Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
The revolutionary triennio in Italy was a sort of linguistic laboratory which saw substantial semantic mutations of the term ‘democracy’. It left behind the etymological deadweight of the classical era with its conception of direct democracy, above all the Athenian and Spartan models, and at the same time caused a sort of ‘democratization’ of the republican tradition as interpreted by Niccolò Machiavelli and Montesquieu. Both processes sought to engender a new form of representative democracy fundamentally based on the sovereignty of the individual-citizen-male voter in a universal sense (some, however, proposed enfranchising women as well). The concept of representative democracy swung back and forth between the two extremes of a representative republic in the hands of a new natural aristocracy – a republic sensitive to the so-called liberty of the moderns and favourable to commerce – and that of a direct democracy based on the agrarian model of the ancients.
Before the revolutionary armies descended on Italy, the ‘republic’ and republican ideals were certainly deeply rooted experiences in the history of some areas of the country but, as indeed all other political concepts of that period, they were to be analyzed from an aristocratic viewpoint. When authors of the time spoke of democracy, they either referred to the negative judgment made by Plato and Aristotle on that form of government or they thought of the democratic principle as an essential part of the governo misto. Historically speaking, democracy was embodied in the experience of republican Rome. This idea was still fully in vogue in the British monarchy which, as David Hume affirmed, some continued to consider a republic, despite appearances. The Piedmontese writer and poet Vittorio Alfieri, in his Della Tirannide of 1777, commented that from a certain point of view the ‘English Republic’ was more strongly rooted than the Roman one. The republican ideal of vivere libero and vivere civile that Alfieri, the Milanese philosophe Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and others had taken from Machiavelli presupposed that the right to vote was firmly linked to the property of the land, clearly marking the difference between the people (il popolo) and the notorious plebes (l’infima plebe).