Who Walked These Streets
Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour (1810-1861)
As you walk the streets of Turin, you will notice there are streets and plaques on palaces with names of influential figures in the city’s (and Italy’s) history. This Who Walked These Streets series will uncover a brief history behind these streets by discovering the important persona behind the name.
Visitors to Turin who stroll through one of its main shopping areas may walk along the Via Cavour (which runs from Via Roma down to the Po) without giving much thought to the name of the street. This is a pity because the man commemorated was one of the most influential politicians of Italy during its reunification period.
Indeed, many historians believe that Italy’s reunification probably wouldn’t have happened without the work of Cavour who was Prime Minister, first of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and then, all too briefly, of the Kingdom of Italy. Sadly, Cavour passed away just a few months after Vittorio Emanuele II was formally invested as King of the newly united Italy.
So who was Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour? Cavour was born in 1810 at his family’s palace in Turin, which can still be found today at the corner of Via Lagrange and Via Cavour . His father was Michele Benso, 4th Marquess of Cavour; his mother Adélaïde Suzanne. At this time Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of France and Turin was under French occupation. Partly due to this French influence, Cavour learned to speak French as effortlessly as Italian.
At the age of ten he was sent to the Turin Military Academy. Years later, Cavour was appointed to the Piedmont-Sardinian army’s Engineer Corps. He left the army in late 1831 to devote his time to administering his family’s estate. During this time, he traveled throughout France, England, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. England was in the beginning stages of the Industrial Revolution and Cavour set his sights on bringing some of these principles back to his homeland.
Upon his return to Turin, Cavour entered into politics and served in a variety of positions, first as Minister of Agriculture, then as Minister of Commerce and later as the Minister of the Navy.
In 1842, Cavour championed the cause of building railroads and canals throughout the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in order to stimulate progress and the economy. The programs were successful and, in 1851, he became Minister of Finance. Just a year later, he became Prime Minister. Now Cavour had the power and influence to work toward a united Italy, which was definitely not an easy feat.
In one of many strategic moves, he supported the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia’s entry into the Crimean War in 1855, an action which helped cement diplomatic ties with France. A few years later, the French fought with Piedmont-Sardinia against the Austrians during the Second Italian War of Independence, which at its end enabled Piedmont-Sardinia to annex the Duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany. This, in turn, led Vittorio Emanuele II to declare himself the King of the newly united Italy under the House of Savoy and Cavour became Prime Minister.
There were still three city-states under foreign domination at this time, but Cavour would not live to see the final reunification in 1866. He became ill, and the medical practice of the day of “bleeding” contributed to his death within a few weeks. Five years later, after the Third Italian War of Independence, Italy was truly a united country.
Aside from Cavour’s relentless ambition and political impact on Italy, some may not know that he was the first to bring gentlemen’s clubs to the country. Influenced by his friendship with Britain’s Ambassador to Turin, Sir James Hudson, Cavour founded the “Whist Club” in 1841. The club was unique to Turin in that it was not just open to the aristocracy, businessmen were also welcome. The Caffè Fiorio, where the Whist Club met, can still be found in Turin today.
There is no doubt that Cavour’s legacy of what he accomplished for Italy lives on to this day.