The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples

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9780374283162: The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples

One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year

Did Garibaldi do Italy a disservice when he helped its disparate parts achieve unity? Was the goal of political unification a mistake? These questions are asked and answered in a number of ways in this engaging, original consideration of the many histories that contribute to the brilliance-and weakness-of Italy today.

David Gilmour's wonderfully readable ex­ploration of Italian life over the centuries is filled with provocative anecdotes as well as personal observations, and is peopled with the great fig­ures of the Italian past-from Cicero and Virgil to Dante and the Medicis, from Garibaldi and Cavour to the controversial politicians of the twentieth century. Gilmour's wise account of the Risorgimento, the pivotal epoch in modern Italian history, debunks the nationalistic myths that surround it, though he paints a sympathetic portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, a beloved hero of the era. Gilmour shows that the glory of Italy has always lain in its regions, with their distinc­tive art, civic cultures, identities, and cuisines. Italy's inhabitants identified themselves not as Italians but as Tuscans and Venetians, Sicilians and Lombards, Neapolitans and Genoese. Italy's strength and culture still come from its regions rather than from its misconceived, mishandled notion of a unified nation.

With The Pursuit of Italy, David Gilmour has provided a coherent, persuasive, and entertain­ing interpretation of the paradoxes of Italian life, past and present.

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About the Author:

Sir David Gilmour is one of Britain's most admired and accomplished historical writers and biographers. His previous books include The Last Leopard, The Long Recessional (FSG, 2002), and, most recently, The Ruling Caste (FSG, 2006).

