Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, 1837-1899. Portrait by Michele Gordigiani. The following text is part of the talk that I gave in Paris on Feb 12, at the Momentum Institute (h/t Yves Cochet, Agnes Sinaï, and Mathilde Szuba)
In the study of history, it is fashionable to use quantitative data as much as possible. We speak of financial and economic factors, of the competition for natural resources, of population unbalances, of the effects of climate, and more. And, yet, sometimes history goes on according to the whim of one or another ruler making colossal mistakes; from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein. In that case, human factors become predominant and only in some cases we can have a glimpse of what may have passed in the mind of the people at the top. One such case may have been that of countess Virginia Oldoini, femme fatale of the 19th century, mistress of the French Emperor Napoleon III, and, perhaps, the origin of the Italian unification of 1860. Beautiful woman, indeed, and hard to describe using system dynamics models!
Let's go back to the early 19th century. At that time, the industrial revolution was in full swing; fueled by the coal mines of Northern Europe, mainly in England, France, and Germany. This revolution had created an economic unbalance, making the Northern countries much richer and more powerful than the Southern ones. It was not just a question of having or not having coal. It was a question of transporting it. Coal is heavy and bulky and, at that time, the only practical way to carry it over long distances was by the sea. Sailing ships could take coal everywhere in the world but, when it was a question of taking it inland, waterways were needed. No waterways, no coal. No coal, no industrial revolution. That was the reason of the unbalance: the Southern European countries, just as the North-African ones, could have no waterways because of the lack of water. Hence, they could not industrialize and they remained economically and militarily weak.
Here is the situation as it was in 1848.
At this date, the only Mediterranean regions that had waterways and could industrialize were France and Northern Italy, and Piedmont in particular. Of the two, France was by far the most powerful and, already in 1848, you can see how France had occupied Algeria, snatching it away from the weak Ottoman Empire. The rest of the North-African region was ripe for the taking and even the Kingdom of Naples, in Southern Italy, was militarily and industrially weak; an easy prey for any industrialized country. So, what could have stopped the French from turning the whole Mediterranean sea into a French lake? That had been, apparently, Napoleon's idea when he had invaded Egypt, in 1798. It had not worked out at that time, but it had been a good strategic intuition that later French governments could have carried out.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of the British. In the great strategic game of the 19th century, they had sighted Egypt, that they would occupy in 1882, but there was little or nothing that they could do to stop France from occupying the whole Northern African shore, all the way to Egypt and perhaps farther than that. Nothing direct, that is, but what if they could create a strategic counterweight to balance the French power? And what could that counterweight be? Italy, of course, if it could be unified and transformed into a single country, out of the plethora of statelets it was at that time.
So, in mid 19th century, the strategic pieces of the Mediterranean game were all in their places, as if on a giant chessboard. The British objective was shared by Piedmont: unify Italy as soon as possible and stop France from further expansion. On the other side of the chessboard; France's objective was also clear: avoid at all costs the unification of Italy and take as much as possible of North Africa, as soon as possible.
Clear; perfectly clear. And easy for France. They had almost nothing to do; just keep Piedmont in check; which they could do easily. It is true that Piedmont was a small industrial powerhouse for its times, but it was no match for the much larger and much more powerful neighboring France. But the French president and emperor of that time, Louis Napoleon, or "Napoleon III" did exactly the opposite, even engaging the French army in support of the expansion of Piedmont in Northern Italy in a series of bloody battles against the Austrians, in 1859. Not that France helped Piedmont for nothing, of course. In exchange, the French obtained a slice of land on the Western side of the Alps, formerly part of Piedmont. It was a territorial gain but, in strategical terms, it was nothing in comparison to what France was losing.
One year later, Piedmont, with the support of the British, sent an army led by Giuseppe Garibaldi to invade the Southern Kingdom of Naples. The Neapolitans put up a spirited resistance, but, alone, they couldn't cope and Napoleon III did nothing to help them. With the collapse of the Southern Kingdom, the complete unification of Italy became unavoidable, despite a last-ditch attempt by Napoleon III in 1867, when he sent troops to Italy to stop Garibaldi from taking Rome.
So, Italy was. And it still is. The curious thing is that it had not to be. Had Napoleon III stopped Garibaldi in 1860 in the same way as he did in 1867, probably we would still have a kingdom of Naples and the country that today we call "Italy", would be mainly a French protectorate. And, most likely, French would be the dominant language in most of the country.
Instead, France had lost a historical occasion to become the dominant Mediterranean power. Later on, the Franch still managed to carve out some more pieces of North Africa, occupying Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1904, but all further advances in the Mediterranean region were stopped when, in 1911, Italy claimed what Italians saw as their rightful slice of the declining Ottoman Empire: the region that we call Libya today.
So, how was it that Napoleon III made such a colossal strategic mistake? In a way, we can say that it is rather normal: Rulers of states are often awfully incompetent at their job (just think of our George W. Bush). But, for Napoleon III, there may have been a reason that goes beyond simple incompetence.
The French have invented the phrase "Cherchez la femme" ("look for the woman") as an explanation for many otherwise inexplicable events. And, in the story of the unification of Italy, there is a woman involved: Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione. She was the cousin of Count Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont at that time, and she was sent to Paris by him, it seems, with the specific idea of influencing Napoleon III. She was a faithful Italian patriot and she understood very well what was to be her role as mistress of the French president and emperor. She was to convince him to do something that the French should never have allowed: help Piedmont to invade and conquer the rest of the Italian peninsula. According to what we can often read in history books, she fulfilled her role and, from the portraits and the photographs we have of her, maybe we can also understand how.
Of course, we can legitimately think that this story is just a legend. But could it be that Virginia Oldoini really convinced Luis Napoleon to do what he did? In this case, the Countess should be considered as one of the most influential women in modern history. But we will never be able to know: by now, she is on the other side of the mirror, perhaps watching us from there and laughing at us.
For a fictional tale of what could have happened had Napoleon III been smarter (or Virginia Oldoini less beautiful) see "The Tipping points of History" on the "Chimeras" blog.