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2. The revolt breaks out in Palermo January 12th 1848

The Revolt in Palermo Click image to enlarge
Source: The Revolt in Palermo, etching, 19th Cent., Bertarelli Collection, Milan.

The concession of constitutions in Piedmont, Tuscany and the Papal state

On 8th February the King of Sardinia, Carlo Alberto of Savoy, announced the granting of a constitutional statute for his kingdom; promulgated on the following 4th March and known as the Statuto Albertino, it would become in 1861 the constitution of the Kingdom of Italy. On 11th February it was the turn of Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to make public his intention to grant a constitution, which he signed four days later. On 14th February Pope Pius IX announced constitutional reforms which were translated within a few days into the concession of a constitution for the Papal State. While on the Italian peninsula the situation seemed momentarily to calm down and to satisfy the more moderate political leaders, who organised large, public demonstrations of collective enthusiasm, within Europe the revolutionary “contagion” spread to Paris, Vienna and Budapest, within a short time provoking further uprisings and protests in Italian cities.


  1. Which social categories can be made out in the picture?
  2. Can the uprising be defined as a “popular insurrection”?
  3. Does the setting, right on the church steps, clash with some of the figures shown in the image?
  4. What demands did the rebels take to the streets in the name of?

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Description and Analysis

On the morning of 9th January 1848 a poster appeared on the walls of Palermo which invited the population to rebel: “Sicilians, the time for useless pleading has passed! Protests, supplications, peaceful demonstrations have been to no avail. Ferdinand has scorned all of them. And we, a free-born people, downtrodden, enslaved and impoverished, are we to continue to wait still longer to win our legitimate rights? To arms, sons of Sicily! (…) The will of the people is all-powerful: solidarity among the common people is the downfall of kings. The day of 12th January, at dawn, will signal the glorious era of universal regeneration…”. The king to whom the proclamation made reference is Ferdinand II, nick-named by a liberal journalist of the period “King Bomb”, for his propensity to revert to armed repression to put down every reform movement and any request to improve the living conditions of the subjects of The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. During his reign there were, in fact, a great number of uprisings and demonstrations of protest, one after another, but 12th January 1848, the King’s birthday, appeared immediately to be an event of a different entity, the spark that would open a new revolutionary cycle. The reasons for this difference in character are, principally, the negative economic conditions of the years 1846-47, characterised by poor harvests and by a severe famine throughout the peninsula. Added to this were the spread of Mazzini's thinking (ideas of a republican nature) and the hopes which the majority of the Italian population had attached to the election of the new pontiff, Pius IX, in 1846, considered, in error, a “liberal Pope” and open to the concession of constitutional reforms. The anonymous author of the poster in fact continued: “…Palermo will welcome with joy all Sicilians in arms who present themselves to support the common cause: to establish reforms and institutions in line with the progress of this century, desired by Europe, by Italy, by Pius IX.”. The widespread expectation that the great wave of revolution all over Europe was accompanied by the conviction that the battle to obtain reform and rights, together with the patriotic cause, was “heaven blest”, in the name of a higher, divine justice. The religious justification acted as “social glue” for the uprising which, when it broke out suddenly and spontaneously was indeed led by a priest, Fr. Ragona, in the front rank to incite the crowd to rebel in the name of God. He was followed by a procession composed of lawyers, former soldiers, tradesmen and aristocrats accompanied by multitude of common people, primitively armed with hunting rifles, pitchforks, scythes, axes and knives, the everyday tools of their trades. (Questions 1 – 2).

After the first, spontaneous disorders, the citizen mob organised itself into a march, true and proper, following the directions of a young democratic journalist, Giuseppe La Masa, who began to urge the crowd to head for the church of St. Ursula and to order the bells to be rung at full peal: from a place symbolic of conservatism and order, the church became an instrument of popular rebellion against the abuses of the powerful and the high clergy. In the meantime, anonymous hands distributed tricolour cockades to be pinned on chests. At the sound of the bells, as if it was a pre-announced signal, other insurgents emerged from the side streets, the flood of people becoming steadily more numerous and even including the peasants from the nearby villages, also armed with their work tools, while from the windows, objects of all types rained down in the direction of the Bourbon troops who meanwhile were preparing to confront the crowd, a few hundred individuals against five or six thousand regular soldiers. The uprising continued for days, with fighting taking place street by street until on 18th January King Ferdinand granted Sicily partial administrative autonomy: this was, however, rejected by the insurgents among whom a more moderate element began to emerge, opposed to the democratic demands, who formed a provisional Committee on 2nd February. One of the most significant acts of the Committee, from a symbolic point of view, was the institution of the Tricolour (Decree dated 28-9 March) which remained the national flag until the Bourbon reconquest (15 May 1849). In Naples in the meantime the Bourbon government, with English mediation, after having freed some political detainees, announced the granting of a constitution which was published on the 11th of that month. Despite the King promising a double Parliament, one in Naples and one at Palermo, the constitution was not accepted by the Sicilian provisional government who, indeed, on 13th April declared the downfall of the Bourbon dynasty and proceeded to draw up a Sicilian constitution , which was approved in July 1848. The Bourbon army only managed to win back control of Sicily and Palermo in May of the following year after having bloodily crushed the numerous attempts at rebellion which broke out on the island. What distinguishes the revolt in Palermo, which was characterised by varied and contrasting ideological elements, was its extraordinary diffusion throughout the population, both urban and rural, and throughout all the social classes, the nobility, the clergy and the ordinary citizens. Within it mingled social revanchism, liberal and reformist demands but, above all, aspirations of autonomy or, indeed, separatism which for centuries had bonded the different social classes, gentry and peasants, well-to-do and ne’er –do-well, everyone united against the hated Kingdom of Naples. Even after the unification of Italy this attitude made itself known, often violently, at various times in the national history causing incidents of genuine resistance to the central government, accused of exploitation and inertia regards the state of backwardness in which the island found itself, encouraging, in fact, nostalgic sentiment in favour of the Bourbons. (Questions 3-4).

Other Information

A copious documentation on the Palermo uprising is available on site http://www.archivi.beneculturali.it/Biblioteca/NotAdS106/26_Alle_03_18.pdf.

On the origins of the national flag and on the different forms and styles used you can consult http://www.cisv.it/azzurro/tricolore2.html-20-k.

A recent literary reconstruction of the events of Palermo has been presented by the writer Andrea Camilleri: “The Slaughter of the prisoners ‘massacred like tuna’ – the Sicilian rebellions of 1848 against the tyranny of King Ferdinand.” A synthesis, together with other links useful for further study, can be found in http://www.corriere.it/cultura/speciali/2010/visioni_d_italia/notizie/09.