Romance and the Risorgimento

Victor Emanuel, Cavour, and the Risorgimento

by Denis Mack Smith
Oxford, 396 pp., $22.50

Vittorio Emanuele II

by Denis Mack Smith, translated by Joli Bertolazzi
Láterza (Bari, Italy), 387 pp., $8.75

Denis Mack Smith, Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has dedicated a large part of his professional life to Italy, to Italian history, and, more particularly, to the fateful years between 1848 and 1870, when the country finally managed to be unified under one king and one law. He is now moving up a half century and preparing a book on the fascist era, which he considers the unfortunate and almost inevitable consequence of the shortcomings of the Risorgimento, its “poisoned fruits.”

Of course, the history of Italy during the last 100 years is extremely important for Italians; it is colorful, filled with picturesque characters and noble heroes. Still it is only marginal when seen as part of European history. What happened south of the Alps was the belated and peripheral effect of the political, ideological, and industrial revolutions which had taken place in America and in the rest of Europe generations before. Nevertheless, the Italian “resurgence” attracted and still attracts a large, possibly disproportionate, number of foreign, mostly English, historians.

For some reason, Englishmen more than any other literati have studied and described all kinds of foreign nations, near and far, illustrious and obscure, past and present, their art, religion, language, politics, manners, and morals. As a result the rest of the world is often forced, faute de mieux, to see lesser known countries exclusively through British prejudices and predilections. In the last century and a half a large number of these xenophiles have been smitten with a burning passion for Italy. They were historians, antiquarians, novelists, poets, authors of travel reminiscences and guidebooks.

The reasons for this infatuation seem unaccountable and vaguely abnormal to many Italians. Why Italy? Why should these northerners worry so much about a people whom most of them obviously love but rarely esteem, whose real virtues and vices they seldom understand, whose language they frequently misspell (Garibaldi’s and Mazzini’s first name, Giuseppe, is almost invariably Guiseppe in English), and whose history never seems quite to satisfy them?

Perhaps John Ruskin and Robert Browning could be considered among the forerunners of this trend, particularly Robert Browning. There is a short poem by him that contains almost all of the themes that were later taken up by J. A. Symonds, Vernon Lee, Baron Corvo, Henry James, Norman Douglas, Edith Wharton, the Sitwells, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, or historians such as Bolton King, George Macaulay Trevelyan, Harold Acton, A. J. Whyte, and now Denis Mack Smith.

The poem is apologetically entitled “De Gustibus” (as if an addiction to things Italian was as inexplicable as a penchant for fettuccine or bel canto). It goes:

…look for me…
In a seaside house to the farther South,
Where the baked cicadas die of drouth,
And one sharp tree (‘tis a cypress) stands,
By the many hundred years red- rusted,
Rough iron-spiked, ripe fruit- o’ercrusted,
My sentinel to guard the sands
To the water’s edge. For, what expands
Without the house, but the great opaque
Blue breadth of sea, and not a break?
While, in the house, for ever crumbles
Some fragment of the frescoed walls,
From blisters where a scorpion sprawls.
A girl bare-footed brings and tum- bles
Down on the pavement, green- flesh melons,
And says there’s news to-day—the king
Was shot at, touched in the liver- wing,
Goes with his Bourbon arm in a sling.
—She hopes they have not caught the felons. Italy, my Italy!
Queen Mary’s saying serves for me—

* * *

Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it, “Italy”.
Such lovers old are I and she;
So it always was, so it still shall be!

In these few lines Browning managed to suggest the irresistible lure of the “farther South”: the vast empty beach in front of the deep blue sea; the heat; the romantic ruins speaking of past greatness and present ignominious decay, with its poisonous dangers (the crawling scorpion); the barefooted girl (a barefooted boy for Norman Douglas and others); finally the northerners’ generous but ill-informed sympathy for the Italians’ aspirations for liberty and justice. The “Bourbon,” Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, had not been shot but attacked with a bayonet by a soldier, Agesilao Milano, in December, 1856, during a military parade. The king’s horse reared and the king was only superficially wounded in the left side. No arm in a sling.

Denis Mack Smith makes no such mistakes. He has read everything and is an eager and persistent rummager in Italian archives, those at least which are open to foreign historians. Some are not, and even in the open ones there are dossiers which for one reason or another are not available to everybody. The last king of Italy, Umberto, refused to allow Mack Smith to consult the royal files he had brought with him to exile in Portugal, presumably documents dealing with the two most controversial periods of his family’s rule, the Risorgimento and the fascist decades.

The historian ferreted out some papers in private archives preserved by descendants of leading nineteenth-century characters, and used sources which few Italians had previously consulted (they did not think them useful; did not know the languages; did not have the money for the trip): the dispatches of foreign diplomats from the various Italian capitals. The Foreign Office archives were particularly rich. The British diplomats viewed what was going on with sympathy and hope, but were also detached, shrewd, and incredulous, and coolly described the protagonists with their many warts. Often the Foreign Office men had more of a hand in decisions than could be openly admitted.

In spite of many difficulties Mack Smith has managed to uncover and document a great many hitherto unpublished facts. Unpublished, most of them, but not entirely unknown. Italian specialists knew or had heard of most of them. Some had been printed or alluded to by courageous writers like Gaetano Salvemini, Antonio Gramsci, Piero Gobetti, and Luigi Salvatorelli (whose The Risorgimento, Thought and Action, a major work, has been translated by Mario Domandi and recently published by Harper Torchbooks).* Other embarrassing facts had been mentioned sotto voce, in allusive abstract language in dreary and obscure academic journals. Furthermore, for some reason, Italian historians think revealing and amusing anecdotes, even when harmless, to be beneath their dignity, and usually describe minor, provincial, and often trivial events as the consequence of vast political designs and historic forces. Skirmishes which left a dozen dead on the battlefield are usually called battles and earnestly analyzed as if they were Austerlitz or Waterloo.

The facts that Denis Mack Smith dug up and published often contradict the official mythology. Official mythologies are common to all countries. All countries cherish one or two particular periods of their histories, which they ennoble and embellish, to justify and give meaning to their present and to give a purpose to their future. This habit may be merely useful or ornamental to great, old, and solid nations. It is extremely important to recent and ramshackle ones. For Italy the myth of the Risorgimento has been almost literally a matter of life and death.

The Risorgimento had been a movement led by a motley elite, an exiguous middle-class liberal minority that was deprecated and opposed by the upper- and lower-class conservative majority. Each liberal or revolutionary group in the movement plotted and fought to create an imaginary future country of its own, entirely different from all others. The leaders were largely unremarkable men, some of them high minded, most of them fanatics or crackpots, only a few really conscious of their role in history. Perhaps Camillo Cavour was the only genuinely great man among them, the only one who might have had a success in another country.

The final outcome was a flimsy compromise, mainly the result of the royal conquest of Italy and not of the popular vague de fond so many had wished or imagined had taken place. “This is only the ghost of Italy,” Mazzini wrote just before he died. “It is an illusion, a lie…a corpse without a truly living soul inside it. Italy has been put together just like a mosaic, piece by piece, and the battles for this cause have been won on our behalf by foreigners….” In the end, inevitably, the Catholics hated the liberal democratic unified secular kingdom, men from all other regions hated the domination of the Piedmontese, Milan hated Rome, the Tuscans hated everybody else, the south hated the north, the republicans hated the monarchists, the middle class feared the revolution, and everybody resented the new heavy taxes necessary to pay for the wars of independence, the indispensable public works, and the armaments needed to keep up the pretense that Italy had become a first-class power.

The myths, therefore, were confirmed, embellished, enriched, and defended. The legend of the Risorgimento became sacred and untouchable. All the leaders were shown to have been great, disinterested men, Plutarchian characters, united by a common purpose and mutual respect, divided only occasionally by superficial discordances. Memorable sayings were religiously preserved, but when none was available they were fabricated either by improving on reality or by outright invention. One example: When Victor Emanuel arrived in Rome for the first time, in the autumn of 1870 (the carriage trip from Florence under pouring rains on muddy roads had been especially trying), he said a few words in Piedmontese patois to his aide-de-camp: “Finalment, i suma” or “We’ve finally arrived.” The line was translated in all schoolbooks for generations as: “A Roma ci siamo e ci resteremo” or “We are in Rome. We will stay.” It had been transformed into a political pronouncement squarely aimed at the Pope’s temporal power and papal legitimists’ hopes.

Mack Smith is not only an antlike researcher but, as is true of many other contemporary English historians, a remarkably good writer. Good writing is seldom the product of divine inspiration. Almost always it is the art of thinking clearly, of knowing exactly what one wants to say, in what order and proportions, and saying it with the precise words. His work is so rich in the new material he has gathered (or the material many of his Italian predecessors did not dare use) that he can often afford to leave out anecdotes and lines too well known to be recounted one more time. His books can be read with as much pleasure as good novels, at least by Italians who know the background. Dramatic events quickly follow one another relentlessly and logically; historic speeches and pamphlets are reduced to a few significant lines; characters are sharply drawn.

He is, furthermore, a prolific writer. His stock of source material is so vast that he could put together a new book on the Risorgimento in a relatively short time without repeating himself. His Italy: a Modern History, Garibaldi, and Medieval and Modern Sicily were immediately translated into Italian, published by the revered house of Láterza at Bari, which was Benedetto Croce’s publisher, and almost all made the Italian best-seller list. The demand for his work in Italy is such that he now has been obliged to produce a book especially for the Italian market, Vittorio Emanuele II (1972), which, he says, he put together with parts of his recent book for the English-reading public, Victor Emanuel, Cavour, and the Risorgimento (1971), omitting what was obvious to Italians and adding many unpublished details (including a fascinating excerpt from the diary of Queen Victoria describing the King’s visit to Windsor in December, 1855, and two crayon sketches of him done by her).

The reason for his success is easy to fathom. Clearly, book-reading Italians (an exiguous minority) suspect they have been deceived by their own historians for the last 100 years and are famished for nonconformist histories of their past. They have been asking themselves why, if the Risorgimento had been what they were taught in school, if the founding fathers were the noble personages of official hagiography they had been led to believe, if the Italian people themselves were indeed heirs to the Roman virtues and Renaissance tradition—why is the country now in such sorry shape?

More particularly, the affectionate readers of Mack Smith’s translated books want to discover, in the views of a foreign observer, what to believe now and to deduce from it what to do next. Obviously, the deep divisions that paralyze the country today are nothing new: il popolo grasso vs. il popolo minuto, or the fat vs. the lean people; the Guelphs, partisans of the Church temporal power, vs. the Ghibellines, champions of an autonomous secular state; the borghesi, the inhabitants of cities, vs. the contadini, or peasants; and so on. Only a non-Italian, without a passion or prejudice, an honest and industrious Englishman, can see clearly in the murky water of so many polemics. The best possible historian for this task is clearly Mack Smith.

While it is impossible to deny their worth as an antidote, it must be admitted that Mack Smith’s accounts of Italy during the nineteenth century (accurately and minutely documented though they are; the inevitable voids filled with cautious and plausible hypotheses) are not the last word on the subject. The Risorgimento is definitely not “one damned thing after another,” the sum of a series of events; a chain of right and wrong guesses, skirmishes, campaigns, and battles lost or won by many bad and a few good generals; the exchanges of letters, the secret pacts, the shabby or brilliant schemes, the speeches, the famous sayings, the protagonists’ ideas, the sacrifices made by a few heroes, and the cowardice of others. It cannot be entirely explained as the product of Fortune, or as the belated adaptation of Italy to the age of steam, parliamentary democracy, nationalism, centralized bureaucracy, railways, and textile mills.

The Risorgimento was all this, to be sure, but it was also a popular, pâpier-maché epic, or somewhat like the Romance of the Knights of Charlemagne which is shown in Sicilian puppet theaters. The Romance is enriched by erroneous versions of events, distorted by wishful thinking, or entirely imagined. There was the “spirit of the age,” of which the greatest expression was Verdi’s music, but also innumerable stirring poems by forgotten poets, which the enlightened middle class as well as many artisans were carried away by. It was a case of Dieu le veult, and one had to put up with the men available, exploit whatever political opportunities were offered, and cheerfully accept whatever sacrifices were necessary. Men went into exile or dungeons, were hanged or died in battle for this imaginary Risorgimento which contemporary historians are right to demolish.

