Francesco Crispi

His Excellency
Francesco Crispi
11th Prime Minister of Italy
In office
15 December 1893  10 March 1896
Monarch Umberto I
Preceded by Giovanni Giolitti
Succeeded by Antonio Starabba
In office
29 July 1887  6 February 1891
Monarch Umberto I
Preceded by Agostino Depretis
Succeeded by Antonio Starabba
President of the Chamber of Deputies
In office
26 November 1876  26 December 1877
Preceded by Giuseppe Branchieri
Succeeded by Benedetto Cairoli
Minister of the Interior
In office
15 December 1893  9 March 1896
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Giovanni Giolitti
Succeeded by Antonio Starabba
In office
4 April 1887  6 February 1891
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Agostino Depretis
Succeeded by Giovanni Nicotera
In office
26 December 1877  7 March 1878
Prime Minister Agostino Depretis
Preceded by Giovanni Nicotera
Succeeded by Agostino Depretis
Minister of Foreign Affairs
In office
29 July 1887  6 February 1891
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Agostino Depretis
Succeeded by Antonio Starabba
Personal details
Born (1818-10-04)October 4, 1818
Ribera, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies
Died August 12, 1901(1901-08-12) (aged 82)
Naples, Kingdom of Italy
Nationality Italian
Political party Historical Left
(1848–1880; 1886–1901)
The Pentarchy
Spouse(s) Rosina D'Angelo (m. 1837–39); her death
Rosalia Montmasson (m. 1854–78); divorced
Lina Barbagallo (m. 1878–1901); his death
Children Giuseppa
Alma mater University of Palermo
Profession Lawyer
Religion Greek Catholicism

Francesco Crispi (4 October 1818 12 August 1901) was an Italian patriot and statesman. He was among the main protagonists of the Italian Risorgimento and a close friend and supporter of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and one of the architects of the unification of Italy in 1860.[1]

He was Italy's Prime Minister for six years, from 1887 until 1891 and again from 1893 until 1896. Crispi was internationally famous and often mentioned along with world statesmen such as Bismarck, Gladstone and Salisbury.[1] Originally an enlightened Italian patriot and democrat liberal he went on to become a bellicose authoritarian prime minister and ally and admirer of Bismarck. His career ended amid controversy and failure: he got involved in a major banking scandal and fell from power in 1896 after the devastating loss of the Battle of Adwa, which repelled Italy's colonial ambitions over Ethiopia. He is often seen as a precursor of Benito Mussolini.[1][2]

Early life

Crispi’s paternal family came originally from the small agricultural community of Palazzo Adriano, in south-western Sicily. It had been founded in later fifteenth century by Orthodox Albanians (Arbëreshë), who settled in Sicily after the Ottoman occupation of Albania.[3][4][5] His grandfather was an Arbëreshë Orthodox priest; the parish priests were married men, and Arbëreshë was the family language down to the lifetime of the young Crispi.[6] Crispi himself was born in Ribera, Sicily, to Tommaso Crispi, a grain merchant and Giuseppa Genova from Ribera; he was baptised as a Greek Catholic.[5] Belonging to a family of Arbëreshë descent, he spoke Italian as his third or fourth language.[2][5] His uncle Giuseppe wrote the first monograph on the Albanian language.

He studied law and literature at the University of Palermo receiving a law degree in 1837. He started a career in journalism, but took up a judgeship in Naples in 1845.[7]

1848 Sicilian uprising

In January 1848 he assumed an active role in the Sicilian uprising against the rule of Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies at Palermo. As a journalist and member of the Sicilian Parliament he supported the separatist movement that wanted to break ties with Naples.[7] The uprising ended in failure and the Bourbon government was restored on May 15, 1849. Unlike many, Crispi was not granted amnesty and was forced to flee the country.[8]

He lived next in Piedmont where he worked as a journalist. He was implicated in the Mazzini conspiracy at Milan in February 1853 and was expelled from Piedmont. He took refuge first on Malta, then in Paris. He became a revolutionary conspirator and close friend of Giuseppe Mazzini involving himself in the exile politics of the national movement, abandoning Sicilian separatism. He identified himself with the republicanism of Mazzini.[7] Expelled from France, he moved to London where he met up with Mazzini, who he had never met before.

On Sicily with Garibaldi

In June 1859 Crispi returned to Italy after publishing a letter repudiating the aggrandizement of Piedmont in the Italian unification. He proclaimed himself a republican and a partisan of national unity.[8] He travelled around Italy under various disguises and with counterfeit passports.[8] Twice in that year he went the round of the Sicilian cities in disguise preparing the insurrectionist movement of 1860.

He helped persuade Giuseppe Garibaldi to sail with his Expedition of the Thousand, which disembarked on Sicily on May 11, 1860. Two days later, on May 13, Crispi drew up the Proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. After the fall of Palermo, Crispi was appointed Minister of the Interior and of Finance in the Sicilian provisional government, but was shortly afterwards obliged to resign on account of the struggle between Garibaldi and the emissaries of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour on the question of timing of the annexation of Sicily by Italy.

Appointed First secretary of State by Garibaldi during the dictatorial government, Crispi secured the resignation of Agostino Depretis, whom Garibaldi had appointed pro-dictator, and would have continued his fierce opposition to Cavour at Naples, where he had been placed by Garibaldi in the foreign office, had not the advent of the Italian regular troops and the annexation of the Two Sicilies to Italy brought about Garibaldi’s withdrawal to Caprera and Crispi’s own resignation.

In Parliament

Francesco Crispi in 1870s

Entering parliament in 1861 as deputy of the Extreme Left for the Castelvetrano district, he would retain his seat in all successive legislatures until the end of his life.[7] Crispi acquired the reputation of being the most aggressive and most impetuous member of the Republican Party. He denounced the Right for "diplomatising the revolution".[9] Personal ambition and restlessness made him difficult to cooperate with and he earned himself the nickname of Il Solitario (The Loner).[9] In 1864, he finally deserted Mazzini and announced he was a monarchist, because as he put it in a letter to Mazzini: The monarchy unites us; the republic would divide us.[7][9]

In 1866 he refused to enter Baron Bettino Ricasoli’s cabinet; in 1867 he worked to impede the Garibaldian invasion of the papal states, foreseeing the French occupation of Rome and the disaster of Mentana. By methods of the same character as those subsequently employed against himself by Felice Cavallotti, he carried on the violent agitation known as the Lobbia affair, in which sundry conservative deputies were, on insufficient grounds, accused of corruption. On the outbreak of the Franco-German War he worked energetically to impede the projected alliance with France, and to drive the Giovanni Lanza cabinet to Rome. The death of Urbano Rattazzi in 1873 induced Crispi’s friends to put forward his candidature to the leadership of the Left; but Crispi, anxious to reassure the crown, secured the election of Depretis.

After the general election in 1876 he was elected President of the Chamber. During the autumn of 1877 he went to London, Paris and Berlin on a confidential mission, establishing cordial personal relationships with British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and Foreign Minister Lord Granville and other English statesmen, and with Otto von Bismarck, by then Chancellor of the German Empire.

In government

In December 1877 he replaced Giovanni Nicotera as minister of the interior in Depretis’s cabinet. Although his short term of office lasted just 70 days, they were instrumental in establishing a unitary monarchy. On January 9, 1878, the death of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy and the accession of King Umberto enabled Crispi to secure the formal establishment of a unitary monarchy, the new monarch taking the title of Umberto I of Italy instead of Umberto IV of Savoy. On February 7, 1878, the death of Pope Pius IX necessitated a conclave, the first to be held after the unification of Italy. Crispi, helped by Mancini and Cardinal Pecci (afterwards Leo XIII), persuaded the Sacred College to hold the conclave in Rome, establishing the legitimacy of the capital.

