What geography made possible, history made inevitable. Gilmour, at least in this book, is not one for nuanced or qualified judgements. Italy as he views it can be numbered among the world’s failed states, indeed he believes it was ‘impossible to create a successful nation-state’ in Italy. Only in 2008, when the regions which the post-war constitution had had promised were finally in operation and ‘fiscal autonomy’ was advocated, was Italy ‘at last on the road to becoming what it should have been all along, a state that recognised the importance of regionalism and diversity’. The pursuit of Italy may give him a title, but will be futile, because Italy as a nation-state should never have existed.

The problem, in other words, was the creation of a unified, centralised country. This year Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento, the process of Reunification which brought together the various statelets, principalities, dukedoms and kingdoms which allowed Metternich to sneer at nineteenth century Italy as a ‘geographical expression’. While the official celebrations are respectful and even raucous, they are accompanied by an undertone of dissent and doubt from politicians and historians. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, advocates anti-Unification policies which have varied over the years between demands for political or fiscal federalism, devolution, autonomy or outright independence for the North. Historians have been turning out volumes casting doubt on the Unification process. Was it really a popular movement expressing the will of the people or a campaign headed by a minority of enthusiasts who imposed their vision on an indifferent majority?

Gilmour is very much of the latter view, but he goes further than most with his belief that unification was worse than a fraud; it was a mistake. His sardonic and polemical tone makes him like a man swinging a broadsword in a shrine, with no thought of sparing the altars or the sacred relics. No doubt this approach can be bracing, but this is history as a series of ‘what ifs?’ or as an exercise in debunking in the style of Lytton Strachey. Recent revisionist, or sceptical, historians have taken the nineteenth century as field of enquiry into the creation of Italy and Italians (two very different entities), but Gilmour goes further back, to ancient Rome, to see if there was any sense of Italian-ness to be found there.


Gilmour’s basic point throughout is that people were happy under their previous rulers and that unification was not likely to make them happier. Happiness is hard to measure from the outside and scarcely within the remit of political action. The American Founding Fathers offered people only the pursuit of happiness, and that pursuit was as vague as Gilmour’s present one. United Italy was undoubtedly realised by a band of devious politicians, notably the statesman, Camillo Cavour, and hotheads, like Garibaldi. If the latter had not taken it upon himself to lead an invasion of Sicily in 1860, against the wishes of Cavour and the king, perhaps there would have been two Italys, with the Southern capital in Naples.

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A quote saved on Feb. 26, 2013.


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