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The Northern Question since the Risorgimento: a conversation with Marco Meriggi

(University of Naples – Federico II)

The Northern Question has been a constant presence in Italian politics since the Risorgimento, recently remerging with a vengeance alongside the political success of the autonomous Northern Leagues (later to unite under the title of Lega Nord) in the 1980s.

Although the Lega has been viewed as a contemporary phenomenon, many of the debates which the party has raised over the past three decades surrounding federalism, autonomy, and tensions between the centre and periphery have roots in Risorgimento Italy and beforehand.

The Lega enjoyed particular initial success in Lombardy, Piedmont and the Veneto, three regions which were also instrumental in the formation of the unitary Italian state

Marco Meriggi discusses the significance of the themes of the Northern Question and the historical relationship between its three key protagonists.

Carlo Cattaneo, from Lombardy, and Vincenzo Gioberti, from Piedmont, both had a project for a federal Italy. What were the similarities and differences between the two projects?

The term federalism is, in itself, very generic and during the Risorgimento it was connected to various political projects which had more differences than similarities.

The federalism of Gioberti was characterised by two different phases. Before 1848, he proposed a sort of alliance between various Italian sovereign states which, under the guidance of the Pope, would have implemented a series of moderate liberal reforms.

After ’48, (when the Papacy turned its back on Federalism) Gioberti identified the Savoy dynasty as a potential driving force for an Italian federation in which the states’ political institutions would be inspired by liberal or even democratic values. In both cases Gioberti was essentially thinking of a confederation between the incumbent sovereigns (his second plan was based on a proposed removal of Austria’s influence from the peninsula).

Cattaneo, on the other hand, launched his proposal for an Italian federation only after 1848; he had in mind a federal union between not princes but between the people. He was thinking of a revolutionary transformation of the existing authoritarian monarchies into democratic republics and, at the same time, of a federal pact between these republics in order to guarantee the independence of the entire peninsula from Austrian domination. Inspired by democratic-federal models such as that of Switzerland and the United States, Cattaneo aimed above all to promote the self-government of the citizens and believed that the most suitable territorial framework to exercise this self-government was that of regional states. He feared that a national unification based on the abolition of the existing states and on institutional centralisation, even if it were to be realised in a republican form, would have made a participatory democracy difficult and problematic.

Cattaneo, before 1848, said that he would have preferred Lombardy to have remained as a federal state as part of a reformed Austrian Empire. In the course of your archival research in both Austria and Lombardy, have you found any evidence that this was a common sentiment among Lombards?

Before 1848 Cattaneo played the role of promoter of Lombard culture and businessman in the authoritarian state of the Lombard-Venetian Kingdom, a state in which censorship prevented a free expression of political ideals. It is, therefore, difficult to understand if and how much his proposal of a future for Lombardy inside the Habsburg Empire characterised by a federal set of rules really corresponded to his federalist idea. It is true, however, that this was still his official position when the opening shots of 1848 were being fired in Milan. More than anything, he hoped for the highest possible level of independence for his region within the existing political context.

Bearing this in mind, I can say that in the course of my archival research in Lombardy and Austria I have often found elements which prove a wide appeal of autonomy in Lombard public opinion pre-1848 but this idea of autonomy could be interpreted in different ways. The aristocracy, which held a predominant role in Lombard society until 1848 and was to continue to have a strong influence up to the years immediately preceding Unification were, for example, essentially thinking of a traditional type of autonomy based on the retention of a strong state influence and on the reaffirmation of territorial privileges which the region had enjoyed during the ancient regime and which the ‘new’ centralism of the Viennese government was instead getting rid of during the restoration. There were, however, other social forces pushing for maximum regional autonomy; for example, the local retailers and businessmen who were feeling suffocated by the economic and political choices taken by Vienna in order to keep a general balance in the empire. The federal proposal (not yet anti-Austrian) set out by Cattaneo before 1848 gave voice above all to this specific group of Lombard society.

Did the ‘Cinque Giornate’ of Milan in 1848 signify the beginning of a period of distrust between Lombardy and Piedmont or did tensions between the two states have roots before this?

Before 1848 Piedmont was a much more economically and socially backward than Lombardy. Milanese magazines – which had the reputation as being the most modern in Italy – when informing on the conditions of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia often painted them as provincial and conservative and put them in proud contrast with the cosmopolitan Milan, depicted as the most advanced urban centre of Italy, projected towards the ‘Europe of progress’ due to their roaring merchant trade and the lively intellectual community. On another level, the Lombard and Piedmontese aristocracy were traditionally connected by family ties. It should also be remembered that in 1821, sectors connected to the Lombard nobility seriously took into consideration the idea of a fusion between the two Kingdoms, provided that the crown of the House of Savoy was prepared to govern along constitutional lines. The situation was, therefore, ambivalent.

