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New Books: Risorgimento, Unification & Regionalism
by Luigi Mendola

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Read the REAL history!


The Pursuit of Italy. Some insightful, thought-provoking histories of the Risorgimento have been published in English recently, and they promise to make your introduction to the complex subject easier than it was for some of us, if you're prepared for an undiluted reality check.

Decades ago, as a young teenager, I mentioned to my grandmother something I had read about Giuseppe Garibaldi, only to be corrected, which is to say abruptly reprimanded. She told a story about her late father, who I vividly recall meeting (when he was 97). Born in Sicily, my great-grandfather was educated by Dominican monks. He founded one of America's first pasta factories, but his own father had been a royal courier of the "pony express" in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and - like all such couriers - an army officer. My grandmother patiently told her ignorant grandson that in the 1870s her father's teachers taught Italy's real unification history based on the actual events of 1860, explaining to their students that the "official" version in the text books bore only the semblance of fact. Family history aside, this impromptu lecture taught me that published history can be twisted to suit specific political objectives, and I began to pay closer attention to the source notes of the books I read.

A few Italian books confronted the Risorgimento Question directly and even cited accurate GDP figures and other information about the pre-unitary Italian states (Francesco S. Nitti's data were first released around 1900), but few of the English-language histories bothered to venture into that territory. Over the years my knowledge of the subject made me something of a gnostic keeper of arcane facts, a cognoscente.

Initially, the task of setting the record straight fell to a few dozen Italian historians, and a handful of dedicated British Italophiles whose work I shall (succinctly) review. For background, I should preface any further remarks by stating that until the 1990s the "standard" version of the history of Italian unification, the Risorgimento of the nineteenth century, was usually presented as some facsimile of this glowing account:

"Long-desired by all Italian peoples, the belated unification of 'Italy' was necessary and inevitable even though the peninsula had not been fully united since the fall of the Roman Empire, with the annexation of Sicily essential to this effort; Garibaldi, Cavour, Crispi and other supporters were heroes who had stood against the evil King Francis II of the largely-illiterate Two Sicilies and the obstinate, reactionary Pope Pius IX, who together ruled more than half of 'Italy' until 1860. The plebiscites of the 1860s, confirming the mandate of the new Kingdom of Italy by an invariable 98% majority, were a clear reflection of the will of the people. Viva l'Italia unita!"

That's the view you may still find in histories written by lazy authors before 1990, yet anybody who spends much time in Italy's various regions, north to south and east to west, knows that a pronounced regionalsm prevails. Hardly anybody denies this. Even Elizabeth Gilbert noticed it; the last leg of her Italian culinary journey described in Eat, Pray, Love found her in Sicily. But you don't have to visit Italy to understand it. If only for the fact of larger American, British and Australian supermarkets having sections designated Tuscan, Milanese and Sicilian, one must per forza conclude that Italy's regional identities actually exist. It is this enduring regionalism that connects nineteenth-century developments to the twenty-first century.

Leaving aside subsequent movements (especially Fascism), the anti-clerical, "liberal" police state that emerged from the Risorgimento was anything but democratic or unifying, despite the fraudulent referenda of 1861. Harsh economic realities in the new state spawned a large diaspora of émigrés from southern Italy, whereas previously, until circa 1870, more people emigrated from the equally illiterate north (Piedmont, Lombardy, Venetia, Liguria), which before unification was actually poorer than the south. (The economic figures speak for themselves, and the facts are detailed elsewhere on this website, on pages dedicated to the Sicilian diaspora and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.)

Outsiders inclined to regard Italy's undeclared unification war as something similar to America's contemporary War Between the States, as if it too were a civil war, should be reminded that whereas the United States had been united for a century before the outbreak of a bloody conflict, Italy was not. Moreover, the principles at issue were completely different. Yet the "united" Italy did eventually fight its own "civil war" between Partisans and Fascists from 1943 until 1945, and its effects linger to this day, coloring the fabric of Italian values and politics. The delicate balance of power that ensued in Italy's "First Republic" beginning in 1946 partially explains why publications questioning the nation's tenuous unity were rarely encouraged, and why there were rather few books published presenting any history of the ninety years from 1860 to 1950 in a scholarly manner. Until quite recently, virtually no school history books mentioned Fascism or the Second World War; Italy's post-war leaders wished to avoid dividing the country yet again, at the expense of one side or the other.

The Kingdom of Italy never fought a single war out of defensive necessity; every conflict was an exercise in expansionism, usually a debacle, with unity, loyalty and courage at a precious premium because few soldiers were motivated to fight for an "Italia" they barely knew. The defeat at Adwa in 1896 earned Italy the world's ridicule, the endless Libyan campaign resulted in mutilated Italian soldiers, and during the First World War Carabinieri units were posted behind the lines of the regular Italian Army to shoot deserters fleeing Austrian fire. For its actions in Ethiopia in the 1930s, Italy became the first nation forced to recognize its role in crimes against humanity. Beginning with the Allied landings in Sicily in 1943, the kingdom's last great military disaster touched Italy directly, with Italian women prostituting themselves to German and then American troops. The country was finally liberated at the cost of fifty thousand Allied lives and many Italian ones, and recent decades have witnessed an overdue reassessment of the self-serving "facts" advanced for so long by unification apologists, Mussolini not least among them.

Significantly, the Italian state does not unequivocally endorse the revisionism that formerly reigned. Recently, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano actually sent a letter to two southern towns, Pontelandolfo and Casalduni, that suffered murder, rape and destruction at the hands of Piedmontese troops in 1861 during the unification war, apologizing to the victims' descendants for the nation's deliberate cover-up of the incident for 150 years! In fact, the Sicilian town of Bronte (see below) suffered a similar fate.

Last year, while some government officials were (very controversially) being paid to celebrate 150 years of Italian "unity," conferences were convened at universities around the country expounding on a more sober assessment of the unification movement; I attended one at the University of Palermo, appropriately held in the hall of barons of Palazzo Steri, 14th-century residence of Sicilian kings. There was some satisfaction in knowing that most Italians had finally begun to question the faulty history they were spoon fed for so long, and I saw the position of my grandmother's family and many others vindicated at last. But it was not without a pizzico of regret that I now had to welcome millions into what had previously been an esoteric circle of cognoscenti.

Meanwhile, in its polemical, poorly-attended festivities, which were boycotted or simply ignored by large segments of the population, the Italian government sought to retain some measure of recognition for Garibaldi while marginalizing the Savoys - an idea akin to ordering a gin & tonic without the gin.

David Gilmour is only the most recent historian to present the facts, but he does so adroitly in a work running to almost 500 pages. Published last year (2011), The Pursuit of Italy - A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples is just the latest in a string of erudite, exhaustively-researched histories by Gilmour, Denis Mack Smith, Christopher Duggan and numerous Italian authors.

More than a mere chronicle and analysis of history, The Pursuit of Italy is particularly probing because it explores the direct cause-and-effect chain of developments that has shaped Italian regional attitudes and behavior in a direct line from 1861 until the twenty-first century. Whether it's lifestyle, folk customs, religious attitudes or cuisine, these differences are very real. Of course, Gilmour makes the point that these distinguishing traits have always been there; what else would one expect from a diversity of peoples who in 1861 didn't even speak the same language? Friulian, Neapolitan, Piedmontese, Sicilian and other languages - subsequently (and disdainfully) called "dialects" by Italian "linguists" acting as shills for the new state - were what most Italians spoke until unification, even if a brand of Tuscan was generally accepted as the written language. One could go so far as to say that this book is essential reading for anybody seeking to understand Italy as it is today or as it was the day before yesterday.

The Pursuit of Italy begins with the ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, then dedicates ample space to the invading peoples who conquered the various territories as Rome's empire crumbled in the fifth century, ushering in the Middle Ages. Lombards, Byzantines and Normans are all considered, and so are the Papacy, Venice and then the northern city-states and their Renaissance. Thus do the first five chapters lay the foundation for the events of the tumultuous nineteenth century. After 1860, most of the absorbed kingdoms suffered; the Tuscans, for example, deeply resented the death penalty being re-instituted, their Grand Duchy having been the first country in the world to abolish it (in 1786). Chapter Nine ("Making Italians"), actually mentions the incarceration of Neapolitan soldiers in Alpine death camps - something rarely noted in any book published in English until now. Subsequent chapters are dedicated to nationalism, Fascism, the Cold War period, and the death of the so-called First Republic which in the 1990s provoked serious questioning of Italy's national purpose in the minds of most Italians. The bibliography and notes are formidable, representing the best Italian scholarship.

Professor Gilmour and his fellow scholars have effectively revisited what from its inception (invention?) was itself a fragile revisionism based on a ridiculous historiography more slanted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, supported by an equally fragile foundation.

Italian states in 1858.That's an important point. The "revisionism" is not so much the work of these historians as that of those who earlier sought to bolster the "united" Italy after 1861 by weaving a national history out of feathery straw. This reflected no conspiracy per se, just longstanding public policy. Few would suggest dividing the nation into pieces today but many believe that if federalism had been instituted in 1861 the Italians would be more united now. In the federalist vein, it is important to remember that Italy now has several semi-autonomous regions, namely Sicily (as the Sicilian Region by decree of the last King of Italy in 1946 following the Second World War), French-speaking Aosta and German-speaking South Tirol. That there were post-war separatist movements in all three regions is sufficient reason to conclude that not all Italians were confirmed unificationists even in the 1940s. Quite simply, Italian regionalism is a fact of life and always has been. What many advocate is a greater federalism, preserving the Italian Republic but permitting more regional control, something that already exists, if not very efficiently, in Sicily. Self-governing regions are not an exclusively Italian phenomenon, for we see the same kind of thing in Britain (Scotland), Spain (Catalonia) and Germany (Bavaria).

Lucy Riall's Under the Volcano - Revolution in a Sicilian Town details the ruthless massacre at Bronte, in eastern Sicily, by Nino Bixio in 1860. Based on masterful research, Professor Riall's book covers enough history to provide ample context. Published in 2012 by Oxford University Press (there is also an Italian edition), this is a sober – and sobering – study of what actually took place.

Not to overlook the Italian authors writing about the effects of unification and regionalism, it is worth noting that here in Italy Pino Aprile's Terroni, which has since been translated into English, achieved bestseller status with over 250,000 copies sold. If that figure strikes you as unimpressive, consider that Italians read fewer books per capita per year than the citizens of any other European Union country except Greece. (Unification, it would seem, doesn't encourage Italians to read very much, even 150 years after the Risorgimento.)

Mr Gilmour is to be commended for his keen insight, while his colleagues also deserve "props" for exploring Italy's eclectic history as it is, and not simply as a few fanatics would like it to be. Truth be told, the unificationist bandwagon tumbled over a precipice long ago, and intellectuals never took it too seriously to begin with. From north to south - or should that be south to north? - Italy has a plethora of regionalist, if not openly secessionist, political parties.

Christopher Duggan's most recent entry into the fray is lengthier at nearly 700 pages: The Force of Destiny - A History of Italy Since 1796. His insights are just as revealing as Gilmour's, and equally direct regarding the tenuous state of Italian unity emerging from the Risorgimento. As its title implies, this substantial tome covers the last two centuries in considerable detail. His earlier Concise History of Italy offers an excellent, complementary overview.

From Denis Mack Smith there are numerous works, including a good History of Sicily. Two books of interest here are Modern Italy - A Political History and Italy and Its Monarchy. In recognition of his work, the author was knighted by the Italian Republic. He is generally regarded as the most eminent scholar of modern Italian history writing in English today, and several of his books have been translated into Italian.

