CAVOUR by Denis Mack Smith
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An elegant, exuberant, robustly detailed life and times of the aristocrat who politicked the unification of Italy through wit, guile, and bile as much as through passion and vision. Outside Italy, Cavour stands in the shadows of the more romantic and bankable revolutionaries Garibaldi and Mazzini; in reality, it was Cavour--the enfant gat‚ of a much despised Turin marchese and chief of police in that most intolerant of cities--who somehow managed to forge a pax Italica out of chaos. Mack Smith's is the first new biography in years. It is brief, dense, colorful, and if it lacks the scholarly impedimenta of his other works (it does read sometimes like a spinoff from his Making of Italy 1796-1870 and Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860), it is reconstructionist, narrative history at its most exemplary. Nary a statistic or a parish register to be found-indeed, the cropping can be too close at times, for while the facts are here, we miss the setting. Nineteenth century European politics was baroque enough, and Mack Smith could have deepened the background to better understand Cavour's accomplishments. And accomplishments they were, from editing the opposition newspaper Risorgimento, fighting with popes, fomenting war with Austria to destroy its imperial hold on the Italian north, outwitting the more radical Garibaldi and Mazzini, coaxing his native Piedmont (arguably the most reactionary of all Italian states) toward progress, constitutional government, and the position as unifier of the fragmented nation, all within 15 years. He did it by force of will, by manipulations (of ideas, people and interests) that are almost pleasurably in their execution. Cavour was an irascible, vain, blustery tyrant, but one with a stony sense of his mission. If Mack Smith's study is at times a case for personality as power (much of it reads like an opera buffa libretto, but such is Italian life,) it nonetheless restores to the current inventory of European history one of its central characters.

Pub Date: May 20th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf