It existed once before the nineteenth century, briefly, as part of the vast imperial structure of the Roman Empire. Before that it had been a vague idea from myth; later it was a clearer hope of statesmen and romantics, but still mostly unattainable and undesirable. It was the notion of Italia, a unified and coherent polity encompassing the peninsula stuck between the Alps and five seas. Despite having “the most clearly demarcated fatherland in Europe,” in the words of the nineteenth-century nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, Italy has forever struggled to unite its disparate peoples under one banner, and the reason is simple: there are simply too many Italies for there to be one Italy.
Since its hasty inception in 1861, the modern state of Italy has generally failed to achieve the success of its Western neighbors. The events of the Risorgimento—formerly the hallowed, unquestionable orthodoxy of the fledgling state—turn out to have engendered an uninterrupted string of disasters, from civil war, poor diplomacy, and fascism to poverty, the rise of the Mafia, and perennially ineffective government. This is the story that British historian David Gilmour tells in his excellent book The Pursuit of Italy, which is part history and part polemic. (The title is a reference to a line Virgil gives Aeneas—a sort of omen that Italians may be fated to chase after something they cannot achieve.) Gilmour spares no criticisms in his assessment of the Risorgimento myth and wonders whether Garibaldi and the other “fathers of the fatherland” were mistaken in attempting a hopeless unity between Piedmontese, Genoese, Lombards, Venetians, Tuscans, Romans, Neapolitans, and Sicilians.
“Until the end of the eighteenth century,” writes Gilmour, “Italy remained a literary idea, an abstract concept, an imaginary homeland or simply a sentimental urge…. For a large majority of the population it meant nothing at all.” (In some parts, this remained true even into the twentieth century: Gilmour recounts how the social activist Danilo Dolci met poor Sicilians who had never heard of Italy.) Unlike their German and French neighbors to the north, Italians were historically discouraged from the nationalistic impulse by natural barriers of geography and language. The Apennines, the mountain range which splits the peninsula down the middle, created a cultural and linguistic division between east and west almost as prominent as the stereotypical division between north and south. Incredibly, Gilmour notes that before modern infrastructure, Romans found it faster and more convenient to travel to Ancona by boat (a distance of some 1,000 miles) than cross the interior of the peninsula (only 130 miles).
Similarly, regional dialects were so distinctive that people in neighboring valleys often found it hard to understand each other. The modern language of Italian, essentially a successor of the language spoken by Florentine aristocrats, is so different from the Sicilian and Venetian dialects—not to mention the dialects of northern peasants—that many twentieth-century schoolchildren had to learn their nation’s official tongue as a foreign language.
These differences meant that Italy’s regions developed mostly autonomously, with their own traditions, histories, styles of government, and interests. Venice was established before Charlemagne was crowned and lasted as a self-ruled republic for over a thousand years before it was given up to Austrian control in the Napoleonic Wars. Virtually every other city of the north also boasted a tradition of self-rule, which stood in marked contrast to the cities of the Papal States and the southern Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily; but even these regions, which were slow to grow out of feudalism, maintained their own distinctive cultures and largely successful economies.
It is thus easy to sympathize with Gilmour when he laments the absence of modern-day mini-republics in Venice, Florence, and Genoa, or an independent Naples, Sicily, and Rome, each with their own thriving and distinctive cultural identities cemented in autonomous regional governments. The reason for this absence is the Risorgimento, which, more than anything, was a kind of flattening, cultural imperialism imposed on other areas by the then Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the de facto leader in the saga of Italian unification. Gilmour shows how the annexing tactic of “piedmontization” proved largely destructive, economically and culturally, for cities such as Venice and Naples. Camillo Cavour, Piedmont’s prime minister, was naive enough to believe that the values of this conservative and (almost farcically ostentatious) martial state could be exported to his countrymen. But he was also savvy enough to know that political unification required cultural unification as well, at whatever cost. Cavour was a typical progressive of his day, who assumed that all ideologies must finally bend to the guiding will of history—which, as it happened, favored the fortunes of a piedmontized Italy.
