Stefano Lissi explores the emergence of nationalism in Lombardy after Napoleon and highlights the diverse security strategies used by the Austrian authorities against subversive actors

Stefano Lissi

Stefano Lissi is a PhD candidate at the section of History of International Relations. His PhD project investigates ideas of transnational solidarity between the processes of national unification in Italy and Germany (1830-71). 

When Austrian troops re-entered Milan in May 1814 after two decades of Napoleonic rule, the city was in turmoil. A few weeks before, a group of Milanese aristocrats had instigated a popular uprising against Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy and Napoleon’s son-in-law. The instigators quickly lost control of the crowd, resulting in the invasion of the palace of the Senate and the lynching of finance Minister Giuseppe Prina by a mob armed with umbrellas.

Following these events, Eugene was forced to abdicate, and the gates of the city were opened to the Austrian troops of Field-Marshal Bellegarde. The group of aristocrats behind the coup was far from a unified front. Some wished for a simple restoration of the pre-revolutionary status quo, whilst others, like Count Federico Confalonieri and Count Luigi Porro Lambertenghi, wanted an independent and constitutional Italian state under a Habsburg ruler. Confalonieri and Porro’s independentist hopes were to be disappointed. During the governorships of Field-Marshal Bellegarde (1815-16) and Franz Josef Saurau (1816-18), Lombardy was annexed back to the Habsburg Empire as a province, undergoing a rapid process of centralization, and cutting off most of the independentist aristocracy from positions of power. This brief blog will explore how the disgruntled Porro and Confalonieri joined forces with Romanticist intellectuals to promote a nationalist agenda. Moreover, it will shed light on the diverse security strategies adopted by the Austrian authorities to counter this threat.

Source: Lynching of Giuseppe Prina, public domain

Left – Niccolo Fontani, Litography of Federico Confalonieri, Milan, 1864, public domain
Right – Portrait of Luigi Porro Lambertenghi, Galleria d’arte moderna, Milano, public domain

Milanese Romanticism

Despite the radical political changes, Milan remained a cultural hub of the utmost importance.  Intellectuals from all over Europe – such as August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Stendhal, and George Byron – engaged in lively literary and artistic debates with the local intelligentsia in Milan’s parlours. Aware of the city’s vibrant intellectual life, Bellegarde sought to exploit it to bolster support for the Austrian rule. In 1816, he encouraged the foundation of the periodical Biblioteca Italiana (1816-40), aiming at “centralizing” Milanese cultural life under a single entity regulated by the Austrian government. Fully subsidized by the state and headed by the famous intellectual – and future Austrian ambassador in Egypt– Giuseppe Acerbi, the Biblioteca hosted literary, scientific, and artistic debates and enjoyed a vast circulation for its time (1600 copies per issue, twice the average of any other periodical in the peninsula).

However, things got off to a rocky start when the highly controversial article De l’Esprit des traductions appeared in the Biblioteca‘s first issue (January 1816). Written by Madame De Staël – one of the pioneers of European Romanticism, the article urged Italian intellectuals to stop recycling from Greco-Roman literature and instead to open themselves to current literary developments from England and Germany. The ensuing debate raged for years and split the intellectual community of the peninsula in two distinct blocks: young “Romantic” intellectuals agreed with De Staël’s critique and advocated for a radical literary renewal, whilst Neoclassicists intellectuals remained convinced of the superiority of Classicist themes.

In 1818, this cultural clash reached its boiling point. The Romantics left the Biblioteca and founded a new periodical, named Il Conciliatore. Silvio Pellico, Ludovico di Breme, and Giovanni Berchet were its leading figures, with Pellico being the main editor. No longer financed by the government but by Confalonieri and Porro, the journal acted as a crucial bridge for the introduction of Romanticist ideas to the peninsula. Although the newspaper did not feature political articles, its endorsement of the idea of literature as a tool for national regeneration and the independentist tendencies of its funders did not please the Austrian authorities. Moreover, being privately funded, Il Conciliatore was in open contrast to the Austrian desire to unify Milanese culture under the Biblioteca’s banner. Archduke Rainer Joseph, viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, felt he could not trust “its editors, all hot-headed independentists and little satisfied about the current status quo in Italy.”In a letter toCount Josef von Sedlnitzky, head of the Polizei-und Zensur-Hofstelle in Vienna, the Archduke foresaw that “this [Il Conciliatore] will give us a hard time” and that eventually they would “be obliged to put an end to it.”

Il Conciliatore’s fate

The new governor of Lombardy, Count Giulio Strassoldo reassured Sedlnitzky and the Archduke that Il Conciliatore posed no immediate threat. While there was no doubt about the seditious agenda of the periodical, Strassoldo pointed out that “Breme and his associates can only excite boredom”. Banning the periodical altogether would have been an overkill that the government could not afford, as it would have undermined the credibility of the Biblioteca and made the romantics martyrs in the eyes of the public. Thus, Il Conciliatore was free to start its publications on September 1818, but the Austrian government began a campaign of discreet sabotage against it. According to di Breme, censors would send the reviewed articles late on purpose to disrupt the printing schedule of the periodical. Moreover, the Biblioteca and a newly founded periodical, L’Accattabrighe (1818-19) began attacking the Romantics. All these hurdles, Strassoldo thought, would be enough to convince Porro and Confalonieri to cut off all funding. However, this turned out not to be the case. Eventually, after a game of cat-and-mouse that lasted about twelve months, the Austrian authorities decided to put an end to it. On 26 October 1819, Pellico was summoned to the police commissariat. Here, he was instructed to stop sending political articles to the censors under pain of expulsion from Lombardy. The next day, publisher Vincenzo Ferrario notified Il Conciliatore’ssubscribers of the immediate closure of the periodical.

Frustrated by the impossibility of voicing their sociocultural goals through legal means, most of Il Conciliatore‘s former writers and financiers joined the Carboneria. A few months later, in July 1820, a constitutional revolution broke out in Naples fostered by the local Carbonari. Fearing a revolutionary contagion in Lombardy, Austrian authorities proceeded to pre-emptively strike the Milanese Carbonari. Pellico, betrayed by his correspondence with a friend, was arrested in October and sent to the Austrian prison of Spielberg. A few months after Pellico’s arrest,after yet another uprising backed by the Carbonari in Piedmont, an arrest warrant was issued for Porro and Confalonieri. The former managed to escape to London, while the latter ended up at the Spielberg and was then exiled to the United States. After his release in 1831, Pellico wrote Le Mie Prigioni (1832), an account of his days at the Spielberg, that had enormous resonance all over Europe and became a manifesto for Italian nationalists.


The events that took place in Lombardy between 1814 and 1821 show us the intimate connection between the desire for cultural renovation and the embracement of nationalist ideals among Milanese intellectuals. Moreover, the events leading to the Conciliatore’s quiet demise shed light on the diverse security strategies that the state implemented against subversive media and networks. These included not only censorship and secret police, but also diversionary tactics and the use of official periodicals as propaganda tools.  

Source: Pellico, Silvio – Austrian National Library, Austria – public domain

COVER IMAGE: Lynching of Giuseppe Prina, public domain.

Opinion pieces have been published by the Security History Network for the purpose of encouraging informed discussions and debates on topics surrounding security history. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views of the SHN, its partners, convenors or members. 

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