MODERN Italy was born a hundred years ago, on March 17, 1861, when unity under Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy was proclaimed by the Italian parliament assembled in Turin. This marked the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire in 500 A.D. that the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula had been gathered together as a free and independent nation.
Prince Metternich, in his Memorandum to the Great Powers, written in 1814, said, "Italy is only a geographical expression." Yet, during centuries of disunity Italy was incomparably more than that. Her cultural identity had long been achieved by the towering geniuses she had produced: Dante, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Galileo, Raphael, St. Thomas Aquinas, Marco Polo, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, Christopher Columbus and scores of other great philosophers, theologians, artists, scientists, musicians and explorers. Indeed, throughout the Christian centuries that followed the fall of Rome the cultural impact and influence of Italians on the life of the West were the very matrix of Western civilization, the strongest fount of its religion, its laws, its humanities and its arts.
The American and French Revolutions, and the stormy days of Napoleonic conquest and reform, inspired Italian patriots to believe that under united leadership Italy too could be free to guide her own destiny. In the early nineteenth century, the Risorgimento emerged as the answer to Metternich's contemptuous challenge, and the first evidence that nationhood was already burgeoning in the hearts of many Italians.
Decades of bitter struggles against foreign invaders and despotic and corrupt Italian rulers (often foreigners) were rewarded with victory when Italy's first great republican military and political leader met with the valiant Victor Emmanuel II at Naples and agreed to unite Italy under the House of Savoy. The resulting unification, in 1861, was only partial. The Papal states were incorporated into Italy only a decade later. Thus, from the Risorgimento to the consolidation of the modern Italian nation took roughly a half century.
The centenary of the
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