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Beyond The Bel Paese

Niamh Cullen

The Pursuit of Italy: A history of a land, its regions and their peoples, by David Gilmour, Allen Lane, 480 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1846142512

This year Ireland was not the only country to celebrate a national holiday on March 17th. This was also the day on which, a hundred and fifty years ago, the kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed in Turin and King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont – the small Alpine kingdom bordering Italy and France – declared the first Italian king.

From 1861 onwards, Italy was a politically unified entity, rather than a collection of small kingdoms and city states and a mere “geographical expression”, as the Austrian chancellor had dismissively referred to it a few years earlier. The unification happened fairly quickly; Venetia was incorporated into Italy in 1866 and the process was completed when Rome was seized by Italian forces from papal rule in 1870 and made capital of the new kingdom that same year.

It also seemed to happen without too much violence or upheaval; initially at least. The unification was brought about by a combination of the political guile of the Piedmontese prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour and the daring of Italy’s nineteenth century nationalist hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. Usually pictured bearded and in his trademark red shirt and hat, often on horseback and carrying a sword, Garibaldi is the undisputed hero of Italy’s founding myth; the risorgimento or rebirth, as the uprisings and military struggles leading to the creation of the Italian nation are named.

It was a combination of Cavour’s political skill in engineering a war against Austria to drive their forces out of Italy and in persuading the northern and central states to join a new Italian kingdom under Piedmontese rule, and of the romantic nationalist Garibaldi’s initiative in landing his “thousand” men in the south of Italy and claiming the Kingdom of Naples for Cavour’s Italy, that created the modern Italian nation.

However, aside from the enthusiasm and heroism of Garibaldi’s legendary “thousand”, and the secret plotting of revolutionary and patriotic groups like the Carbonari and the republican Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy – their membership small and mostly educated, middle class, urban and male – it is now commonplace to acknowledge that the unification happened without too much enthusiasm or widespread participation on the part of those who would now become the Italian people. As David Gilmour, author of The Pursuit of Italy: A history of a land, its regions and their peoples reports, some years after the unification there were Sicilian peasants who apparently didn’t know what “Italy” meant; thinking that “la Talia” (l’Italia) was simply the name of their new queen. This story may seem incredible, but in reality the new Italian state would have had little impact on the lives of Italy’s rural peasantry, the bulk of the population at the time.

Unification meant the imposition of the Piedmontese constitution and Piedmontese law over the rest of Italy. Italians were now ruled by an Italian parliament, which met in the nation’s capital city – first Turin, then Florence and finally, from 1870, Rome. But this meant little to the agrarian labourers of the vast southern estates, the share-croppers of Tuscany and the rice workers of Lombardy; the first time that many rural, uneducated Italians would have come into contact with the new state was when the tax collector visited, wearing the official uniform of an alien state and speaking an unfamiliar language – Italian being a very different language from the regional dialects spoken by the vast majority of the new state’s citizens – and when the army and police came to impose order. The state therefore was often experienced at its most basic level as the imposition of an unwelcome, foreign rule. Although the unification itself happened relatively easily, with the initial conflicts leading to the creation of the Italian kingdom in 1861 lasting only a few months, it took many more years to impose order on the south of Italy, with a virtual civil war taking place throughout the 1860s in much of Sicily, Calabria and Campania. Those who fought against the new Italian state were dismissed as “brigands”; in reality the conflict was much more organised and politically motivated than this label suggests.

The unification of Italy was a much slower and complex process than Garibaldi’s heroic exploits suggest. Italy’s first prime minister, Massimo D’Azeglio, famously commented: “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” There are some who would argue that the process of making Italians is still continuing. When the nation was unified in 1861, the vast majority of its citizens did not speak the same language; therefore a Piedmontese soldier and a Calabrian peasant or shopkeeper would not have understood each other at all. Today, mainly thanks to the enormous influence of television from the 1950s onwards, Italian is largely spoken and understood by all. Yet Italians are still famously lacking in a sense of national unity – except when it comes to football and attitudes to the horrifying American aberration of pineapple as a pizza topping – and a strong, inclusive democratic tradition in government. Apart from Mussolini – who appealed, among other things, to the deeply felt need of many Italians to feel that they were part of a strong, unified nation – and in more recent years, Berlusconi, Italy has suffered a succession of weak, precarious and short-lived governments. Official Italian culture has done its best to cultivate the myth of the heroic creation of Italy with statues of Garibaldi, Mazzini, Cavour and King Victor Emanuel II everywhere and streets and piazzas named after the key dates of the unification. However, nationalism had little popular hold in Italy before Mussolini, and was mostly discredited afterwards because of its association with the racism and militarism of the far right.

