Southern Europe in the Age of Revolutions 
by Maurizio Isabella.
Princeton, 685 pp., £35, May, 978 0 691 18170 7
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Youthful​ and moustachioed, he strikes a dashing pose in his plumed helmet, red velvet jacket and white foustanella, hand on hip, legs apart, a scimitar at his side. This is Major Richard Church of the British-funded 1st Regiment Greek Light Infantry, as painted in 1813 by Denis Dighton. At the time, he was commanding Greek soldiers he had recruited to fight against Napoleon. He subsequently left the British army and, after a stint as the governor of Palermo, agreed in 1827 to become commander-in-chief of the Greek forces, an inefficient rabble who were in trouble against the Ottomans. He became a pillar of the Greek establishment and died a national hero, after decades in the Greek army.

There is another celebrated portrait of Church, painted in Athens half a century later, in 1873, the year of his death. His moustache is grey now, though his eyes remain piercing. Complete with medals, sash, dark blue jacket and gold epaulettes, he looks quite the European general – though this time the painter, Spyridon Prosalentis, was Greek. Something has shifted, but what? Perhaps it is Church, who has exchanged his youthful swagger for sober authority; or Greece itself, which has broken free from the Ottoman Empire and embraced the trappings of a Northern European polity. But, in the end, what seems to have changed is the idea of the Mediterranean. Unlike his younger self, the veteran Church seems out of place in Fernand Braudel’s ‘Middle Sea’, where ‘the Turkish Mediterranean lived and breathed with the same rhythms as the Christian [and] the whole sea shared a common destiny.’

As Julia Clancy-Smith has shown, the central Mediterranean corridor remained a borderland society well into the 19th century, as tens of thousands of Southern Europeans abandoned its islands and northern edges for Muslim-majority lands, turning languishing ports such as Alexandria into boom towns. Political exiles and activists crossed the sea in both directions, bearers of revolutionary ideologies and ideas, including liberalism and nationalism, as well as the more esoteric Saint-Simonianism and freemasonry. Yet as Maurizio Isabella shows in this transformational account of the Mediterranean uprisings of the 1820s, Southern Europe was also a distinct geopolitical space, influenced by the rival forces of French and British imperialism but characterised at the same time by a revolutionary constitutional politics that was pathbreaking and contested, indigenous and particular.

Church’s career exemplifies this history. Born in Cork in 1784, the son of a Quaker merchant, he ran away to join the army and, at the age of seventeen, found himself in Egypt fighting the French. In 1805 he joined the British expedition to defend the Bourbons of Naples against Napoleon, and took part in Britain’s subsequent occupation of Sicily. He tried his hand at re-establishing order in Calabria with the support of a battalion of Corsican rangers. Stationed on the Ionian islands in the early years of the French occupation, he established two regiments of Greek light infantry, and led the successful conquest of the Ionian island of Lefkada. This was his first encounter with some of the chief figures in the Greek revolution of 1821, including its pre-eminent military leader, Theodoros Kolokotronis.

Church was not initially an enthusiast for Greek liberation. In the Ionian islands he was a proponent of self-government, but under British protection. After the defeat of Napoleon, he worked to consolidate the British presence in the Adriatic, training Greek mercenary regiments for King Ferdinando of the Two Sicilies and deploying them to fight brigands in Puglia – where brigandage was closely associated with subversive politics. When the Sicilian revolution broke out in 1820, Church – now leading the Neapolitan army – was a prime target of popular antagonism. Escaping (only just) with his life, he returned with the Austrians to reinstall the Bourbon monarchy. But when he assumed command of the Greek revolutionary army in 1827, the man who had worked to suppress secret societies in Puglia threw in his lot with the Grande società rigeneratrice, whose members included Italian Carbonari and French and British volunteers as well as Greek patriots.

Church’s long, adventurous life illustrates key themes in Isabella’s book: the role of the military in both fomenting and suppressing the uprisings of the 1820s; the complex interplay between revolutionary and ‘reactionary’ forces; the interconnected politics of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean islands; and the continued relevance of French and British imperial interests in the region (something often forgotten in Britain). The story stretches from Portugal and Spain through Italy to Greece, and connects people, events and phenomena that are not always thought about together. Isabella’s account is framed as a riposte to francocentric narratives of the ‘age of revolution’ – though in Southern Europe too, to echo the words of the great German historian Thomas Nipperdey, ‘in the beginning was Napoleon.’

