Great European – Carlo Cattaneo

This week in our Great Europeans series, Liam Fitzgerald takes a look at Italian Carlo Cattaneo, intellectual, philosopher, author, and one of Europe’s first federalists.

The tomb of Carlo Cattaneo, Italian author, philosopher, and modernizer.

The tomb of Carlo Cattaneo, Italian author, philosopher, and modernizer.

Italy, similar to Germany in this respect, is considered one of Europe’s belated nation states. It only reached united statehood in the second half of the 19th century, in the period between 1848 and 1871.In 1848 and 1849, most countries in the Old World were, to varying degrees, affected by loud cries for national unity and freedom. Italy’s political fragmentation and relative underdevolpment at the time spurred the revolutionary fervor and the Apennine peninsula was amongst the most strongly involved regions in the uprisings of those years.

One of Italy’s most prominent public figures in what has been called the only pan-European revolution in history was Milanese intellectual Carlo Cattaneo.Despite his central role in Italy’s Risorgimento, his compatriots and contemporaries hardly knew Carlo. The son of a goldsmith was born in Milan in 1801, and grew up during the Napoleonic Wars. Cattaneo showed an affinity to literature and modernization from his childhood onward. The thinker propagated scientific and commercial modernization in many ways, one of the most important being his journal “Il Politecnico”. Some examples of how he hoped to set Italy on a path toward a more modern economy include the construction of a railway line from Milan to Venice and the support for the Società d’incoraggiamento d’arti e mestieri, a society to further progress in a variety of fields. Carlo Cattaneo was responsible for the Società from 1845 to 1848. Perhaps the reason for his relative unrenownedness was that Cattaneo was no real politician, that he was rather apolitic.

A republic, not a constitutional monarchy

During the revolution of 1848, the probability for Italian unification seemed lees unlikely than before. The prospect that at least northern Italy, including Cattaneo’s home Lombardy with its capital city Milan, might be united under Piedmontese rule was not one that held any attraction to him. Lombardy had been Italy’s most wealthy and progressive region for centuries, at the very least since the middle ages, and the economic difference between Lombardy and Piedmont, not to mention most of central and southern Italy, was considerable. Carlo feared that a centrally organized Italian state as envisioned by many other revolutionaries, especially those from Piedmont, would be disadvantageous to Lombardy. He remained in favor of Italian unity, but the Italy Cattaneo wanted was a republic, not a monarchy dominated by Turin, the Piedmontese capital, and above all was a federal state, no unitary state. The federal option would be the only one that could ensure Italy’s regions’ individuality.

In 1848, the Austrians, rulers of vast areas of northern Italy, returned. Radetzky, Austria’s famous general, restored Italian rule, and Carlo, who had been involved in the fight against Austrian rule, fled to Switzerland, more accurately the Canton Tessin. From Switzerland, most famous federal state in Europe at the time, Carlo witnessed Italy’s unification as centrally organized unitary monarchy under Cavour in the years from 1858 to 1861. The contrast between his own federal vision, surely strengthened during his stay in Switzerland, and the constitutional monarchy now established in Italy was considerable, and a disapointed Cattaneo even favored the state Italy, and therefore Lombardy, had been in under Austrian rule to what it had now become. Until his death in 1869, close to the city of Lugano in Tessin, Switzerland, Cattaneo continued to propagate infrastructural modernization of Tessin, building railways and improving transport. He also remained highly skeptical of the constitutional structure Italy had adopted, but was in the minority with his claim that a federal state would be better by far.

Cattaneo in exile

Carlo Cattaneo wanted to ensure Lombardy’s political autonomy, albeit within a federal Italian state. He continuously pushed for commercial and economic modernization and for investment in infrastructure, both in his native Italy and his exile in Switzerland. He believed in the great value of education and wanted to ensure both practical and philosophical knowledge and learning in order to modernize his fellow Lombards and Italians. Carlo opposed the unitary moves by the Piedmontese monarchy and most of Italy’s political thinkers of the Risorgimento, such as Mazzini and Cavour.

Until today, he is underrepresented when it comes to researching Italian unification, most likely because he never was an outright politician and because he spent much of his later life in exile in Switzerland, where he concerned himself with issue of modernizing Tessin. He continued to oppose the political course Italy had taken after 1848 but did not achieve any change. His thoughts on the benefits of federalism are valuable still today and should be factored into any move toward federalization of Europe, though Cattaneo probably over-emphasized the benefits of federalism for autonomous regions while neglecting many of its inherent values for the federal state itself.

The image “La tomba di Carlo Cattaneo” courtesy to Ferdinando Marfella via, released under creative commons.


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