The Pursuit of Italy, By David Gilmour
Following his wonderful biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, David Gilmour set himself the task of writing about Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries, the period of Lampedusa's novel and life, but he found himself going much further back to discover the origins of the concept of Italy.
We learn that Emperor Augustus claimed that tota Italia (all Italy) had sworn an oath of allegiance to him. Gilmour notes, however, that this was "an administrative convenience...It was romantic nationalism of the 19th century – and its more sinister successors – that insisted on a single heart."
Italy was formally unified with the Risorgimento of 1861 but the continuing potency of regionalism is the central theme of this lively, penetrating and addictive account. One barrier to meaningful unification was physical geography. "Italy is too long," grumbled Napoleon. An even more significant reason is the mental chasm between north and north, outlined to Gilmour by a café owner in Turin who, after complaining at length about the crimes of Neapolitans, admitted, "But while we know how to work they know how to live."
In the introduction, Gilmour admits that he was "quirkily subjective in my choice of topics" and his book is all the better for it. Every page enthrals with odd revelations and insight. Gilmour notes that the Futurist campaign against pasta (because it "encouraged pacifism") was undermined when the movement's leader Marinetti was photographed "munching his way though a bowl of spaghetti".
We learn that the First World War, which cost Italy one million casualties in a population of 35 million, did not produce much patriotism. Though fascism was "a phenomenon of the north", Mussolini "probably made Italy feel more united than ever before – or indeed since." Dismissing the view that dictatorship was "a parenthesis", Gilmour maintains that fascism "changed little of substance". The real break came after the war when Italy ceased pretending to be a Great Power and concentrated on the prosperity of citizens.
Ending with a blistering view of Berlusconi, Gilmour notes that for all their achievements, Italians have found it impossible "to create a successful nation-state."
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