Allen Lane, £25, 447pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Pursuit of Italy, By David Gilmour

From outer space Italy looks more like a country than any of its neighbours, but Metternich's jibe that it was purely "a geographical expression" has infuriated Italian nationalists for generations. The reason is that Metternich was right. In this well-researched and engaging canter through the peninsula's history, David Gilmour claims that only two Italians between ancient times and the 19th century entertained the idea that Italy was, or might be, or ought to be a unified country: Virgil, the myth-making epic poet, and Machiavelli, some 14 centuries later.

Italy's attempt to celebrate the 150th anniversary of unification, which got under way last month, has provided plenty of ammunition for those who regard the Italian state as an abomination. Berlusconi's coalition government is dominated by the Northern League, which openly scorns the republic and has at times campaigned for the north to secede. The plans for the celebrations were marred by a massive corruption scandal. Instead of a surge of patriotic enthusiasm, the anniversary prompted a film entitled Noi Credevamo (We Believed), which depicts unification not as a liberation but as a disguised colonisation, leading to the permanent stunting of the south.

Now comes this book by Gilmour, whose previous work on Italy was a study of the classic Sicilian novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa: another voice, this one well-mannered and unmistakably British, in the swelling chorus of hostility to Italian unification.

So if Italy was not a state, what was it? As Gilmour explains, there was not one Italy but a bewildering variety of alternative ones: the Italy dominated by ancient Rome, the Italy of the barbarian invasions, of the papal states, of the see-sawing wars between the popes' allies and those of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, and many others. In the absence of any sort of enduring unity or centralisation – especially after the fall of Rome – Italy's special genius proved to be the creation of city states: the descendants of the earliest communes in the peninsula, founded by the ancient Greeks.

There is thus a powerful family bond linking Periclean Athens, with all the qualities of culture and democracy which it created and enshrined, and the medieval Italian comuni of Florence, Siena,Venice and the rest. Gilmour is careful to avoid idealising these statelets. All of them had faults: they were beset by factionalism, that Italian speciality, and their chronic insecurity put them permanently at loggerheads with their neighbours, whom they generally despised.

The great Florentine writer Boccaccio, Gilmour tells us, believed that "the Sienese are credulous and the Venetians untrustworthy, Pisan women are ugly and Perugian men are sodomites, in the Marches the males are uncouth and mean-hearted." Sicily produces assassins, Naples thieves and grave-robbers, but worst are the "rapacious and money-grubbing" Genoese. "The only consistently good people," Gilmour summarises Boccaccio, "live in Florence, where the women are all beautiful and the men are noble, chivalrous, agreeable and wise."

Local chauvinism bred a tendency to bellicosity in many states, despite their often farcical (if endearing) ineptitude in the arts of war. Their small size made long-term survival problematic. Yet, as every tourist knows, these were wonderful creations which enshrined a vision of civilisation we can still relish today. Gilmour finds the same qualities persisting in jewel-like northern cities such as Crema and Cremona.

For Gilmour, the star of them all was Venice, governed with ingenuity and maturity by a ruling class that never got above itself. In his rather cosy depiction it is an England in miniature: maritime, sensible and tolerant, wisely remaining deaf to the tumult on terra ferma, and ruled by a doge almost as well reined-in as a Hanoverian king.

Venice's decline epitomises for Gilmour the travesty and tragedy of unification. "In 1797 it was a state in decline, certainly, but it need not have fallen much further. It might have recovered (like the Netherlands) and today Venice could have been (like the Hague) the capital of a successful small country" within the EU. Its unwilling incorporation into the kingdom of Italy was, he maintains, "an aberration" – as was the kingdom itself.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor