The Italians have such a long history of infighting and divergent cultures that you can easily understand why patriotism is such a hard sell. Even today, the president of the republic has to plead with his citizens to hoist the tricolor flag and sing the national anthem.
Even after the country was unified, the royals who brought the warring factions together were unpopular in most of the peninsula, with the possible exceptions of Lombardy and Piedmont itself. Just like the Roman emperors and foreign kings before them, the Savoys were seen as another taxcollecting entity, a force to be subverted. There was, and always has been, some concept of Italy as a unit going back to the Romans, but as the historian Christopher Duggan argues in A Concise History of Italy, it was mostly relegated to the realm of philosophers and poets.
Dante Alighieri, who witnessed his share of poverty and factionalism living in the trenches between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines during the 14th century, lamented the lack of a strong leader to conquer the warring sides: O servile Italy, breeding ground of misery, ship without a pilot in a mighty tempest, he wrote.
These same thoughts were shared by northern liberals in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, who wanted to see Italy united”except not by an outside emperor, as Dante had hoped, but by an Italian”and rid of its foreign-influenced nobility. In the early 19th century, the most prominent of these liberal thinkers were from the wealthy and independent kingdom of Piedmont, particularly Count Camillio Benso di Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini, and his student, Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Cavour, at the time prime minister of Piedmont, was the first to plot to overthrow the Austrians. He struck a deal with Napoleon that if the French would march east toward Venice, Piedmont would cede him Nice and Savoy. The deal fell apart when Napoleon found out that Cavour was conspiring to annex the Papal States, and so halted his troops after they took Lombardy. Cavour was shamed, and he resigned. The war with Austria did provoke more popular uprisings, however, and when the Sicilians began getting restless under Spanish taxation, the next man to the fore was Garibaldi.
Born in Nice, he had been exiled from Piedmont on several occasions”once doing a stint as a candle-maker on Staten Island”but was perhaps the greatest patriot among the northern liberals. He would take on his mission with fervor: to bring a ragtag army of 1,000 men armed with bayonets to Sicily and liberate it. He did, and then triumphantly crossed the Straits of Messina to march on Naples in 1860.
The Kingdom of Italy was thus born, ruled by Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy, King of Piedmont and Sardinia. The Papal States having been annexed, the kingdom stretched from the Alps to Sicily, with the important exceptions of Rome and the Veneto, both taken in 1870.