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Pursuit of Italy
1 Diverse Italies FRACTURED GEOGRAPHY Italy, complained Napoleon, is too long. It is indeed very long, the longest country in Europe outside Scandinavia and the Ukraine. It is also one of the thinnest, its peninsula about as narrow as Portugal and the Netherlands, broader only than Albania and Luxembourg. Ugo La Malfa, a republican politician of the twentieth century, liked to picture the country as a man with his feet in Africa and his hands clutching the Alps, trying to pull himself up into the middle of Europe.1 We think of Italy as a country with a north and a south, but actually its 720 miles run diagonally through different climatic and vegetation zones from the town of Aosta in the north-west, where French is an official language, to the Salentine Peninsula in the Apulian south-east, where Greek is still spoken. On the battlements of the Castle of Otranto you feel you are in the Balkans, and in a sense you are: you can see the mountains of Greece and Albania across the water; you are closer to Istanbul and the Ukraine than you are to Aosta; the Black Sea is nearer than the west coast of Sardinia. When Apulia joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the new state's capital was Turin, a city so far away that Otranto is today closer to seventeen foreign capitals than it is to Turin. No wonder you sometimes hear Apulians refer to themselves as Greeks or Levantines. Sometimes they pretend that they are not also Italians. In 1847 the Austrian chancellor, Prince Metternich, dismissed Italy as ' une expression géographique', a remark that has subsequently succeeded in annoying many people, especially Italians and historians. At the time Italy may have been more than a geographical expression - thoughit was still divided into eight independent states - but Metternich was repeating a view widely held for more than 2,000 years: Italy, like Iberia, may have been a geographical unit with natural borders but it had not been united since Roman times and did not seem to require political unity now or in the future. Italy seems to begin with the myth of Hercules, the Greek hero who rescued a stray calf that had wandered across southern Italy and swum the Straits of Messina. The land the animal crossed duly became known as Italia, from the word ouitoulos or bull-calf, a word that has also bequeathed us, via Oscan and Latin, the word vitello or veal. A related theory, recorded by the Greek historian Timaeus, held that the ancient Greeks had been so impressed by the cattle in Italy that they had rewarded the land with the same name. This may be the explanation for the origin of the name 'Italia', but it does not seem quite convincing. For centuries northern visitors have been scathing about the skinny appearance of Italian cows, especially the small, white, wide-horned ones bred mainly for pulling carts and drawing ploughs. The arid south of the peninsula, bereft of pasture and hay fields, can hardly have seemed a herdsman's paradise even for the Greeks: the great Murge Plateau in Apulia cannot support cattle because it does not have streams. Italy today has to import more than half the milk it consumes and, if we associate the south with any kind of cattle now, it is with water buffaloes, producers of the milk used in making the soft white cheese mozzarella di bùfala. Yet the buffaloes are of Asian origin and were brought to Italy for ploughing in the early Middle Ages; later they went wild, roaming over Campania and the Pontine Marshes before they were domesticated once more in the eighteenth century. Used as draught animals rather than for milk and meat, the herds seemed to be dying out in the first half of the twentieth century. Their famous product did not become either famous or fashionable until the 1980s. In the fifth century BC the word 'Italia' applied only to the Calabrian toe of the Italian 'boot', which was inhabited by a people known as the Bruttians. Later it was extended to Lucania and Campania, and later still the term spread northwards to describe Rome's conquests in the peninsula. The Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides did not regard the land beyond the River Po as a part of Italy, and indeedgeographically the Po Valley belongs to the continental land-mass not the peninsula. But after the Romans had subdued its Gallic tribes and reached the Alps, that area too was added to Italia. By the second century BC another Greek historian, Polybius, confirmed that almost the whole of modern Italy was then Italia, though Roman poets of a later age sometimes called it by other names such as Hesperia, Ausonia, Saturnia terra and (appropriately for what is now the largest wine producer in the world) Oenotria, 'the land of wine'. There was one sharp check to this progress. In 91 BC some of Rome's socii (subservient allies) rebelled and set up a state in the central Apennines called Italia, with a capital Corfinium (renamed Italica), administered by praetors, a senate and two consuls. The insurgents even produced coins showing the bull of Italia goring and about to rape the Roman wolf. They were defeated, however, in the ensuing Social War by Rome's traditional tactic of brutality plus concessions, and no further attempt was made to set up a state called Italy for many centuries to come. Within a century of the war, the earlier version of Italia was organized as an administrative unit by Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who divided it into eleven districts; the Istrian Peninsula, which was joined to Venetia, was the only part that does not belong to the modern state of Italy.a A later emperor, Diocletian, expanded Italia to include Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Raetia, a district that contained parts of what are now Switzerland, Bavaria and the Tyrol. Augustan Italy, lauded by Virgil and his fellow poets, remained an inspiration to the poets of the Middle Ages, to Petrarch who sang of 'the fair land / That the Apennines divide and the sea and the Alps surround',2 and to many others later on. Yet until the end of the eighteenth century Italy remained a literary idea, an abstract concept, an imaginary homeland or simply a sentimental urge. If at times people used it to express resentment at foreign occupation, its independence and unity were not political aspirations. And for a large majority of the population it meant nothing at all. Even in 1861, at the time of unification, some Sicilians thought L'Italia - or rather la Talia - was their new queen. A full century later, the social reformer Danilo Dolciencountered Sicilians who had never heard of Italy and asked him what it was.3  
The geography we imbibe from school textbooks and atlases makes us think that Italy is peculiarly blessed in its position. According to the revolutionary patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, God had given Italians 'the most clearly demarcated fatherland in Europe'.4 There it lies in the centre of the Mediterranean, protected in the north by its Alpine ramparts and everywhere else by its seas. Italy is actually extremely unfortunate in its position, which has made it one of the most easily and frequently invaded places in the world. The Alps may look impressive but they have been penetrated without difficulty since the Bronze Age. In the twelfth century BC traders were bringing amber from the Baltic across the Alps to Etruria and Sardinia; by the Roman era seventeen of the twenty-three Alpine passes were being used. Few ramparts have been so consistently surmounted down the centuries. Hannibal brought his Carthaginian army over the Western Alps, while Alaric's Goths and Attila's Huns came from the east through the lower Julian and Carnic Alps. In 1796 General Bonaparte, as he then was, marched through the Maritime Alps between Nice and Genoa - allowing him to boast to his soldiers, ' Annibal a forcé les Alpes - nous, nous les avons tournés' - but four years