Vincenzo Gioberti

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Gioberti contributed the first comprehensive political program for the Risorgimento—the Italian national unification movement. He represented the progressive Catholic political tradition in nineteenth century Italy and sought to redefine the Church’s political role in the process of creating the new Italian nation.

Early Life

Vincenzo Gioberti was born in Turin on April 5, 1801. He lost his father, Giuseppe, at an early age, and his mother, Marianna Capra—a learned and deeply religious woman—died on December 24, 1819. Gioberti received his education from a school run by a Catholic religious order—the Fathers of the Oratory, in Turin. Despite his ill health as a child, he studied diligently and demonstrated a particular interest in the writings of the Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Gioberti entered the religious order but apparently without much enthusiasm. In his studies for the priesthood, he became convinced of the need for religious reform and for the reconciliation between the Christian faith and modern science. After earning a theology degree in 1823, Gioberti joined the faculty of the theological college at the University of Turin. He was ordained a priest in 1825. The following year, he received an appointment as chaplain to the royal court of King Charles Felix of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Gioberti’s service to the Savoy monarch in Turin did not alter his personal aversion to political authoritarianism. As a young man, he harbored the democratic and nationalist sentiments of many educated Italians in the early nineteenth century. The Italy of Gioberti’s youth existed only as a “geographical expression”—an odd assortment of kingdoms, duchies, and principalities running the length of the Italian peninsula. Italians, inspired by the political ideas and events of the French Revolution, nurtured their aspirations for an independent, united Italy. The obstacles to unification were immense. Much of northern Italy was part of the Austrian Empire; Spanish royalty ruled southern Italy and Sicily; and the pope exercised sovereignty over a large part of the central region. Moreover, the European powers had agreed to maintain the status quo in Italy, even by military intervention if necessary. Many Italian nationalists, in their hopes for unification, looked to the strongest independent Italian state—Piedmont-Sardinia—for leadership. The conservative Savoy monarchs, however, had no desire to encourage political upheaval, nor did they wish to offend the Papacy or the European powers. Without the leadership of the Savoy monarchy or any other political authority, the task of Italian unification fell to a loosely connected network of secret patriotic societies. Gioberti’s political activity began with his involvement with these conspiratorial organizations.

Life’s Work

Gioberti first established contact with a secret society in 1828, when he traveled through northern Italy. During these travels (under the constant surveillance of the Austrian police), he also met with Giacomo Leopardi and Alessandro Manzoni, two leading nationalist writers. Later, he became acquainted with Young Italy, the republican society founded by Giuseppe Mazzini in 1831. He openly sympathized with Young Italy until Mazzini sponsored an unsuccessful insurrection in Piedmont in 1834.

Because of his preaching on civic and political matters, and his radical religious opinions, Gioberti was dismissed from the royal court in May, 1833. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and imprisoned on the charge of advocating a republican form of government and distributing copies of Mazzini’s newspaper Young Italy among Piedmontese soldiers. Given the choice between a lengthy prison sentence or exile, he left for France in September, 1833.

After a year in Paris without finding means for study or suitable employment, he accepted a teaching position at the Gaggia College in Brussels. There he began an intense period of writing. He published studies of aesthetics and the supernatural, a critique of Jesuit doctrines, and an introduction to philosophy. His most important work, Del primato morale e civile degli italiani (on the moral and civil primacy of the Italians), was published in two volumes in 1843.

In Del primato morale e civile degli italiani, Gioberti presented a far-ranging theological and historical justification for Italian independence and unity. He recounted Italy’s past greatness as the center of the Roman Empire and Christian civilization. He reminded Italians of the moral and political legacy that...

(The entire section is 1917 words.)