Book Reviews

David Frum's Book Club: The Pursuit of Italy

Visitors to Italy typically shrugged off that country's chronic malgovernment as part of Italian-ness.

03.17.12 3:20 PM ET

In the past, visitors to Italy typically shrugged off that country's chronic malgovernment as part of the Italian-ness of Italy. On a trip to Venice a decade ago, my older girl was stranded after an accident by an ambulance drivers' strike. Is there anywhere else on Earth where ambulance drivers strike? For us, the incident is now a funny story. For Italians, of course, it's not so funny. Then again, Italians are the people with the ability to change things, and somehow they never do. So the rest of us figure: their problem. Perhaps they prefer it that way.

With the advent of the Euro, however, Italy's problems have suddenly become everybody's problems. The failures of the Italian state very nearly capsized the world financial system this winter. The crisis has receded, but not ended. In the interval, it's interesting to think about the question: why? The people of Italy have defined what the rest of us wear and what the rest of us eat; our art and architecture derive from the genius of Italian artists; our ideas about politics and religion are founded upon innovations of the Italian humanists of 600 years ago. Person for person, what country on earth has contributed more? And yet they can't pick up the garbage from the streets of Naples. What's wrong?

David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy is by no means the first or last word on this question, but it usefully adds to the conversation. 

Gilmour belongs to that tradition that questions the grand nationalist narrative of Italian unification. Over the three middle decades of the 19th century, the rulers of the Italian state of Piedmont, capital in Turin, one-by-one subjugated the other states of the peninsula. This conquest was achieved less by main force (although highly militarized, Piedmont was not very militarily competent) than by duplicitous diplomacy that manipulated others (especially France) to do Piedmont's fighting for it. 

The Piedmontese tried to present this campaign of conquest as a liberation. The conquered did not agree. Piedmontese attempts to recruit soldiers elsewhere in Italy miserably failed. In fact, as Gilmour notes, many more Lombards fought against the Piedmontese (and for the Austrians) than with them. 

Nobody suffered more from the Piedmontese conquest than the Italians of the South. The distinctive speech of Sicily was demoted to a disdained dialect, to be eradicated in favor of the now "standard" speech of the conquerors. The law code of the Kingdom of Naples was abolished and replaced by the laws of Piedmont. Economic union with the north squelched southern industry. Most ominous of all was the consequence of Northern anticlericalism. The intensely Catholic peasants of the South and Calabria rose in rebellion against what they saw as a godless new government. The bloody insurgency gave birth to the Mafia and Camorra, which began as guerilla bands, and ended as the world's most powerful criminal organizations.

The new Italian state was tightly centralized, highly militarized, and incompetently expansionist. The alliance with France against Austria had gained Piedmont the Italian peninsula. In the 20th century, the Piedmontese rulers of Italy allied with Britain and France against Austria and Germany in hope of gaining more territory: Tyrol and the Dalmatian coast. The aftershocks of the First World War brought Mussolini to power. His fascism bequeathed an example that was disastrously emulated across Europe - and that led in turn to another terrible war.

Gilmour invites us to consider what might have been.

Suppose especially that Naples had remained independent of Italy as Portugal remained independent of Spain. The Kingdom of Naples would almost certainly have been more successful on its own than as part of Italy. Unburdened by the need to suppress the South, the North might have developed in ways more consistent with Italy's traditions of local self-government. A more local Italy would have been less bureaucratic. A less bureaucratic Italy would, in turn, not have had to resort to corruption to bypass bureaucracy - especially since an independent South would never have tolerated the Mafia as a quasi-legitimate force of resistance to alien rule. 

Like all might-have-beens, this one fades away into airy speculation. But what is more pleasant than speculating about Italy? Especially if it inspires you to pay a visit to the towns you haven't yet visited? I've never been to Naples. After reading Michael Ledeen's excellent short meditation on the city earlier in the winter and Gilmour next, I booked a June visit for myself and family to the city and surroundings. Whatever view you take of the merits of the Risorgimento - is there any other historical subject that so rewards curiosity?