Barry Unsworth

A reluctant country

The unification of Italy 150 years ago was a terrible mistake, according to David Gilmour, imposing a national state on a diverse collection of people with little sense of patria. But Barry Unsworth thinks it’s too early to cry failure

A reluctant country
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The Pursuit of Italy: Italians and their Diversities from the Romans to the Present

David Gilmour

Allen Lane, pp. 446, £

The unification of Italy 150 years ago was a terrible mistake, according to David Gilmour, imposing a national state on a diverse collection of people with little sense of patria. But Barry Unsworth thinks it’s too early to cry failure

David Gilmour begins his pursuit of this most elusive of quarries where all such pursuits should begin: with a close look at the physical features of the country, which have from the remotest times determined the pattern of its history, the repeated waves of invasion and settlement. Few countries have been more vulnerable. The coastline is enormously long, impossible to guard effectively; the northern rampart of the Alps has never provided much protection, breached by marauders for thousands of years. Contrasting with this ease of access from beyond the borders, travel and communication in the interior have been impeded by the densely serrated barrier of the Apennines stretching down the peninsular from north to south. The result has been a huge diversity of race and culture and language accompanied by a sort of chronic disunity, social, economic and political.

These themes of diversity and dis- unity recur constantly throughout the book. In a series of sections with a strong pictorial quality, almost like portraits, the author traces the history of Italy in its most crucial moments of change and transition. As he explains in his introduction, the book is not an academic work, and he has felt free to be idiosyncratic in his selection of topics and to give a generous amount of space to periods that seem to him particularly illustrative or significant, especially those which have exercised a decisive influence on the country’s development, like the formation of the city states in the Middle Ages, the amazing concentration of genius in the Renaissance and the tortuous politics of the Risorgimento. This personal, subjective element gives the book a freshness and readability often lacking in more laborious histories, an attractiveness reinforced by the quality of the writing, which is versatile and vivid and frequently witty, able to encompass both densely factual material and complicated narrative without loss of clarity or elegance.

In keeping with what he describes as his ‘quirkily subjective’ account of Italy’s long and eventful past, David Gilmour has also allowed himself an underlying thesis, something frequently found in one form or another among historians, though often not conscious and in any case rarely acknowledged. Here it is fully explicit and all- pervasive. It is that the real Italy, the communal Italy of diverse cultures and political structures, was crushed in 1861 by the forcible imposition of a national state on a reluctant people who had little sense of patria, who lacked a common language and who would have chosen to remain as they were, whether ruled by Habsburg, Bourbon or Pope.

There is much truth in this, and it is also true that there has been a great deal of romantic exaggeration about the patriots of the movement for Italian unity, who were generally far from heroic and often not patriotic in any real sense, politicians like Cavour, who was more interested in extending the power and hegemony of Piedmont than in bringing the country under just and equitable rule, though there are few towns in Italy today without a street named after him.

Accompanying this encrustation of legend, deriving from it, there has been an equally exaggerated account of the corruption and tyranny of the various Italian republics and monarchies that were overthrown. The author takes an ironic relish in debunking this mythology, and certainly it is a necessary corrective to the version that generations of schoolchildren have been taught, not only in Italy. But there are dangers in debunking myths, and the chief of these is going too far in the reverse direction, so to speak, and so distorting things in your turn.

It seems to me that Gilmour does not altogether succeed in avoiding this pitfall. To take one example among a good many, in discussing the role of Verdi in the nationalist movement of the 1840s and 1850s, he is so set on demonstrating that the composer was not the maestro della revoluzione that he has been made out to be, that he seriously questions, in the face of all probability, whether Verdi intended any connection between the Va pensiero chorus in Nabucco, performed in 1842, in which the enslaved Israelites lament their subjection to the Babylonian yoke, and the revolutionary fervour that was in the air at the time. It is also made a reproach to Verdi, and a sign of lukewarm patriotism and even physical timidity, that he did not volunteer for military service in the newly formed revolutionary army, returning ‘safely’ to Paris before the fighting broke out. All he was doing, in any impartial view, was getting on with the career for which he was supremely gifted.

By a similar process, as part of the argument that the regimes overthrown were more enlightened than nationalistic propaganda has made out, Ferdinand IV, Bourbon ruler of Naples, is depicted as an easy-going, ‘good-natured’ monarch. This amiable fellow fled the city in 1798 when the French revolutionary army was approaching and returned the following year to wreak a terrible revenge on the Neapolitan republicans who had sided with the invaders, luring them from their forts with promises of safe-conduct, then having 200 of them hanged in particularly hideous fashion and consigning many hundreds more to a lingering death in his notorious prisons, destroying at a stroke the flower of Neapolitan artistic and intellectual life. As to the rule of the papacy, an example of the detestation in which it was held can be found in the jubilant crowds that gathered after the victory of Garibaldi to cheer on the demolition of the papal fortress in Perugia.

The Pursuit of Italy is at its best when the special pleading is absent, which is most of the time. In the sections dealing with the intrigues and shifting alliances that attended the birth of the Italian state, or with the descent of Napoleon on the age-old republic of Venice, or with the shaping of the country under the pressures of the Cold War, there is a brilliantly accomplished technique of compressed narrative, at once compelling to read and highly informative.

The final chapter of the book is devoted to the Italy of today. It is a sorry story, which the author, quite rightly, makes no effort to gloss over or palliate. Certainly the Italy of Berlusconi has reached unprecedented depths of lawlessness and corruption. Gilmour sets this down to the terrible mistake — as he sees it — of Italian unification. The study of history is a process of learning to be wise after the event, so much is true. But events may take long to make their consequences felt, the wisdom has to be modified, revised. The Italian state is only 150 years old, not long when compared, say, with the thousand years or so of the Venetian republic, which also began under difficult circumstances with refugees from foreign invasion finding shelter in a country of marshland and lagoon, and founding a city that became one of the wonders of the world.

It is hard to think that the Italian republic will rival this, but as the 150th anniversary approaches, with 83 per cent of the adult population preparing to celebrate their sense of being fellow Italians in a free land, the best policy is not to cry failure, but to wait and see.