The faith in liberty, independence, and unity, this amore per l’Italia, enflamed, as I said, a very small minority, perhaps less than 5 percent of the population. (In the 1859 war there were more Italians on the Austrian than on the Piedmontese side and they fought better; in the naval engagement at Lissa, in 1866, in which the Austrian navy defeated the Italians, the Austrian sailors were all Venetians, and all orders were given in their patois.) Nevertheless the other 95 percent of the population, neither liberals nor patriots, were aware somehow that there was no way to stem the tide and were resigned to the fact that history was against them. Few of them put up any resistance.

How else can one explain, for example, the fact that a South American guerrilla leader of genius, Giuseppe Garibaldi, followed by 1,000 descamisados, conquered in a few weeks one of the oldest kingdoms in Europe, the Two Sicilies, most of whose inhabitants were loyal subjects of their king and (as they showed later, after the unification, when they carried on a bloody war in the mountains for years) tenacious opponents of the usurper and of the “godless” liberals? How could this kingdom, defended by a well-equipped, well-trained, and reasonably well-commanded army, and the best navy in Italy, collapse like a house of cards?

Denis Mack Smith’s conception of the Risorgimento satisfies the self-examining mood of Italian readers today, but not entirely. They welcome the pruning of the rhetorical foliage, the ruthless exposition of shortcomings and mistakes, the sharp delineation of character. They also welcome the analysis of the Risorgimento’s imperfections, from which many puzzling developments followed. Nevertheless Mack Smith is not Italian and his view of Italy is inevitably that of a twentieth-century, middle-class, northern Protestant scholar. Many of his censures seem inspired by an unconfessed desire to see Italy transform herself by magic into a law-abiding, tidy, fair-playing, decorous country, and by a perpetual disappointment in things as they are. His curiosity about the past is often moved by a desire to understand and remedy contemporary defects.

This, in other words, is the view from the Babington Tea Room. This famous and ancient pasticceria is on the left of the Spanish Steps, a pendant to the house where Keats died. For almost a century English residents or visitors found refuge in the only place, south of the Alps, where one could get a nice cup of tea, hot muffins, scones, and properly buttered toast. English lovers of Italy, nannies, spinsters, retired diplomats, dilettantes of all kinds met there and endlessly talked about the country and its inhabitants. Everything, or almost everything, they found admirable, the frescoes, the Gregorian chant, the palazzi, the Pietà of Michelangelo, the mosaics, the opera, the views of the campagna; but they deplored the spoiling of the pleasures of Italy by a few defects which could easily be eliminated: the people’s morals and manners, for instance, their unreliability, their thoughtlessness, their uncontrolled love life, their politics.

Mack Smith admires Cavour’s daring and intelligence but is shocked (as Bolton King had been seventy or eighty years before him) by Cavour’s wheelings and dealings. One feels that he would have preferred the Piedmontese statesman to have behaved more like a proper gentleman. To be sure, Cavour gambled, whored, lied, schemed, placed one of his relatives in Napoleon III’s bed, kept his private agreements with politicians secret from the king and his private agreements with the king secret from Parliament, played both sides, hedged his bets, double-crossed his friends, continually violated international laws, paid secret agents, and controlled Parliament often by means of unmentionable tricks.

He was, it is true, not much of an Italian (his mother was Savoyard, his favorite aunts and cousins, whom he visited often, lived in Paris and Geneva; his native language was French; he admired the English; and he had never seen Rome). But he was a clever man of affairs of the nineteenth century facing tangled situations and solving insoluble problems, a patrician not tied to the more rigorous code of middle-class behavior. Lord Palmerston (to mention an English example) surely could not be considered a proper gentleman either. Both probably could not have achieved what they did if they had been.

Nor was King Victor Emanuel a proper English gentleman (very few nineteenth-century monarchs were). He was, Mack Smith notes with some displeasure, “lazy, ignorant, and coarse.”

No doubt he was always happiest in the barracks, the stables, and the hunting field…. Too often his inveterate boasting about his political and military prowess was taken at face value. On the other hand some people who knew him well, and especially foreigners beyond the reach of censorship, could call him a weak character, and a devious, untrustworthy and mediocre man. How far he deserved his popularity is, in other words, doubtful.

