The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples

Richard Bosworth hungers for something new in a tale of a disjointed country's struggle for unity

March 3, 2011

The cover of my copy of this book is stamped "published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Italian unification". Of course, the key events in the Risorgimento, from the battles in the Po Valley (where more French soldiers of Napoleon III died than did "Italians") to the passage through Sicily and onwards to Naples of that hero of heroes, Giuseppe Garibaldi, occurred in 1859-60. But a culmination in commemoration is occurring at the moment, recalling how, in February-March 1861, the first Italian parliament assembled in Turin and proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II the first king of Italy.

As is hinted at by the royal mathematical oddity of a "II" being first, this nation-making was a complex process. After all, Venice did not join Italy until 1866 (when Bismarck's Prussia roundly defeated Austria, although the Austrians won their battles against the Italians).

Rome, which was to become the nation's capital and was its most evident repository of imperial history, was not taken until September 1870. Italian troops defeated the Papal Guard but only after Napoleon III, who had been guaranteeing papal rule, lost a war (and his regime) in contest against an infant Germany.

Seen from the vantage point of 2009-11, this unevenness in Italy's past has been further roughened by contemporary Italian politics, whether in the foreign guffaws over the latest sex scandal to engulf Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, or amazement at the rising popularity of the separatist Lega Nord (Northern League). Indeed, the determination of that party to realise its invention, "Padania", raises doubts about whether there will be an Italy left to commemorate in 2059-61.

Despite the patriotic-sounding stamp on the cover, The Pursuit of Italy will give more pleasure to the Lega than to Italian nationalists. David Gilmour does allow the many pleasures of Italy, from the culinary to that of urban design, but he is a severe critic of the Italian nation. Good, he argues in the concluding pages of this book, reposes in "the real Italy, the result of a millennium of natural evolution, not the nationalist Italy, product of a drastic and insensitive imposition".

There is nothing particularly new in the view that the Risorgimento had many limitations, and that thereafter a united Italy scarcely became "top nation" (in the splendid and ironical terminology of 1066 and All That). Such major English historians of modern Italy as Denis Mack Smith and Christopher Duggan (whose fine book The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 was published by Allen Lane in 2007) have said as much.

The publisher's choice to market another general history is therefore perplexing. Although Gilmour is a fine biographer - making his name with a brilliant 1991 study of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, a splendidly evocative novel about the Risorgimento - he is not a historian. However, it might be countered that Mack Smith and Duggan portrayed Italy only from the Risorgimento, whereas Gilmour goes back to the beginnings of time, and devotes more than 100 pages to "Italians" before the unification process began.

Then as always, Gilmour's thesis insists, diversity trumped unity. Nowhere were there "signs of nascent nationalism": "People in the peninsula may have thought of themselves as culturally Italian because they were wealthier and more artistic than anyone else, but they had no notion of a political or united Italy." Or, as Gilmour puts it more worryingly when he is appraising classical Rome, "race has never been a serious factor in Italian history: there is no Italian race and there has never been one".

Here are some deep waters. Gilmour does not chart his readers convincingly through them, perhaps because he is not well enough prepared as a historian. We never really find out what a nation, let alone a race, is, although there is constant implication that the French, the British and the rest are and long have been united people. In an aside, Gilmour claims that "English patriotism" (can that be the same as British nationalism?) was "forged into unity by Danish invasions" (presumably Alfred and his cakes).

Yet the nation is a post-Enlightenment political creation, a way of organising mass societies. Any claims to earlier traditions are fake, in Britain and France as everywhere. Gilmour's top-down explorations of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, ignoring those population strata that were peasant and/or female, ensure that he finds what everyone already knows, even if more scrupulous analysts would avoid the constant yardstick of "the nation" in describing such times.

In sum, for readers who want to pursue the limitations of the Italian nation since 1859-61, Gilmour produces nice details and acute description. Berlusconi is "sleek and smarmy, smiley and jokey, a self-assured entertainer who wanted everyone to love him as much as he loved himself". Yet could not the same words be affixed tellingly to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair? Perhaps Allen Lane should hold off commissioning further "critical" histories of Italy and find someone to write an account of modern smiling, its effect and meaning.

The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples

By David Gilmour

Allen Lane, 480pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781846142512

Published 3 March 2011

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