It took me ages to read this book, mostly because it sent me off on so many tangents of research. I realized that this is just one more of those positive/negative aspects of the Internet – it’s great that I can set my book down and immediately go do some extra reading on Pope Benedict XV and World War I, but, well, that’s a negative, too. Because I can set my book down and immediately go do some extra reading…
The Pursuit of Italy is a rather idiosyncratic book that’s aroused a bit of controversy. Some say David Gilmour has really said nothing new here, others that he contorts evidence to support his case. Others that the book is just overstuffed – and with this I can concur. Overstuffed in some areas, rather sparse in others. That said, Gilmour never does claim to be writing a comprehensive history of Italy and freely admits that his own interests play a role in shaping the material. Of course they do.
That said, I found it fascinating. The book is posing and seeking to answer the question, “Was Italy inevitable?” Italy, of course, didn’t exist until the 19th century, and aside from his reassessment of risorgimento, what I was most interested in was his exploration of the centuries before unification, and of the question, “When people talked about ‘Italy,’ what did they mean? How did the envision it? What was the foundation of their conceptualization?”
His answer to that first, basic question is that Italy was not at all inevitable and it is no more difficult to envision a still-separate Republic of Venice (for example) than it is to envision the Netherlands. Further, he makes the case that the peninsula was at its most prosperous as a whole when it was most “divided” – the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Finally, he explains risorgimento, not as an organic cry for freedom and Independence (from what?) but essentially as a Piedmontese power-grab, aided by hopeful, yet confused and opportunistic republicans. The “united” country was further harmed in subsequent decades by short-sighted, bellicose leadership continually aching for a fight to prove its manhood and claim some grand place on the world stage. He concludes:
“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. In Italy the opposite is true. 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”.
I wish that Gilmour had given more serious attention to the Church, though. He’s not a huge fan, but he’s not reflexively, rabidly negative, either. A closer look at, for example, the Papal States, might have been helpful in drawing this bigger picture.
All in all, a suggestive and interesting book, and useful in moving beyond the myth-making, narratives of inevitability and deterministic equations that pass for history for most of us.