‘Italians are famous for their campanilismo’


Giuseppe Garibaldi

From Dublin Review of Books:

This year Ireland was not the only country to celebrate a national holiday on March 17th. This was also the day on which, a hundred and fifty years ago, the kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed in Turin and King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont – the small Alpine kingdom bordering Italy and France – declared the first Italian king.

From 1861 onwards, Italy was a politically unified entity, rather than a collection of small kingdoms and city states and a mere “geographical expression”, as the Austrian chancellor had dismissively referred to it a few years earlier. The unification happened fairly quickly; Venetia was incorporated into Italy in 1866 and the process was completed when Rome was seized by Italian forces from papal rule in 1870 and made capital of the new kingdom that same year.

It also seemed to happen without too much violence or upheaval; initially at least. The unification was brought about by a combination of the political guile of the Piedmontese prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour and the daring of Italy’s nineteenth century nationalist hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. Usually pictured bearded and in his trademark red shirt and hat, often on horseback and carrying a sword, Garibaldi is the undisputed hero of Italy’s founding myth; the risorgimento or rebirth, as the uprisings and military struggles leading to the creation of the Italian nation are named.

It was a combination of Cavour’s political skill in engineering a war against Austria to drive their forces out of Italy and in persuading the northern and central states to join a new Italian kingdom under Piedmontese rule, and of the romantic nationalist Garibaldi’s initiative in landing his “thousand” men in the south of Italy and claiming the Kingdom of Naples for Cavour’s Italy, that created the modern Italian nation.

However, aside from the enthusiasm and heroism of Garibaldi’s legendary “thousand”, and the secret plotting of revolutionary and patriotic groups like the Carbonari and the republican Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy – their membership small and mostly educated, middle class, urban and male – it is now commonplace to acknowledge that the unification happened without too much enthusiasm or widespread participation on the part of those who would now become the Italian people. As David Gilmour, author of The Pursuit of Italy: A history of a land, its regions and their peoples reports, some years after the unification there were Sicilian peasants who apparently didn’t know what “Italy” meant; thinking that “la Talia” (l’Italia) was simply the name of their new queen. This story may seem incredible, but in reality the new Italian state would have had little impact on the lives of Italy’s rural peasantry, the bulk of the population at the time.

The failure of the Italian risorgimento to “make Italians” is by now a well known story. Thanks to Antonio Gramsci – founding member of the Italian Communist Party and Italy’s pre-eminent Marxist theorist, who died in 1937 after ten years in a fascist prison – the notion of the risorgimento as a failed revolution is now a more familiar version of history than the heroic nationalist myth. Other antifascist and left-leaning intellectuals had made similarly revisionist arguments in various forms since at least the early twentieth century, but it was Gramsci who contributed most to popularising this view of Italy’s flawed past. In his Prison Notebooks, published to great acclaim in the late 1940s, several years after the fall of fascism, Gramsci argued that the risorgimento was a missed opportunity for social revolution, since there was no popular participation in the unification struggles, nor any real attempt on the part of the leaders to cultivate it. As such, the Italian state was fatally flawed from its inception. Gramsci’s version of history was of course coloured by his Marxism; many others have, however, articulated other versions of the same story before and since.

“Beyond The Bel Paese”, Niamh Cullen, Dublin Review of Books