He was born in Palermo, Sicily. His father, a landed gentleman, delayed venturing out to register his son's birth for fear of Giuseppe Garibaldi's 1,000 patriots who had just stormed into Sicily on the first leg of their march to build an Italian nation.
He served as minister of education, 1903-1905, and minister of justice, 1907-1909, on both occasions in cabinets led by Giovanni Giolitti, the dominant figure of Italy's pre-World War I parliamentary system.
In November 1914, Orlando took up his former portfolio as minister of justice, this time under Premier Antonio Salandra. Orlando favored Italy's intervention in World War I, and he remained minister of justice after Italy became a belligerent (May 1915). Salandra's unsuccessful direction of the war effort brought a broad national government to power in June 1916 under Paolo Boselli. Orlando supported Boselli and received the important post of minister of the interior.
Orlando rapidly emerged as one of the most controversial members of the cabinet. Domestic opposition to the war was rising, notwithstanding a flash of military victory at Gorizia on the Isonzo in August 1916, and Orlando rejected demands to crack down on domestic dissent. His policy of persuasion not repression had Boselli's approval and was designed in part to keep the government backed by a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Neutralist feeling still ran strong there. By the fall of 1917 Orlando bent under the weight of criticism: he purged his ministry of assistants alleged to be soft on wartime subversion. The interior minister declared Turin, where riots in August saw police stations ransacked and streets shut down by workers' barricades, a "war zone." Nonetheless, Orlando sought to walk a middle line. On October 16, as Boselli seemed destined to fall from office, the interior minister spoke in the Chamber of Deputies to stress that he stood for both a reinvigorated war effort and a continued respect for constitutional liberties.
The enemy breakthrough at Caporetto (October 24, 1917) and the ensuing retreat demolished the Boselli cabinet. On October 30 Orlando assumed the post of premier. Despite the widespread criticism he had faced the collapse of the army was attributed by some to the government's failure to discipline the home front he remained acceptable to most of the Chamber of Deputies. The new cabinet was spurred forward into sweeping mobilization of the nation's resources by Francesco Nitti , the activist minister of the treasury. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino, who had been in office since late 1914, tried to maintain continuity in the conduct of Italy's external affairs.
Orlando's Churchillian oratory helped restore the deteriorating situation after Caporetto. At the Rapallo conference (November 5), he asked French and British delegates for fifteen combat divisions, adding that he would continue to wage the war even if he was driven back as far as Sicily. In late December, as dissent began to rise in the Chamber of Deputies, Orlando produced an overwhelming vote of confidence by proclaiming a policy of "resist, nothing but resist.”
The army High Command was reordered. The failed General Cadorna was ousted as chief of staff. Orlando consulted with King Victor Emmanuel III and installed the younger and more robust General Armando Diaz, thought to be suited to work in close cooperation with the Cabinet. Orlando instituted close civil-military relations, notably lacking in the Cadorna era, by setting up a permanent War Council of generals and cabinet members in early 1918.
Premier Orlando struck off in several other new directions. He conciliated the neutralist bloc in the Chamber by consenting to an investigation of Caporetto, a sharp slap at Cadorna and the old military High Command. The Socialists and other opponents of the war he had treated gently as minister of the interior then found themselves facing trials for inciting riots. In June Orlando accepted the authority of General Foch, the Allied generalissimo, to "coordinate" operations on the Italian front. As the Allied offensives in France and the Balkans gained momentum, Orlando stood ready to fire General Diaz if the Italian military commander persisted in delaying a large-scale offensive. In response, Diaz finally launched the Vittorio Veneto campaign in late October. Sonnino found, much to his discomfort, that Orlando was willing to meet South Slav representatives like Ante Trumbic, and to hint to them that Italy was not rigidly opposed to the emergence of a unified South Slav state along the eastern shore of the Adriatic.
The postwar era pulled Orlando into a set of problems far less manageable than those he had faced in the wake of Caporetto. As prime minister and leader of Italy's delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference, Orlando found himself at the center of a tangle of conflicting claims. Sonnino insisted on receiving for Italy every inch of territory promised by the Treaty of London in 1915, most notably the Dalmatian coast. More impassioned nationalists called for taking Italian-inhabited territory all along the eastern Adriatic regardless of the limits set by the London agreement. The principal bone of contention was the port of Fiume, where Italian and Serb army units confronted each other during the closing weeks of hostilities. Orlando himself was roused to a frenzy of patriotism over the need to answer the call of the Italian population for Fiume. It quickly became evident that even the lines set down by the Treaty of London were not sacrosanct to Italy's allies. In early 1919, for example, President Woodrow Wilson established himself as a firm supporter of Yugoslavia's ambitions, even when these collided with Italian claims.
Faced by Wilson's opposition and aware that his own political support at home was eroding, Orlando dramatically walked out of the peace negotiations on April 24, 1919. The last straw had been Wilson's direct appeal to the Italian people to be conciliatory and moderate regarding rival territorial claims in the Adriatic. Back in Rome, Orlando basked for a time in the glow of his restored popularity. But in the end, he and Sonnino had to return to Versailles without any more hope of budging Wilson than before.
On June 19, 1919, Orlando's government collapsed. The problems of demobilization had proved to be highly disruptive. But most of all, the former premier had found himself saddled with the accusation of accepting the "mutilated victory" handed Italy by its ungrateful allies.
Orlando lingered on in Italian politics. As the domestic situation deteriorated in the early 1920s, he tried on two occasions to form a government, without success. The wartime premier tacitly approved the rise of Mussolini and the Fascist movement, breaking with Mussolini only as the Fascist leader moved to establish an open dictatorship in 1924/1925. Orlando then retired to private life for two decades. He entered politics again only in 1946 as president of the postwar constituent assembly. But he was defeated in his last political contest, running for the presidency of the new Italian republic in 1948. He then retired from public affairs for good and died in Rome, December 1, 1952.
April 5, 1897 - January 21, 1929
June 18, 1916 - June 23, 1919
October 30, 1917 - June 23, 1919
July 15, 1944 - June 25, 1946
June 25, 1946 - January, 1948