Bigamy scandal

The statesmanlike qualities displayed on this occasion were insufficient to avert the storm of indignation of Crispi’s opponents when he was accused of bigamy. When he remarried, a woman he had married in 1853 was still living. But a court ruled that Crispi’s 1853 marriage on Malta was invalid because it was contracted while another woman he had married yet earlier was also still alive. By the time of his third marriage, his first wife had died and his marriage to his second wife was legally invalid. Therefore, his marriage to his third wife was ruled valid and not bigamous. He was nevertheless compelled to resign office after only three months in March 1878, bringing down the whole government with him.[9]

For nine years Crispi remained politically under a cloud, leading the 'progressive' opposition. After the general elections in May 1886, he returned to office as Minister of the Interior in the Depretis cabinet in 1887. Following Depretis’s death on July 29, 1887 Crispi became Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of his country.[7]

First term as Prime Minister

Crispi with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1887.

Crispi was the first Prime Minister from the south of Italy. True to his initial progressive leanings he moved ahead with stalled reforms, abolishing the death penalty, revoking anti-strike laws, limiting police powers, reforming the penal code and the administration of justice with the help of his Minister of Justice Giuseppe Zanardelli, reorganising charities and passing public health laws and legislation to protect emigrants that worked abroad. He sought popular support for the state with a programme of orderly development at home and expansion abroad.[10][11]

His desire to make Italy a colonial power led to conflicts with France, which rejected Italian claims to Tunisia and opposed Italian expansion elsewhere in Africa.[10] One of his first acts as premier was a visit to the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whom he desired to consult upon the working of the Triple Alliance. Basing his foreign policy upon the alliance, as supplemented by the naval entente with Great Britain negotiated by his predecessor, Robilant, Crispi assumed a resolute attitude towards France, breaking off the prolonged and unfruitful negotiations for a new Franco-Italian commercial treaty, and refusing the French invitation to organize an Italian section at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.

Crispi and his Treasury Minister Giovanni Giolitti knew of an 1889 government inspection report about the Banca Romana, which had loaned large sums to property developers but was left with huge liabilities when the real estate bubble collapsed in 1887, but feared that publicity might undermine public confidence and suppressed the report.[12] Forsaken by his Radical friends, Crispi governed with the help of the right until he was overthrown by Antonio Di Rudinì in February 1891, who was succeeded by Giovanni Giolitti in May 1892.

Return to power and second term

In December 1893 the impotence of the Giolitti cabinet to restore public order, menaced by disturbances in Sicily and the Banca Romana scandal, gave rise to a general demand that Crispi should return to power. Although Giolitti tried to put a halt to the manifestations and protests of the Fasci Siciliani, his measures were relatively mild. In the three weeks of uncertainty before Crispi formed a government on December 15, 1893, the rapid spread of violence drove many local authorities to defy Giolitti’s ban on the use of firearms. In December 1893, 92 peasants lost their lives in clashes with the police and army. Government buildings were burned along with flour mills and bakeries that refused to lower their prices when taxes were lowered or abolished.[13][14]

On January 3, 1894, Crispi declared a state of siege throughout Sicily. Army reservists were recalled and General Roberto Morra di Lavriano was dispatched with 40,000 troops.[15][16] The old order was restored through the use of extreme force, including summary executions. A solidarity revolt of anarchists and republicans in the Lunigiana was crushed as well.[17]

The repression of the Fasci turned into outright persecution. The government arrested not just the leaders of the movement, but masses of poor farmers, students, professionals, sympathizers of the Fasci, and even those simply suspected of having sympathized with the movement at some point in time, in many cases without any evidence for the accusations. After the declaration of the state of emergency, condemnations were issued for the paltriest of reasons. Many rioters were incarcerated for having shouted things such as "Viva l'anarchia" or "down with the King". At Palermo, in April and May 1894, the trials against the central committee of the Fasci took place and this was the final blow that signaled the death knell of the movement of the Fasci Siciliani.[18]

