Revolution of 1848–49 in Italy

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Revolution of 1848–49 in Italy


a bourgeois revolution whose objectives included the abolition of the feudal-absolutist system, an end to state fragmentation and foreign (Austrian) oppression, and the creation of a united Italian state.

The liberal bourgeoisie headed the antifeudal national camp in the first stage of the revolution, lasting from January to August 1848. It called for the liberation and unification of the country “from above” by the Savoy dynasty or Pope Pius IX. The revolution began with a popular uprising in Palermo, Sicily, on Jan. 12, 1848. Moderate bourgeois constitutions were proclaimed in February and March 1848 in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the Papal States. Constitutional governments were formed in a number of states.

In March 1848, Lombardy and Venice threw off Austrian oppression as a result of popular uprisings (a republic was proclaimed in Venice on March 22), and pro-Austrian rulers were overthrown in the duchies of Parma and Modena. The War of Italian Independence began amid the rapid growth of the patriotic movement. However, the defeatist tactics of the commander in chief of the Italian forces, Charles Albert, and his circle—tactics prompted by selfish dynastic goals and fear of the ripening people’s war—weakened the revolutionary camp and enabled the country’s feudal-monarchist counterrevolutionaries to rally. On April 29, Pius IX called for an end to the war with Austria. A counterrevolutionary coup was carried out in Naples on May 15, and after the defeat at Custozza on July 25, Charles Albert concluded a shameful armistice that returned Lombardy and Venice to the Austrian Hapsburgs.

The second stage of the revolution, which unfolded in the fall of 1848, was marked by a higher level of development. It was led by the bourgeois revolutionary democrats G. Mazzini and G. Garibaldi, who proposed a program for the democratic reorganization and unification of the country “from below.” The program envisioned an escalation of the people’s war against Austria and the convening of an all-Italian constituent assembly to resolve the question of Italy’s future governmental structure. The followers of Mazzini demanded the proclamation of a unified Italian Republic.

Venice and Tuscany became the strongholds of the renewed revolutionary struggle, where representatives of the democratic national-revolutionary movement came to power as a result of popular uprisings. From November 1848, the Papal States also supported the revolutionary struggle. A secular government was formed in Rome after a popular uprising broke out in the city on Nov. 16, 1848. The Roman Republic was proclaimed on Feb. 9, 1849. It was governed by a triumvirate, which from March was headed by Mazzini.

The triumvirate’s socioeconomic legislation, the most progressive of those revolutionary times, reflected the demands of the social strata on which the republic relied for support. Taking into account the interests of the urban petite bourgeoisie, the legislation aimed at developing trade and crafts by abolishing the taxes fettering them and releasing shopkeepers from their debts to the treasury. In order to improve the living conditions of the poor, fixed prices were established for salt; measures were taken to organize public works projects to reduce unemployment; and the poor were moved into requisitioned church buildings.

Most important was the law nationalizing church land and transferring a considerable portion of it to the poorest peasantry in the form of perpetual leases. This was the only attempt during the revolution to respond, albeit by decree, to the needs of the peasants. Finally, a special law ensured the arming of the people for the struggle against interventionists. However, the bourgeois democrats’ efforts to compromise with the moderate wing of the bourgeoisie and their indecisiveness in the struggle against the counterrevolution undermined the forces of the Roman Republic.

The limited nature of the democratic movement was revealed still more sharply in Tuscany and the Venetian Republic. The Tuscan triumvirs, among them F. Guerrazzi, could not bring themselves to proclaim officially a republic in Tuscany. They also resisted the unification of Tuscany with republican Rome. The Venetian triumvirate, headed by D. Manin, took a similar position.

The war against Austria resumed on March 20, and three days later Charles Albert’s army was defeated at Novara. Foreign and Italian counterrevolutionaries exploited the military catastrophe. In May 1849 the Austrian Army occupied Florence, where a monarchist coup had been staged earlier, and the troops of the Neapolitan Bourbons, who had been driven from Sicily in 1848, once again seized the island. On July 3, 1849, the Roman Republic was crushed by the united forces of the European counterrevolution—France, Austria, Spain, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Garibaldi played an outstanding role in the heroic defense of the republic. Venice, squeezed by a siege, fell last, on August 22.

The revolutionary struggle of the Italian people found support among the progressive forces in all the European countries. K. Marx and F. Engels showed a deep interest in the events on the Apennine Peninsula, regarding them as an integral part of the general struggle of oppressed peoples against feudal-absolutist reaction and foreign oppression, of which Hapsburg Austria was the leader in Europe.

There were a number of reasons for the defeat of the revolution. Its culmination coincided with the decline of the revolutionary movement in other parts of Europe, and this facilitated the creation of a bloc of interventionist powers. The revolution was also weakened by the lack of unity among its various centers. One of the basic causes for the failure of the revolution was the inability of the bourgeoisie, including its most progressive strata, to carry out fully its leadership role and to accomplish the tasks posed by history. The bourgeoisie’s progressive political wing, the bourgeois democrats, were unable to create a firm alliance with the popular masses, primarily the peasantry. They could not bring themselves to link the antifeudal national liberation movement to the peasant struggle for land.

Despite its defeat, the Revolution of 1848–49 in Italy, which assumed a bourgeois-democratic character during its periods of maximum development, exerted a considerable influence on the subsequent development of the liberation movement of the Italian people. This was the first bourgeois revolution on a national scale in Italy. Revealing the revolutionary initiative of the masses, it enriched the Italian people with military experience and strengthened the tradition of struggle for Italy’s independence, democracy, and liberty.


Marx, K. “Pis’mo redaktoru gazety Alba.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 5.
Marx, K. “Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v Italii.” Ibid., vol. 6.
Marx, K. I. Veidemeieru ot 11 sent. 1851 g. (Letter.) Ibid., vol. 27.
Engels, F. “Dvizheniia 1847 g.” Ibid., vol. 4.
Engels, F. “Porazhenie p’emonttsev.” Ibid., vol. 6.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Turinskaia ‘Corcordia.’” Ibid., vol. 5.
Gramsci, A. lzbr. proizv., vol. 3. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from Italian.)
Revoliutsii 1848–1849, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1952.
Kandeloro, G. Istoriia sovremennoi Italii, vol. 3. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from Italian.)
Berti, G. Demokraty i sotsialisty v period Risordzhimento. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from Italian.)
King, B. Istoriia ob”edineniia Italii, vol. 1. Moscow, 1901. (Translated from English.)
Spellanzon, C. Storia del Risorgimento e dell’unità d’ltalia, vol. 4. Milan, 1938.
Gobetti, P. La rivoluzione liberale. Turin, 1955.
Demarco, D. Una rivoluzione sociale: La Repubblica Romana del 1849. Naples, 1944.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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