The ‘Brain’ of Italy


by Denis Mack Smith
Knopf, 294 pp., $18.95

Cavour; drawing by David Levine

Historians of modern Italy are often pessimistic. When, like all other historians, they have sought to find a dominating theme, a key that would open all the locks, they have seized upon that of failure. Italy has been described as the country of failed revolutions, the rivoluzione mancata. The Jacobin revolution, the industrial revolution, the socialist revolution, the fascist revolution, the antifascist revolution—all have been seen as unsuccessful. And not only the so-called revolutions, but also all the other “turning points” where modern Italian history has failed to turn have been similarly described. The liberal parliamentary state, the resolve to make Italy an important imperial power, the intervention in two world wars, the membership in the European community, the evolution of the Italian Communist party: all these episodes, according to this interpretation, are part of a succession of betrayals, disasters, defeats, or disappointments.

In this melancholy catalog it is undoubtedly the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy that have caused the greatest disillusionment. This is all the more remarkable because the aspirations of the Italian people toward freedom from foreign rule and nationhood, which are usually spoken of as the Risorgimento, were once hailed as a unique achievement. The creation of a united kingdom of Italy in 1861 (though still lacking Rome and Venice) was seen as the masterpiece of all liberal movements and it became part of accepted mythology to describe the three creators of Italy, Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi, as “her Brain, her Soul, her Sword.”

But this was a long time ago. The Marxist philosopher Gramsci thought that the new Italian state was a bastard creation, dominated by a cowardly ruling class. Alberto Moravia described the Risorgimento as a petty affair, a mean little enterprise. An entire school of historians readily subscribed to the view that united Italy was fatally flawed from its origins and could not realize the promises intrinsic to its conception. “What went wrong with the Risorgimento?” has become a stock question in examinations, and it is rare to find a student who rejects the question altogether and casts it back at the examiners. That the Risorgimento was a failure is taken for granted.

All this is of great importance for the reputation of Cavour. When this Pied-montese died in 1861 at the age of fifty, only a few months after the proclamation of Victor Emmanuel as king of Italy, he was invariably regarded as one of the ablest and most successful of statesmen. Even those who had reason to disapprove what they saw in Italy expressed confidence in his wisdom. Lord Shaftesbury, for example, had been distressed in the 1850s to learn that a man had been sent to prison by the Piedmontese authorities for having distributed copies of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. But he always trusted Cavour, and when Cavour, after temporarily resigning from government, returned to power in 1860, he wrote to…

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