Napoleon III and Italian Unification

Article by Marc Geddes. Edited by Claire Stratton. Additional Research by Liz Goodwin.

The struggle for Italian Unification stretched across three-quarters of the nineteenth century – the French enslaved and renamed the peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars; Austria decided to keep the lands for its own following the Vienna Settlement; and the pope held lands which cut from west to east until 1871. The Italians were subjugated and oppressed, until the freedom fighters Mazzini, Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel II and Cavour came along. But what of the true hero, French Emperor Napoleon III? Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon took the stage in 1830 as revolutionary, until his downfall in 1871.

Napoleon III and Italy: Fascinations

Napoleon III had a vivid vision of the future, especially for Italy. By the age of 22, he attempted to proclaim his cousin as King of Italy, which failed. Further plots failed, until he became French Emperor in 1852. Then, Italian Unification progressed. Italy itself was only a geographical expression before 1860. The peninsula was made up of weak, oppressive states; the people entrenched in a deep history and rich diversity – so what brought them together to form a Kingdom of Italy?

“Doing Something for Italy”

Following the Revolutions of 1848, Italian nationalism began to truly embed itself in hearts and minds of its people. Napoleon III, after his declaration as emperor in 1852, attempted to influence these events. During the Crimean War in 1856, he met Cavour for the first time – the Piedmontese Prime Minister. Following a number of meetings during the 1850s, the most famous of which is Plombières, they decided the future and fate for Italians. Some wonder at Napoleon’s true intentions. Some saw him acting against his arch-nemesis, Austria. Others believed he was sincerely dedicated to Italian Unification. Or did Napoleon III see a future Italy as a client state to serve the interests of France? In any case, Napoleon III saw himself as leader of the free peoples of Europe.

The War of 1859

Tensions between Piedmont and Austria ran high for a considerable amount of time. Piedmont began mobilising an army in 1859, which Prince Metternich took as a provocation and declared war on Piedmont. The war did not go smoothly. Napoleon III was horrified at the battles of Solferino and Magenta which were indeed horrific, while Cavour played his own game in invading central Italian states. Napoleon III As a result, Napoleon abruptly made peace with Austria. At the end of the war, most of Italy was united.

The Road to Union

Venetia and Rome remained, which became Italian because the French Emperor let it be so. In 1866, Austro- Prussian relations were swiftly deteriorating. Napoleon III decided to make Bismarck a secret offer – he would remain neutral, in return for Venetia if Prussia won. He made the same sneaky offer to Austria. Both agreed. Prussia annihilated Austria, and Venetia became first French, then Italian.

Rome was in the hands of the French since 1849. Napoleon was pressured by Catholics and so kept a garrison to protect the pope. This was until 1870 – when Prussia decided to annihilate France. This allowed the King of Italy to take over Rome following the pope’s refusal to give it up.


Napoleon III was indispensable to unification of the Italian states. Italian Unification could not be brought about without him after 1848. This may be demonstrated at Plombières and the following war of 1859. Piedmont would not have won any other way. Nor would Piedmont have got away with conquering the rest of Italy if Napoleon wasn’t so horrified at the destructive nature of the war. Napoleon’s importance may be reinforced by looking at Venetia and Rome. He led the way for Venetia to be reunited with its home. Rome was different – here Napoleon prevented unification. But does this not further show the sheer significance that Napoleon III held? Rome delayed unification – due to Napoleon III, and no one else. The significance of Napoleon III, so often ignored, was most probably the crucial element to Italian salvation, and ought never to be forgotten.

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