Why is Ticino part of Switzerland and not Italy?

Why is Ticino part of Switzerland and not Italy?

While we often talk about the linguistic, political and historical differences between French and German-speaking Switzerland, one canton often fails to fit into the narrative: Ticino. As the only region where Italian is the dominant spoken language, many may wonder why it is part of Switzerland and not Italy. Here’s why the Ticinese are Swiss:

Why do people in Ticino speak Italian?

Before the 15th century, the area we now know as Canton Ticino was ruled by the Duchy of Milan. Italian-based rule had been the norm since the area was first conquered by the Roman Empire, which is why communities in the valleys south of the Swiss Alps developed speaking Italian.

This was the case until 1403, when forces from Canton Uri began encroaching on Milanese land. Between 1403 and 1440, the canton would eventually succeed in conquering the area around Airolo. Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden would go on to take Bellinzona - the now capital of Ticino - in 1500, and the Old Swiss Confederacy acting together would take Locarno, Mendiso and Lugano in 1512.

How did Switzerland come to control Italian-speaking areas?

This was part of a wider strategy that sought to expand Switzerland into northern Italy. This was aided by the fact that up until the 1510s, the Swiss military was one of the most feared and successful in Europe. However, this dominance ended after the devastating battle of Marignano in 1515, where a French force decimated the armies of the Old Swiss Confederacy. 

This was the last time Switzerland would conduct an offensive war as a unified country - in an interesting "what if" scenario, if the Swiss had won the battle, Milan could have been part of the alpine nation. However, while defeated, Switzerland consolidated its control over the Italian-speaking lands we now know as Ticino.

Ticino divided among Swiss cantons and the federal government

Between the 1500s and 1700s, Ticino was divided between Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden, while 12 towns (including the likes of Locarno and Lugano) were administered by the federal government. These regions were controlled by externally appointed, non-local governors, leading to resentment among the Italian-speaking people of the region. This would boil over in the 1790s.

It’s an old adage that when it comes to history, Napoleon changes everything, and so too with Ticino. After the French emperor founded the Cisalpine Republic - a nation-state consisting of Italian city-states like Milan, Mantua, Modena and Bologna among others - some in Ticino wanted the region to leave Switzerland and join the new country.

Why did Ticino pick Switzerland over Italy?

This culminated on February 15, 1798, when a group of armed men stormed the town hall of Lugano, taking the federal governor hostage and demanding that the city be incorporated into the Italian state. However, the coup failed after volunteers from Lugano itself forced the conspirators out.

So why did Ticino choose to remain in Switzerland rather than join an Italian state? Many within the region were concerned that joining such a state would mean giving up the financial, administrative and political autonomy that Switzerland provided. However, equally clear was the fact that Ticino could not continue as a subject of other German-speaking cantons.

Therefore, most of the elite wanted the region to remain part of Switzerland, but also wanted the rights and privileges of a canton.

Canton Ticino is born

Therefore, on the same day that the coup attempt was quashed, Lugano's citizens freed the Swiss governor, expelled him and declared their independence from federal control. A tree was then planted in the Piazza Grande, adorned with the words liberi e Svizzeri!, or free and Swiss! The 11 other federally controlled cities would soon follow Lugano’s lead.

It would take a while longer before an Italian-speaking canton could be formed. After Napoleon’s conquest of Switzerland in 1798, Lugano and Bellinzona would emerge as two new cantons in the French-backed Helvetic Republic. Once the republic fell apart in 1803, Canton Ticino was founded. Despite pressure from the likes of Uri, and Nidwalden, who sought the return of their old lands, Ticino would officially join the Swiss Confederation in its current form in 1848.

Has Ticino ever considered joining Italy?

However, this is not the last time that Ticino’s position in Switzerland has been up for debate. During the Italian wars of unification, many within both Italy and Ticino saw the canton as naturally part of the new nation-state. When Milan was freed of Austrian control after the battle of Solferino in 1859, calls for Ticino to join Italy grew.

Worried about rising popular support for Ticino joining Italy, the Federal Council famously contacted officials in the canton, asking whether they were truly committed to being Swiss. In what would then put the issue to rest, outraged Ticinese politicians wrote a strong letter to Bern, affirming their commitment to being part of Switzerland and declaring the events of February 15, 1798, as a "fateful day" for the canton. According to Watson, the message included: “liberi e Svizzeri.”

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Editor for Switzerland at IamExpat Media. Jan studied History at the University of York and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Sheffield. Though born in York, Jan has lived most...

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