Orsini was born in the small city-state of Meldola but from the age of nine, he was put in the care of his uncle, Orso Orsini, in whose care he received a strict religious education.
His uncle wanted the young Orsini to become a priest but he rejected that idea and became a follower of Giuseppe Mazzini, joining the Young Italy movement that aimed to create a unified Italian republic through any and all means.
In 1844, Orsini and his father were arrested for their involvement in revolutionary plots and sentenced to life imprisonment only to be freed by the new Pope Pious XI. He went on to distinguish himself in the First War of Italian Independence in 1848.
Orsini was elected a member of the Roman Constituent Assembly under the short-lived revolutionary republic in Rome and then in 1854, he was sent on a secret mission to Hungary where he was arrested and imprisoned in 1854. He was able to escape using a tiny saw to cut through the bars at his cell’s window and negotiating the 100-foot drop using a rope made of bed sheets.
He became convinced that major obstacle to Italian independence was Napoleon III and that if he were to be assassinated then France would rise in revolt and that this situation could be exploited to bring about a revolt in Italy.
Orsini visited London in 1857 and made contact with the gunsmith, Joseph Taylor, asking him to make six bombs of Orsini’s own design. These were tested in Sheffield and Devonshire and once satisfied he returned to Paris.
It was on the evening of 14th January 1858 that he was to put his plan into effect. The Emperor and Empress were on their way to the theatre to see a performance of William Tell (ironically himself a revolutionary) when Orsini and his accomplices threw three bombs at the imperial carriage.
The first bomb landed among the cavalrymen riding ahead of the carriage, the second wounded the horses and smashed the carriage glass while the third exploded beneath the carriage wounding a policeman.
Eight people were killed during the attack and 142 wounded. The only people to leave the scene unhurt were the emperor and empress.
The wounded included Orsini himself having been hit on the head by shrapnel but he was able to escape and return to his lodgings where he was arrested the following day.
Rather than incite a revolution in France, the attempted assassination actually increased Napoleon III’s popularity and a rise in anti-British feeling because of that country’s involvement in the manufacture of the bombs. What became known as the Orsini Affair was to have political consequences across Europe.
Orsini himself was sentenced to death and was executed by guillotine on 13th March 1858.