Sidney Sonnino

Sidney Sonnino
19th Prime Minister of Italy
In office
11 December 1909  31 March 1910
Monarch Victor Emmanuel III
Preceded by Giovanni Giolitti
Succeeded by Luigi Luzzatti
In office
8 February 1906  29 May 1906
Preceded by Alessandro Fortis
Succeeded by Giovanni Giolitti
Minister of the Treasury[1]
In office
15 December 1893  10 March 1896
Prime Minister Francesco Crispi
Preceded by Bernardino Grimaldi
Succeeded by Giuseppe Colombo
In office
3 January 1889  9 March 1889
Prime Minister Francesco Crispi
Preceded by Bonaventura Gerardi
Succeeded by Giovanni Giolitti
Minister of Finance[1]
In office
15 December 1893  14 June 1894
Prime Minister Francesco Crispi
Preceded by Lazzaro Gagliardo
Succeeded by Paolo Boselli
Minister of Foreign Affairs[1]
In office
5 November 1914  23 June 1919
Prime Minister Antonio Salandra
Paolo Boselli
Vittorio Emanuele Orlando
Preceded by Antonino Paternò Castello
Succeeded by Tommaso Tittoni
Personal details
Born Sidney Costantino Sonnino
(1847-03-11)11 March 1847
Pisa, Italy
Died 24 November 1922(1922-11-24) (aged 75)
Rome, Italy
Political party Historical Right
Italian Liberal Party
Religion Anglicanism

Baron Sidney Costantino Sonnino (11 March 1847 – 24 November 1922) was an Italian politician. He was the 19th Prime Minister of Italy and twice served briefly as one, in 1906 and again from 1909 to 1910.[1] He also was the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs during the First World War, representing Italy at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Early life and career

Sonnino was born in Pisa to an Italian father of Jewish heritage (Isacco Saul Sonnino, who converted to Anglicanism) and a Welsh mother, Georgina Sophia Arnaud Dudley Menhennet. He was raised an Anglican by his family.[2][3] His grandfather had emigrated from the ghetto in Livorno to Egypt where he had built up an enormous fortune as a banker.[4]

After graduating in law in Pisa in 1865, Sonnino became a diplomat and an official at the Italian embassies in Madrid, Vienna, Berlin and Paris, from 1866 until 1871.[2] His family lived at the Castello Sonnino in Quercianella, near Livorno. He retired from the diplomatic service in 1873.

In 1876, Sonnino traveled to Sicily with Leopoldo Franchetti to conduct a private investigation into the state of Sicilian society. In 1877, the two men published their research on Sicily in a substantial two-part report for the Italian Parliament. In the first part Sonnino analysed the lives of the island's landless peasants. Leopoldo Franchetti's half of the report, Political and Administrative Conditions in Sicily, was an analysis of the Mafia in the nineteenth century that is still considered authoritative today. Franchetti would ultimately influence public opinion about the Mafia more than anyone else until Giovanni Falcone over a hundred years later. Political and Administrative Conditions in Sicily is the first convincing explanation of how the Mafia came to be.[5]

In 1878, Sonnino and Franchetti started a newspaper (La Rassegna Settimanale), which changed from weekly economic reviews to daily political issues.[2]

Political career

Sonnino was elected in the Italian Chamber of Deputies for the first time in the general elections in May 1880, from the constituency of San Casciano in Val di Pesa. He belonged to the chamber to September 1919 from the XIV to XXIV legislature. He supported universal suffrage.[6] Sonnino soon became one of the leading opponents of the Liberal Left. As a strict constitutionalist he favoured strong government to resist pressure of special interests, making him a conservative liberal.[7]

In December 1893, he became Minister of Finance (December 1893-June 1894) and Minister of the Treasury (December 1893-March 1896) in the government of Francesco Crispi, and tried to resolve the Banca Romana scandal. Sonnino envisaged to establish a single bank of issue, but the main priority of his bank reform was to rapidly solve the financial problems of the Banca Romana, as well as to cover up the scandal which involved the political class, rather than to design a new national banking system. The newly established Banca d'Italia was the result of a merger of three existing banks of issue (the Banca Nazionale and two banks from Tuscany). Regional interests were still strong; hence the compromise of plurality of note issuance with the Banco di Napoli and the Banco di Sicilia, while providing for stricter state control.[8][9][10]

