Italian irredentism in Nice

Coat of arms of the Nizzardo (County of Nice)

Italian irredentism in Nice was the political movement supporting the annexation of Nice to the Kingdom of Italy. The term was coined by Italian Irredentists who sought the unification of all Italian peoples within the Kingdom of Italy. According to some Italian nationalists and fascists, like Ermanno Amicucci, Italian and Ligurian speaking populations of the County of Nice (Nizza) formed the majority of the county's population until the mid-19th century.[1] But modern linguistics refute this theory : Occitan and Ligurian languages were spoken in the County of Nice. During the Risorgimento, in 1860, the Savoy government allowed France to annex the region of Nice from the Kingdom of Sardinia in exchange for French support of its quest to unify Italy. Consequently, the Nizzardi Italians were excluded from the Italian unification movement and the region has since become primarily French-speaking.


The Contea di Nizza (as the area of Nice had been called since medieval times) was populated by Ligurian tribes up to the occupation by the Romans. These tribes were conquered by Augustus and were fully romanized (according to Theodore Mommsen) by the 4th century, when the barbarian invasions began.

The Franks conquered the region after the fall of Rome, and the local Romance language speaking populations became integrated within the County of Provence, with a period of independence as a maritime republic (1108–1176). In 1388, the commune of Nice sought the protection of the Duchy of Savoy, and Nice continued to be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Savoy monarchs right up until 1860.

During this time, the maritime strength of Nice rapidly increased until it was able to cope with the Barbary pirates. Fortifications were largely extended by the rulers of Savoy and the roads of the city and surrounding region improved. Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, abolished the use of Latin and established the Italian language as the official language of Nice in 1561.[2]

Conquered in 1792 by the armies of the First French Republic, the County of Nice was part of France until 1814; but after that year it was placed under the protection of the Kingdom of Sardinia by the Congress of Vienna.

By a treaty concluded in 1860 between the Sardinian king and Napoleon III, the County of Nice was again ceded to France, along with Savoy, as a territorial reward for French assistance in the Second Italian War of Independence against Austria, which saw Lombardy unified with Piedmont-Sardinia.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, born in Nice, strongly opposed the cession to France, arguing that the plebiscite that ratified the treaty was not "universal" and contained irregularities. He was elected at the "French National Assembly" for Nice with 70% of the votes in 1871, and quickly promoted the withdrawal of France from Nice, but the elections were invalidated by the French authorities.[3]

In 1871/72 there were popular riots in the city (called by Garibaldi Vespri Nizzardi[4]), promoted by the "Garibaldini" in favour of unification with the Kingdom of Italy.[5] Fifteen Nizzardi Italians were processed and condemned for these riots, supported by the 'Nizzardo Republican Party'[6]

Nice in 1624, when it was called Nizza

More than 11,000 Nizzardi Italians refused to be French and moved to Italy (mainly Turin and Genoa) after 1861.[7] The French government closed the Italian language newspapers Diritto di Nizza and Voce di Nizza in 1861, and Il Pensiero di Nizza in 1895. In these newspapers wrote the most famous writers in Italian language of Nice: Giuseppe Bres, Enrico Sappia, Giuseppe André.

One of the most renowned Nizzardo Italians was Luciano Mereu, a follower of Garibaldi. On November 1870 he was temporarily exiled from Nice together with the "Garibaldini" Adriano Gilli, Carlo Perino and Alberto Cougnet.[8] Later, Luciano Mereu was elected in 1871 as counselor of Nizza under Mayor Augusto Raynaud (1871–1876) and was member of the Commissione garibaldina di Nizza with Donato Rasteu, its President until 1885.

Benito Mussolini considered the annexation of Nice to be one of his main targets. In 1942, during the Second World War, after the landing of the Allies in North Africa (Operation Torch), the former County of Nice was occupied and administered by Italy from November 11, 1942 until September 8, 1943.

The Italian occupation was far less severe than the Vichy regime. Therefore, thousands of Jews took refuge there. For a while the city became an important centre for various Jewish organizations. However, when the Italians signed the armistice with the Allies, German troops invaded the former Italian zone (September 8, 1943) and initiated brutal raids. Alois Brunner, the SS official for Jewish affairs, was placed at the head of units formed to search out Jews. Within five months, 5,000 Jews were caught and deported.[9]

The area was returned to France following the war and in 1947, the areas of La Brigue and Tende, which had remained Italian after 1860 were ceded to France. Thereafter, a quarter of the Nizzardi Italians living in that mountainous area moved to Piedmont and Liguria in Italy (mainly from Val di Roia and Tenda).[10]

Today, after a sustained process of Francization conducted since 1861, the former county is predominantly French-speaking. Only along the coast around Menton and in the mountains around Tende there are still some native speakers of the original Intemelio dialect of ligurian language.[11]

Currently the area is part of the Alpes-Maritimes department of France.


In Nice the language of Church, Municipality, Law, School, Theatre was always the Italian language....From 460 AD to the mid-19th century the County of Nice counted 269 writers, not including the still living. Of these 269 writers, 90 used Italian, 69 Latin, 45 Italian and Latin, 7 Italian and French, 6 Italian with Latin and French, 2 Italian with Nizzardo dialect and French, 2 Italian and Provençal.[12]

Augustus conquered the Nice territory, populated by Ligures, and left a monument (Trophy of the Alps) with the names of the Ligurian tribes. The Ligurians were fully Romanized in the following centuries and their version of the Latin language became a Romance language during the Middle Ages.

