The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples BY David Gilmour. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 480 pages. $32.
The cover of The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples

Italy has survived its 150th year since unification. How enthusiastic most Italians feel about this anniversary is apparent from a recent remark by Silvio Berlusconi, the latest and the worst Prime Minister to rule the country: “In a few months, I’ll leave. I’ll leave this country of shit, which nauseates me. Full stop. End of story.”

Berlusconi, according to some recent opinion polls, is no longer very popular. Yet he still retains the infuriating quality that has made him the most successful politician of postwar Italy: his preternatural ability to be the spokesmen for the basest thoughts of ordinary Italians. In this instance, he is undoubtedly at one with his people. Many Italians do indeed consider their country a paese di merda. Whereas a similarly derogatory remark would spell the certain end of any American politician’s career, the outrage over Berlusconi’s remarks has already died down.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this episode that Italians share Berlusconi’s supposed desire to quit the country. Italians abroad are invariably consumed with nostalgia for their patria. Italians back home love their town, the countryside that surrounds it, and its local cuisine. This civic pride is so widespread that I have spent many an hour listening to bricklayers and butchers waxing lyrical about the nobility of the autonomous republican governments that ruled their towns at about the time Cristofero Colombo discovered America.

So Italians are hardly lukewarm about their country; it is more accurate to say that they are deeply ambivalent. Even though many may share Berlusconi’s judgment that their country is a paese di merda, they are fiercely devoted to their homeland. This is paradoxical: how can such intense devotion and such deep-rooted self-loathing coexist?

David Gilmour’s history of the Italian peninsula, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples, purports to offer an answer to this paradox. As the book’s title implies with its plural mentions of “regions” and “peoples,” Gilmour thinks that Neapolitans love their city, while Tuscans might even identify with their whole region. But neither think much of the country to which they nominally belong. Italy, on this view, remains less homogeneous than most other nation states. The fact that it happens to constitute one nation is a bizarre accident of history.

MOTIVATED BY this decentralized view of Italy, Gilmour sets out to destroy the nationalist myths of Italian historiography, and focus instead on the many differences between its regions. As I set out to read The Pursuit of Italy, I worried that Gilmour’s approach might lack a central narrative thread, but as it turns out Gilmour never loses sight of the overall story. He takes his readers through nearly 3,000 years of Italian history with gusto and sweep, proving as knowledgeable about the economic malaise of contemporary Sicily as he is about Venice’s post-Byzantine paintings, the streets of medieval Tuscany or the abominable failings of Italy’s 19th century generals. Even as Gilmour describes the vast differences between Bari and Turin, the interrelated history of the whole peninsula comes to life.

Gilmour’s devotion to debunking historical myths, I thought, might turn out to be another treacherous pitfall. Myths are always entertaining, while their destroyers rarely avoid turning into humorless know-it-alls. It is especially impressive, then, that Gilmour’s all-out attack on nationalist legends turns out to be as enjoyable as the myths he targets. In fact, he is at his best when he attacks the traditional historiography of Italy most fiercely – as he does in retelling the story of the Risorgimento, Italy’s supposedly heroic period of national renewal and unification in the mid-19th century.

With clarity and humor, Gilmour explains why the supposedly patriotic Risorgimento operas of Giuseppe Verdi, like Nabucco with its famous chorus ‘Va Pensiero’ were both less nationalist and less popular than Italian historians would have us believe. (The Austrian rulers of Northern Italy allowed performances of Nabucco to go ahead, evidently unconcerned about its content; the only evidence of the chorus being chanted by nationalist crowds comes from after Italian unification.) More surprising still, many of the so-called heroes of the Risorgimento – men like General Lamarmora, Prime Minister Cavour and King Vittorio Emanuele II – are convincingly portrayed as bellicose, incompetent, or both. And as for the notion that unification was owed to widespread nationalist fervor, Gilmour dispenses with it by citing anecdotes such as that of the French writer Maxime du Camp, who, at the height of the Risorgimento, “witnessed crowds of people shouting ‘Long live Italy!’ before asking him to explain what Italy was and what it meant.” The sanctification of the Risorgimento has long been used to give Italy’s unification an air of historical inevitability; in painting a more realistic picture of the period and its protagonists, Gilmour helps us understand why ordinary Italians have always been so lukewarm about their country.

