Lombardy: Solferino

The centre of Solferino, with the Rocca on the hill.

Modern Solferino is a charming little town about ten kilometres south of Lake Garda. In this peaceful region of extensive vineyards that have sprung up around the town, it is hard to imagine that on 24 June 1859 one of the bloodiest battles in Italian history was fought here. On a front that was perhaps some 7,5 kilometres wide, more than a quarter of a million French, Italian and Austrian soldiers fought each other to the death. At the end of the day there were thousands of dead and wounded men. When the fighting was over, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant (1828-1910) visited the battlefield and was horrified by what he saw. Some four years later he founded the International Red Cross, an organisation that still exists. It is therefore hardly surprising that Solferino has a monument for the Red Cross, the Memoriale della Croce Rossa. A few years ago, a statue was erected for Dunant himself as well.

Background of the Battle of Solferino

In the mid-nineteenth century, a unified Italy did not yet exist. The only truly independent part of the country was the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, of which Turin was the capital. The kingdom of Lombardy-Venice (with Milan as its capital) was a constituent part of the Austrian Empire. The Austrian emperor was also king of Lombardy-Venice, but in practice he delegated the administration of the kingdom to a viceroy. South of Lombardy-Venice were the (grand) duchies of Parma and Piacenza, Modena and Tuscany, which were formally independent, but nonetheless heavily influenced by Austria. The Papal States, ruled by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), covered not just all of Lazio, but also large parts of Umbria, the Marche and the Emilia-Romagna. South of the Papal States was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Two of the largest cities in all of Europe, Naples and Palermo, were part of this kingdom. So all in all, Italy was far from united geographically, although in the first half of the nineteenth century a unitarian ideology had taken root, especially in the north. This ideology was given a boost when in 1848 there were overtly nationalistic revolutions all over Europe.

View of the church of San Nicola from the Rocca.

Church of San Nicola, with the Rocca in the background.

A crucial development in this process was the revolution in Vienna. There the chancellor and minister of foreign affairs Klemens von Metternich was forced to resign. With the Austrian empire in chaos, the Italian cities under Austrian rule revolted. One of the most famous revolutions took place in Milan, where the rebels managed to hold out for five days against the Austrian troops commanded by viceroy and field marshal Radetzky: the celebrated cinque giornate. Meanwhile king Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia had publicly stated his intention to liberate Northern Italy from the Austrian oppressors. The king and his army took Milan and marched into the Quadrilatero, the area between Peschiera, Verona, Legnago and Mantova where the Austrians had built strong defensive positions. But then Charles Albert’s offensive collapsed. At the end of July field marshal Radetzky managed to defeat the king at Custoza. Both parties agreed to an armistice, which Charles Albert violated several months later. That was a foolish thing to do, for now Radetzky cut his army to pieces at Novara on 23 March 1849. As a consequence, the ‘Ten days of Brescia’ (dieci giornate di Brescia) also ended in failure.

In spite of these serious setbacks during the First Italian War of Independence, the spirit of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification process, could no longer be contained. A country that played an important role in this process was France. The French had also revolted, and at the end of February 1848 had declared the Second French Republic. In December of the same year Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873) had been elected president of the Republic. He was the son of the former king Louis-Napoléon of Holland and therefore a nephew of that king’s older brother, the great Napoleon himself. A few months after taking office he had already staged an intervention in Italy by sending French troops under general Oudinot to Rome. These soldiers were under orders to aid the aforementioned Pope Pius IX against the self-declared Roman Republic. After an initial defeat Oudinot managed to retake the Eternal City for the Pope at the end of June of 1849. French troops would remain in Rome for a further two decades.

View of Solferino from the Rocca.

The Battle of Solferino

Bust of Napoleon III in Solferino.

In the wake of his defeat at Novara, king Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia had abdicated almost instantly. He was succeeded by his son, Victor Emmanuel II. Victor Emmanuel’s prime minister was count Camillo Cavour (1810-1861), a zealous proponent of Italian unification. Cavour contacted Louis-Napoléon, who was no longer president of France: on 2 December 1852 he had restored the French empire and had taken the throne as emperor Napoleon III. The emperor was eager for a new Italian adventure. As liberator of the Italians, he would win everlasting fame, but there were other advantages to a campaign in Italy as well. In return for French support, the emperor had negotiated that Piedmont-Sardinia would cede the duchy of Savoy and the city of Nice to France.

On 12 May 1859 Napoleon III landed at Genoa with a large army. The Second Italian War of Independence had begun. Several smaller confrontations followed, and in the early morning of the 24th of June, the French clashed with the Austrian main force, which had left the Quadrilatero and had subsequently crossed the river Mincio. It is difficult to establish the exact strength of the two opposing forces. The French and Piedmontese together probably fielded over 130,000 soldiers, the French outnumbering the Italians by a margin of at least 2:1. The Austrians, led by their young emperor Franz Joseph I, were certainly able to match these numbers. So all in all, over a quarter of a million men packed the battlefield, plus thousands of horses and several hundreds of cannons. It was the ideal recipe for the most horrible bloodshed imaginable. The carnage was only made worse by the chaos of the fighting, as both armies had more or less bumped into each other by accident and therefore had to improvise.

Rocca of Solferino, nicknamed ‘Spia d’Italia’.

While the Piedmontese fought on the left flank at San Martino – later renamed San Martino della Battaglia – the French clashed with their Austrian adversaries at Solferino further to the south. Some of the heaviest fighting took place at the castle of the town, the Rocca. It should be noted that ‘castle’ is a bit of a misnomer. The Rocca is actually no more than a medieval tower, built in 1022, but it is ideally situated on a hill. Later it acquired the nickname of Spia d’Italia (spy of Italy) because people standing on top of it were able to peep into Austrian territory. On 24 June 1859 the tower was still in Austrian hands and the Austrian soldiers did their utmost to prevent it from being captured by their French enemy. The Austrians entrenched themselves at the cemetery of the church of San Nicola (see the image above) and around the castle. The modern French artillery easily blew holes in the walls of the cemetery, but the castle had to be taken in a bayonet charge. This required the French soldiers to advance across a front no more than 40 metres wide, where they marched right into murderous musket and cannon fire. Nevertheless the French succeeded in storming the hill and taking the Rocca. Solferino itself was subsequently also captured.

Ossario di Solferino, with in the apse hundres of skulls of men who fell.

When the slaughter had finally come to an end, the French and Italian casualties were only marginally lower than those of the Austrians. As in practically any other battle, the number of wounded was far higher than the number of dead. However, over 20,000 wounded men ran a serious risk of having to share the fate of the almost 5,000 fatalities if medical help did not arrive soon. The heat was terrible, there was a shortage of water and a possible outbreak of typhus. Henry Dunant did not arrive on the battlefield until the evening of the 24th, but he was nevertheless shocked by what he saw. He immediately summoned the women of Castiglione delle Stiviere, just west of Solferino, to provide first aid to the wounded. Dunant gave the victors and the vanquished the same treatment and also arranged for the release of Austrian physicians that had been taken prisoner. These doctors were now employed to treat the wounded. Henry Dunant was, by the way, not the only man who should be lauded for his meritorious work in the aftermath of the battle. The priest Lorenzo Barziza (1829-1907) also played a pivotal part in providing aid to those in need.

The aftermath of Solferino

Although formally a French and Italian success, the Battle of Solferino was actually no more than a Pyrrhic victory for Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel. The former now felt that his Italian adventure had lasted long enough. On 6 July 1859, without informing his ally, he and Franz Joseph I agreed to an armistice, which was followed by a peace treaty at Villafranca on 11 July. The French emperor was loath to lose any more men and was rather unhappy with the fact that the duchies south of Lombardy-Venice were very eager the join Piedmont-Sardinia. Liberating Northern Italy from the Austrians was fine, but Napoleon was not ready to welcome a strong Italian state as his neighbour. He therefore allowed Austria to keep the Veneto and granted the exiled dukes of Parma and Piacenza, Modena and Tuscany, who were highly dependent on Austria, permission to return. In November of 1859 the agreement was formalised in the Treaty of Zurich. By then an infuriated count Cavour had already tendered his resignation.

Museo Risorgimentale di Solferino.

In spite of this temporary setback, the Italian unification process could no longer be stopped. Not much later the aforementioned duchies did join Piedmont-Sardinia (for which the agreed price of Savoy and Nice was in fact paid). Moreover, in May of 1860 the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) started his glorious campaign through the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He overran the island of Sicily and subsequently began his march on Naples. Victor Emmanuel simultaneously advanced south from the north. On 26 October 1860 the two men were able to shake hands at Teano in Campania. Just a few months later, on 17 March 1861, Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed king of a united Italy. And yet two rather important pieces of the puzzle were still missing: the Veneto and Rome were not yet part of the young kingdom. It was a problem that was soon solved. After Austria had been crushed on the battlefield by Prussia in 1866, it was forced to cede the Veneto. A referendum was then held, in which the population voted in favour of joining Italy. Finally, on 20 September 1870, the Italians captured Rome and made it their new capital, which explains why practically every Italian city or town has a Via XX Settembre.

Things to see

The Rocca of Solferino is now a museum. The tower itself is just 23 metres high, but since it was built on a hill the view from the roof is truly magnificent (see the images above). North of the Rocca is the church of San Nicola and it is easy to envision the French infantry advancing on the castle from that direction. A painting by Carlo Bossoli (1815-1884) gives a good impression of the French perspective of the battle. Through the destroyed gate the French pour into the cemetery and begin their ascent of the hill. A few kilometres to the north stands the monument for the Battle of San Martino, 74 metres high, and that can also be seen very well from the roof of the Rocca. The view is definitely the highlight of the tower. The museum has a couple of objects related to the battle, such as French and Austrian uniforms, but the Museo Risorgimentale di Solferino in the centre of town is better, if only because it has a much larger collection.

Red Cross memorial.

I will discuss that museum in a minute. First I would like to mention the Red Cross memorial, which can be found west of the Rocca at the end of a footpath. In 1862 Henry Dunant published the book Un souvenir de Solférino, in which he described the horrors he had seen on the battlefield. Dunant also proposed to found a neutral organisation to provide aid to the wounded of all parties in times of war. A core passage from the book, which contains exactly this thought, was written on a stone slab that is part of the monument:

Text by Henry Dunant.

Members of the International Red Cross.

Statue of Henry Dunant.

The Red Cross was traditionally founded on 17 February 1863, as this was the day that a committee of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare met for the first time to discuss the feasibility of Dunant’s ideas. The next year the first Geneva convention was adopted and in 1901 Henry Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize, although he had to share it with Frédéric Passy from France. Solferino’s Red Cross memorial dates from 1959 and was erected exactly one hundred years after the battle. Apart from the aforementioned stone slab, the monument consists of a bench-like element with the Red Cross symbol and a wall with blocks of stone from countries that have joined the Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Star of David (Magen David Adom). A statue of Henry Dunant himself in Solferino was unveiled in 2014.

The Museo Risorgimentale di Solferino tells the story of the Risorgimento and especially the Battle of Solferino. On display are maps, uniforms, cuirasses, muskets, cannons and bayonets (see the image above). The story is completed by busts and paintings of some of the protagonists.

The museum adjoins the Via Ossario, a name that refers to the ossuary that is located nearby. A long lane with cypresses on both sides leads to the chapel of San Pietro in Vincoli. The ossuary was created in 1870 and contains, among other things, the skulls of over 1,400 fallen soldiers, both French and Austrian. The façade of the little church is decorated with a large and modern looking mosaic of Saint Peter (San Pietro). Below it is a smaller mosaic of Christ and near the entrance we find a bust of the man who made the Battle of Solferino possible: the emperor Napoleon III. Remarkably, his keen interest in Savoy and Nice is not mentioned at all.

Ossario di Solferino, church of San Pietro in Vincoli.



  1. Pingback:Lombardy: San Martino della Battaglia – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:Veneto: Custoza – – Corvinus –

  3. Pingback:Udine: the museums of the Castello – – Corvinus –

  4. Pingback:Milan: Pinacoteca di Brera – – Corvinus –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.