Isabella shows that the 1820s uprisings originated in two distinct institutional contexts. First, there were the secret societies, which ‘found in the organisation and principles of European freemasonry a common matrix and a shared source of inspiration’. They included masonic lodges in Spain; the Maçonaria and the Sinédrio in Portugal, the Carbonari in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Adelfi and the Federati in Piedmont, and the Philiki Etaireia in the Ottoman and Russian empires. These groups were the seedbed of an insurrectionary politics sometimes identified with the Bonapartist occupation of Southern Europe and sometimes with the patriotic opposition to it. The Enlightenment origins of freemasonry pushed these societies in both directions during this era, in some places for and in others against Napoleon and his reforms. The Bonapartist freemasonry in Spain and on the Italian peninsula was strongly in favour of the Napoleon-sponsored government, but in Portugal a more rebellious freemasonry thrived, in part ‘thanks to its connections with British lodges’. Secret societies created with the blessing of the French and controlled by local officials soon developed a more ambiguous, independent stance, paving the way for organisations actively hostile to Bonapartism, which became a nursery for nationalist movements in Italy and elsewhere. Not all lodges were revolutionary, but no revolution was conceived without being sustained by secret societies.

The second vital factor was the military, as armies grew dramatically in size during the Napoleonic Wars, and their officers – recruited meritocratically rather than exclusively from the old nobility – acquired a new prestige and visibility. Many of the leaders of the 1820s revolutions had a military background: the Muratist Neapolitan general Guglielmo Pepe; Antonio Quiroga and Rafael Riego, key figures in the Spanish constitutional uprising of 1820; and the future Greek revolutionary leader Alexandros Ypsilantis. Many of the upheavals in Southern Europe during this era were framed as wars of national liberation – against the Austrians in Italy, or the French in Catalonia. In this they took their cue from Spain.

It was Spain, occupied by France during the Napoleonic Wars and where the vast majority of the population had been exposed to the traumas of conflict, that became the running sore in Napoleon’s new imperial order during the eight-year-long Peninsular War. Cities including Zaragoza, Gerona, Cádiz and Badajoz mobilised their inhabitants during prolonged sieges, turning ‘the doctrine of popular sovereignty into a de facto reality’, in the words of the historian Charles Esdaile. It was Spain, more comprehensively even than Prussia, that experimented with the model of a new national army underpinned by universal conscription. And it was Spain where the national legislature, established by Napoleon after Ferdinand VII was removed from power, passed in 1812 one of the first codified constitutions in the world. It became the foundational text of 19th-century liberalism – a fact often neglected by Anglocentric historians of ideas, who prefer to trace a lineage from Hobbes and Locke. In Southern Europe, liberalism and the military were entwined from the beginning.

A series of revolutions in Catholic countries demanded constitutions on the Spanish model. First, in January 1820, was the uprising in Spain itself, led by Riego and Quiroga – at once a mutiny against the monarchy’s determination to ‘wage an unjust war in the New World’ in defence of its South American colonies, and a political movement committed to a liberal nationalist vision focused on metropolitan Spain. Ferdinand VII had returned as king in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat, and had again assumed absolute power, abrogating the 1812 Cádiz constitution. Now Spanish troops about to be sent to the Americas took action, unhappy with their pay and conditions, and with the king’s persecution of liberals, although they had been part of the resistance against the French. Riego and other liberals started a mutiny calling for the restoration of the Cádiz constitution, and on 7 March the royal palace in Madrid was surrounded. The revolt forced Fernando VII to agree to a series of liberal measures; on 9 March he gave up absolute power and the 1812 constitution was reinstated, for a time.

Then came the Neapolitan revolution of July 1820, launched by the army officers Michele Morelli and Giuseppe Salvati and attracting such broad popular support that Church was forced to flee Palermo. Barely a month later, the rebellion of the garrison in Porto unleashed the so-called Portuguese triénio – a brief interlude of liberal government that led to the promulgation of the country’s first constitution: a document that was both more concise and in some ways more radical than its better-known Spanish precursor. Then, early in 1821, there was the uprising of the Roman Constitutional Army and the short-lived Piedmontese revolution (also led by soldiers). On 24 February Ypsilantis delivered his declaration to the Greeks from the Moldavian city of Jassy (Iaşi), beginning what would become the Greek War of Independence.