Italians are famous for their campanilismo, a word which literally means “attachment to one’s own bell tower”, and is a lyrical way of describing provincialism or localism in a nation with hundreds of medieval towns and cities, each with its own highly developed urban culture and distinct local customs. They are also notorious for their lack of understanding and blatant stereotyping of each other. Southerners are dismissed by northern Italians as lazy and corrupt, a judgement which is by no means confined in time to modern Italy or politically to extremist organisations like the Northern League: as far back as the sixteenth century, a Piedmontese visitor dismissed the parliament which sat in Palermo as an “ice cream parliament”, since he was convinced that all the Sicilians did all day was eat ice cream. The Piedmontese see themselves as hard-working, moral, proud and conscientious; their fellow Italians see them as dour and stubborn. It is not just those from opposite ends of the peninsula who typecast each other however: David Gilmour mentions how the inhabitants of Pisa and Lucca – two nearby Tuscan cities – have both seen themselves as having distinct, and superior, characters to their neighbours. Stereotypes, and slanders about ice cream habits aside, the achievements of Italy’s past – the peninsula’s highly developed and diverse urban cultures, which brought singular achievements in commerce, architecture, the arts and political culture – are seen as having held modern Italy back from developing a cohesive national character.

The failure of the Italian risorgimento to “make Italians” is by now a well known story. Thanks to Antonio Gramsci – founding member of the Italian Communist Party and Italy’s pre-eminent Marxist theorist, who died in 1937 after ten years in a fascist prison – the notion of the risorgimento as a failed revolution is now a more familiar version of history than the heroic nationalist myth. Other antifascist and left-leaning intellectuals had made similarly revisionist arguments in various forms since at least the early twentieth century, but it was Gramsci who contributed most to popularising this view of Italy’s flawed past. In his Prison Notebooks, published to great acclaim in the late 1940s, several years after the fall of fascism, Gramsci argued that the risorgimento was a missed opportunity for social revolution, since there was no popular participation in the unification struggles, nor any real attempt on the part of the leaders to cultivate it. As such, the Italian state was fatally flawed from its inception. Gramsci’s version of history was of course coloured by his Marxism; many others have, however, articulated other versions of the same story before and since.

The liberal antifascist thinker Piero Gobetti – who died as a result of fascist violence in 1926 – wrote a book entitled Risorgimento without heroes, in which he argued that it was Italy’s failure to have any kind of intellectual revolution that had doomed the modern Italian state from the beginning. Since the Reformation had not reached Italy and the values of the Enlightenment had never been internalised – most of Italy’s progressive eighteenth century thinkers, especially in Gobetti’s native Piedmont, had been silenced or exiled – the nineteenth century nation state was crippled from the start in its quest to establish a modern liberal political culture. These various readings of the unification as a missed opportunity or a project that was innately flawed are now so commonplace as to have all but replaced the heroic, nationalist reading that the new state vainly tried to popularise through schoolbooks, statues, museums, songs, films and novels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There are few who believe that the unification of Italy was popular or seemed inevitable at the time, or who have really tried to celebrate it as such, beyond Mussolini’s attempts to connect Garibaldi’s exploits with the so-called fascist revolution in the 1920s and 1930s.

