Italy arouses the most diverse and passionate reactions. Faced with such dizzying richness of art, landscape, cuisine and styles of life, dazzled commentators initially respond with an uncritical admiration or besotted wonder which later gives way to a different tone, best defined as exasperation tempered by bemusement. With all that nature and human genius has given to Italy, why is the country in the state it is? Why can it not govern itself in accordance with recognised laws, why is it tormented by organised crime, why are its politics so chaotic, why is there so much tolerance of endemic corruption and why do ordinary, honest Italians put up with it? In recent times, that bewilderment and exasperation can be expressed in one name, Silvio Berlusconi, but the problem is older.
This exasperated bewilderment is the dominant tone in David Gilmour’s book, which regrettably is as exasperating as it is exasperated. That there is a malaise in Italy’s body politic is beyond discussion. The number of politicians at national or local level who have been accused, occasionally convicted and even more occasionally jailed for corrupt practices or for collusion with organised crime has no parallel in any other western democracy. The judicial system creaks, meaning that criminal cases, as the ineffable Berlusconi has found, can be dragged out until they are dismissed under the statute of limitations, while many people with a valid complaint will simply decide that it is not worthwhile seeking redress in the civil courts. It is pro-European Italy and not Eurosceptic Britain which has the worst record of compliance with EU directives.
The recurrent question raised by thoughtful commentators, like Gilmour, is whether there was some point at which it all went wrong for the land which happily refers to itself in the Dantean phrase as il bel paese, the beautiful country. For Gilmour, the roots of Italy’s failure to become a proper nation-state were deep, a consequence first of its geography and secondly of political decisions taken by a minority which distorted the needs and inclinations of Italian peoples.
The geography can be disposed of quickly. Italy is too long a peninsula, as Napoleon apparently said, and is divided by a chain of mountains, the Apennines, running up the central spine. As a result, cross country communications were never easy. In addition, the country has the longest coastline of any European nation, and can be reached from the sea from many points, as invaders in the past and refugees today are aware. Finally, while Hannibal’s endeavours in crossing the Alps are, or were, presented as the supreme military achievement, he was followed by many other invaders from France and Germany down the ages.
What geography made possible, history made inevitable. Gilmour, at least in this book, is not one for nuanced or qualified judgements. Italy as he views it can be numbered among the world’s failed states, indeed he believes it was ‘impossible to create a successful nation-state’ in Italy. Only in 2008, when the regions which the post-war constitution had had promised were finally in operation and ‘fiscal autonomy’ was advocated, was Italy ‘at last on the road to becoming what it should have been all along, a state that recognised the importance of regionalism and diversity’. The pursuit of Italy may give him a title, but will be futile, because Italy as a nation-state should never have existed.
The problem, in other words, was the creation of a unified, centralised country. This year Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento, the process of Reunification which brought together the various statelets, principalities, dukedoms and kingdoms which allowed Metternich to sneer at nineteenth century Italy as a ‘geographical expression’. While the official celebrations are respectful and even raucous, they are accompanied by an undertone of dissent and doubt from politicians and historians. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, advocates anti-Unification policies which have varied over the years between demands for political or fiscal federalism, devolution, autonomy or outright independence for the North. Historians have been turning out volumes casting doubt on the Unification process. Was it really a popular movement expressing the will of the people or a campaign headed by a minority of enthusiasts who imposed their vision on an indifferent majority?
Gilmour is very much of the latter view, but he goes further than most with his belief that unification was worse than a fraud; it was a mistake. His sardonic and polemical tone makes him like a man swinging a broadsword in a shrine, with no thought of sparing the altars or the sacred relics. No doubt this approach can be bracing, but this is history as a series of ‘what ifs?’ or as an exercise in debunking in the style of Lytton Strachey. Recent revisionist, or sceptical, historians have taken the nineteenth century as field of enquiry into the creation of Italy and Italians (two very different entities), but Gilmour goes further back, to ancient Rome, to see if there was any sense of Italian-ness to be found there.