later, now as first consul, he descended on Italy through five more northerly passes. Afterwards he had himself painted riding a white charger through the snows of the Great St Bernard, though in fact he had been led through them on a little grey mule. Many other aggressors have emulated these invaders of Italy. Once they had got through the passes and on to the plain, they could speed up across the Po Valley, which was flat, inviting and difficult to defend, unless they were attacking from the west, in which case they were hindered by tributaries of the Po flowing southwards in parallel from the northern lakes: Milan was simple to capture, and those other 'gateways' to Italy, Turin and Verona, were not much harder. One reason why the eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) lasted for a thousand years longer than its western counterpart was that it was much easier to defend. The Goths and Huns might rampage around the Balkans but they were halted at Constantinople by the city walls and a fleetthat prevented then from crossing the Bosphorus and ravaging Asia Minor. Later the Byzantines performed a similar feat in reverse, blocking the Arabs in the seventh century and thus preventing them from pouring into eastern Europe, reaching Italy and doubtless islamicizing Rome. At a time, a century before Charlemagne, when Europe was militarily weak, Byzantium saved it and made possible its later rise to dominance. Apart from the French Riviera, the Italian peninsula has the only Mediterranean coasts that (except around Bari) have never been Muslim. Its seas made Italy even more vulnerable than its mountains. With 4,500 miles of coastline, the peninsula and its islands are almost impossible to patrol. They can be attacked from all directions by predators from three continents. Boats were man's first means of transport, and by 5000 BC these had become sufficiently sturdy to undertake long sea voyages. In the fifth century BC Herodotus observed that a boat could sail 75 miles in twenty-four hours, a statistic suggesting that invaders of Italy from the Albanian shore could cross the 45 miles of the Strait of Otranto in summer daylight. The Adriatic was thus always a threat. To safeguard the Italian shore, one had to control the eastern shore with its useful harbours as well as Corfu, the island guarding the entrance to the strait. Venice could never have pretended to be the Queen (or Bride) of the Adriatic or the Lion of the Sea - let alone la Serenissima - if it had not bullied the Dalmatian city of Zara (now Zadar), if Trieste had become a serious rival or if Ragusa (later Dubrovnik) had developed a naval strength commensurate with its commercial power. During the great centuries of its republic, Venice was forced to construct its own integrated, protective world in the Adriatic, much of whose population was not Italian. No wonder that cartographers so often referred to the sea as the Gulf of Venice. The islands were still more of a liability than the mainland coast. Despite its closeness to Tuscany, Elba in the sixteenth century was so frequently attacked by invaders from Africa (who were once known as the Barbary corsairs) that its inhabitants abandoned their homes along the shore and went to live in the hills. The same danger depopulated the coasts of Sardinia, whose forts and watchtowers did little to deter raiders questing for slaves; the island had already been aneasy prey for invading Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and Aragonese, as well as for more commercial colonialists in the form of Pisans and Genoese. Sicily had a similar problem on a grander scale, its position making it impossible for its inhabitants to control their destiny for the last two and a half thousand years. Syracuse's defeat of the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC was the island's most recent successful resistance against a serious invader. Since then, it has been too small and weak to defend itself, yet too large, too strategically important and (until the later Middle Ages) too fertile to escape invasions. It thus became a sort of prize for the dominant power in the western Mediterranean. This Sicilian fate was in a less concentrated and continuous form the fate of the whole of Italy. Until the advent of Great Power diplomacy in the mid-nineteenth century, geography determined that for most of its history Italy had to conquer or be dominated by others. Its destinies could be those of either an imperial power or a type of colony but not those of a nation-state. A comparison with England, whose seas and navies have protected it, is illuminating. The Normans invaded Sicily in 1060 and England in 1066 and in both places established flourishing kingdoms, the Sicilian one being much the richer of the two. Over the subsequent millennium several English claimants crossed the Channel and seized the throne, but there has been only one successful invasion of England by a foreign army, the Dutch force in 1688, an event which was neither entirely foreign nor a typical invasion because William of Orange had been invited by powerful English politicians to overthrow the unpopular James II, his uncle and father-in-law. During the same nine centuries Italy was successfully invaded by Angevins, Aragonese, Germans (several times), French (many times), Spanish, Turks (briefly), Austrians (frequently), Russians, British and Americans.b None of them, however, was able to control the whole of the peninsula. Whereas for England the North Sea is an obvious advantage, botheconomic and military, the virtues of the Mediterranean are less apparent to Italy. In fact the relationship of land and water around the peninsula is a complicated one. Despite its extensive coastline, Italy has only a few satisfactory ports, Genoa, La Spezia and Naples on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Taranto on the Ionian, Ancona, Brindisi and Venice in the Adriatic. Amalfi, which somehow managed to become a maritime power in the ninth century, has a very short beach and no proper harbour; it survived as a republic mainly by assisting Arab raiders attacking other parts of the Italian coast.c It did, however, have the advantages of Campanian hemp and flax for ropes and access to forests for building ships. Timber shortages in much of the rest of Italy hampered the construction of great navies. Although there were fine forests near the sea, especially in Tuscany and the Gargano Peninsula, the Mediterranean climate ensured that, once they had been cut down and the topsoil had been washed away, they did not regenerate properly, particularly in the south, where herds of goats roamed among the saplings. Much of the Sardinian coastline was thus covered by màcchia, the aromatic Mediterranean scrub that is good for the senses and perhaps for the soul but not for human welfare or the ecology of the zone. The timber available in the peninsula was adequate during classical times, when deforestation had only just started, but it was not sufficient for Italians later on to compete with the Atlantic navies of England and Holland, which had access to Baltic forests, or the imperial fleets of Spain and Portugal. The shortage of oak, considered vital for ships' hulls, was a perennial problem. The Venetians felled the forests of Dalmatia for their vessels, for the millions of stakes required for the foundations of their buildings and for the thousands of bricole, the posts strapped together in wigwam shape that mark the navigable channels of the lagoon. Naturally the forests could not suffice for very long. In the epoch of its triumph against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), Venice was having to buy not only hulls but whole ships made in Holland. A popular recollection of Naples today is of its restaurants on theseafront and its people merrily eating frutti di mare. Yet Italians have never been great fish-eaters, especially in the north, where they...

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