As Minister of the Treasury Sonnino restructured public finances, imposing new taxes[11] and cutting public spending. The budget deficit was sharply reduced, from 174 million lire in 1893-94 to 36 million in 1896-97.[12] After the fall of the Crispi government as a result of the lost Battle of Adwa in March 1896, he served as the leader of the opposition conservatives against the liberal Giovanni Giolitti. In January 1897, Sonnino published an article titled Torniamo allo Statuto (Let's go back to the Statute), in which he sounded the alarm about the threats that the clergy, republicans and socialists posed to liberalism. He called for the abolition of the system of parliamentary governments and the return of the royal prerogative to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister without consulting parliament, as the only possible way to avert the danger.[2][7][13] In 1901 he founded a new major newspaper, Il Giornale d'Italia.[2]

Opposition and Prime Minister

In response the social reforms presented by the Prime Minister Giuseppe Zanardelli in November 1902,[14] Sonnino introduced a reform bill to alleviate poverty in southern Italy. The bill provided for a reduction of the land tax in Sicily, Calabria and Sardinia, the facilitation of agricultural credit, the re-establishment of the system of perpetual lease for small holdings (emphyteusis) dissemination and enhancement of agrarian contracts in order to combine the interests of farmers with those of the land-owners.[15] Sonnino criticised the usual approach to solve the crisis through public works: "to construct railways where there is no trade is like giving a spoon to a man who has nothing to eat."[16]

Sonnino's uncompromising severity towards others proved to be an obstacle to form his own government for a long time.[4] Nevertheless, Sonnino served twice briefly as Prime Minister. On 8 February 1906 Sonnino formed his first government,[17] which lasted only three months; on 18 May 1906,[18] after a mere 100 days, he was forced to resign.[2] He proposed major changes to transform Southern Italy, which provoked opposition from the ruling groups. Land taxes were to be reduced by one-third, except for the really big landowners. He also proposed the establishment of provincial banks and to subsidize schools.[19] His reforms provoked opposition from the ruling groups. He was succeeded by Giovanni Giolitti.

On 11 December 1909 Sonnino formed his second government, with a strong connotation to the centre-right, but it did not last much longer, falling on 21 March 1910.[2]

First World War

Sidney Sonnino as Foreign Minister

After the events in 1914, Sonnino was initially supportive to the side of the old allies of the Triple Alliance, Germany and Austria-Hungary. He firmly believed that Italian self-interest entailed participation in the war, with its prospect of Italian territorial gains as a completion of Italian unification.[20] However, after becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs in November 1914 in the conservative government of Antonio Salandra and realizing that it was unlikely to secure Austro-Hungarian agreement to the concession of certain Austro-Hungarian territories to Italy, he sided with the Entente powers – France, Great Britain and Russia – and signed the secret Treaty of London in April 1915 to fulfill Italy’s irrendentist claims. Italy consequently declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915.[20][21]

From left to right: Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando and Sidney Sonnino at the Paris Peace Conference

He remained Minister of Foreign Affairs in three consecutive governments and represented Italy at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando. Sonnino defended the literal application of the Treaty of London and opposed to a policy of nationalities in the former territories of the Habsburg Empire.[20][22] Orlando's inability to speak English and his weak political position at home allowed Sonnino to play a dominant role. Their differences proved to be disastrous during the negotiations. Orlando was prepared to renounce territorial claims for Dalmatia to annex Rijeka (or Fiume as the Italians called the town) - the principal seaport on the Adriatic Sea - while Sonnino was not prepared to give up Dalmatia. Italy ended up claiming both and got none, due to strong opposition to Italian demands by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his policy of national self-determination.[21][22]

End of career and legacy

When the territorial ambitions of Italy towards Austria-Hungary were shattered Orlando’s government had to resign in June 1919. It was the end of Sonnino's political career and he did not participate in the elections in November 1919. Nominated senator in October 1920, he did not actively participate. Sonnino suddenly died on 24 November 1922 in Rome, suffering an apoplectic stroke.[2][4] Known as the "silent statesman of Italy" he could talk five languages fluently.[4] One of Sonnino's main aims was to revive southern Italy economically and morally, and fighting illiteracy.[4] He never married.[4]

Anglo-Saxon by birth and upbringing, he was the only Protestant leader in Italian politics. Sonnino was described as "decidedly British in manner and thought" and "the great puritan of the Chamber, the last uncorrupted man". His stern intransigent moralism made him a difficult man and although his integrity was universally respected, his closed and taciturn personality gained him few friends in political circles.[23]

