Watching Italy: The Liberal Triumvirate and the Fledgling Kingdom of Italy, 1861–62

  • O. J. Wright
Part of the Britain and the World book series (BAW)


On 17 November 1860, the satirical magazine Punch! published a cartoon showing Garibaldi assisting King Vittorio Emanuele in the difficult task of inserting his foot into the boot of Italy. The image was the perfect metaphor for the British Establishment’s perspective on the unifying of the country. While the image depicted the king placing his right leg in the boot, the caption saying ‘The Right Leg in the Boot at Last’ served to sum up perfectly the views of British leaders regarding the transformation that was taking place in Italy: that, after years of misrule and the frequent threat of radical revolution, the ‘right’ people were now in charge. The leading Liberal triumvirate of Viscount Palmerston as prime minister, Lord John Russell as foreign secretary, and William Gladstone as chancellor of the Exchequer were all delighted to see that the Kingdom of Italy being formed before their eyes was in effect an aggrandised Kingdom of Sardinia. According to Nicholas Doumanis, the events of 1859 and 1860 saw the region of Piedmont effectively conquer most of the rest of Italy. The annexation of the states of central and southern Italy to the Kingdom of Sardinia was approved by a series of plebiscites which—whether rigged or not—formally legalised this process. Perhaps most tellingly, the first all-Italian parliament was officially opened as ‘the Eighth of the reign of Vittorio Emanuele II’, the monarch became the first king of Italy, but whose regnal number reflected his position in his dynasty rather than the fact that he reigned over a new state. Count Cavour remained in place as prime minister, as the country’s age-old political and ecclesiastical autocracy was replaced by moderate constitutional rule. The satisfaction that British leaders felt at what was happening in Italy was articulated by the British envoy extraordinary Sir James Hudson, who similarly remained at his post in Turin as the capital of Sardinia became the capital of the new Italy. Hudson congratulated both Russell and (modestly) himself on the apparent outcome of the Italian crisis; he expressed the belief that his own pro-Italian policy, and the moral and diplomatic support lent by his country to Italy’s unifiers, were justified by the fact that the Italy which had just been born was not Garibaldian and revolutionary, but monarchical and moderate. During the course of the next decade, the British would often behave almost as though they had ‘made’ Italy, as they sought to draw the new state into a ‘special relationship’.

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • O. J. Wright
    • 1
  1. 1.Leeds Beckett UniversityLeedsUK

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