He always played an active part in politics. But Mack Smith points out that, in the early 1850s,

…his private remarks could be interpreted in different ways. Possibly he was deceiving the constitutionalists into thinking he had liberal instincts, or he was deceiving the Austrophiles and reactionaries into a contrary opinion; or he may have been deceiving both sides at once while ready himself to move in either direction as events should develop. The British minister was convinced that Victor Emanuel was “sincere, frank, and chivalrous,” and had set his face firmly against a reactionary policy; but this was a minority view in diplomatic circles. The French minister thought he was just biding his time until he could overturn the constitution, in other words that he was basically illiberal and accepted parliamentary government only as a temporary expedient. The Prussian minister, too, was shown the autocratic side of his character. To the papal nuncio, Victor Emanuel made it quite clear that he disliked constitutional government and was quietly acting to abolish it.

His private life was not exemplary, either. “It cost a great deal of money,” writes Mack Smith, “much of which fell ultimately on the state budget. For the previous decade his chief mistress had been Rosina Vercellana, a drum major’s daughter; but he had many other affairs, which caused scandalous jealousies between the ladies at court, and sometimes even more scandalous rumors of physical violence.” (This story is told in a footnote, quoting a dispatch from the English minister at Turin: “The king is still constant to his Rosina, the daughter of an officer of low extraction, a great thumping woman talking broad Piedmontese, the most awful jargon in or out of Xtendom. The other rival is the Countess della Rocca, wife of the general of the same name, the chief of the king’s Etat Major. The two had come to blows when they accidentally met, and Rosina had been pronounced the victor.”)

This plebeian side of the King must have made him a difficult character to deal with at times, but it also made him (an essential quality in Italy) molto simpatico. He got along with all kinds of people, including revolutionaries. “He resented their independence,” writes Mack Smith,

and could treat them brutally whenever he feared them as rivals; but his own instinct for war and revolution brought him often much closer to them than to the conservatives…. His own talent for affability, his dislike of court etiquette, as well as his rough, barrack language, gave him a greater success among the humble than among the old aristocracy. His success with the radical left was sometimes of considerable advantage to Italy.

Obviously the Risorgimento would have been an entirely different affair if Victor Emanuel had been an over-bearing and well-mannered aristocrat.

It is perhaps important to note why the King pleased Queen Victoria more than Mack Smith. “He struck her as a very strange sight: ‘He is ein ganz besondere, abenteuerliche Erscheinung, startling in the extreme in appearance and manner’; yet he was an agreeable companion, brusque and shy in society, but ‘straightforward liberal and tolerant.’ ” (The diarist Charles Greville was of a different opinion. He wrote: “His Majesty appears to be frightful in person, but a great, strong, burly, athletic man, brusque in manners, unrefined in his conversation, very loose in his habits…the most debauched and dissolute fellow in the world.”)

Victor Emanuel startled the Queen,” writes Mack Smith,

by exclaiming that “Austria would have to be exterminated.” He did not like being a king, he told her; fighting was the only thing he had learned how to do. “He said this in a tone of desperation and that singular strong voice, and with those rolling eyes. Poor man, I think he is unhappy and much to be pitied. He is more like a knight of the Middle Ages who lived by his sword than a king of the present day!” [The quotation is from the queen’s diary.]

Many of us would like to turn back the time machine and re-enact the Risorgimento with better men, clearer ideas, less confusion, and more honesty, so that Italy today would be a different, possibly a better country. Perhaps other, more honorable, loyal, and better educated men would have done the job so that Italy today would not be so wracked with unresolved problems. Surely Cavour, Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Victor Emanuel did not look as deplorable to their contemporaries as they look to us, twentieth-century middle-class moralistic observers. But then, perhaps, only they, with their dreadful defects, could have moved the Italians to action and could have helped enact that partly imaginery history which, if it may have helped to grow “poisoned fruits,” after all gave the people some unity, independence, and liberty, and at least a chance to progress.

  1. *

    Harper Torchbooks, 202 pp., $2.75 (paper).