1902 Encyclopedia > Count Camilli Benso di Cavour

Count Camilli Benso di Cavour
Italian politician
(1810-61)




COUNT CAVOUR (1810-1861). Camillo Benso di Cavour, the regenerator of Italy, and one of the greatest of modern statesmen, was born at Turin on the 1st of August 1810. The family of the Bensi was a very ancient one. The founder of it, a Saxon warrior named Hubert, after following Barbarossa in his Italian wars, and making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, married a Piedmontese heiress about the middle of the 12th century, and settled on the very estate of Santena where the remains of his great descendant were lately laid. In the early part of their history, the Bensi seem to have been connected with the small neighbouring republic of Chieri, later with the House of Savoy, which gradually gained the upper hand in those parts of Northern Italy. Their life, like that of other feudal barons, was stirring, rough-handed, and adventurous. Members of the family are frequently to be met with in history, but none of them eminent enough to deserve mention here. In the middle of last century the head of the Bensi was raised to the dignity of marquis, under the name of Cavour. Accordingly, at the beginning of this century we find the father of the great statesman in possession of the title of marquis. He had married a Genevese lady of rank, and both held offices in the household of the Prince Borghese, husband of the Princess Pauline, the beautiful sister of Napoleon, who was governor of Piedmont in those days when Europe lay at the feet of the French conqueror. Under these circumstances was the future deliverer of Italy born, the second son of this Piedmontese nobleman and of his Genevese wife. The Princess Pauline, the sister of one Napoleon, and aunt of another, who have so powerfully influenced the destinies of Italy, presented the infant Camillo at the font.

Cavour spent the first ten years of his life in his father's house at Turin, enjoying all the advantages which favour the full and genial development of both mind and body. The old marquis, who became a decided conservative after the Revolution, was a wise and benevolent father, and an upright man. He enjoyed the care, too, of an accomplished mother, of a grandmother still more accomplished, and of two aunts, who, having no children of their own, naturally bestowed all their affection on him and his elder brother. For some time he had no love for his lessons ; in fact, he had a perfect horror of them. The probability is that the buoyancy and energy of his nature made him averse to such restraint. He was an active, energetic boy, full of animal spirits and never tired of play, strong of will, yet genial and good-natured. In a little time he became a voracious reader, but as full of frolic as ever. At ten years of age Camillo, being intended for the army, left home to enter the military academy. There he studied hard, especially mathematics. As he afterwards regretted, the literary side of his education had been neglected,—perhaps because he had never been attracted to literature by any of those circumstances which call forth a dormant power, perhaps because the original bent of his mind was too strong towards the clear and the utilitarian. Mathematics satisfied his love for definite statement and clear demonstrative argument. He had no inclination towards metaphysics, had little imagination, and was never tempted to run after vague ideals. The only speculations he indulged in were social, political, or industrial, those, in fact, which are closely connected with tangible and positive interests. But his after career as plainly shows that he was capable of a deep and absorbing enthusiasm, which was all the more powerful and effective, because disciplined by a sure judgment and a wise patience.

Anyhow, he was a very successful student in the subjects taught at the military academy. This is proved by the fact, that he was appointed to a commission in the engineers at the age of sixteen,, though by the rules of the service it was not under twenty such a post could be granted.

At the military academy an incident occurred which is a clear indication of his character, and helped greatly to determine his future career. Being the son of a noble family, he was honoured with the dignity of page in the royal household. An ordinary boy would have been highly delighted with this introduction to court life ; but to Cavour its restraints, its etiquette, and its livery were a galling load, and, as he was by no means ready to learn the lessons of what is called a wise reticence, he was soon relieved of the honour, and marked as a dangerous fellow. During his brief military career he seems to have been stationed mostly at Genoa. This was a more independent life than he had hitherto led ; and at Genoa, where the liberal element was naturally stronger than at the court and capital, young Cavour felt himself more at his ease than ever he had been at Turin. But when the shock of the French Revolution of the year 1830 began to be felt in Italy, and when men thought themselves at liberty once more to express their opinions on the state of their native country, Cavour was soon caught offending by the same excessive freedom of speech. He was sent, therefore, in a kind of honourable banishment to Fort Bard in the Val d'Aosta, nominally to superintend some mason-work there, but really as a chastisement for his imprudence, and in the hope of a course of solitary reflection leading him at last to acquiesce in the existing state of things. Here Cavour was reduced to great straits for want of society, being obliged to while away his time at a certain game of tarots with the con-tractors. After six months he grew weary of it, and sent in his resignation (1831).