But where, one hundred and fifty years after the events, does that leave Italy and the Italians now? The unification is certainly being marked in Italy, but without any great nationalist pomp or fanfare. When I was in Rome in December, the city was already preparing itself for the 2011 celebrations. This did not however mean having to entertain nationalist myths about the foundation of the state: banners and posters around the city marking the upcoming anniversary instead featured a quotation from Garibaldi at a time, towards the end of his life, when he was disillusioned with how things had turned out – “this wasn’t the Italy I dreamed of”. A major exhibition of paintings from the risorgimento period at the Quirinale in Rome seemed to be informed by a similar refusal to celebrate or glorify the events of 1861. There were relatively few iconic images of Garibaldi in his red shirt, on horseback or leading his “thousand” into battle, while the battle scenes themselves very often focused on the messy aspects of military combat rather than the heroism and glory. Paintings by Giovanni Fattori and Gerolamo Induno concentrated on the smaller details of the battles, drawing the viewer’s eye to the wounded soldier left behind in the heat of the charge or the confused officers who surveyed the chaos of the battlefield. The tone was one of a balanced acknowledgement of the past which avoided a reductive celebration of the heroism and sacrifice of the national struggle.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Mussolini sought to strengthen nationalist feeling in order to create a militarist, bellicose nation ready to carve out the fascist empire. To give historical credence to his regime, the Duce linked fascism with the ancient Roman Empire and with Garibaldi’s struggle to unite Italy in the 1860s. The risorgimento was glorified as the first modern expression of Italian “greatness”. However, the communist “Garibaldi brigades” who fought against Mussolini as partisans during the Second World War were undoubtedly much more faithful to the spirit of the Genoese radical nationalist than was the bellicose dictator. The 1961 celebrations to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the unification of Italy took place at the height of Italy’s postwar economic boom. For perhaps the first time in history, Italians in general felt prosperous, self-confident and hopeful about their nation and their collective future; the official 1961 celebrations reflected this self-confidence. A huge exhibition, Italia ’61, was organised in Turin celebrating Italy’s past and its future, the world of work. This was of course an expression of Turin’s triumph as home of the Fiat factory and focal point of the “economic miracle” itself.

Italy in 2011 is a much less certain and optimistic place than it was in 1961; political life is incessantly rocked by scandals, governments are weak and unstable, while Berlusconi, the only leader who seems able to remain in government, does so by means of corruption and almost complete control of the media. Economic life has been fairly stagnant since the 1980s and there is still no answer to the inequality between north and south. Meanwhile the far-right Northern League, intent on its goal of separation or at least devolution for the north of Italy, refused to join in the anniversary celebrations on and around March 17th. In a climate such as this, a simple celebration of Italy’s national foundation would ring fairly hollow.

When I was in Turin at the beginning of March, just before the national holiday of March 17th, conflicting messages about the unification and what it means for contemporary Italy abounded. There was, of course, a certain pride in the city’s history as first capital of Italy and driving force of unification; it was in Turin that the first museum of the risorgimento was opened in the 1870s and it was set to be reopened, refurbished and improved, on March 17th this year. In an unusual display of nationalism for the Italians, the Italian flag was everywhere and its colours were displayed in all shop windows, adorning everything from Barbie dolls and lollipops to coffee. However, I also came across an empty shop premises filled with poster art using the motif of the flag to reflect bitterly on the state of the nation: “Welcome to Italy,” read one poster slogan, “where your future has been robbed.” This disaffection was most likely connected, not with the flawed history of the unified nation but with the lack of opportunity in contemporary Italy, particularly for the younger generation. Despite these conflicting messages, the overwhelming mood was one of pride, civic as well as national.

Most Italians I spoke to were determined to celebrate the unification this year not so much to give credence to the nationalist myth of the risorgimento but to show support for the idea of Italy, in defiance of the Northern League’s racism, prejudice and separatist aims. Perversely, the league seemed to have inadvertently drummed up nationalist feeling among Italians who would not ordinarily have bought into the heroic version of the risorgimento or entertained ideas about Italy’s greatness. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, in recent local and regional elections, the far right has been losing ground fast. Nationalism can change its meaning depending on circumstances; in 2011 it seemed to stand for an aspiration to create that real inclusive, united Italy which has probably never existed – the national idea more as a continuing project than a reality worthy of celebration. One of the most often repeated slogans in political and media debates is that of un’altra Italia or “another Italy”, an ideal state to be strived for. Italy as envisioned by Garibaldi has arguably never been brought into being. Unification as it was brought about in the 1860s by Cavour, Garibaldi and the Piedmontese army was certainly neither inevitable nor for many Italians even desirable. But, it could be asked, what nation state is natural or its creation inevitable? Italy is not alone in being a product of nineteenth century nationalism – take Germany, Yugoslavia, Ireland – some of them more successful than others.