The Kingdom of Sardinia in 1839, with the Nizzardo in green at the bottom
A map of the County of Nice (Nizza in Italian) showing the area of the Kingdom of Sardinia and annexed in 1860 to France (light brown) and to Italy (yellow)

Before the year 1000 the area of Nice was part of the Ligurian League, under the Republic of Genoa; the population spoke a dialect different from the one of western Liguria, whereas in the eastern part the language which today is called Intemelio.[13] was spoken. The medieval writer and poet Dante Alighieri wrote in his Divine Comedy, that the river Var near Nice was the western limit of the Italian Liguria.

Around the 12th century Nice came under the French House of Anjou, that favoured the immigration of peasants from Provence who brought with them their Occitan language.[14] In those years, the people of the mountainous areas of the upper Var valley started to lose their former Ligurian linguistic characteristics and began to adopt Provençal influences - in the phantastic linguistics and historical inventions of the Italian fascists, such as Ermanno Amicucci -. From 1388 to 1860 the County of Nice was under the Savoyard rule and remained connected to the Italian dialects and peninsula. In those centuries the local dialect of Nice, known as Niçard, was different from the Monégasque (of the Principality of Monaco) but still had some Ligurian influences.

Most scholars today classify Niçard as a dialect of Occitan and Monégasque as a dialect of Ligurian, but Sue Wright wrote that - before the Kingdom of Sardinia ceded the County of Nice to France- "Nice was not French-speaking before the annexation but underwent a shift to French in a short time... and it is surprising that the local Italian dialect, the Nissart, disappeared quickly from the private domain." [15]

She also wrote that one of the main reasons of the disappearance of the Italian language in the County was because "(m)any of the administrative class under Piedmont-Savoy ruler, the soldiers; jurists; civil servants and professionals, who used Italian in their working lives, moved [back] to Piedmont, after the annexation and their places and roles were taken by newcomers from France".

Indeed, immediately after 1861, the French government closed all the Italian language newspapers and more than 11,000 Nizzardi Italians moved to the Kingdom of Italy. The dimension of this exodus can be deducted by the fact that in the Savoy census of 1858, Nice had only 44,000 inhabitants. In 1881 the New York Times wrote that, before the French annexation the Nizzardi were quite as much Italian as the Genoese and their dialect was if anything, nearer the Tuscan, than the harsh dialect of Genoa.[16]

Within twenty years the Nizzardi Italians were reduced to a small minority and Niçard was assimilated by Occitan, with many French loanwords. Modern-day linguists usually hold that Niçard is an Occitan dialect.)[17]

Giuseppe Garibaldi defined his "Nizzardo" as an Italian dialect, albeit with strong similarities to Occitan and with some French influences, and for this reason promoted the union of Nice to the Kingdom of Italy. Today some scholars, like the German Werner Forner, the French Jean-Philippe Dalbera and the Italian Giulia Petracco Sicardi, agree that the Niçard has some characteristics - phonetical, lexical and morphological - that are typical of the western Ligurian language. The French scholar Bernard Cerquiglini pinpoints in his Les langues de France the actual existence of a Ligurian minority in Tende, Roquebrune and Menton.

Another reduction in the number of the Nizzardi Italians happened after World War II, when defeated Italy was forced to surrender to France the small mountainous area of the County of Nice, that had been retained in 1860. From the Val di Roia, Tenda and Briga one quarter of the local population moved to Italy in 1947.

In the century of nationalism between 1850 and 1950, the Nizzardi Italians were reduced from the 70% majority [18] of the 125,000, living in the County of Nice at the time of the French annexation, to an actual minority of nearly two thousand (in the area of Tende and Menton) today.

Nowadays, Nizzardi Occitans are fluent in French, but a few of them still speak the original Occitan language of Nizza La Bella.

See also


  1. Amicucci, Ermanno. Nizza e l’Italia. p 64
  2. Amicucci, Ermanno. Nizza e l’Italia. Introduction
  3. The Times on the 1871 riots in Nice
  4. "Vespri Nizzardi" (in Italian) in Nizza, negli ultimi quattro anni of Giuseppe André
  5. Stuart, J. Woolf. Il risorgimento italiano p.44
  6. André, G. Nizza, negli ultimi quattro anni (1875) p. 334-335
  7. Italian exiled from Nizza:"Quelli che non vollero diventare francesi" (in Italian)
  8. Letter of Alberto Cougnet to Giuseppe Garibaldi, Genova, 7 dicembre 1867,"Archivio Garibaldi", Milano, C 2582)
  9. Italians and Jews in Nice 1942/43
  10. Intemelion
  11. Intemelion 2007
  12. Francesco Barberis: "Nizza Italiana" p.51
  13. Werner Forner.À propos du ligurien intémélien - La côte, l'arrière-pays, Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Nice, 7-8, 1986, pp. 29-62.
  14. Gray, Ezio. Le terre nostre ritornano... Malta, Corsica, Nizza. Chapter 2
  15. Beyond Boundaries: Language and Identity in Contemporary Europe
  16. New York Times, 1881
  17. Bec, Pierre. La Langue Occitane. pag 58
  18. Amicucci, Ermanno. Nizza e l’Italia. pag 126


External links

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