Sturdy if stodgy history of a cradle of early Mediterranean civilization since fallen on hard times.
“This is Africa: compared to these peasants the Bedouins are the pinnacle of civilization.” So sniffed an agent of Prime Minister Cavour around the time of Italian unification. Many Italians from Rome share that view today, and part of the appeal of Italy’s current prime minister was his party’s pledge to split the country again so that the prosperous north could be even more prosperous. In its day, though, the Mezzogiorno (akin to Midi in France) saw glories, as Neapolitan scholar Astarita (History/Columbia Univ.) writes; the Greeks who colonized it and the Romans who succeeded them found it to be an Arcadia of rich soil and striking scenery, while the Normans, Venetians and Spaniards who followed found in the South possibilities for wealth and plentiful good food and wine. The medieval rulers of the South, too, tended to a certain liberality; as Astarita says, “The region was at least as multireligious, multicultural, and multilingual as the Iberian Peninsula before the Catholic Reconquest.” In the modern era, the South declined, at about the time that cultural diversity was suppressed by the Counter Reformation; Naples, its most populous and important city, showed by 1600 its present combination of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Southern Italy is now a national afterthought, though Astarita has hopes that “in the future there will no longer be room to doubt that this ancient land is indeed fully part of an integrated Europe.” There’s much drama possible in the many stories Astarita passes along as he offers up his portrait of a still-varied region: here, brother betrays brother; there, serfs battle absentee landlords in an obscure Sicilian village that will give its name to two famous English novelists; and there, now and again, a volcano erupts.
Mostly, though, this is a quiet, sometimes plodding history that could use some of the verve of Steven Runciman’s Sicilian Vespers.