This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
Why was the imperial government in Vienna powerless to stop the rebellion? [Please see our story on the Vienna rebellion here.] After all, it had a strong army that had crushed rebellions in Italy — why could it not do the same in its capital city, Vienna? Why were the rebels there able to do as they wished? Why did rebellion have its way?
Perhaps the chief reason was that the Austrian army was busy elsewhere — in Italy. Anti-Austrian feeling had long been simmering in Habsburg-controlled regions of Italy — in Lombardy and Venezia (both ruled directly from Vienna) as well as Tuscany, Parma, and Modena, which were ruled by Habsburg princes. Anti-Austrian feeling was especially strong in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, where many citizens longed for independence and Liberal freedoms. The Austrians had been hard masters.
News of the Viennese uprising and the downfall of Metternich got the trouble going in Milan. On March 18, 1848, a crowd of about 10,000 Milanese gathered in front of Milan’s town hall. It was not a peaceful gathering (many were armed), and soon a large number of the demonstrators had broken into the government palace and forced the vice-governor to give in to their demands.
When news of Milan’s riots reached the Austrian commander, the 81-year-old Count Josef Radetzky von Radetz, he ordered his troops to restore peace. But the sight of armed Austrians stung the Milanese (especially poor workers and artisans) to greater fury. They threw up barricades, and street fighting broke out. For five days, battles raged in the streets of Milan, until 409 Milanese citizens lay dead. But their blood had not been shed in vain, for Radetzky was forced to withdraw his army from the city.
Republicans had led the Milanese rebellion, but they could not gain control of the city’s government. While the street battles still raged, a group of mildly Liberal aristocrats set up a government over the city. More afraid of the Milanese republicans than the Austrians, these aristocrats at first tried to make a deal with Radetzky; but, when this proved impossible, they appealed to King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia. The Milanese hoped Carlo Alberto could drive the Austrians from Lombardy — and, better yet, break the power of the republicans in Milan.
Carlo Alberto accepted the Milanese invitation. On March 24, he led his army across the River Ticino and two days later entered Milan. Radetzky and his Austrians retreated eastward to a ring of four fortified cities (Verona, Peschiera, Legnano, and Mantua) called the Quadrilateral. Hopeful of victory, Carlo Alberto pursued Radetzky and defeated him in battle at Goito on April 18 and then at Pastrengo on April 30. Carlo Alberto, however, could not take a single fortress in the Quadrilateral and so Radetzky simply bided his time, waiting until reinforcements came from the north.
Inspired by Milan, Venice too had risen in revolt against the Austrians. On March 22, the aristocrat Daniele Manin and others established an independent Venetian Republic. Other Austrian-controlled cities followed Milan and Venice’s example — and aristocrats, not republicans, took control of their governments.
A Little Milanese Rebellion Music
A popular, pro-revolutionary song from 1848 Milan