The events of 1848, in my opinion, produced a coming together between the elites of the two regions rather than the beginning of a ‘feeling of distrust’. Certainly, the Milanese and Lombard republican contingent held King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia responsible for the failure of the revolution and, therefore, naturally demonstrated distrust towards Piedmont. However, their influence on Lombard society should not be overestimated. On the other hand, the constitutional and liberal development taking place in the Kingdom of Sardinia during the 1850s (the Cavour decade) didn’t only just reinforce the ties between the social and political elites of the two kingdoms but with time also ended up attracting a part of the democratic-republicans. The view now of Turin from Milan, was not that of a closed and conforming city, but one which could be proud of a liberal form of government which in Lombardy remained a dream. In the immediate period preceding unification a large part of the Lombard elites looked hopefully towards Piedmont for liberation from Austrian domination.

The Lega Nord has recently relaunched its project for Northern Italy concentrating on the formation of a Macro-Region composed of Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto, three regions which in reality had tense relations during the Risorgimento. In your opinion, how significant is this project from a historical point of view?

I maintain that to look for a distant historical legitimisation for a project which is in reality very rooted in the contemporary period is a rhetorical exercise. It is in part true, as I have tried to illustrate in the previous answer, that between Lombardy and Piedmont, important synergies were being created in the course of the Risorgimento. However, during the centuries preceding this, the two regions were really very diverse and separate. For a large part of the 1800s, the Piedmontese loved to represent themselves as the devoted subjects of a paternalistic and military monarchy that reigned over a fundamentally rural society. The Lombards thought of themselves, on the other hand, as pragmatic producers and businessmen, the descendants of those who, in Medieval London, had founded Lombard Street. The Venetians, on the other hand, saw themselves as the descendants of a great commercial trading tradition projected by the sea towards distant countries and civilisations and characterized by a cosmopolitan interest in the blend of cultural influences. Furthermore, they maintained that their decline had begun not during the Restoration, under the Austrian government, but rather in the Napoleonic era, when Venice and its territories of the former San Marco Republic made up a part of the Kingdom of Italy and lost the historic role of capital, being subordinated rather to the rule of Milan.

Today, when the Lega Nord speaks of a Macro-region, the party is referring to a Northern Italy which began to take its form only at the end of the 1800s coinciding with the boom of Italian industry; a phenomenon which, furthermore, only affected Piedmont and Lombardy, at that time. Only in more recent times (and on the basis of industrial model different to that of Lombardy and Piedmont) the Veneto has added itself to this Macro-region due to sharing the dissatisfaction of the bureaucracy, taxes and the central state.

The Lega Nord is only the most recent manifestation of an autonomist feeling which was also present in Lombardy during the Risorgimento. Why has there always been a strong federalist tradition in Lombardy?

Lombardy is, historically, one of Europe’s richest regions. This means that its economic and financial contribution has always been extremely relevant for the various states to which the region has been connected after the loss, at the beginning of the modern age, of its independence: first the Spanish monarchy, then the Habsburg Empire, and finally unified Italy. At the same time, the region has always found itself in a geographically peripheral position to the central state by which it has been governed. As a result, it has found itself in a paradoxical situation, always governed from a distance by an ever changing and more demanding central government yet at the same time, due to its position as a region distant from the capital, being little inclined to express a governmental proposal at state level. I’d like to point out that Bettino Craxi and Silvio Berlusconi were the first Prime Ministers of Milanese origin. This explains why, in every era (and even more so today, due to the extreme fiscal measures imposed by the contemporary Italian state) Lombardy has always tried to emphasise its autonomy. The region has shown itself to be intolerant to the idea of contributing in a proportional measure to the financial machinery of a state which it sees as oppressive and motivated by values antithetic to those of their hard-working and industrious nature which, rightly or wrongly, a part of Lombard society prides itself on. This, in turn, also leads to a devaluing of the political institutions of the state, which are considered to be parasitic instruments of corruption.

Marco Meriggi is Professor of History at the Università degli Studi di Napoli – Federico II. His key research interests cover the relationship between society and political power in Europe in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. He has also written extensively on Northern Italy, publishing works on the pre-Risorgimento states of Lombardy and Veneto in the Habsburg Empire and is currently turning his attention to the study of world and global history. As well as publishing widely in academic journals, he is the author of several books among which are Una breve storia dell’Italia settentrionale dall’Ottocento a oggi (Rome: Donzelli, 1996), Gli stati italiani prima dell’Unità: una storia istituzionale (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2002) and (with Laura di Fiore) World history: le nuove rotte della storia (Bari: Laterza, 2011).

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2014 by in Memory.
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