Political prisoners
A transnational question in 19th century Italy

This project is a transnational historical investigation which examines the international role and representations of Italian political prisoners during the 19th century. Its goal is to investigate how and to what extent political detainees were key figures not only in the construction of an Italian patriotic discourse, but equally in the foreign understanding of and commitment for the Italian Risorgimento (the movement for Italian independence). Moreover it will delineate how humanitarian debates operated in the commitment towards a national political cause.

This research will help to understand the European historical sensitivity and a commitment towards political detainees, and people persecuted for political opinions and the evolution of international protection and humanitarian discourses. There is a running thread between these historical issues and questions concerning political prisoners in the world today, and the international awareness about them which has recently grown because of the rising number of both imprisoned political activists and refugees escaping persecution.

The illustrated London News. April 22, 1854.
Poerio and Pirouti, in the infirmary of the bagno di Ischia


What is Political prisoners?

Political prisoners is a Horizons 2020 - Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action coordinated by Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (under Grant Agreement No 838937) with the partnership of Columbia University in the City of New York for the period 2019-2022.

During the first half of the 19th century a great number of Italian political activists spent part of their lives in prison as a consequence of their struggles to obtain Italian independence or unification, or to promote liberalism and based on this experience they created an identity founded on concepts of martyrdom and sacrifice. In 1848 Atto Vannucci stated that "there are no prisons being consecrated by the suffering of the most generous men". Imprisonment was represented as a self-sacrifice which acted as proof of both the injustices and tyrannies which characterised the Italian states and of the commitment and strength of the Italian activists.

This multi-lingual and multi-archival study will employ a transnational and an interdisciplinary approach. Diplomatic papers will be investigated along with newspapers, parliamentary debates, memoirs and letters.

The main objectives of the project are:

  1. to examine the currently understudied question of political prisoners in 19th-century Italy;
  2. to analyse the transnational role of political prisoners as actors of the Italian Risorgimento;
  3. to question the notion that political detainees became an international concern only in the 20th century.

Who we are?

The Marie Curie Fellow in this project is dr Elena Bacchin, a historian of Modern History. Her doctoral thesis, focusing on the transnational history of nationalism and in particular on the British support for the Italian Risorgimento, was published as a book with the title "Italofilia. Opinione pubblica britannica e Risorgimento italiano, 1847-1864(2014).
She was a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and taught at the University of Bologna and Padua. Recently she also published "24 maggio 1915" (2019) on the day Italy entered the Great War.

The supervisors of this project are prof. Simon Levis Sullam and prof. Konstantina Zanou.

Simon Levis Sullam is Associate professor of Modern History at Ca’ Foscari University. His specialisation includes: Italy between 19th and 20th century, Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust. His most recent book "The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy" was translated in English in 2018.

Konstantina Zanou is Assistant Professor of Italian at Columbia University. Her research has focused on the circulation of ideas in the 19th century and on the role of transnational phenomena in the formation of national consciousness (her book "Transnational Patriotism in the Mediterranean, 1800-1850. Stammering the Nationwas published in 2018).