Certainly not, he concludes, unsurprisingly. The Emperor Augustus did not regard Italy as a nation but rather as an ‘administrative convenience.’ Cicero and Catullus are judged equally deficient in this context, although Virgil is allowed the claim to be the first Italian, but perhaps also the last, excepting Machiavelli, ‘for 1800 years’. No doubt it is true that the Romans wanted an empire not a nation, but are there really grounds for expecting any continuity between their successes and failures and what is happening in Italy today? It makes for a stirring narrative, but is no more informative than speculating on links between Calgacus and Alex Salmond.
The real Italy – or should that be Italys? – was the patchwork of communes and city-states which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance managed to allow full expression of the diversity which is the very essence of Italy. Of course, Italy did not exist as a unity, but it seems to me that there was a greater, admittedly ambiguous and faltering, sense of Italian-ness than Gilmour allows. Dante was primarily a Florentine and also a citizen of the Holy Roman Empire, but he recognised a community of peoples who spoke mutually comprehensible languages or dialects. Siena draws Gilmour’s particular admiration, but he has to balance that by rubbishing the work of Giorgio Vasari, a mediocre painter but a biographer of genius, who left invaluable material on the great artists of the Florentine Renaissance.
Any reader must get the impression that Gilmour feels a need to overturn any accepted judgment, not always for well founded reasons. The revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers, when the Sicilians in 1282 rose up against French overlords, shocked Europe and appeared as an early expression of a national feeling against an unwanted foreign presence, or so the great medieval historian, Steven Runciman, suggests. It was seemingly sparked off by a French soldier who insulted a Sicilian woman, never a wise act, but Gilmour suggests that the subsequent uprising may be seen as a ‘grotesque reprisal’. And indeed it would if there were no other factors involved, but we have seen recently in Tunisia how one seemingly isolated event can act as an explosive catalyst when there is already a state of widespread discontent.
In his efforts to show the advantages of the independent statelets, he becomes remarkably tolerant of the rulers of the preceding entities. Venice fascinates every visitor, and maybe Gilmour is right to say that it should have regained its independence after the fall of Napoleon and that it would then have become a small European state like the Netherlands. He fails to say what it would live on, since it seems now to survive on the sale of Harlequin masks and take-away pizzas, but more importantly he is unduly gentle in his characterisation of the government of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The post-boxes used for anonymous denunciation of dissidents, who were then disposed off in the lagoon, can still be seen around the city.
And no one has been more mild in their treatment of the Spanish rulers in the South. Gilmour attacks the Sicilians for their lack of energy, their laziness, their resignation and their unwillingness to take steps to improve their own lot, and perhaps here he is echoing the famous words of the Prince in The Leopard. Gilmour wrote a splendid biography of its author, Tomasi di Lampedusa, but he might have considered the opinions of the Scottish eighteenth century traveller, Patrick Brydone, author of one of the best books ever written on Sicily. Steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment, he squarely expressed his understanding of the plight of a people subjected to tyrannical government which undermined all spirit of enterprise.
Gilmour’s basic point throughout is that people were happy under their previous rulers and that unification was not likely to make them happier. Happiness is hard to measure from the outside and scarcely within the remit of political action. The American Founding Fathers offered people only the pursuit of happiness, and that pursuit was as vague as Gilmour’s present one. United Italy was undoubtedly realised by a band of devious politicians, notably the statesman, Camillo Cavour, and hotheads, like Garibaldi. If the latter had not taken it upon himself to lead an invasion of Sicily in 1860, against the wishes of Cavour and the king, perhaps there would have been two Italys, with the Southern capital in Naples.
And today, there is Berlusconi, the most baffling and tedious puzzle of them all. When all allowances are made for his wealth, commercial success and control of the media, how could a free people vote for such a scurrilous man? Gilmour is scathing on him, and is baffled by his popularity, as is every observer. Would an independent Lombardy, Venice or Tuscany have prevented his rise? Italy itself remains enigmatic, a nation without nationalism, a multi-national country like Spain or Britain, a democracy that distrusts the state, ruled by governments that cannot govern. Gilmour exposes these problems, but spoils a good book by exaggeration and dubious historical judgements.
THE PURSUIT OF ITALY – A HISTORY OF A LAND, ITS REGIONS AND THEIR PEOPLES
ALLEN LANE, £25.00 480PP ISBN 978-1846142512