He had now reached a most important turning-point in his career. Set adrift from the profession for which he had been educated, and suspected at court, there were three courses open to him,—to retire into private life in Piedmont, or to go abroad and quietly await a favourable opportunity for taking part in the deliverance of his country, or to join in the frequent conspiracies of the Carbonari and others for its immediate emancipation. The state of Italy was such as to justify the most extreme methods. He was now arrived at a time of life at which he could realize the full measure of the sufferings and humiliations his country had undergone. Endowed with the all too fatal gift of beauty, and covered with a population, which has excelled in every department of human activity, in arts and literature, in commerce and navigation, but was too disunited and far too demoralized to defend her, Italy had for centuries been the prey of every spoiler, of the Saracen and the German, the Frenchman and the Spaniard. Her national life had been repressed, her commerce ruined, her intellectual growth stifled, and the very soul of her people debased and per-verted by priestcraft and foreign despotism. To most other nations their native land was an object of pride and affection, to the Italians Italy was the theme of shame and burning tears. The entrance of the armies of Republican France into Italy had been greeted as the dawn of deliverance, but in a little time their deliverers proved themselves to be only new masters. Yet the French occupa-tion had the good effect of diffusing the liberal ideas of the French thinkers, and of accustoming the Italians to a comparatively just and well-ordered government, so that the desire for national regeneration became more ardent than ever. Then came the Peace of Vienna, which gave Austria direct or indirect rule over the whole of Italy, and in 1820 the rising in Naples and Piedmont, which furnished that power with the pretext of armed intervention, and the excuse for rivetting still faster the chains of the enslaved. At this period, then, the prospects of Italian liberty seemed darker than ever. Even Sardinia, though preserved from the worst reactionary extreme by the hatred of Austria, had been compelled to yield to the prevailing current. Charles Albert himself, the leader of the rising in Piedmont in 1821, was fain to atone for his liberal courses by joining in the worst measures of the reaction, and, when he ascended the throne in 1831, was instructed that he held his place only on his good behaviour. In fact, from the beginning of his reign to 1847, when the revolution recommenced, he was only the nominal ruler of Sardinia ; his ministers were the creatures of Austria, and received their instructions from Metternich. It is necessary to remember these circumstances if we are to appreciate rightly the services of Cavour. We must compare the Italy he has made not with countries which have for centuries had a free development of their national life, but with Italy of 1820 or 1830, with Italy oppressed, demoralized, and disunited, while the noblest of her sons languished in Austrian prisons, or fretted their lives away in exile or in vain conspiracy. In these circumstances, Cavour, a youth of twenty, might have been led to join the secret societies which, under the direction chiefly of Mazzini, waged ceaseless war against the oppressors of Italy. From this his good sense happily saved him. Though prophetically aware of the near advent of democracy as the ruling power in the world, he saw that conspiracies could not deliver Italy, that fitful plots backed by irregular bands were useless against a regular Government supported by veteran armies, and that fretful outbreaks would only irritate Austria and excuse further oppression without doing her any real injury. Being, therefore, unable to tolerate the policy of the clerical and aristocratic party of the time, and entirely disapproving of the methods of the Carbonari and " Young Italy," he saw-that the best course in politics was a watchful inactivity. For sixteen years he was obliged to wait in private life, a keen and patient observer, acquiring that ripe and comprehensive wisdom which should fit him to be an effective servant of his country. During these long years we find him active in three special ways,—as the skilful promoter of the material interests of his country, especially in agriculture, as a keen student and observer of foreign countries, especially France and England, and as the author of papers in which he embodied some of the results of his observations.