A New York Times obituary described Sonnino as an intellectual aristocrat, great financier and an accomplished scholar with little talent for popularity whose greatness would have been unmistakable in the days of absolute monarchy. He was further portrayed as a very able diplomat belonging to the "old" diplomacy with an undeserved prominence at the Paris Peace Conference as the typical imperialistic annexationist at a time when the diplomatic rules had been changed.[24] According to historian R.J.B. Bosworth, "Sidney Sonnino, who was Foreign Minister from 1914 to 1919, and with a personal reputation, perhaps deserved, for honesty in all his dealings, has strong claims to have conducted Italy’s least successful foreign policy."[25]


On 16 April 1909 Wilbur Wright took Sonnino on a flight at Centocelle field, Rome, making Sonnino one of the earliest of statesmen to fly in an airplane.[26]


  1. 1 2 3 4 (Italian) Sidney Sonnino, Incarichi di governo, Parlamento italiano (Accessed May 8, 2016)
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (Italian) Sidney Sonnino (1847-1922). Note biografiche, Centro Studi Sidney Sonnino
  3. Morley Sachar, A History of the Jews in the Modern World, p. 541
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Baron Sonnino Dies; Italy's Ex-Premier; Foreign Minister During the Great War Stricken Suddenly With Apoplexy, The New York Times, November 24, 1922
  5. Dickie, Cosa Nostra, p. 43-54
  6. (Italian) Sidney Costantino Sonnino, Camera dei diputati, portale storico
  7. 1 2 Sarti, Italy: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present, p. 567
  8. Seton-Watson, Italy from liberalism to fascism, pp. 154-56
  9. Alfredo Gigliobianco and Claire Giordano, Economic Theory and Banking Regulation: The Italian Case (1861-1930s), Quaderni di Storia Economica (Economic History Working Papers), Nr. 5, November 2010
  10. Pohl & Freitag, Handbook on the history of European banks, p. 564
  11. Increased Taxation In Italy; Chamber of Deputies Approves the Scheme Outlined by Sonnino, The New York Times, December 11, 1894
  12. Clark, Modern Italy: 1871 to the present, p. 147
  13. Clark, Modern Italy: 1871 to the present, p. 140
  14. Proposed Reforms In Italy; Government Formulates Its Social Programme, The New York Times, November 15, 1902
  15. Notes of "The Observer" in Rome; Why Baron Sonnino's Reform is Purely a Charity Measure, The New York Times, November 23, 1902
  16. Wretchedness In Italy; People Suffering Dire Distress - "The Only Thing Which Prospers," Says Sonnino, "is the Blood-Sucking Octopus of Usury", The New York Times, February 5, 1903
  17. New Italian Cabinet; Baron Sonnino Premier and Count Guicciardini Foreign Minister, The New York Times, February 9, 1906
  18. Italian Cabinet Resigns; Thursday's Vote Showed Unexpected Strength In the Opposition, The New York Times, May 19, 1906
  19. Clark, Modern Italy: 1871 to the present, p. 160
  20. 1 2 3 Who's Who - Sidney Sonnino at
  21. 1 2 MacMillan, Paris 1919, pp. 283-92
  22. 1 2 Burgwyn, Italian Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1940, p. 12-14
  23. Rossini, Woodrow Wilson and the American Myth in Italy, p. 164
  24. Sonnino, The New York Times, November 25, 1922
  25. Bosworth, Italy and the Wider World, p. 39
  26. Wright Flies In Italy; Takes Up Italian Army Officer in His Aeroplane and Later Signor Sonnino, The New York Times, April 17, 1909
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sidney Sonnino.
Preceded by
Alessandro Fortis
Prime Minister of Italy
Succeeded by
Giovanni Giolitti
Preceded by
Alessandro Fortis
Italian Minister of the Interior
Succeeded by
Giovanni Giolitti
Preceded by
Giovanni Giolitti
Prime Minister of Italy
Succeeded by
Luigi Luzzatti
Preceded by
Giovanni Giolitti
Italian Minister of the Interior
Succeeded by
Luigi Luzzatti
Preceded by
Antonino Paternò Castello
Foreign Minister of Italy
Succeeded by
Tommaso Tittoni
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