In many ways, the history of modern Italy represents a failure of political liberalism. Despite the utopian dreams of Cavour and other advocates of the Risorgimento—dreams of progress, the free market, European dominance, and ancient civic engagement translated to the national stage—the reality has been much bleaker. Much of Italy’s tumultuous twentieth-century history has been a direct reaction to that failure. The fascist movement, with its violent appeal to primordial and masculine values, was only one of the first attempts to respond to the poverty, political over-extension, and international humiliation the liberal state had wrought.
Gilmour’s persuasive argument implicitly points to nationalism as the culprit in Italy’s modern troubles. But what kind of nationalism? It is worth recalling here a distinction George Orwell made in 1945:
“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
Italy’s birth was quite openly fueled by this desire for power and prestige, and patriotism, in Orwell’s definition, was largely absent from the cause. Even in figures like Garibaldi, love of particular places and customs, even if present, was superseded by the nebulous love of a unified state and a romantic lust for dominance. (Although for Garibaldi, even this might be questioned; as his adventures in South America show, he at times seems truly to have loved only the thrill of fighting for the underdog.) For Cavour, patriotic sentiment was valuable not in itself but only as a way to get Italy a seat at the same table as Great Britain, France, Prussia, and Austria; of course, to these superpowers, the notion of Italy as an equal was laughably inconceivable. The Risorgimento could easily dispense with where Italy had been if it meant getting Italy to where its architects wanted it to be.
But Gilmour is far from being entirely cynical is his assessment of Italy. If Italians have been unable to thrive under the forced and arbitrary framework of nationalism, it is only because they have been more concerned with ties closer to home. Orwell’s “patriotism” echoes campanilismo, a term Italians use to describe loyalty to the “municipal bell tower,” or commune, where citizens hold the freedom to govern themselves. It is campanilismo, not nationalism—nor still an even more abstract internationalism—that has more deeply shaped Italian politics and psychology through the centuries; the medieval city was literally built around it, and it still informs life in many of the towns that are the communes’ direct descendants. Gilmour writes:
“Campanilismo is by definition limiting and has thus been mocked, as Lampedusa mocked it, as a breeder of narrow minds…. Yet provincialism in Italy is less parochial than in any other country I know. Campanilismo is fidelity to an historical and essentially self-contained form of society designed many centuries ago to cater to the needs of its citizens….
Campanilismo brings reassurance and a sense of identity to a society which perceives the state to be hostile or indifferent. Local administration regulates an urban life as civilized as any on the planet in scores of towns such as Trento and Bergamo, Pistoia and Arezzo, Mantua and Verona, Lecce and Bressanone. Cremona in Lombardy is a fine example: a lovely city of pinks and duns, of yellows and ochres, a place of slow rhythms and old, unhurried cyclists, of clean streets and well-kept museums, of small workshops where master craftsmen still fashion exquisite violins. So agreeable and well run is the town that its children want to live there, remain there and die there.”
As Gilmour writes, it is hard not to see this as the true Italy. Indeed, this is the Italy I experienced on my first trip there this summer: towns with over a thousand years of thinking about and implementation of just, effective governments; towns built to a human scale, where any place is accessible by foot; towns intentionally crafted to be as aesthetically pleasing and harmonious as possible; towns who claim their citizens to such a degree that those citizens will say they are Tuscan or Roman before they are Italian. The Risorgimento feels irrelevant in a place like Siena, whose medieval splendor is still as evident today as it must have been in 1215, when its magnificent cathedral was consecrated.
As is evident above, Gilmour’s book truly shines when he poetically describes this Italy, both in its medieval history and in its present day reality. It makes one yearn for the bell tower, and what it might have become in Italy’s history had it been recognized at the crucial moment as the greatest good.
*Image: William R. Shepherd, "Italy about 1494," from Historical Atlas