During the era of the unification of Italy, few people were so well known as Vincenzo Gioberti. Today, however, he is seldom remembered at all despite the fact that his writings were some of the most widely read in his own time. He had an exalted view of religion yet was often condemned by the religious authorities of the day. He was a member of revolutionary organizations but was a zealous monarchist. The plan he put forward for the unification of the Italian people, based on cooperation between Turin and Rome, was accepted by both the Pope and the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. The problem was that they were never able to accept it at the same time. When one embraced it, the other rejected it and when the other finally came around to accepting it as well the one had passed the point of such an agreement. It must have been maddeningly frustrating for Gioberti but he was a man who often found himself at odds with those who championed the most; his Church and his monarch. However, had his ideas been accepted, there is no doubt that the unification and early history of the united Italy would have been considerably different.
Vincenzo Gioberti was born on April 5, 1801 in Turin, in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and early in life he decided on a religious career. He trained for the priesthood with the fathers of the Oratory and in 1825 was ordained priest. As a young priest he was influenced by the writings of the revolutionary republican Giuseppe Mazzini. He rejected his anti-clericalism but embraced the idea of Italian unity wholeheartedly. While others in the revolutionary camp looked to Freemasonry and the Carbonari to create a “new religious synthesis” in Italy, Gioberti believed that it was the Catholic Church that was the pride and glory of Italy and that it was the Churchy, under the leadership of the Papacy, that was uniquely qualified to lead the Italian people to national unity, renewed vitality and renewed greatness. Since the fall of Imperial Rome it had, after all, been the great Pontiffs of the Italian Renaissance who had come the closest to forging a pan-Italian political unity, which was also a time of artistic and scientific flowering. As Gioberti saw it, the Church was uniquely qualified to bring about such a rejuvenation against and that the Papacy was the one focus of unity that everyone had in common and which could bring together all Italians in a common cause.
This was music to the ears of the Piedmontese monarch King Carlo Alberto and he made Gioberti his court chaplain. Many, however, opposed Gioberti from the start because of the influence he had with the King. Many at court opposed his political views, fearing any change to the status quo. The fact that Gioberti was known as an Italian nationalist and an acquaintance of Mazzini, well known in the Young Italy movement, caused many to consider him dangerous. He himself had done nothing wrong and he had not a disloyal bone in his body but fears were running high and simply being on speaking terms with members of the group that was plotting republican revolution in Piedmont and the other Italian states was enough to bring the police down on him. Gioberti was also a prolific writer and philosopher whose ideas sometimes got him into trouble. He was critical of Pope Gregory XVI and the Jesuits and his speculations caused some in the Church to doubt his orthodoxy and in response to all this pressure in 1833 he resigned from his post at court. Nonetheless, his enemies pounced and he was arrested for conspiracy, imprisoned for a short time and then banished without ever having been given a trial. He went to Paris but spent most of his time in Brussels where he published his famous work ‘The Moral and Civil Primacy of the Italians’ which was to become so widely read in 1843.
It was primarily this work by which Gioberti made the cause of Italian unification something that respectable, middle class people could get behind rather than being the exclusive domain of anti-clerical republicans and bomb-throwing revolutionaries. He recounted the glories of the civilization of the Italian people and in the cultural, non-political sphere, it was certainly the Papacy that was the most brilliant jewel of all. Gioberti envisioned a coming together of Rome and Turin, the spiritual greatness of the Holy See with the secular greatness of the Royal House of Savoy. He proposed that the princes of Italy grant representative government on their own local levels with consultative assemblies to advise but not govern the states. The states of Italy should then bind themselves together in a federation under the supra-national leadership of the Pope in order to have a common military, foreign policy, overseas colonies and a customs union while each state retained its own monarchy and unique local traditions. He rejected the republican nationalism of Mazzini which sought to weld all Italians from Turin to Naples into a single, uniform entity in favor of a more federal model of “consultative monarchies” which would be somewhat similar to what the German states eventually achieved several decades later.
Given how Italian history played out subsequently, many historians have dismissed the ideas of Gioberti as naively unrealistic. Yet, it was actually his vision which had the most history behind it. The last era of real Italian greatness had been the Renaissance period and during that time the Italian states were frequently united in a common cause by the leadership of the Pope. The most well known example was probably that of Pope Julius II who led Papal troops in person along with the other allied states to drive the “barbarians” out of Italy. However, even going back to the Middle Ages the Popes frequently arranged alliances of the Italian states toward a common goal or against a common threat. All Gioberti was really proposing was a more formalized and permanent version of what had existed at many points in the past throughout the course of Italian history. In that way, his vision was perhaps the most realistic of all. Gioberti embraced the cause of the Risorgimento whole-heartedly and he firmly believed that the Risorgimento could only truly flourish within the embrace of the Church. Second to the Papacy, his greatest loyalty and praise was reserved for his native ruler; the King of Piedmont-Sardinia who alone had the political and military muscle to see this plan brought to fruition. The Pope could make unity a fact and the Savoy could defend it.
Many people were won over by this argument, among them the future Pope Pius IX who read the book in which it was put forward in 1845. The next year, as Pope, it seemed to many that Pius IX was going perfectly step by step to put the vision of Gioberti into effect. He spoke of the Italian nation, authorized a consultative assembly for the Papal States and began encouraging greater unity and cooperation among the Italian princes. People across the peninsula cheered these moves and it seemed that Gioberti had truly shown the way for the best possible sort of unification. However, Gioberti had said that all depended on the alliance of Rome and Turin and it frustratingly seemed that when Turin favored his philosophy, Rome adamantly opposed it only to see Rome embrace the idea after Turin had discarded it. In 1848 Gioberti returned to his homeland and was warmly welcomed. King Carlo Alberto offered him a seat in the Piedmontese senate but, feeling unworthy, Gioberti turned it down. Still, he was elected to represent his home district in the Chamber of Deputies and eventually became Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Finally in a position to put his ideas into effect, Gioberti immediately began trying to reconcile the opposing sides of the revolution, sending an envoy to the Pope, who had fled to Gaeta, with orders that he talk to the leaders of the Roman Republic along the way.
Needless to say, Mazzini refused to be convinced. He had, in fact, promoted Gioberti to write his famous “Primacy” by urging him to a write a ’catechism for the Risorgimento’ but Mazzini was totally opposed to what Gioberti reduced, despising what he called the “ultra-Romanism” of it as well as the glowing tributes to King Carlo Alberto. Gioberti’s ambassador received no warm welcome in Gaeta either with the Pope at first refusing to meet with the man at all. Since Gioberti had dared to even speak with the revolutionaries, the Pope refused to give him any hearing. Many have since said that if only the moderate Pellegrino Rossi (the Minister of Justice and the Interior of the Papal States) had not been assassinated and still close to Pius IX, everything might have turned out differently. However, from that point on the Pope adopted a different political attitude and there would be no movement toward a federation of monarchies as a method of achieving Italian unity, only the single monarchy or the republic.
Gioberti left office not long after the accession of King Vittorio Emanuele II and after disagreements with the government he left politics. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to Paris and remained there for the rest of his life, refusing a government pension or any religious assistance. He died of an apoplexy on October 26, 1852.