He was educated as a lawyer, taught at the University of Rome, and entered the Chamber of Deputies to represent Foggia in 1886.
Salandra received his first Cabinet post as minister of agriculture in 1899. During the first decade of the twentieth century he was a close political ally of Conservative Sidney Sonnino, serving as finance minister under him in 1906 and again in 1909. In the wake of the Libyan War, 1911/1912, Salandra shifted his political direction, coming into the orbit of the political kingmaker of the era, Giovanni Giolitti. In March 1914, when Giolitti left the post of prime minister, Salandra took over. Giolitti's followers dominated the Chamber of Deputies and Salandra's ministry was expected to be merely a brief interlude until Giolitti decided to return to power.
The summer of 1914 was marked by an upsurge in domestic unrest. During June's "Red Week," Salandra found it necessary to call out the army to deal with massive strikes and urban violence. He had barely recovered his equilibrium from this trial when Italy was confronted with the Sarajevo assassination and the subsequent July crisis.
Salandra's lack of experience in foreign affairs placed enormous authority in the hands of his foreign minister, Antonio Di San Giuliano. Soon after the latter's death in October 1914, Sidney Sonnino took the reins of foreign affairs into his hands. Under San Giuliano's direction, Salandra led Italy into an initial declaration of neutrality on August 2. The refusal to honor Italy's alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary was explained on the ground that the Vienna government had proceeded against Serbia without first consulting Rome. In reality, Italian policy reflected a number of concerns: withholding active support could eventually bring Italy long-desired territorial gains from Vienna, such as Trieste and the Trentino. Once Britain had entered the war (August 4) with its powerful navy, a stand on the side of the Central Powers exposed Italy to serious military risks. Moreover, strong irredentist feeling in Italy militated against any effort to stand alongside the hated Austrians on any battlefield.
But prolonged neutrality, as Salandra came to see, also held dangers. A vengeful and victorious Germany was unlikely to deal mildly with a doubledealing former ally who continued to withhold armed support. The Entente was equally unlikely to reward Italy with territorial acquisitions for anything less than direct military assistance. If a majority of the nation s population and political representatives favored neutrality, Salandra faced a vocal minority committed to war against Austria-Hungary. Failure to gain something out of the war might cause sufficient popular unrest to endanger the monarchy, or even the social order itself.
Between December 1914 and April 1915, the Salandra government negotiated with both sides. Austrian reluctance, even under strong German pressure, to make territorial concessions to Rome tipped the scales to the Entente, as did the Allied military activity in the Mediterranean seen at the Dardanelles. After a long round of secretive diplomacy even the cabinet was left in the dark Salandra and Sonnino pledged Italy to the Entente in the Treaty of London (April 26, 1915).
Before Salandra could obtain a declaration of war the Giolittian majority in Parliament remained staunchly in favor of neutrality the picture changed. The Austro-German success at Gorlice (May 2), Allied failures at the Dardanelles, and Berlin's frantic efforts to push Vienna to give Italy what it wanted in the way of territory seemed to make a declaration of war dangerous and unnecessary. Lacking firm support in the Chamber of Deputies, Salandra resigned on May 13. Interventionist demonstrations and the clear preference of King Victor Emmanuel III for joining the Entente helped prevent a neutralist government from forming. Salandra returned to the premier's desk on May 16 and Italy declared war against Austria-Hungary on May 24.
"Salandra's war" turned out to be far different from what the prime minister had anticipated. The short, limited conflict to smash the Austrians bogged down into bloody stalemate on the Isonzo. Salandra's reluctance to mobilize the nation, or to declare war on Germany as the Treaty of London required, antagonized Italy's allies. Italian proponents of total war, like Socialist Deputy Leonida Bissolati, joined their voices to the criticism coming from abroad. The Italian High Command, led by General Luigi Cadorna, fended off efforts at civilian control. Cadorna agreed with Salandra's reluctance to upend the nation by resorting to full-scale mobilization. But the general clashed with the prime minister in other areas: Cadorna called, for example, for closer cooperation with Italy's allies, as seen in the quarrel between the general and the civilian leader over sending Italian troops to Salonika.
By mid-May 1916, in the wake of five useless offensives on the Isonzo, Salandra's government found itself confronting the Strafexpedition. Austrian forces under Conrad von Hotzendorf drove southward through the Trentino passes to threaten the Lombard plains. Italian armies on the Isonzo then had an enemy at their back. Cadorna spoke of a massive retreat to the Piave and refused to meet with civilian leaders. Salandra was appalled, but he lacked the confidence to sack the general.
Neutralists opposed to the war combined with deputies who felt it was not being pursued energetically enough. Salandra's government fell on June 10, 1916. It was replaced by a broad coalition led by Paolo Boselli, the grand old man of the Chamber of Deputies.
Salandra played no further role in World War I, although he attended the Paris Peace Conference as a member of the Italian delegation. He rallied for a time to support Mussolini's Fascist regime, representing Italy at the League of Nations. But he retired from political life in 1925 and died in Rome on December 9, 1931.