The influence of the Spanish model is made clear by the southern Italian uprising of 1821. In February, Vincenzo Pannelli and Carlo Cicognani – not, for once, soldiers – entered the Papal States from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies at the head of a small military cohort. Before long, other Neapolitan volunteers joined what they called the Roman Legion, shouting ‘Long Live Pius VII! Long Live the Spanish Constitution!’ and waving a tricolour flag. In the town squares of Ancarano and Offida, its members read out a pronunciamento in the name of the pope, the Catholic Church and the Spanish constitution, and distributed cockades to the crowds. Their expedition was meant to ignite a more comprehensive insurrection against Austrian rule, and its authors intended their manifesto to be widely disseminated. In it, they described the Spanish constitution as the ‘codice rigeneratore de’ popoli cattolici’, praising it for binding together people and sovereign while protecting the people against abuses of power. In this way, they situated their revolutionary enterprise within a specifically Southern European political culture, of which the pronunciamento was the most distinctive expression.

The pronunciamento was the vehicle through which a new kind of revolutionary leader – usually a career officer with a support base in the army – attempted to build consensus and co-ordinate demands. Every pronunciamento was different and the product of specific local conditions, yet all derived their legitimacy from the ideas of popular sovereignty that emerged during the wars against Napoleon (which were fought in defence of existing monarchies), and all made reference to the 1812 Spanish constitution. Not unlike the liberalism of the juste milieu that emerged in restoration France in the same era, the pronunciamento expressed a post-revolutionary political synthesis. One could even argue that the Southern European variant was a more genuinely popular phenomenon, rooted from the first in local areas, and attracting support from peasants as well as town-dwellers. By contrast, historians of France have spent decades debating whether the politicisation of the French peasantry occurred in 1848 or only later, during the Third Republic.

Isabella emphasises the ‘synchronicity’ of the 1820s uprisings, pointing out that ‘the intra-regional circulation of their key texts gave rise to a shared belief among liberals that these revolutions constituted a single event.’ He also underlines their common features, including the determination of the military to engage with and communicate to the people (in whose name they acted); and their decentred quality – these were revolutions initiated far from the capital cities that are the traditional sites of revolutionary unrest. Sometimes they originated in second cities – Porto, Genoa and Palermo – but there was also a proliferation of local committees, an echo of the juntas created on the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed places with a habit of local autonomy – from Navarre and the Basque country to Liguria and Sicily – often became loci of resistance to political and administrative centralisation, whatever form it took.

Crucially, the leaders of these movements understood revolution as a vehicle for ‘the peaceful regeneration of the South, as opposed to the aggressive and destructive nature of the French Revolution, consolidating the perception that each of these revolutions was both a local-national and a European event, and furthermore one pitted against an oppressive European North.’ Historical narratives have long associated Britain and France with the liberal march of progress, but in this distinctively Southern European context these countries stood for military occupation, self-interested imperialism and – in the 1820s – constitutional conservatism. Any reader of Christopher Clark’s new history of 1848 is bound to note the parallels: in some ways the Mediterranean revolutionary wave bears comparison with the better-known upheavals of 1830 and 1848 that shook the whole continent.* But it also subverts historical and geopolitical hierarchies: Isabella’s study does more than merely complicate the distinction between the centre and the periphery of Europe; it suggests that the 1820s revolutions were often a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Civil wars were integral to the revolutionary process. Post-insurrectionary conflict in Portugal, Spain, Sicily and Greece confirmed ‘the eminently military nature of these revolutions: events in which the army was from the outset the main political actor and the agent of a divided popular will’. Far more than the revolutions themselves, these wars formed the basis of popular political commitments. Intense domestic conflicts exposed the populations of Southern Europe to conflicting ideas of national community, national independence and regional patriotism. Two years after the pronunciamento of Porto unleashed the Portuguese triénio, the Count of Amarante led an uprising against the new constitutional order. This military insurgency began, in 1823, with a religious procession from the church of the Misericórdia in the city of Vila Real, in which Amarante and other local landowners led a crowd of civilians shouting ‘Long live the absolute monarchy! Death to the constitution.’ At the town hall, they all took an oath of allegiance to the king, followed by a Te Deum celebrating the country’s return to absolutism. Thus, as Isabella writes, the pronunciamento became ‘a “bipartisan” device of military intervention’.

Often, the choice between constitutionalism and monarchical absolutism was posed in the starkest terms, creating ‘cleavages within the same social groups’ and within towns and communities. Elites on both sides may have lamented the brutality of the peasants in their armies – Yannis Macriyannis rebuked his troops for their readiness to indulge in plunder and looting during the civil war in the Peloponnese – but the mobilisation of the rural poor created a new dynamic, as did the political prominence of military officers. Northern Europe had seen something similar in the Napoleonic period, but it subsided; in Southern Europe it did not.