And yet, while Gilmour’s history of Italy is as entertaining as it is informative, I could not help but feel that, having skillfully circumnavigated two dangers, Gilmour, in the last pages of his book, falls foul of an unexpected third . After thoroughly dispensing with the idea that Italy had been culturally and geographically preordained to become a united country (and he is of course not the first historian to debunk that particular myth), Gilmour goes so far as to conclude that the opposite holds true. Italy, he writes, was preordained not to achieve the unity of Germany or France:

United Italy never became the nation its founders had hoped for because its making had been flawed both in conception and in execution, because it had been truly … ‘a sin against history and geography.’ It was thus predestined to be a disappointment.

This is nonsense. The idea that Italy was destined to fail as a nation state is just as much of a smug generalization as was the belief that it would inevitably become a united nation. Political outcomes are rarely either entirely contingent or wholly predetermined by factors such as “history and geography.” At his best, Gilmour seems to know this—indeed, his narrative qualities stem from his ability to pay attention to both structure and contingency. And yet, in the last pages of the book, he somehow contrives to neglect this basic insight.

Unfortunately, Gilmour’s misguided conclusion about Italy’s past also leads him to draw the wrong lessons for Italy’s future. Remarking on the continuing local patriotism of Italians, he suggests that a thoroughly decentralized Italy of communes might better serve the interests of its peoples. It’s a tempting suggestion—as attractive to the bricklayers and butchers of latter-day Venice and Florence as it is to any visitor who has marveled at the beautiful civic buildings of these long-gone republics. Nonetheless, it is a non-starter.

To turn Italy into a federation of city-states would be to pretend that the last 150 years never happened. But, inglorious as these long years may have been, they have shaped the country just as more distant and more glorious centuries have. Gilmour makes much of the fact that, in the mid-19th century, most “Italians” did not speak “Italian”—which was, really, just the dialect spoken in Tuscany. However, he neglects to ascribe the same importance to the fact that, however unsavory the process by which all Italians were forced to adopt the Tuscan dialect, today they do all speak that language. In this and in many other respects, Italy is today more united than it has ever been. Nowadays, the difference between an Italian from Bari and one from Turin is not much bigger than that between an Englishman from Newcastle and one from Plymouth. Despite the undoubted flaws of Italy’s conception, its future cannot lie in local particularism.

THE COUNTRY’S diversity is key to understanding modern Italy. But in the end, Gilmour’s book made me recognize the danger of overstating regional particularisms. One response to the paradox of Italians’ simultaneous love and hatred for Italy is to say that they love their towns and hate their nation. It is equally important to point out, however, that Italians in all parts of the country love their shared language, culture and cuisine—but hate their dysfunctional government.

Distinguishing between Italy and its government allows us to draw more optimistic conclusions about the country’s future. With few and short exceptions, Italy has, as Gilmour masterfully shows, been governed disastrously for many centuries—and still it has managed to become one of the world’s most beautiful, most accomplished and most wealthy countries. There is nothing to suggest that today’s Italy will prove less resilient.

Berlusconi has contributed more than anyone alive to turning Italy into a paese di merda. But his rule, too, shall pass. If the Italian peninsula has remained an enchanted place despite Caligula, Nero, Cesare Borgia, Vittorio Emanuele and Benito Mussolini, it will also manage to weather a grubby little corrupter of men by the name of Silvio Berlusconi.

Yascha Mounk, a political theorist at Harvard University and the founding editor of The Utopian, is writing a book on German-Jewish relations since 1945, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.