If Iran and Israel are my two favorite Middle Eastern counties to read about, when it comes to Western Europe my favorite is Italy. While my fascination with Iran and Israel goes back to high high school my interest in Italy is a bit more recent. It all began approximately a decade ago when I discovered the novels of an Algerian expat and a true crime thriller co-authored by a prolific American novelist and an Italian journalist.
After receiving death threats from Islamic militants Amara Lakhous fled Algeria for Italy, eventually penning several critically acclaimed novels including Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio and Divorce Islamic Style. (Not long after the two novels’ publication he relocated once more, this time to New York City.) Through his keen eyes I was exposed for the first time to Italy’s strong regional antagonisms. Originally from the developing world, Lakhous experienced this firsthand and knew there were echoes of it throughout the dozens of newly independent countries cobbled into existence by the European powers in the 20th century.
Right after discovering the fiction of Lakhous I also read Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence. Billed as the authors’ quest to uncover the identity of Italy’s most infamous serial killer I had no idea the 2008 best seller was also a biting expose of Italian society, including its wildly dysfunctional politics and corrupt and capricious legal system. Like I opined before, according to Preston and Spezi “Italy resembles less a modern European democracy and longtime NATO member and more like a fractious banana republic.”
Intrigued by what I’d read, I sought out additional books on Italy. With a half-dozen or so under my belt, I felt (perhaps foolishly) confident enough to concoct a “Be the Expert” post for 2020’s Nonfiction November. More recently, after reading some great things about David Gilmour’s 2011 The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples I requested my public library purchase an electronic edition for its Overdrive service. After a surprisingly short wait a borrowable copy became available I went to work reading it.
Impressive in scope and depth what distinguishes The Pursuit of Italy from other histories of the peninsular nation is Gilmour’s bold, almost heretical belief Italy’s crowning achievements over the centuries in music, literature, visual arts or even the glories of the Vatican are sole creations of the individual regions that birthed them. All the while, any notion of a unified Italy stretching the length of the peninsula that could lay claim to these accomplishments has never been widely accepted. Even after unification in the 19th century most Italians continued see themselves as Tuscans, Sicilians or Neapolitans and not Italians. Sadly, this weak sense of nationhood has prevented Italy from functioning effectively as modern nation station. Unable to resist fascism (or more recently, the populist authoritarianism of Silvio Berlusconi, it’s more softer form); corruption and organized crime; reduce the huge wealth gap between North and South; challenge the limited, yet enduring popularity of the communist party or reform its dysfunctional political system and bloated bureaucracy Gilmour believes things would have been much better instead of forced unification the flourishing regions of Italy had been allowed to blossom into independent nations of their own.
To begin with, Italy is a victim of geography. Conventional wisdom dictates the Alps are a mighty barrier to invasion but the truth is they’re not. In reality the mountains are little more than picturesque speed bumps posing no obstacle to conquering armies be they Hannibal, the barbarian hordes or Napoleon. (On the other hand, the Apennines which travel the length of the peninsula has effectively divided Italy from East to West.) A peninsula with one of Europe’s longest coastlines has rendered Italy vulnerable to invasion since ancient time. With every invasion came subjugation and settlement, sowing the seeds that made unification all the more difficult.
Though formally unified by the middle of the 19th century a sense of common nationhood remained elusive. Bereft of its Papal States, the Catholic Church refused to recognize the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Italy, thereby undermining fledgling kingdom’s legitimacy. (In stark contract to the role the Catholic Church played promoting national identity in Ireland and Poland.) While operatic greats like Verdi extolled the virtues of a united Italy, operas like his weren’t performed for the rank and file but a wealthy and privileged minority and their counterparts in Vienna and Paris. On the other hand, universal conscription was seen as a way to promote both common nationhood and language among the hoi polloi. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for recalcitrant conscripts from Sicily and Naples to ditch official Italian (the Florentine dialect of Tuscan) for their native dialects whenever they needed to conceal their conversations from the inquisitive ears of commanding officers.
The chapters covering the 20th century were by far my favorites of the book. Italy’s decision to enter World War I was a poor one. Austria, an ally, made considerable territorial and political concessions towards Italy in hopes the nation would remain neutral. However, contrary to the will of both the parliament and the public the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Sidney and king opted to instead switch sides and join France, Britain and Russia. Italy attacked its former ally to the North only to suffer a near endless series of crushing defeats at the hands of the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies. After suffering staggering losses in men and materiel the territorial gains awarded to Italy fell far short of expectations. Forced by the victorious allies to accept a “mutilated victory” many in Italy, especially on the right thought the nation needed more assertive and robust leadership, one willing to take the coveted territory by force if needed.
Five years later, these festering sentiments would pave the way for Mussolini and ending in yet another disastrous decision to go to war. Italy was outclassed and outfought from the beginning. Forced to switch sides after invaded by the Allies it was immediately attacked and occupied the Germans. After World War II the impoverished and devastated nation lost both its colonies and king. Eventually, a representative democracy arose from the ashes led by the Christian Democratic Party with the communists and socialists playing second fiddle. In the post-war decades Italian industry surged ahead, leading the world in glassware, high performance race cars and fashion. From New York City to Sydney Italian films packed arthouses, influencing aspiring young directors as far away as the United States. Once a largely rural backwater, by the 1970s Italy’s economy had surpassed that of the United Kingdom.
But by the 1980s cracks began appearing in the edifice. Corruption, an out of control bureaucracy, political violence perpetrated by both the far left and far right, organized crime, and a constant turn-over in the office of president began to take its toll. Less than a decade after Franco’s death Spain’s economy surpassed that of Italy’s. By the 1990s serious rumblings began to emerge in the nation’s wealthy, industrialized North. Led by the Northern League, a separatist movement of sorts began calling for independence. Among its many grievances was the region’s forced subsidization of the poor, lazy, crime-infested South.
Before long a public relations savvy media tycoon and soccer team owner saw an opportunity. Like so many aspiring populists Silvio Berlusconi was able to correctly assess the nation’s mood and play off its frustrations. With a vast television empire at his disposal he was able to co-op and/or out maneuver his rivals and take power. Once there he did everything possible to remain in power. In addition to his own private network, through his appointed toadies he turned the state-sponsored TV network into his own slavish mouthpiece. If his actions broke the law he pressured parliament to pass new ones that suited him. He ignored unfavorable civil and criminal rulings, preferring to run out the clock with endless rounds of appeals. A wealthy man who aligned himself with the working classes, disgruntled conservatives and rich he sought the nation’s highest public office to both satisfy his massive ego and use the levers of power to further enrich himself. Yep, you guessed it. Donald Trump is Silvio Berlusconi 2.0.
Even if Gilmour is a tad long winded at times this is an excellent book. I came away from it with a deeper understanding of Italy’s history, as well as how this incredibly interesting yet broken nation I learned about a decade ago thanks to the writing of Amara Lakhous, Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi came to be. Please consider The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples highly recommended.