To describe​ the uprisings in Spain, Portugal and Italy as ‘failed’ revolutions is in some sense to miss the point; even failed revolutions can have an enduring legacy. This legacy is the focus of the second half of Isabella’s book, which explores the importance of parliamentary assemblies, petitioning, the public sphere and political rituals in the political culture of Southern Europe during the 1820s. It is not a history of Mediterranean revolutionary movements but of Southern Europe in the age of revolution – a different thing – and this ensures that counter-revolutionary forces receive equal attention. In the end, the legitimisation of political authority in Southern Europe during the 1820s, and the constitutional form this took, was the product of a battle between conservative and liberal ideas.

Greece is something of an exception. The Greek War of Independence proved the most deep-rooted and long-lasting conflict framed as a war of national liberation. Yet its success was far from certain. As late as 1826, the year before Church took up his post, Athens was once more in the hands of the Ottomans. Not for the first time, the intervention of foreign powers tipped the balance, in this case in the rebels’ favour, which is the reason reactionaries such as Metternich found it so distasteful. Church’s return to Greece signalled a wider change. Only a few months later, the destruction of the Turkish and Egyptian navies at Navarino by the combined British, French and Russian forces proved decisive. Many have seen this victory as a landmark in the history of humanitarian intervention – within five years, Greece would definitively rejoin the ‘Christian’ Mediterranean. But what did that phrase mean in 1832?

‘Having just the one religion, we do not need to proclaim freedom of worship, as other countries, where there are followers of different religions, have been obliged to do,’ asserted Luigi Galanti, a Benedictine monk elected to the Neapolitan parliament in 1820 in his Constitutional Catechism for Use in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. ‘Happy as we are to have this powerful bond, we will not live in fear of those bloody scenes between Catholics and Protestants witnessed even in recent years in France.’ The 1812 Cádiz constitution, reintroduced in 1820 without major modifications, included many classic liberal tenets, but its approach to religion wasn’t among them. Article 12 stated simply that the religion of the nation was Catholic, and that the nation had a duty to protect its religion by prohibiting the exercise of any other.

The presence of this assertion in a text that was the cornerstone of Mediterranean liberalism underlines the connection between Christianity, nationhood and political rights in the region (and might startle those historians of ideas who take for granted the connection of liberalism with religious pluralism). It applied not just in Spain and Italy but also, with modifications, in Greece – in conscious opposition to the Ottoman world, where Jews, Christians and Muslims had co-existed for centuries. The 1822 constitution of Epidavros stated that ‘every individual of the Christian faith, whether a native or definitively settled in Greece, is a Greek.’ Five years later, the revised constitution of Troezena confirmed Orthodoxy as the state religion, but granted citizenship to all Christian Greeks, while tolerating the observance of other ‘sects’ by people now effectively defined as non-Greeks. In Portugal too, the 1822 constitution operated on the assumption that ‘the religion of the Portuguese nation must be Catholic, Apostolic, Roman. All foreigners are permitted the private exercise of their respective cults.’

The coherence of these ideas of Christian nationhood, articulated constitutionally across Southern European countries in the age of revolution, underlines the commonality of historical experience that bound them together – and set them apart from their Northern European neighbours. Southern Europe was more than a geographical expression in these years. It became a political reality: the Christian and Muslim Mediterranean no longer shared a common destiny; these were the years in which they grew decisively apart.

This development is usually viewed through the prism of Northern European imperialism, but the story Isabella tells is more complex. In retrospect, it is clear that Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece during the 1820s were key sites of experimentation for both liberals and reactionaries, pioneering new forms of political mobilisation, authoritarian government and constitutionalism. Of course, Southern Europe was itself a zone of informal empire: the options for its ‘nations’ were determined by the preferences of Europe’s hegemonic powers – Britain, France, Austria and Russia. Perhaps for this reason, the revolutions that are the focus of this book have tended to be written out of the grand historical narratives that we are now in the process of unpicking. Historians seem also to have struggled to understand a political culture in which constitutionalism, Catholicism, the military and revolutionary politics were so thoroughly intertwined. This ideological mix appears to render these revolutions outliers in the familiar history of liberal constitutionalism – diverging from both Whiggish and Marxist traditions. Certainly, the ‘peculiar convergence’ of the upheavals of the 1820s was not replicated in the years that followed, and it was many decades before Portugal, Spain, the Italian peninsula and Greece emerged as stable polities. But that did not make these countries and their histories marginal to the politics of Northern Europe or the Atlantic world. If anything, the reverse.

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