other hand some of Charles Albert's early actions were those of a reformer. A number of beneficial changes were made including: trade laws, reduced tariffs and signed trade treaties with other states. He also clarified the legal code and allowed non-nobles to fill senior positions in the army and the royal council.

During the 1840s liberalising influences from other parts of Italy crept into Piedmont. In 1841 social, non-political groups were allowed to meet freely for first time. The groups were unimportant in themselves but significant in the fact that they were allowed to exist at all. It was a small step towards a more liberal regime. Piedmont also hosted several scientific congresses and these all-Italian congresses played an important part in the spreading of nationalist ideas. At one held in 1846 a speaker referred to Charles Albert as the Italian leader who could drive out foreigners. From this time at least, he seems to have thought of himself in this capacity, if only in a theoretical way and without any practical expectation.

As the 1840s went by pressure for liberal reforms increased. In Turin demands for a constitution came from the small but articulate middle and professional classes. In Genoa, where the influence of Mazzini was strong, demands were more violent and more radical, not just for a constitution but for a renewal of the former republic. Unrest spread to Turin and noisy demonstrations began in October 1847. In January 1848, patriotic middle-class Italians even staged a "tobacco strike" by giving up smoking in order to deprive the Austrians of the revenue from their tobacco duty. The threat of revolution persuaded Charles Albert to agree to make reforms and grant a constitution in early 1848. As a devout Catholic he was probably influenced by the limited constitutional reforms which the Pope had introduced in the Papal States.

Charles Albert's general reforms were largely limited to taking some power out of the hands of the monarchy and putting it into those of the bureaucracy. For example the police were now under the control of the Minister of Interior. Local government was also organised and local councils elected.

The constitution issued in the form of 14 articles, on 8th February, 1848, know as the Statuto:

..."Now, therefore, that the times are ripe for greater thing, and, in the midst of the changes which have occurred in Italy, we hesitate no longer to give our people the most solemn proof that we are able to give of the faith which we continue to repose in their devotion and discretion. ...for the present we have much pleasure in declaring that, with the advice and approval of our Ministers and the principal advisers of our Crown, we have resolved and determined to adopt the following bases of a fundamental statute for the establishment in our states of a complete system of representative Government. Article 1. The Catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion is the sole religion of the state. The other forms of public worship at present existing are tolerated in conformity with the laws. Article 2. The person of the Sovereign is sacred and inviolable. His ministers are responsible. Article3. To the King alone appertains the executive power. He is the supreme head of the State. He commands all the forces, both naval and military; declares war, concludes treaties of peace, alliance, and commerce; nominates to all offices, and gives all the necessary orders for the execution of laws without suspending or dispensing with the observance thereof. Article 4. The King alone sanctions and promulgates the laws. Article 5. All justice emanates from the King, and is administered in his name. He may grant mercy and commute punishment. Article 6. The legislative power will be collectively exercised by the King and by two Chambers. Article 7. The first of these Chambers will be composed of Members nominated by the King for life; the second will be elective, on the basis of the census to be determined. Article 8. The proposal of laws will appertain to the King and to each of the Chambers, but with the distinct understanding that all laws imposing taxes must originate in the elective Chamber. Article 9. The King convokes the two Chambers annually, prorogues their sessions, and may dissolve the elective one; but in this case he will convoke a new assembly at the expiration of four months Article 10. No tax may be imposed or levied if not assented to by the Chambers and sanctioned by the King. Article 11. The press will be free, but subject to restraining laws. Article 12. Individual liberty will be guaranteed. Article 13. The judges,... will be irremovable, after having exercised their functions for a certain space of time, to be hereafter determined. Article 14. We reserve to ourselves the power of establishing a district militia... composed of by persons who may pay a rate, which will be fixed hereafter. This militia will be placed under the command of the administrative authority, and in dependence on the Minister of Interior. The King will have the power of suspending or dissolving it in placed where he may deem it opportune to do"...

These articles were not very clearly expressed and some historians believe it to be intentional as a way for Charles Albert to keep his options open. Phrases such as "The King's ministers are responsible" left doubts as to whom or for what they were responsible - the King? Parliament? Very little was clearly defined: what exactly were the "restraining laws" limiting the freedom of the press for instance?

