The Italian Risorgimento
When Sophie was born, the nation-state of Italy did not yet exist. Depending on where you were on the Italian peninsula, you might have been under the control of the Hapsburg Empire, the King of Savoy, the Pope, or myriad others who claimed power over the territory we now call Italy.
At the turn of the 19th century, serious attempts to unify the various regions into a modern nation-state were underway. Nationalistic sentiment raised its voice soon after the fall of Napoleon, and already in 1821 talk of a constitution—modeled on that of Spain’s recently adopted one—had begun. By 1833, Giovanni Mazzini’s “La Giovine Italia” [Young Italy] succeeded in launching a rebellion, but it was eventually put down and many Italian patriots fled. Giuseppe Garibaldi (who figures in the novel when he invades the Villa Lante and expels the RSCJ to the Trinità dei Monti) went to South America; Mazzini exiled himself in England. Other revolts followed over the years. Finally, in 1849, Garibaldi’s forces reach Rome and force the Pope to flee. It was only with help from the recently elected Napoleon III, who sent French troops to support the Pope, that the nationalist forces were repelled.
These events had a powerful effect on Sophie’s schools in northern Italy, causing some of them to close. As was the case during the French Revolution, reform carried with it a powerfully anti-clerical sentiment. The story of Anna du Rousier’s expulsion from the school in the Kingdom of Sardinia (in the chapter “Héloïse and Anna”) provides a notable example of this. (Anna du Rousier is pictured below.)
Italy finally became a nation state in 1861 under the leadership of King Victor Emanuel of Savoy, but it wasn’t until 1870 that Latium, or the Papal States, were finally brought into the nation; Rome became the official capital in 1871.
Interesting side-note: The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (above) was a fervent proponent of a unified Italy. Many of his operas contain a revolutionary sub-text, and pro-nationalists were fond of yelling “Viva VERDI!” in the composer’s presence. This seemingly innocuous salute was code for “Viva Vittore Emanuele, Ré d’Italia!” ["Long live King Victor Emanuel, King of Italy!”]
Recommended Reading: Garibaldi (Jasper Ridley)