The 1848 Revolution and the uprising in Milan
The 1848 cycle of European revolutions begun in Sicily in January with an uprising for independence, social reform and constitutional government against the Bourbons of Naples. In February it was the turn of Paris to rise and replace the monarchy of Louis Philippe with the second French Republic. Large parts of continental Europe followed the French example, taking up arms against autocratic governments, for a mixture of reasons ranging from the effects of a deep economic recession to the rise of liberal, democratic, socialist or nationalist ideas and demands.
In Italian states democratic and nationalist agitation concentrated on the demand for constitutions, the creation of armed civic bourgeois guards, and a call for a war of independence against the Austrian Empire, which ruled the Kingdom of Lombardy and Venetia and occupied parts of Emilia (the duchies of Modena and of Parma and Piacenza). In order to support the cities of northwestern Italy which had rebelled against the Austrian Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia (which was composed of Piedmont, Genoa, Savoy and Sardinia) took the leadership of an alliance of Italian states to lead a war of independence. The King of Sardinia, Carlo Alberto of Savoy, had the ambition to enlarge his kingdom within a process of Italian national unification, whose future form was far from settled. The main possible options were a federalist Union of republics and monarchies, a confederacy of sovereigns around the leadership of the Pope or a centralized single state under the Savoy king. The confrontation between republicans, democrats, moderate constitutional monarchists and defenders of the absolutist status quo ultimately led to the defeat of the first war of Italian independence of 1848-49, but Carlo Alberto’s choice to lead militarily and politically the process of the Italian Risorgimento created the conditions for the later victories of 1859-1870 and the creation of a united Italy under the Savoy constitutional monarchy.
The confrontation also had an immediate monetary consequence: together with the widespread presence of French coinage in northern Italy it contributed to the adoption by insurrectional provisional governments of Milan and Venice of an “Italian lira” strictly aligned to the Piedmontese lira and the French franc (deriving from the franc germinal of 5 grams of silver and 0,32 grams of gold).
The Milanese took up arms on 18 March 1848. After five days of insurrection, fought with any weapon available, including barricades, hunting rifles, roof tiles, a collection of halbards and other antique weapons looted in a private collection, the Milanese expelled from the city an Austrian army of close to 20,000 soldiers. The capture by the insurgents of one of the city gates (Porta Tosa, described in two medals here illustrated), using mobile rolling barricades, allowed insurgents from the countryside to join the Milanese, and forced the Austrian Field Marshal Radetzky to order the evacuation of Milan by his troops. The military committee leading the insurrection was driven by Federalists and republicans, in particular by Carlo Cattaneo and Enrico Cernuschi. Once street fighting ended they were rapidly sidelined by moderates, favourable to a rapid annexation of Lombardy by Carlo Alberto, whose troops had entered the city and were (slowly) chasing the Austrians into Venetia.
The moderate Provisional Government of Lombardy abandoned the Austrian currency in use at beginning of the revolution and minted, in Milan, gold and silver coins in Italian (Piedmontese) lire. No paper money or copper coinage was prepared, given that the intention was to proceed with a speedy integration with Piedmont. Only 5 lire pieces in silver, and 20 and 40 lire pieces in gold were produced and are illustrated here. In these coins, under the motto “Italy free, god wants it”, Italy was impersonated by an allegorical female figure draped in a toga, wearing a crown of city walls and towers, under a six sided comet star and holding a pike. With her right hand Italy asserted her determination to be free, under divine protection, sanctioned by Pope Pius IX, whose support for Italian freedom seemed to have been assured, but soon was withdrawn. This was a step towards monetary unification, part of the general project of Union so intensely fought for. As the Lombard Government wrote in the Gazzetta di Milano, on 9 April 1848, “the populations of Italy want to organize a Congress in Rome, to have a single finance, a single currency, a single civil, commercial and penal law, a single vote for peace and war”.
The next step after the annexation of Lombardy was to have been the adoption of the Piedmontese coinage with Carlo Alberto’s portrait and the Savoy white cross in a red shield (a 5 lire silver coin minted in Turin in 1839 is here illustrated).
The initial alliance of Italian states against Austria however proved short lived as the Pope, the King of the Two Sicilies and the Grand Duke of Tuscany rapidly dropped their support for the Risorgimento and withdrew all the troops which were still willing to obey their orders (some rebelled and remained in Lombardy and Venetia to fight the Austrians, defending Vicenza and Venice in particular).
The military defeats of the Piedmontese army and of the Italian volunteers brought the Austrians back to Milan as early as August 1848, and an armistice was signed between Turin and Vienna. This decision concluded the initial phase of the 1848-49 war, led by the monarchists, and handed the initiative to republicans who seized power in the following months in Venice, Rome and Florence. This will be the subject of the next two articles.
Milan was by contrast out of the picture after August 1848. The Austrians reestablished their administration and monetary system, until in 1859 Napoleon III and the new Piedmontese king Vittorio Emanuele II expelled them from Lombardy for good. In 1849 coinage in Italian and in German was reintroduced with reference to both the symbols of the Austrian empire (the double headed Habsburg eagle, here illustrated in a 10 cent copper piece minted in Venice in 1852) and of the Lombard Venetian Kingdom (here illustrated in a 10 cent copper piece minted in Milan in 1849). The latter represents the Longobard crown of Italy, held in the cathedral of Monza and allegedly incorporating a nail used for the crucifixion of Jesus. The crown of the kings of Italy was however placed in a subordinate position under the Imperial crown of the Habsburgs.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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