This thoughtful and useful book is misnamed: It should be called Italy, a Historical Portrait of a Failed State. But David Gilmour’s timing is impeccable, giving us this affectionate profile just as Italy raced to the brink of self-destruction. If you want to understand better how and why Italy doesn’t seem to function very well, this volume will help.

Gilmour’s central thesis—that the very existence of a unified Italian state is “a sin against history and geography”—was a commonplace when I first went there in the mid-1960s. Each region, and indeed even each city within a given region, was so different from the others, that it made little sense to sum them all up in a single category. Even books devoted to a single region—as for example, Curzio Malaparte’s great Those Cursed Tuscans—stressed the qualities that divided them rather than those that gave them a common identity. In those days, sociologists and political pundits used to bemoan the continued existence of dialects that made it very hard for “Italians” to understand one another; but the conventional wisdom was that dialects were on the way out, radio and television had created a “standard Italian” that everyone was learning and using, and that in another generation or two, many of the traditional barriers would be eliminated.

Like Gilmour, I love the dialects, and welcome the divisions, and he documents the good news that dialects are still alive and flourishing, which I hadn’t properly appreciated. Much of The Pursuit of Italy is a sort of travel diary, and while the prose isn’t memorable, it’s very efficient and informative, and he shows how deep the differences are, and how unlikely it is that they will be soon overcome.

I think he even missed a few good examples, as for instance the considerable variation in the practice of Roman Catholicism—in theory a unifying force—from north to south. I wish he’d spent more time on the fascinating phenomenon of southern popular Catholicism, which is so important in shaping the culture of what used to be the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, from Naples to Palermo via Calabria. That faith is not well liked in the Vatican, but it flourishes (churches in Naples are much busier than those from Rome north) and is quite different from that celebrated in St. Peter’s, or the great cathedrals in Florence, Venice, and Milan.

On the other hand, today’s Italians do seem to think of themselves as members of a single country, despite the enormous variations in national character. I think Gilmour, like many of his fellow British historians of modern Italy, is much too cynical about Italy’s Risorgimento, the 19th-century unification movement that created the country under the rule of the Piedmontese monarchy. The mastermind of the operation, Cavour, is roundly criticized for his endless scheming. Fair enough. But the great statesmen of the period, most certainly including the British prime ministers of the day, were cut from the same warp and woof. Italy couldn’t be created, or re-created, by straightforward appeals from straightforward people. Mazzini and his allies tried that earlier in the century, and came to ruin.

Of course, Cavour would plan for war with the Bourbons at the very moment he was negotiating a modus vivendi; he knew they were behaving in like manner. After all, Italians have fewer illusions than most about human nature. They tend to agree with Machiavelli that man is more inclined to do evil than to do good. Statesmen’s task is to dominate the evil tendencies and encourage the better ones.

Gilmour is a Garibaldi fan, which is a bit perplexing given his central thesis. After all, the “conquest” of Naples was his, and the annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was, over time, undoubtedly the greatest failure in the construction of the failed Italian state. And if you’re going to praise Garibaldi for the operation, doesn’t Cavour deserve a tip of the historian’s hat?

Nonetheless, the evidence for the “failed state” thesis is as convincing as it is entertaining, and even enlightening. If you go to a north-south soccer game, you will see it in all its glory: Neapolitan fans in Verona unfurling banners proclaiming “Juliette was a whore,” and the like. When a northerner like Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister, the southerners assumed they were being screwed; and when a southerner like Giovanni Leone was president, the northerners would constantly apologize for his superstitions (he was once photographed making a gesture to fend off evil spirits).

In the end, the use of the word “Italy” is very much like Wittgenstein’s analysis of the word “games” in his famous trick question, “What do all games have in common?” He concluded that if we asked the empirical question (“Is there anything all games have in common?”), we’d have saved ourselves a lot of mental pain. We’d have seen that there is a rough sort of similarity, but nothing so concrete as to warrant the analysis of the category as anything more than a general “family resemblance.” So it is with Italy, and a fine thing it is, too. Gilmour at his best puts it splendidly:

In its three periods of cultural and economic affluence—the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the half-century after Mussolini—Italy was either divided or effectively de-nationalized. It was the peninsula’s misfortune that in the nineteenth century a victorious national movement tried to make its inhabitants less Italian and more like other peoples, to turn them into conquerors and colonialists, men to be feared and respected by their adversaries.

True. But if Italy is a failure, then what is that word “Italy” doing there, and what does “less Italian” mean? Take the historical and geographic tour with Gilmour, and you’ll at least get the question right.

Michael Ledeen, freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is the author, most recently, of Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles: An Investigation into the Sources of Creativity.

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