29 December 2011

The Pursuit of Italy

British historian David Gilmour’s latest book, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of A Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples is simply the best one-volume history of Italy, as well as a deeply entertaining argument against the idea of nationhood on that storied peninsula.

Books like this one usually are found on the back pages of university press catalogs, languishing in their stolid scholarship, published for experts, read only by experts. The fact that The Pursuit of Italy is published in Britain by Penguin and here by Farrar, Straus & Giroux speaks for its engaging readability and usefulness, and of course its potential saleability.

Italy is one of the top three most-visited European countries, for all the well-known reasons. Those who wonder why Italy is so contradictory, so multi-layered and difficult to understand, will love this book for the way it un-parses a convoluted story.

Beginning with the ancient Romans and continuing through last year, Sir David walks his readers through Italian history: debunking, demystifying, yet always in awe of the local magic.

Gilmour argues that Italy was founded on deception, patriotic myths and military aggression, and never truly unified – not deep down, not permanently.

When the Kingdom of Italy was formally proclaimed in March, 1860, suddenly everyone, north and south, became subjects of Piedmont, a small region in the north between Milan and Venice. Same monarch, Victor Emmanuel II, same capital (Turin), and the same Piedmont constitution for everyone. New name, however.

In his famous Italian novel The Leopard author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa notes the various plebiscites establishing Piedmont’s rule in Sicily were often impossibly unanimous Yes votes due to corruption and double dealing by the new authorities. Any nation begun on such obvious and dispiriting lies will never have much enthusiasm for the trappings of democracy. The southerners felt at the outset they were a conquered people, not equals in the new state.

Gilmour views the “real Italy” as “the one trampled on by the Risorgimento” (the nationalist uprising that created the country in the 1860s). He calls that movement a “drastic and insensitive imposition,” one that “tried to make its inhabitants less Italian and more like other peoples, to turn them into conquerors and colonialists.”

“United Italy never became the nation its founders had hoped for,” he writes. “A single region – either Tuscany or the Veneto – would rival every other country in the world in the quality of its art and the civilization of its past. But the parts have not added up to a coherent or identifiable whole... it is a disappointment... ‘a country that has never been as good as the sum of all her people.’”

The Pursuit of Italy is grounded in fact and an underlying love for the people who “have created much of the world’s greatest art, architecture and music, and have produced one of its finest cuisines, some of its most beautiful landscapes and many of its most stylish manufactures.”

Gilmour has been interviewed in Italy, and discussed in journals and newspapers. However, no Italian publisher to date has produced Gilmour’s book in Italian.

Modern Italians fear what some far right parties in Italy are pushing – racism, secession, hatred of immigrants. It seems to me the fear of falling back into fascism informs negative comments on Gilmour’s book.

Most Italians have not read this book, but they don’t like it much, anyway.


Special thanks to sales representative Gigi Reinheimer for thinking of me when she comped this book last fall.

The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. Farrar, Straus and Giroux hard cover $32.50. ISBN 9780374283162. E Book $16.99 available for instant download from your local independent bookstore. SKU: rDQbi3sYBVIC.

The quote  ‘a country that has never been as good as the sum of all her people’ comes from Luigi Barzini, author of The Italians, a book I read many years ago. It is one of the liveliest dissections of the Italian spirit ever written.

New York Times Book Review on The Pursuit of Italy...

The following links are in Italian; Google can translate the text for you.

Italians on David Gilmour ... Italian interview with the author...  Corriere della Sera...
Saturno: inserto culturale de Il Fatto Quotidiano...

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