Though, at first, it is said, he could scarcely distinguish between a cabbage and a turnip, he soon made himself complete master of the theory and practice of agriculture, introduced vast improvements on the family estates, and was one of the founders of the Agricultural Society of Fiedmont in 1841. So in the application of steam to material and social improvement, in establishing steamers on the Lake Maggiore, in the erection of steam-mills and chemical works, and in the furtherance of railways, as well as in founding the Bank of Turin, he took a leading part. These were good in themselves, but Cavour had a patriotic end in view _ he knew that they were the sure basis of national and social improvement, and the best possible introduction to it. In his study of foreign countries, though he had an open, penetrating eye for all phases of their national life, it was with the same continual reference to the good of Italy that he observed and meditated. He was several times at Paris, and at least twice in England, and was perfectly familiar with the language and economic and political condition both of England and of France. Such French statesmen as Guizot and the Due de Broglie he highly esteemed; and he was always an ardent, though by no means unqualified, admirer of England. In the early part of his public career, when his opposition to the revolu-tionary fanaticism made him unpopular, the charge of Anglomania was frequently brought against him. During these years, too, he wrote various reviews, all of which give the results of studies bearing on the economic or political questions of the time, and bear, all of them, the impress of that practical moderation and penetration which were such essential elements in his character. These sixteen years were in every sense the training time of Cavour. Under the combined influence of practical experience in the conduct of business, and of philosophic insight into the principles of free government, as exhibited especially in England, he grew into that capable man I who should guide Italy through the troubles of a very trying struggle to the honourable place she now occupies among the free nations of the earth. The years of waiting at length came to an end. Towards the end of 1847 all the provinces of Italy were in a highly-wrought state of revolutionary excitement. Pius IX., the new Pope, had put himself at the head of the movement, and, the clerical and liberal parties being thus united, the most extravagant hopes were entertained. The revolution carried everything before it, threatening only by its growing violence to defeat its own ends. Cavour saw the time for action was come, and, along with his friends Balbo and Santa Eosa, insti-tuted at Turin a newspaper called the Risorgimento, as the organ of their common opinions, while, on the promulgation of the new constitution for Sardinia, which he was the first to suggest, he took his seat in the Chamber as one of the members for the capital. Having long meditated on the political situation of Italy, and being perfectly at home on all political questions, he took a decided attitude from the beginning. As a conscientious adherent of the principles of the juste milieu, he opposed in the firmest way the irregular fervour of the revolution; and as a practical man, he was ready so far to yield to its fury, in order, by thus yielding, to command it and utilize its strength. In the same way he desired to restrain the violence of tho war party; but after the example of Paris had encouraged the people of Milan and Venice to rise against Austria, he saw that the time for politic hesitation had gone by, and with all ardour sounded the call to arms. Again, when the reaction had regained the upper hand at Naples, and Eadetzki had defeated the Sardinian forces at Custozza, he was convinced that there was no more hope of success, and counselled peace. Still more so after Novara. In the Sardinian Chamber parties rose and fell without changing the attitude of Cavour; resolved on advocating the measures which were for the time most conducive to the good of Piedmont and of Italy, he supported the party that lie deemed most likely to carry them out, without regard to its colours. For some time he was one of the most unpopular men in Turin ; the advanced party hated him for his moderation, and the conservatives for his liberalism; as a moderate liberal he often stood almost alone. But gradually the real greatness of his character began to appear above the contending elements which surrounded and. obscured it. Passing on from those years of excitement and despair, when the hopes of Italy seemed again indefinitely deferred, to the beginning of 1853, when the elections after his first elevation to the premiership took place, we find the extreme left almost annihilated, and the extreme right greatly reduced in members. How had this change taken place 1 Five years of hard, adverse experience had taught his countrymen that he was right. Opposed to the excesses of the revolution, when the revolution was at its height, and to the pretensions of clericalism, when the revolution was for a time discredited, he was the real fixed point in the ever-shifting chaos, and the elements of confusion gradually gathered round him. Time, that tests all opinion and all character, had proved the soundness of his.

From 1850 to 1852 Cavour was an active member of Azeglio's administration; from 1852 to his death in 1861, he was, except for a short interval, the prime minister and virtual ruler of his country. From 1850 to 1855, when Sardinia began to take part in the Crimean War, the most conspicuous feature in his career was his relation to the church. With his usual penetration he soon perceived that the pretensions of the party now dominant at Borne were utterly incompatible with the rights of a free modern society, and that the only solution of the difficulty was, that the state, while recognizing the right of the church to perfect freedom within the spiritual sphere, should assert for itself the same freedom within the civil sphere; in his-own words, he desired a free church in a free state. While an extreme party counselled the confiscation of the church property, Cavour merely asserted the right of the state to secure a more equitable distribution of it among the clergy. On the question of civil marriage, and of the immunity of the clergy from the civil jurisdiction, he asserted the principle that the state should be absolute master within its own domain; with the spiritual rights of the church he never interfered. Those years were marked, too, by many energetic measures for the material improve-ment of Sardinia. The principles of free trade were introduced as far as possible, and a more judicious taxation.

