Felice Orsini was born at Meldola in Romagna. Orsini was encouraged to become a priest but he abandoned that way and became an ardent liberal, joining the Giovane Italia, a society founded by Giuseppe Mazzini.
Orsini was arrested in 1844 together with his father implicated in revolutionary plots and condemned to imprisonment for life. The new pope, Pius IX set him free, and he led a company of young Romagnols in the first war of Italian independence in 1848, distinguishing himself in the engagements at Treviso and Vicenza.
Orsini was elected member of the Roman Constituent Assembly in 1849, and after the fall of the republic he conspired against the papal autocracy in the interest of the Mazzinian party. Mazzini sent him on a secret mission to Hungary, but he was arrested in 1854 and imprisoned at Mantua. He escaped a few months later using a tiny saw to cut through two grids of bars, climbed out of the window that was at the height of 100 feet and slid down using a rope he had made of bedsheets. Passing sympathetic peasant carried him past the Austrian guards.
In 1856 he briefly visited Britain and received a favorable welcome. The daily News had published the first English translation of his tale of escape. In 1857 he published an account of his prison experiences in English under the title of The Austrian Dungeons in Italy, which led to a rupture between him and Mazzini. In 1856 he published The Memoirs and Adventures of Felice Orsini. Then he begun to negotiate with Ausonio Franchi , editor of the Ragione of Turin, which he proposed to make the organ of pure republicans.
Orsini became convinced that Napoleon III was the chief obstacle to Italian independence and the principal cause of the anti-liberal reaction throughout Europe. He plotted his assassination with the logic that after the emperor's death France would rise in revolt and the Italians could exploit to situation to revolt themselves. He went to Paris in 1857 to conspire against the emperor.
At the end of the 1857 Orsini briefly visited England where he contacted gunsmith Joseph Taylor and asked him to make six copies of a bomb of Orsini's own design; it would explode on impact and used fulminate of mercury as an explosive. The bomb was tested in Sheffield and in Devonshire with the aid of French radical Simon Bernard . Satisfied Orsini returned to Paris with the bombs and contacted other conspirators, Fieri, Rudio and Gomez.
On the evening of January 14 1858, as the emperor and empress were on their way to the theatre in the Rue Le Peletier, the precursor of the [[Opéra] Garnier]], Orsini and his accomplices threw three bombs at the imperial carriage. The first bomb landed among the horsemen in front of the carriage. The econd bomb wounded the animals and smashed the carriage's glass. The third bomb landed under the carriage and seriously wounded a policeman who was hurrying to protect the occupants. The total death toll was still 156, three people blinded and eight seriously wounded; the last were to die days later. The emperor and empress were unhurt. Napoleon, the first modern European politician, realized that he and Eugénie had to proceed to the performance and appear in their box. The opera, circumstantially enough, was Rossini's William Tell.
Orsini himself was wounded on the right temple and stunned. He tended his wounds and returned to his lodgings where police found him the next day.
The attempted assassination actually increased Napoleon IIIs popularity. Because the bombs had been made and tested in England, it caused a brief anti-British furor in France because of suspicion of British involvement. The emperor refused to escalate the situation and it eventually defused.
On February 11 Orsini wrote his famous letter to Napoleon, in which he exhorted him to take up the cause of Italian independence - the cause Napoleon III had already supported in his youth. Modern historians have even suspected that Napoleon wrote some of the letter himself. He addressed another letter to the youth of Italy and condemned political assassination . He was sentenced to death and went calmly to the guillotine on March 13 1858. His accomplices were also sentenced; Fieri was executed, Rudio was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to imprisonment and Gomez was condemned to hard labour for life.
- Memoirs and Adventures of Felice Orsini written by himself (Edinburgh, 1857, 2nd ed., edited by Ausonio Franchi, Turin, 1858); Lettere edite e inedite di F. O. (Milan, 1861); Enrico Montazio, I contemporanei Italiani-Felice Orsini (Turin, 1862); La verité sur Orsini, par un ancien proscrit (1879); Angelo Arboit, Tofin e la fuga di Felice Orsini (Cagliari, 1893).
- Jad Adams: Striking a Blow for Freedom (History Today September 2003)
Modified from the original entry of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica