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 …

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