1848: Peasant Agitation in Italy

1848: Peasant Agitation in Italy

A short article about the conditions of peasants on the Italian peninsular in the 1840s and their agitation and what this meant for the Italian revolutions of 1848.

Peasant Agitation in Italy, 1848-49 Peasant unrest was endemic in many parts of Italy before 1848. The peasants' state of severe and chronic deprivation, characterized by inadequate housing, chronic disease, particularly pellagra and malaria, was compounded by heavy indebtedness and taxation. Poor harvests in 1845-47 aggravated an already tense situation. The prices for staples like grains and maize, which had been fairly stable in 1817-1844, increased sharply after 1845. In the regions of Lombardy and Venetia, which were then part of the Austrian Empire, and in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the few impediments to international trade encouraged extensive purchases of foodstuffs by foreign buyers, particularly British, thereby further depleting domestic reserves.

Other causes of peasant unrest were more regional. Peasants in the mainland provinces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and in many mountain regions throughout the peninsula, resented the frequent purchases and misappropriations of communal lands by private individuals. The loss of communal lands, and of common rights of usage on land both public and private (known as usi civici in the south), was particularly hard on the poorer peasants and on those who relied on pasturage. Peasants who demanded retention of these ancient communal rights were often called comunisti. That label confused this very specific use of the term with the more ideological one, thereby intensifying a widespread suspicion of peasant radicalism, fuelled also by conservative perceptions of the peasants' role in the French Revolution of 1789.

Initial peasant reactions to urban agitation were by no means hostile. Traditionally religious and loyal to the clergy, many peasants were buoyed by the election of Pope Pius IX in 1846 and by his promises of reform. By 1848 a sense of expectation prevailed in many villages, where priests often took it upon themselves to speak for their parishioners. Peasant demonstrations, plantings of liberty trees, and the destruction of tax records followed the news of urban agitations in Palermo and Naples (January), Genoa, Turin, Livorno, Florence and Rome (February), Milan and Venice (March).

Peasant sympathy for the revolution was short-lived. Italian revolutionary movements raised issues that had little interest for most peasants. Demands for constitutional government, voting and civil rights, and national independence reflected and essentially urban and middle class agenda. Revolutionary elements willing to confront the "Agrarian Question" were a minority everywhere. Peasant support for the revolution waned quickly after March 1848, although after that date many peasants served the national cause in the war against Austria as conscripts in the Piedmontese army. With that significant exception, peasants either dropped out or turned against the revolution most notably so in Venetia, where peasant support was scorned by the revolutionary government and courted by the Austrians.

Roland Sarti

The revolutionaries' failure to capitalize on peasant discontent has long been the subject of debate. Some contemporary writers and participants, including Carlo Cattaneo, Giuseppe Ferraro and Carlo Pisacane, came to see the absence of social commitment as contributing to the ultimate failure of the revolutions. That theme was taken up and extended by Antonio Gramsci and other twentieth-century Marxist writers. There are few scholarly studies that focus on the role of peasants in 1848-49. A significant one is Paul Ginsborg's "Peasants and Revolutionaries in Venice and the Veneto, 1848," The Historical Journal XVII (September 1974), 503-50.