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Everything you need to know about March 17th, Italy's Unity Day

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Everything you need to know about March 17th, Italy's Unity Day
Unification Day celebrations at Rome's Piazza Venezia. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
10:49 CET+01:00
It might not be a national holiday, but March 17th is the most patriotic day of the year in Italy: the National Day of Unity. Here's what you need to know about the history behind the date.

The birth of Italy

Although Italy was the centre of the ancient Roman empire and is known for its treasures dating back millennia, as a country it's actually very young - younger than the US, in fact.

The Kingdom of Italy was officially founded on March 17th 1861, so today the date is known as the Day of Unity or Unification.

Before 1861, the peninsula was fragmented, split into rival states and regions which had changed hands, allegiances, and boundaries frequently over the centuries. They included the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, the Papal States, Kingdom of Sardinia, Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, and Kingdom of the two Sicilies - see the map below.

Before unification. Image: WikiCommons

How it all went down

Italy's unification wasn't a single date, but a period of several decades during which a lot went on - think revolts, reforms, and wars. The unification or Risorgimento (literally 'resurgence') period is roughly defined as being between 1815 and 1870.

Napoleon had invaded Italy in 1796, and his defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo paved the way for unification efforts - though these didn't happen for a while. The 1830s saw unrest and a series of nationalist revolts across the country, but this was largely suppressed by the Austrian army, after the pope at the time asked powerful Austria to help contain the rebels.

In the mid-1840s, things really got going, with a new pope on the scene, rising nationalism across the whole continent, and more revolting. 

Meanwhile, Sardinia was emerging as a power, thanks to its king Vittorio Emanuele (more on him later), who was gaining recognition due to reforms and public works, and its prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour, who built up strategic alliances across Europe.

First, Sardinia allied with Britain and France in the Crimean War, earning an invite to the subsequent peace conference which Cavour used to promote the cause of Italian unification. Then he deliberately provoked Austria into declaring war on Sardinia. As planned, France came to Sardinia's aid and easily defeated the Austrians. It received Nice and Savoy as a thank-you gift).  

This success inspired yet more revolutionary activity across the Italian peninsula. First, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and Romagna voted to unite with Sardinia, but in other areas such as the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples, Cavour had to send in troops to secure victory.

One way or another, he succeeded in uniting almost the entire peninsula (Rome and Venetia didn't join until 1870), and Italy was finally declared a nation-state on March 17th, 1861.

The first king

The first king of the new Italy was Vittorio Emanuele II - you might recognize the name, since most towns and cities have a street named after him. There's often a March 17th piazza or street as well, and others named after more key players in the revolution; Count Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, for example.

It's not actually his full name, though; that would be Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso. You can see why he shortened it, but the use of 'II' was a source of trouble for the king, as many Italians felt it didn't fit in with the idea of a fresh start for the new nation.

Portrait: Public Domain/WikiCommons

Born in 1820, Vittorio Emanuele had become King of Sardinia-Piedmont at the age of 29, and it was thanks to some skillful manoeuvring from him and his prime minister that Sardinia gained power and Vittorio was able to take the throne as Italy's very first king.

Italians called him the Padre della Patria (Father of the Fatherland) and he reigned until his death in 1878. You can see his tomb at Rome's Pantheon today.

Capital cities

Yep, that's 'cities', plural. With its central location and connections to the ancient empire, it seems natural that Rome is the capital of Italy. But that wasn't always the case. The very first capital of Italy was in fact Turin.

Just four years later however, Florence took a turn at being capital city, before Rome was finally given the honour in 1871.

Why don't we get the day off?

Ah, the big question. On special occasions, including the 150th anniversary back in 2011, Italians have indeed been treated to a day off work in celebration. Usually that means foregoing one of the other public holidays, such as Armed Forces Day on November 4th.

Generally, Italy opts to mark the founding of the Republic on June 2nd, rather than the unification itself. On June 2nd in 1946, Italians narrowly voted (54:45) in a constitutional referendum to abolish the monarchy.

But although March 17th isn't a public holiday, keep an eye out for the many displays of patriotism that mark the occasion, from Italian flags on display to celebratory events. Viva Italia!

READ MORE: Five things you need to know about Italy's Republic Day

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