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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

“The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples”, by David Gilmour

480 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374283162

The last paragraph of this book (after about 400 pages of thoughtful, nuanced and humorous writing about selected political, cultural, and military histories of Italy) gives the approach and the verdict of the historian on the unity of Italy:

Geography and the vicissitudes of history made certain countries, including France and Britain, more important than the sum of their parts might have indicated. In Italy the opposite was true. The parts are so stupendous that a single region – either Tuscany or Veneto – would rival every other country in the world in the quality of its art and the civilization 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 was told by his father, ‘a sin against history and geography’. It was thus predestined to be a disappointment, to be what Luigi Barzini regretfully recognized many years ago, a country that ‘has never been as good as the sum of all her people’.”

This book makes no pretensions to being an exhaustive, one-volume history of nationalism and its ebb and flow in Italian history since the days of early Rome (as if such a thing was possible, or even readable). The book does not include any references at all to the state of San Marino, whose quirky independence as a little nation validates the judgment of the author that the communes of Italy are its true repositories of culture and civic virtue, such as it exists in Italy. Reading this book with a sympathetic eye (which is not difficult to do, as this is a work written with a great deal of panache and sympathy) makes one long for the return of the Venetian Republic and mourn for the loss of wealth and hope among the people of Sicily and Naples, while also lamenting the duplicity and corruption of Italian politics for so long. Although this book is not an all-encompassing history of Italy, it is certainly filled with a lot of Italian language and assumes a fairly high memory for a wide variety of figures who flit in and out of its pages in a rather elegant manner.

The book is organized in a way that manages to be both chronological and thematic, taking it as a given that Italy has a wide variety of centrifugal forces that hinder its overall unity and that certain habits of history (such as a distinct lack of military ability on the part of Italy’s generally ineptly led armies) are and remain enduring. Whether one is talking about the vagaries of Italian opera or the deception of Italian politics, this book manages to present a nuanced and articulate but clearly focused argument that Italy’s strengths have been its rich diversity and its ability to get along, and its weaknesses have been when its would-be leaders have attempted to induce a desired reality rather than dealing with the reality that was and letting things occur organically. This is, in general, a book that is clear-sighted and honest about its heroes and manages to see the humanity even in its darker and more villainous portrayals, retaining a love of the many Italies that the author finds and comments upon (included are such helpful chapter titles as Imperial Italy or Modern Italy or Republican Italy).

This is by no means a light read, but those who undertake this book with an interest in nations and social cohesion (or the lack thereof), as well as the lingering problems of regionalism and the solutions that nations have for their problems of cultural disunity in order to further the development of a common culture (I’m looking at you, Britain), will find much to enjoy and relish in this book. This book is like a gourmet dinner that goes down easily, full of humorous anecdotes and gossipy chatter; of wit and humanity; and of irony and complexity befitting its complicated subject. If one has an interest in Italian or European unity or disunity, this book offers a great deal of intrigue in showing how Italy came to be (and came to be so dysfunctional), an argument that the author makes that the roots of it spring in geography (political and physical) as well as history. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this assessment, the book is a worthwhile and deep examination of a subject that has relevance far outside Italy.

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