Of the many Italies, the most enduring are the Italy of communes that existed in Dante’s time. This is the theme of David Gilmour’s highly readable history, and the implication is that the communes are set to outlast the Italy united mid-nineteenth century by the heroes of the Risorgimento.
The liberal British historian G.M. Trevelyan hailed Italy’s Bismark as “great Cavour”, “the most wise and beneficent of all the European statesmen of the nineteenth century, if not of all time”. But it is “campanilismo“, loyalty to the local bell-tower, not Cavour’s Italy,that has won out. Italians, Giordano Bruno Guerri has suggested, are a “non-people with a non-state”.
David Gilmour drives a cart and horses through the established history of Italy, and argues cogently the real Italy-the communal Italy that resulted from a millenium of evolution- has been trampled, raped and warped by the imposition of the Risorgimento. All three periods, he points out, of cultural and economic affluence—the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the half century after Mussolini—Italy remained either divided or effectively de-nationalised. The thesis is pithily summarised in the book’s last two paragraphs:
“It was the peninsula’s misfortune that in the nineteenth century a victorious national movement tried to make its inhabitants less Italian and more like other peoples, to turn them into conquerors and colonialists, men to be feared and respected by their adversaries. For eight decades, Italy’s leaders followed the same policy, leading their new and fragile nation on a mistaken journey to poverty, colonial disaster, the fascist experiment and the humiliation of the Second World War.” Some countries, like France or Britain, became more important than the sum of their parts, but in Italy the relationship is reversed. “The parts are so stupendous that a single region—either Tuscany or the Veneto—would rival every other country in the world in the quality of its art and the civilisation of its past. But the parts have not added up to a coherent or identifiable whole. United Italy never became the nation its founders had hoped for because its making had been flawed both in conception and in execution, because it had been truly what Fortunato(the Italian Politician Giustino Fortunato) was told by his father , “a sin against history and geography”… The peoples of Italy “have created much of the world’s greatest art, architecture and music, and have produced one of its finest cuisines, some of its most beautiful landscapes and many of its most stylish manufactures. Yet the millennia of their past and the vulnerability of their placement have made it impossible for them to create a successful nation state”.
A consistent theme running through the book is the gulf between the jingoism on display in the many equestrian statues of various military heroes from the Risogimento, and the lack of identification between the populations of Italy and its rulers. Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, asked on a visit to Turin what all these equestrian statues of warriors were doing, waving their swords as if charging at the head of their troops. A counterpart to this glorification of war is provided by the peasants in Carlo Levi’s famous book Christ Stopped at Eboli, who felt no attachment to a state, which spent a fortune on invading peoples just as poor as themselves, rather than spend money on providing their village with a reservoir, building a bridge or even planting saplings.
For anybody seeking an introduction to Italy and its incomparable legacy, this is definitely the book to buy. It never fails to weave the art and music of Italy with its politics and more recently with its economic performance. In the last chapters on modern Italy, since the fall of the second republic which lasted from 1944 to 1993, the author cannot withhold his dismay. He rightly charts the resurgence of the Mafia and the Camora in Sicily and Naples; the collapse in birth rates; the artistic Angst pervading modern literature; the overpaid parliamentarians, and Berlusconi, who quickly dropped his claim to sweep the Aegean stables of Italy’s budget, and sank into administering the renewed political networks that laid the second republic low.
No book can include all factors. There is in my view not enough discussion here about the decline of Catholicism, surely closely related to the rise in divorce rates, the fall in birth rates, and the vacuity of Italy’s media. Gilpin rightly praises Verdi as the wonderful musical genius that he was, but where is his equivalent now? Italy, too, was a prime importer of the conflicts of the cold war, where the country was run by what Professor Mancini used to call “il bi-partitismo imperfetto”, between Christian Democrats and Communists. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the ideological competition became more acute, the Christian Democrats brought the Socialists in as partners to government, and effectively corrupted them. The Communists embedded themselves in local government.
Gilpin writes that Mr Prodi, former President of the European Commission, successfully brought Italy into the Euro by getting inflation and the budget under control. I disagree. Bringing Italy into the Euro was a disaster waiting to happen. Unable to devalue, and unable to reduce labour costs given the legislation on the books, Italy’s family based firms were hit directly by Chinese competition. As German exporters kept their costs down relative to Italy’s the trade deficit mounted. Government debt stands at 120% gdp, now in 2011, after nearly 30 years of permanent government deficits, compared to the 120% of gdp that was the figure in the 1980s.
This book should be read urgently by anyone who would like to get an idea of the challenge confronting Mr Monti, the former EU Commissioner, who has been levered in to the premiership in place of Mr Berlusconi, effectively removed by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy in their desperate efforts to salvage the Euro. For underneath Italy’s beauty is also its political violence. In 2002, one of Mr Berlusconi’s intimates was gunned down in front of the prime ministerial palace. The perpetrators were a Marxist-leninist group, who reportedly wanted to send Berlusconi a message about not fiddling too much with existing budget commitments. Mr Monti will have to draw on deep source of courage and determination.
It should also be read by EU-enthusiasts, who aspire to a united Europe, when its peoples are diverse, even more diverse than Italy’s. Without exception, their loyalties go to their local nations. That is the stuff out of which a peaceful and prosperous Europe has to be built. Not a nineteenth national century ideal applied to Europe.