The failed attempt to kill Crispi by the anarchist Paolo Lega on June 16, 1894

On June 16, 1894, the anarchist Paolo Lega tried to shoot Crispi but the attempt failed.[19] On June 24 an Italian anarchist killed French President Carnot. In this climate of increased the fear of anarchism, Crispi was able to introduce a series of anti-anarchist laws in July 1894, which were also used against socialists. Heavy penalties were announced for "incitement to class hatred" and police received extended powers of preventive arrest and deportation.[17]

Crispi steadily supported the energetic remedies adopted by his Minister of Finance Sidney Sonnino to save Italian credit, which had been severely shaken the financial crisis of 18921893 and the Banca Romana scandal. In 1894 he was threatened with expulsion from the Masonic Grande Oriente d'Italia for being too friendly towards the Catholic Church.[20] He had previously been strongly anticlerical but had become convinced of the need for rapprochement with the Papacy.[21]

Crispi’s uncompromising suppression of disorder, and his refusal to abandon either the Triple Alliance or the Eritrean colony, or to forsake his Minister of the Treasury, Sidney Sonnino, caused a breach with the radical leader Felice Cavallotti. Cavallotti began a campaign of defamation against him. The unsuccessful attempt upon Crispi’s life by the anarchist Lega brought a momentary truce, but Cavallotti’s attacks were soon renewed more fiercely than ever. They produced little effect and the general election of 1895 gave Crispi a huge majority. Nevertheless, the humiliating defeat of the Italian army at Adwa in March 1896 in Ethiopia during First Italo-Ethiopian War, brought about his resignation after riots broke out in several Italian towns.[22][23]

Downfall and death

Caricature of Crispi shown as a balloon Ciccio (fat) hovering above a group of men and women representing the country.

The ensuing Antonio di Rudini cabinet lent itself to Cavallotti’s campaign, and at the end of 1897 the judicial authorities applied to the Chamber of Deputies for permission to prosecute Crispi for embezzlement. A parliamentary commission of inquiry discovered only that Crispi, on assuming office in 1893, had found the secret service coffers empty, and had borrowed money from a state bank to fund it, repaying it with the monthly installments granted in regular course by the treasury. The commission, considering this proceeding irregular, proposed, and the Chamber adopted, a vote of censure, but refused to authorize a prosecution.

Crispi resigned his seat in parliament, but was re-elected by an overwhelming majority in April 1898 by his Palermo constituents. For some time he took little part in active politics, chiefly on account of his growing blindness. A successful operation for cataract restored his eyesight in June 1900, and notwithstanding his 81 years he resumed to some extent his former political activity. Soon afterward, however, his health began to give way and he died in Naples on August 11, 1901.[24]


Crispi was a colourful and intensely patriotic character. He was a man of enormous energy but with a violent temper. His whole life, public and private, was turbulent, dramatic and marked by a succession of bitter personal hostilities.[9] According to some Crispi’s “fiery pride, almost insane touchiness and indifference to sound methods of government” were due to his Albanian inheritance.[3] Although he began life as a revolutionary and democratic figure, his premiership was authoritarian and he showed disdain for Italian liberals. He was born as a firebrand and died as firefighter.[25] At the end of the 19th century, Crispi was the dominant figure of Italian politics for a decade. He was saluted by Giuseppe Verdi as 'the great patriot'. He was a more scrupulous statesman than Cavour, a more realistic conspirator than Mazzini, a more astute figure than Garibaldi. His death resulted in lengthier obituaries in Europe's press than for any Italian politician since Cavour.[1]

As prime minister in the 1880s and 1890s, Crispi was internationally famous and often mentioned along with world statesmen such as Bismarck, Gladstone and Salisbury. Originally an enlightened Italian patriot and democratic liberal, he went on to become a bellicose authoritarian prime minister and ally and admirer of Bismarck. He is often seen as a precursor of Benito Mussolini. His reputation was a victim of Italian Fascism, which awarded him an abundance of street names, most erased after 1945. With the collapse of Fascism, Crispi's reputation was left fatally tarnished.[1][2]