Cavour's proposal to join the alliance of the Western powers against Bussia met with the most violent opposition from both the extreme parties in the Sardinian Chamber, and even some of the most influential members of his own cabinet threatened to resign. But the king supported him ; the country, as a whole, trusted him; and in the spring of 1855 the Sardinian army was on its way to the East. This audacious step of the Sardinian minister, which engaged one of the smallest kingdoms of Europe in a con-flict among the greatest empires, caused some doubtful reflections at the various courts. It was understood by all as a bold assertion of Italy; and an Austrian minister declared it a pistol-shot fired at the head of Austria. At first, too, the Sardinian army experienced a hard fortune. It was attacked by cholera, and, for a long time, no opportunity occurred for distinguishing itself on the field of battle. The worst auguries of the opposition seemed destined to be fulfilled, and their fiercest denunciations of an expensive and Quixotic expedition justified, when tidings came of the battle of the Tchernaya. The enthusiasm was universal, the opposition was silenced, and Cavour rose higher than ever in the national estimation.

Then came the peace, considerably to the disappointment of Cavour, who had expected a prolonged war, and perhaps a general state of confusion, in which an adventurous state like Piedmont, that had everything to gain and little to lose, might greatly profit. It was not without great hesitation that he resolved to be present at the Congress of Paris. Yet, when there, he maintained the cause of Italy not less effectively than the Sardinian army had done in the Crimea. In all the questions that turned up he bore himself with such tact, knowing well how far the modesty of his position imposed upon him the duty of silence, and so skilfully brought forward the astonishing resources of a mind deeply versed in European questions, that he was immediately recognized as one of the ablest living diplomatists, and took a place altogether out of proportion to the strength of the kingdom he represented. His most ardent wish was to see the grievances of Italy brought before the Congress. Accordingly, near the end of its sittings, Count Walewski, as president, introduced the subject, pointing out the danger to the European peace of the existing state of things, and suggested that a note should be addressed to the sovereigns of Italy counselling reform. This step took the members by surprise, and as Count Buol,. the representative of Austria, protested against the discus-sion of the question, the matter ended, but not before Cavour had time to plead the cause of Italy. Afterwards, he followed up the advantage he had gained by a memorandum to the same effect addressed to the cabinets of London and Paris. Thus the gains of the war were not slight. The morale of the Piedmontese army had been restored, and the name of Italy, not as a geographical idea, but as a nationality, brought before assembled Europe. Above all, enlightened Italians now felt that they had found a man ; no sentimental dreamer of liberty, nor a fanatical conspirator, but a wise statesman, deeply read in the secrets of European politics, capable of commanding at once the confidence of Italy and the respect of Europe.

What was scarcely less important was, that Napoleon and France had become interested in Italy. Certainly, if Cavour had been free to choose, he would have preferred to inaugurate the regeneration of his country under the auspices of England. Her moral weight was greater, and she was less likely to exact painful sacrifices as the price of her support. His participation in the Crimean struggle had been above all advantageous to England ; her liberal traditions and her feelings of gratitude alike led him to hope for her support. But to his chagrin, he found at the Congress that the state of European politics had made England the friend of Austria ; and that his advocacy of the union of the Danubian Principalities in opposition to her views had alienated her, he soon found out in the cold-ness of the English ministers. Still he did not allow him-self to be discouraged. He could count on Napoleon ; Russia was estranged from Austria, Prussia was her rival in Germany, Hungary was discontented. To isolate Austria, to make friends of her enemies and rivals, to regain the good-will of England,—this was now the policy of Cavour. The hostility of Sardinia to Austria became every day more apparent and more provoking. The armaments of Sardinia, far too great for the resources or the ordinary requirements of the country, pointed to war as the only solution of standing difficulties. Accordingly, at Plom-bières, in the autumn of 1858, the programme of the war of 1859 was made out by the French Emperor and Cavour.

These were times of almost preternatural activity for Cavour. At one period or other he had filled almost every office in the administration ; but in a crisis like the present, the constitution was suspended, and the prime minister became a kind of dictator, taking upon himself the entire government of the country, home and foreign affairs, and the ministry at war, as well as finance. The crisis was worthy of such a supreme effort, for bitterly disappointed as Cavour and the Italians were at the peace of Villafranca, the power of Austria in the peninsula had been broken, and Italy thenceforward had her destiny in her own hands.





