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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).

  1. *

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

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