Historian R.J.B. Bosworth says that Crispi:

pursued policies whose openly aggressive character would not be equaled until the days of the Fascist regime. Crispi increased military expenditure, talked cheerfully of a European conflagration, and alarmed his German or British friends with this suggestions of preventative attacks on his enemies. His policies were ruinous, both for Italy's trade with France, and, more humiliatingly, for colonial ambitions in East Africa. Crispi's lust for territory there was thwarted when on 1 March 1896, the armies of Ethiopian Emperor Menelik routed Italian forces at Adowa ... In what has been defined as an unparalleled disaster for a modern army. Crispi, whose private life (he was perhaps a trigamist) and personal finances...were objects of perennial scandal, went into dishonorable retirement.[26]

Books by Crispi

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Francesco Crispi.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Nation-building in 19th-century Italy: the case of Francesco Crispi, Christopher Duggan, History Today, February 1, 2002
  2. 1 2 3 The Randolph Churchill of Italy, by David Gilmour, The Spectator, June 1, 2002 (Review of Francesco Crispi, 1818-1901: From Nation to Nationalism, by Christopher Duggan)
  3. 1 2 Wright, Conflict on the Nile, p. 61
  4. (Italian) Crispi, Francesco, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani - Volume 30 (1984)
  5. 1 2 3 Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy
  6. Stillman, Francesco Crispi, p. 23
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Sarti, Italy: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present, pp. 222-23
  8. 1 2 3 Crispi and the Archpriest, The New York Times, June 10, 1894
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Seton-Watson, Italy from liberalism to fascism, p. 47
  10. 1 2 Sarti, Italy: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present, pp. 43-44
  11. Seton-Watson, Italy from liberalism to fascism, p. 131
  12. Seton-Watson, Italy from liberalism to fascism, pp. 154–56
  13. Shot Down by the Soldiers; Four of the Mob Killed in an Anti-Tax Riot in Sicily, The New York Times, December 27, 1893
  14. Sicily Under Mob Control; A Series of Antitax Riots in The Island, The New York Times January 3, 1894
  15. The Italian Government Alarmed; More Troops Called Out for Service in Sicily, The New York Times, January 4, 1894
  16. Martial Law Proclaimed In Sicily; Stern Measures Resorted To to Quiet the Anti-Tax Troubles, The New York Times, January 5, 1894
  17. 1 2 Seton-Watson, Italy from liberalism to fascism, pp. 165–67
  18. Sicilian Rioters Sentenced, The New York Times, May 31, 1894
  19. Premier Crispi's Escape; Two Shots Fired At Him In The Streets Of Rome, The New York Times, June 17, 1894
  20. Crispi to be Expelled by Freemasons, The New York Times, October 10, 1894
  21. "Crispi, a Freemason of deist convictions who had opposed the Law of Guarantees, had warned Bismarck and Léon Gambetta of the international danger of the Papacy in 1876, and had sacked Torlonia as late as 1887, gradually emerged as the leader of the effort to form an alliance with Catholics in defense of the established order." Secular Italy and Catholicism: 18481915, by John Rao, in Models and Images of Catholicism in Italian and Italian American Life Forum Italicum of the Center for Italian Studies at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, 2004, pp. 195-230 2004
  22. Vandervort, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914, pp. 162-64
  23. Italy’s African Fiasco, The New York Times, July 5, 1896
  24. Ex-Premier Crispi Dead; Potent Factor in Italian Politics Expires After Long Illiness, The New York Times, August 12, 1901
  25. (Italian) Crispi, una vita spericolata fuggendo dalla sua Ribera, La Repubblica, 13 December 2012
  26. Bosworth, Italy and the Wider World, p. 29

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Crispi, Francesco". Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 489.  See: Full text of "The Encyclopaedia Britannica"


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