Those who suddenly became Italian in 1861 may have had little in common then, but now in 2011 they have a shared national past of one hundred and fifty years, for better or for worse, a shared language and culture – Italy’s recent Eurovision entry, even though its style was jazz, was still unmistakeably Italian – and shared tastes and habits. A croissant may be called a brioche in Turin and a cornetto in Rome, but the breakfast ritual of having one with a cappuccino in your local cafe on the way to work – and above all of never daring to drink cappuccino after breakfast – is one that is shared all across Italy. Food is another area in which Italians have much more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the world. Each local town or city may have its own traditional dishes, but Italian food still manages to be completely distinctive when compared with French or British. And even though Italians are fairly reluctant nationalists, they can all agree on their mistrust of foreign food; the odd McDonalds beside the Spanish Steps or the Pantheon aside, there are very few foreign restaurants anywhere in Italy. It is thanks to emigration that Italian culture, and especially Italian food, has been so successfully marketed to the world. It’s probable though, that the marketing of pizza, cappuccino, Vespa and Prada abroad as “Italian” has contributed to a shared sense of culture at home too. Even though the unification should and might not have happened the way it did in 1861, the only voices calling for the dismantling of Italy now are basing their argument largely on racism and intolerance.

This is why the argument of David Gilmour’s book, The Pursuit of Italy, seems to make so little sense for a work published in 2011. The book is an exploration of Italy’s past, reaching as far back as the Roman empire, in order to examine the roots of its national identity or lack thereof. Its central argument – that Italy is made up of many extremely diverse cultures and traditions and that the unification was an aberration and an injustice – is nothing new; Gobetti and Gramsci, among others, had said as much almost a century ago. Gilmour’s sympathies too seem to lie with the deposed rulers of the old states – the patrician classes of Venetia and the Neapolitian monarchs – whose ends he describes in elegiac tones while the impact of the risorgimento on the ordinary people of Italy is given little treatment. If our sympathies are to be engaged anywhere perhaps they should lie with the southern Italian provinces immersed in the war of the “brigands” throughout the 1860s, and not with Venetian noblemen or the deposed king of Naples. Gilmour’s book, it must be said, is filled with fine anecdotes and witty commentary – the defeat of Napoleon brought about the restoration of monarchical rule across Italy, but in the Papal States the pope banned the new-fangled gas street lighting as the “work of the devil”, bringing Rome quite literally back to the dark ages. In spite of these incidental joys a real examination of Italian history is clearly absent.

Leaving aside the injustices of the way that Cavour carried out the unification, the diversity of the multiple regional and civic cultures within Italy does not constitute an argument against the existence of the nation state. Very different cultures and heritages do continue to exist within Italy, although admittedly dialects are spoken by fewer and fewer people. Italy’s history as a land of “a thousand bell towers” means that every town and city (and every town is, essentially, a city) has its own highly developed urban culture along with a distinct set of habits and traditions – from Florence’s superb Renaissance architecture to Milan’s role as a modern financial and fashion capital – and an intense civic pride. Since the fall of fascism and the inauguration of the Italian Republic, several regions, including Sicily and Sardinia have had a special autonomous status, while regional parliaments were established across Italy a few decades later. Political devolution, along with civic and cultural diversity, can and do exist within the nation state. It could even be said that this intrinsic diversity of cultures within the nation – from the baroque splendour and superstition of Naples to Turin’s grey, rationalist architecture, its straight streets laid out in a grid system –have become an integral part of the Italian character. Italy may be a flawed state which had no inherent reason for coming into existence in 1860, but it might be more useful to regard the notion of a unified, inclusive and politically robust nation not as a missed opportunity or a weak reflection of reality, but as a project which is still ongoing. It is one to which Italians, at least for now, do still seem committed.


Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow at UCD, where she specialises in the social and cultural history of modern Italy. Her book Piero Gobetti’s Turin: Modernity, myth and memory (Oxford, Peter Lang) was published this year. She is also editor of an arts and culture blog, The Little Review (http://thelittlereview.wordpress.com/), which discusses all aspects of European culture.

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