by Denis Mack Smith
Knopf, 429 pp., $20.00
Mussolini Unleashed, 1939-1941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War
by MacGregor Knox
Cambridge University Press, 385 pp., $29.50
by Anthony James Joes
Franklin Watts, 405 pp., $18.95
In a quarter of the city which was inhabited only by mechanics and Jews, the marriage of an innkeeper and a washerwoman produced the future deliverer of Rome. From such parents Nicholas Rienzi Gabrini could inherit neither dignity nor fortune; and the gift of a liberal education, which they so painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end. The study of history and eloquence, the writings of Cicero, Seneca, Livy, Caesar, and Valerius Maximus elevated above his equals and contemporaries the genius of the young plebeian. He perused with indefatigable diligence the manuscripts and marbles of antiquity, loved to dispense his knowledge in familiar language and was often provoked to exclaim, “Where are now these Romans—their virtue, their justice, their power? Why was I not born in those happy times?”
In the death, as in the life of Rienzi, the hero and the coward were strangely mingled.
—Gibbon on Cola di Rienzi
Echoes resound now and then in the history of every nation; but for Italy’s they roll forth in unbroken succession. Thus: “In a small house outside the village of Predappio, the marriage of an innkeeper and a schoolmistress produced the future conqueror of Rome.”
Denis Mack Smith’s style seldom reaches for the key of ironic majesty even when the object of its engagement has been some ghost he admires; and in Mussolini’s case this preference for the downright tone is fortified by the disdain that any man of his sovereign common sense is bound to feel after emerging from the middens of florid and counterfeit paper through which he has burrowed to extricate his trophy.
All the same, no contrast in manner of presentation can quite obscure the common import of Gibbon’s material and Mack Smith’s. Gibbon reminds us that Petrarch assigned to Rienzi “the name and sacred character of a poet.” When Pirandello saluted the conquest of Ethiopia, he said of Mussolini: “The Author of this great feat is also a Poet who knows his trade.” Even those of us who are sure that Rienzi deserves better from history—the shade of Mussolini has a dog’s chance of finding its Wagner—can only be confounded when we contemplate a culture so perdurable that 582 years go by and one grand master employs the very metaphor for his triumphant duce that an even grander master summoned up for his fallen tribune.
Mack Smith’s Mussolini is a portrait in every way admirable; but if it does not manage to be as wonderful as his awesome industry ought to have made it, we can only blame that falling short on its deafness to the echoes. After a while there arises the suspicion that he has almost willfully stuffed his ears. An unclouded appreciation of reality is not often among the rewards of a great love; and Mack Smith has a love for Italy that can only be called great, and that I would be the last man alive to …