Material Nation: A Consumer's History of Modern Italy

March 10, 2011

"Eat well, crap well, and don't be afraid of death" was, Emanuela Scarpellini assures us, a Tuscan peasant saying. It is a philosophy worth remembering when you next enter the wonderful restaurant that a skilled tourist can always find, hidden down a backstreet in one of Italy's gorgeous "historic centres". Such clever visitors should take a copy of Scarpellini's delightful book with them. It will make for pleasant and instructive reading when, after a satisfactory meal topped off with an amaro or grappa, they reach their hotel bedroom, pull the shutters tight against the sunshine and retire for a lengthy siesta. Food, the occasional burp, sex, sleep and that pervasive Italian aroma somehow fusing garlic, oil, coffee, tomato, really fresh fruit, church incense, sweat and car exhausts (Scarpellini does not omit smell from her consideration) should make anyone an Italy lover, ready to forgive the locals their enduring weakness for the crassness and crudity of Silvio Berlusconi, Benito Mussolini and the rest.

Material Nation has been translated, not always with ideal fluency, from an Italian work published by Laterza in 2008. But even if the reader occasionally starts at a phrase that is not quite juste in English, Scarpellini's book is always full of flavour. It is a work that ought to be compulsory to purchase with every plate of spaghetti that we "Anglo-Saxons", as the Italians oddly call us, consume. There is piquancy in her theorising that does not shy from placement in the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Norbert Elias, Maurice Halbwachs and Jurgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu and Simon Schama, Werner Sombart and Pinocchio. There is texture in her reference to emigrants and immigrants, nobles and peasants, men and women.

The story is also one of development and variation. Despite some phrases in her introduction that overemphasise the longevity of the Italian nation and the ubiquity of Italian identity, Scarpellini traces the change that saw an ordinary people's diet all but completely deprived of meat and much else until 1950 suddenly expand after the "economic miracle" to reach and even exceed levels in Western Europe. Students of fascism (part two of Material Nation is focused on the dictatorship) will have their mistrust of that regime's propaganda about its modernising "anthropological revolution" sustained by the fact that its subjects' average calorie intake declined in the 1930s and then fell much further in the decade of war and slow recovery that followed. Only after 1961 did the calorie total surpass what it had been in 1861; how stark a light is here thrown on to Italy's national history until it became part of the European Common Market.

Scarpellini's book works with this mixture of macrocosm and microcosm. Shortish chapters move chronologically from the Risorgimento to the present, but each examines where appropriate such grand matters as class, regional and gender differentiation, as well as government policy on production, consumption and welfare, and its conditioning by popular and entrepreneurial reaction or intention. There is space to chart sites of sale, advertising and fashion and to examine individuals' coping with material goods. This general analysis is enlivened by a splendid array of telling detail.

All in all, then, the book is rather like a good Italian meal. It has solid detail to act as starch for the mind's most sober needs. But present, too, are enough regalini to leave a reader pleasurably tingling at the rich and nourishing fare that Scarpellini lays before us.

Material Nation: A Consumer's History of Modern Italy

By Emanuela Scarpellini. Oxford University Press. 352pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780199589579. Published 3 March 2011

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