This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
Though it had begun with much promise, the revolution in Milan was already showing signs of weakness in the early summer of 1848. One big weakness was the fact that Liberals were divided among themselves. The moderate Liberals, made up of nobility and middle-class landowners, had taken control of the government of Milan and of all Lombardy. The moderates were in favor of uniting Lombardy to Carlo Alberto’s kingdom of Piedmont. The extreme republicans, who opposed the moderates, wanted no kings, but a republic. And they desired an independent Lombardy. They would have nothing to do with Piedmont.
But the new rulers of Lombardy made a serious mistake in how they treated the peasants. Peasants had not played a large part in earlier Italian revolutions; but poor harvests in the years 1845 to 1847—along with heavy taxes, debts, and general suffering—had made many peasants favor revolution. Because governments in some parts of Italy did not control trade, foreign merchants were taking the little food Italians had and shipping it out of Italy. In some regions, poor peasants were forced to give up their communal lands to private owners.
But the aristocratic rulers of Lombardy, fearing common folk might seize control of the revolution, told peasants who wanted to join the revolution army to return home. Even worse, the government refused to remove the heaviest taxes from the peasants, which meant the peasants had a greater tax burden than the rich. Then there were Carlo Alberto’s forces, which seized peasant goods and drafted the peasants of Lombardy into the Piedmontese army. Because of such measures, by July most Lombard peasants had turned against the revolution.
And by July, much had changed in northern Italy. In June, Radetzky and the Austrian army went on the offensive and retook most of the cities of Venezia. Only Osoppo and Venice itself continued to hold out against the Austrians. Then, in July, Radetzky received a reinforcement of 20,000 troops. He was now prepared to move against Carlo Alberto’s army in Lombardy.
Carlo Alberto, however, made the first move against the Austrians. Crossing the Mincio River, he fought to occupy the strategic hilltop fortress of Custoza, near Verona. On July 22, Radetzky ordered a counterattack, and a fierce battle ensued. For two days (July 24–25) the fighting raged, while both armies suffered great losses. At last, Carlo Alberto and the Piedmontese abandoned the field and retreated toward Milan. Radetzky had won a decisive victory.
Peasants in great numbers welcomed Radetzky and the Austrians as they followed the Piedmontese into Lombardy. Meanwhile Carlo Alberto had entered Milan, where he told the terrified citizens that he would defend them against the Austrians. But the king soon saw he could not keep his promise; his army was too disorganized and demoralized. He thus ordered a withdrawal, and his army abandoned Milan with thousands of refugees following in its wake. On August 7, 1848, Radetzky entered the city, and Lombardy was once again an Austrian province.
Opera in the Age of Revolution
The Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi, premiered his opera, Il Corsaro, at Trieste (an Austrian-controlled city) in 1848. Here is an aria from the opera, sung by Maria Callas.