The full Statuto was published in March 1848 and included a number of other clauses providing equality before the law for all, regardless of religion (although Catholicism remained the state religion), and for equal employment opportunities for all. It did not, however, decide who was going to have the vote to elect the Lower Chamber. This was fixed later, on a literacy and taxpaying franchise, eventually giving the vote to about 2% of the population. The constitution was not a Parliamentary one except in a very limited way, because the king retained most of his existing rights. Nevertheless it was too radical for Charles Albert's ministers and moderate liberal nationalists replaced them.

Charles Albert's motives for granting the constitution are not clear. Was he sincere or merely acting out of fear for revolution? Was it a sudden change of heart or was he merely bringing out in the open his real sympathies previously kept hidden? Or was it just another example of his inconsistent behaviour? Historians continue to argue the question but so far evidence has not provided a definite answer.

Events outside Piedmont were moving rapidly. Revolutions in Sicily, Naples, Lombardy and Venetia broke out in rapid succession. In Austrian-controlled Lombardy the extreme revolutionaries wanted an independent republic while moderates favoured union with Piedmont. Charles Albert saw it as advantageous to put himself at the head of Lombard revolt against Austria, not least because there was a reasonable chance of annexing Lombardy. He hesitated in taking action as he was afraid his absence in Lombardy would give revolutionaries a chance to stir up trouble in Genoa, the most vulnerable part of his kingdom. Public pressure and the news that the revolutionary government of Venetia had voted for union with Piedmont persuaded Re Tentenua (the wobbling king) to declare war on 23rd march "For the purpose of more fully showing by outward signs the sentiments of Italian unity, we wish that our troops should enter the territory of Lombardy and Venetia, bearing the arms of Savoy the royal house of Piedmont above the Italian tri-coloured flag"

Historians have argued about whether Charles Albert did act only out of self-interest. He certainly insisted that Lombardy and Venetia agree to be "fused" with Piedmont as the price for his help. Or was he genuinely concerned to support a liberal revolt against the foreigner, Austria, and make himself leader of the nationalist movement? A year earlier he had written "Should providence call us to war for the independence of Italy I will mount my horse and with my sons put myself at the head of my army... glorious will be the day on which we can raise the cry of a war of Italian independence". But that was at a time when there was little chance of having to put his words into effect, and such a bold boast was easy to make.

The decision once made, Charles Albert, entered the war with enthusiasm. Incompetently led by himself and ill prepared for war, the Piedmontese army of 60,000 crossed into Lombardy and occupied Milan. The city had already been evacuated by the Austrians, who waited for reinforcements and then defeated Charles Albert at Custoza, on the border with Venetia. An armistice was signed and the Piedmontese army withdrew from Lombardy, leaving it once again in Austrian hands.

Charles Albert spoke to his people:

My army was almost alone in the struggle. The want of provisions forced us to abandon positions we had conquered... for even the strength of the brave soldier has its limits. But the throbs of my heart were ever for Italian independence. People of the Kingdom! Show yourselves string in a first misfortune... Repose confidence in your king. The cause of Italian independence is not yet lost.

Early in 1848 Charles Albert regrouped his forces and after being persuaded (incorrectly) by his chief minister that Louis Napoleon, newly elected president of the French Republic, would come to his aid if Piedmont once again attacked Austria. He re-entered the war and was once again heavily defeated by Austria at Novara in April. His declaration that Italy would achieve independence and unity by her own efforts, "Italia fara da se" (Italy will make herself by herself) was shown to be an empty boast. While the military power of Austria remained supreme in the peninsula there was now no way for Italy to gain independence or unity without outside help.

One of the few survivors of 1848-9 was the Statuto - the embodiment of constitution. Charles Albert's successor Victor Emmanuel II has been traditionally seen as the courageous figure defying Austria's plans for its abolition. Historians now agree that Victor Emmanuel himself was not particularly anxious to perpetuate the constitution but was pressured into doing so by the Austrians who were afraid he would make himself so unpopular by abolishing it that the stability of Piedmontese monarchy would be threatened. In Austrian eyes even a state with moderate liberal constitution was far better than a republic. So the constitution remained in force despite its limitations and gave opportunity for active political life in Piedmont, which did not exist anywhere else in Italy. With a comparatively free press and elected (if not very representative) assembly combined with a degree of civil liberty and legal equality, Piedmont attracted refugees from all other parts of Italy during the next decade, which was dominated by the political leadership of Cavour.


Sources
D. Beales, Risorgumento and Unification of Italy
D. Mack Smith, The Making of Italy
S. Brooks, Nineteenth Century Europe
A. Stiles, The Unification of Italy 1815-70

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