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A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples

By David Gilmour

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-28316-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

British historian Gilmour (The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, 2006, etc.) declares there’s no such thing as Italy.

Or rather, he argues in this idiosyncratic text, the 19th-century unification of the Italian peninsula into a single nation ignored the reality of its distinct city-states and regions with long separate histories and little in common. To make his point, Gilmour begins in prehistory, pointing out that geography works against national unity, with an enormous coastline that has enabled invasions for millennia and a spine of central mountains that hinder travel between communities. The author sweeps across the centuries from Republican Rome through the Renaissance (largely confined to the north) to unification, which Gilmour describes as "a war of expansion conducted by one Italian state against another.” The state that came out on top of “the Kingdom of Italy” was Piedmont, whose Savoia dynasty had scarcely more claim to rule the nation than the Bourbons who had ruled the Kingdom of Two Sicilies for more than a century. Gilmour delights in such counterintuitive proclamations, and sometimes he appears to be dissenting from mainstream history simply for the sake of being different. (It seems absurd, for example, to quibble with the perception that Verdi’s operas expressed nationalist sentiments, a belief widespread among the composer’s contemporaries as well as biographers, by pointing out that Nabucco is actually about Hebrew slaves in Babylon.) Nonetheless, the book’s main point is well taken: Nationalism Italian-style was more of a 19th-century fad than a true expression of the sentiments of people for whom campanilismo (loyalty to the municipality) has always been the stronger, more enduring force. This is “the real Italy,” Gilmour persuasively contends, “the communal Italy, the result of a millennium of natural evolution.” His scathing summary of 20th-century Italian history—from the bankrupt liberalism that handed over power to Mussolini through a half-century of corrupt one-party rule to the antics of Berlusconi—makes it hard to disagree that regional states could only be an improvement.

Provocative, if at times somewhat speciously argued.