On the conclusion of peace Cavour had resigned, but he returned to his post in January 1860, to resume under different conditions the work interrupted at Villafranca. The task was a tortuous and delicate one, and required skilful managing. The possession of Lombardy and the overthrow of Austria were the tangible results of the late campaign. With regard to the rest of Italy, and in the further development of events, four influences had to be considered :—France, which was bound by the treaty of Villafranca to the restoration of the old rulers of Central Italy ; Austria, which insisted on the fulfilment of this and other conditions of the treaty ; England, where in obedience to public opinion, which now began to under-stand the real issues at stake in Italy, the Government inclined to let the people have their own way ; and the people of Italy itself, decidedly anxious for Italian unity, but in danger of falling into the ruinous excesses of 1848. It was now the business of Cavour so to manage the course of diplomacy, as to prevent a collision with France or Austria, to gain time for the public opinion of Central and Southern Italy to declare itself, and to avoid every-thing like disunion or uproar in bringing the various provinces under the government of Victor Emmanuel. First, then, in early spring, the population of Tuscany and Emilia all but unanimously declared in favour of annexation, though this result was embittered by the consequent cession of Nice and Savoy to France, which claimed these districts as compensation and security. Cavour was severely reproached by many, and above all by Garibaldi, for this concession. But there are three considerations, which seem entirely to clear him from any appearance of want of patriotism,—the necessities of his position as regarded France, and the facts that the Savoyards are far more French than Italian, and from a geographi-cal and military point of view belong more naturally to France than to Italy. In the south, where the Pope and the king of Naples still maintained a settled govern-ment, the unification of Italy seemed to meet with greater difficulties, when Garibaldi stepped forward to cut the knot. It was certainly not against the will of Cavour that the hero set out on his adventurous enterprise. He could evidently do nothing else than carefully watch the progress of the expedition, ready to own or disown it, according to the event. Accordingly, on Garibaldi's triumphant arrival at Naples, the Piedmontese army occupied the Marches and Umbria, crossed the Apennines, and on the plains of Campania shook hands with the volunteers of Garibaldi. The hero saluted Victor Emmanuel king of Italy. Next spring the first Italian Parliament met at Turin; and Cavour saw the dream of his youth realized. He had seen a new Italy spring from the ashes of the old, an Italy of representative government and of enlightened progress, the mistress of her own destinies, and a worthy member of the commonwealth of nations. Still much remained to be done, the sores caused by centuries of misgovernment required to be healed, the finances arranged, a navy created, the relations with the church regulated, and a thousand other matters attended to, ere the new Italy could answer to the ideal in the mind of Cavour. And now he was to be taken away in the very midst of his task. For many years, and especially during the slippery and delicate events of the last year, and during the harassing debates with the Garibaldian party as to the cession of Savoy and Nice, and the treatment of the volunteers, he had been doing an amount of work which no human strength could bear. There were premonitory symptoms enough; but the keen sense of the responsibilities weighing upon him seemed to increase as his strength declined. Medical men differed as to the precise form his disease took; but that overwork was the cause of it, no one doubted. After some days' illness, during which his feverish talk ran ever on Italy, he died on the 6th of June 1861.

It is needless to describe the sensation caused by his death, and the passionate grief of every Italian patriot. It was felt by every enlightened man that a great and beneficent worker had passed away from the earth. The worthy countryman of Dante and Michelangelo, he had been privileged to achieve a mightier task than they; the one had written a great poem, and the other had executed certain noble works of art; Cavour recalled to life the nation they all loved so well.

Victor Emmanuel and Garibaldi did their part in the consummation of the great work, while without the help of France it clearly would have been impossible; but it must be admitted that Cavour was the indispensable person who brought all the other agencies into wise and effective action. To him it is chiefly due that Italy anticipated Germany in the recovery of her national rights, and led the way in two of the most salutary revolutions that have taken place in the history of the world. He, therefore, deserves to be gratefully remembered not only as a true patriot, but as one of the benefactors of mankind.

Cavour was not eloquent in the ordinary acceptation of the word ; but if the force of words is to be measured by their influence on the will of men, he was one of the most powerful speakers that ever lived; for he achieved what he did, not only as the adviser of the king, but as the leader in the Sardinian Chambers. In private life he was upright, genial, and forgiving. In public life, as we have seen, his one passion was the regeneration of Italy. In fact, few statesmen have left a more stainless name behind them. He was never married, and left his property to the children of his elder brother, who, it may be added, was a stanch adherent of the reactionary party.

See De la Hive, Le Comte de Cavour : récits et Souvenirs, 1862 (translated into English, same date) ; and a memoir by E. Dicey, 1861. (T. K.)




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