Nationalism was weak in Italy before 1848 for a variety of reasons. The country was dominated heavily by foreign Austrian rule; its government was dependant on their military power and they controlled many of the major states within the peninsula. The Austrian influence on the country had a massive effect on nationalism because it promoted a feeling of low general self-esteem within Italy. They seemed weak and powerless next to the strong, wealthy and militarily dependable Austrians.
There was also anger among the more extremist political radicals who violently opposed Austrian rule, separating them from the moderates (who were not happy with the situation but less likely to react) and emphasising existing divisions within the country. Austrian rule also discouraged a feeling of nationalism through ensuring a lack of any Italian figurehead or ruler to unify the people under because of their dominance; later, the emergence of Pope Pius IX was to change this (but this was not until 1846).
The Austrian predominance helped to ensure a lack of national sentiment within Italy by emphasising the weaknesses of the Italian system and by preventing the emergence of any strong Italian figures as a basis for national pride. The views of the Catholic Church also reflected the popular sentiment in Italy at the time. They held a parochial view of their position within Italy at the time and opposed unification.
Because the Papal States formed a band across the middle of Italy and because the Pope was such a central figure, this meant that the unification of Italy and any nationalistic response was weakened severely because the opinion of the church was so central to life in Italy and because the message could be easily spread through priests to illiterate peasants. This response from the church was a significant factor in the weakness of nationalism before 1848. The societal and cultural divisions within Italy also encouraged a divided country and discouraged any nationalist feeling.
Because of differences in language between states there was little communication between different areas of the peninsula, which encouraged a feeling of separateness and division. The different states of Italy also had quite different histories and cultural traditions; there was a complete lack of any similarity between some states (examples are Piedmont and Sicily: Piedmont was wealthy, powerful and its inhabitants were generally prosperous whereas Sicily was under the control of Naples and was basely a farming colony.
) Class barriers also helped to reduce any feeling of nationalism. There were such deep divisions between the peasants and serfs in the south and the richer aristocracy in the north that along with language barriers, the two areas could have been different countries. The rich had an entirely different lifestyle and different experiences to the peasants who for the most part spent their lives subsistence farming to survive.
This meant that the feeling of national “togetherness” common to countries that we would today describe as nations was absent: nationalistic sentiment was not widespread in Italy before 1848 because there was no common leader, ideas or sympathies to unite such radically different people with such separate lifestyles. Similarly, the geographical barriers within Italy served as actual physical obstructions to nationalism.
Because the north and south of the country were so far apart and because the Apennines divided the east and west of the peninsula, there was a real feeling of literal partition within the country as well as social and cultural divisions. Again this meant that the ordinary people living in Italy at the time felt no real empathy for people who lived in the same country as them.
“If a border had been drawn across the top of Italy and given the north to the French then those in the south would have noticed little change” (John Gooch, “The Unification of Italy”) This seems to be because some of the different areas seemed so far removed- in this sense, Italy really was a “geographical expression”.
There was very little instance of common feeling along the whole of the peninsula- a feeling of empathy and national common identity is one of the most important and fundamental aspects of nationalism and because this was lacking in Italy it was hard for any real level of nationalistic feeling to develop in Italy and nationalism remained weak. Another factor affecting nationalistic feeling in Italy was the apathy of the public.
After years of uprising, people were more interested in continuing with their own lives than getting involved in something that might lead to more revolutions; they were exhausted and tired of the almost constant upheaval. This apathy and lack of enthusiasm common across the country meant that there was little interest in nationalistic sentiment and it was largely ignored.
Again, the election of Pope Pius IX meant that people were encouraged that some kind of revolutionary theory was working and were inspired. Political divisions within Italy also emphasised existing separations; there was massive diversity of opinion within the political spectrum of Italy at the time. There were groups with the same basic aims but who magnified small differences and so did not co-operate together and groups which had entirely different aims such as Republicans and Monarchists.
This diversity of opinion and range of ideas meant that there was no unity or even agreement between separate groups and societies; there were also no large political parties with mass appeal who could feasibly be considered as future leaders who might encourage nationalism or a more united stance. In conclusion; the situation in Italy before 1848 was such that the social, political, cultural and physical divisions within the country, as well as an apathetic position that lead to a lack of interest in other states within Italy meant that nationalism was very weak before 1846.