It is to be remembered that the eloquent David Gilmore also penned the informative introduction to the 1986 edition of The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's bestselling novel set in Sicily around 1860, and a biography of the Sicilian author. The Leopard itself did much to open the debate about the Risorgimento. In his lectures and writings, Tomasi di Lampedusa may have been the first to compare the Allies' arrival in Sicily in 1943 to Garibaldi's entry eighty-three years earlier, with similar effects for a state and dynasty about to fall - the first in Naples and the second in Rome. If anything, Palermo was better defended in 1860 than it was in 1943, when its half-starved population welcomed Patton and his troops as liberators despite six months of carpet bombing - so much for Italian unity and loyalty to the national leadership.

Over the years, several solid histories have approached the subject of unification in some way, particularly Robert Katz's Fall of the House of Savoy and Sir Harold Acton's Last Bourbons of Naples (both now out of print). For those wishing to escape the weight of history, lighter but candid glimpses into Italian life post-2000 will be found in Tobias Jones' more recent Dark Heart of Italy and Beppe Severgnini's entertaining Bella Figura.

More generally, most recent histories that touch on the topic of Italian unification, even where it is not the principal focus, describe the movement in sober terms. For example, in chapter 25 (titled The Risorgimento) of John Julius Norwich's The Middle Sea - A History of the Mediterranean (a generalist work published in 2007), the distinguished author dedicates a fair amount of attention to the Bourbons of Naples and the battles of the Volturno and Gaeta, and mentions the rigged plebiscite in Venetia in 1866. Here he echoes the views of Harold Acton, whose books are listed in the bibliography, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who in 1957 described (in The Leopard) the falsified referendum held in Sicily a century earlier. (In what democratic society has a referendum or candidate ever won by 98 percent?)

In the last decade the Italians and Britons have been joined by a tiny but growing coterie of American colleagues. One who stood out during the last century was Cyril Toumanoff, a professor at Georgetown University, who already in the 1960s was teaching history courses whose perspectives contested nationalistic propaganda when necessary, whether the focus was the Risorgimento or the Russian Revolution he had witnessed in Saint Petersburg during an aristocratic boyhood taken from the pages of Doctor Zhivago. Toumanoff's students (Bill Clinton among them) were indeed privileged to study with a gentleman who had witnessed some of the events that formed the basis of his lecture topics.

Only the most vehement contrarian would presume to debate the facts of unification with the intellectual triumvirate of Gilmour-Duggan-Smith and its Oxbridge following. To put this topic in its proper perspective, the simple fact is that most Italians (certainly most Sicilians) couldn't care less about Garibaldi, Cavour, Crispi, the Savoys, the Risorgimento or some vague concept of national unity; they're too busy trying to find jobs and make a living in this land of chronically high unemployment, low salaries, political unrest and economic inflation, accompanied by a serious Brain Drain. The ancient roots of the Sicilian identity have little to do with anything that has occurred since 1860, and Italy's recent history and politics are rarely objects of pride. If an Italian is proud of anything, it's his new iPhone or perhaps the fact that his 30 year-old daughter has finally found a job in Britain. Neither accomplishment owes much to Italian unity or to the nation's dwindling economic base.

Prosaic realities of this kind remind me of another of my grandmother's stories. She lived most of her life in the United States. Before a visit to Sicily in 1937, her relatives in a large town had written to her boasting that they now had electricity, a triumph of Fascism, as it were. This was partly true. When she arrived she found a single light bulb in the town, at the mayor's office. The triumph, it seems, had been grossly overstated for the sake of a country cousin's newfound italianità, a nationalistic pride destined to evaporate with the liberation of Sicily by the Allies a half-dozen years later. By that time, there were at least a few more light bulbs, but many Italians were still waiting for conduits to bring running water into their homes and the women were looking forward to the right to vote. Such hopes united a nation.

About the Author: Luigi Mendola has written for various publications.

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