David Gilmour’s books include The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and The Pursuit of Italy: A 
History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples.
 (March 2014)

He Dared the Undarable

Gabriele D'Annunzio; drawing by Tullio Pericoli
On a summer afternoon in Tuscany in the years of the belle epoque, a celebrated French courtesan alighted from a carriage to greet her host, the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, and was astonished to behold “a frightful gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth, bad breath, [and] …

The Curse of Afghanistan

Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a Bazaar (detail), circa 1840–1845. Singh was the founder of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab in the early nineteenth century and the enemy of Dost Mohammad, whom the British hoped to replace as ruler of Afghanistan with their ally Shah Shuja.
After a journey through Central Asia in 1888, the young George Curzon concluded that British policy on Afghanistan was a farrago of inexplicable waywardness. For fifty years, wrote the future viceroy of India, there has not been an Afghan Amir whom we have not alternately fought against and caressed, now …

Garibaldi’s Gift

Take down the Michelin guide to Italy and look at the maps of the towns. Start with the As (Alassio, Alessandria, Ancona, Aosta), go on to the Bs (Bari, Barletta, Belluno, Bergamo), and carry on to V, the last letter to have proper towns in Italy (Venezia, Vercelli, Verona, Viterbo).

The Restless Conqueror

Adult readers of history have to unlearn many of the things they remember from their schooldays. This is especially true of quotations of famous people because before the invention of tape recording virtually anything they said from the Old Testament onward was almost certain to be misquoted unless they wrote …

Surprises of the Empire

One of the eccentricities of the historical profession is its tradition of explaining very complicated events by means of very simple formulas. For decades historians tried to explain the French Revolution through the actions of monolithic classes—the “aristocracy,” the “bourgeoisie”—until Richard Cobb and a few other scholars suggested the events …

The Great Victorian Abroad

In the days when British schools taught their pupils about kings and queens and Great Men, every child knew who David Livingstone was. His status may have been a little nebulous—and his achievements even cloudier—but we were taught to acknowledge that he had been a great hero, a missionary and …

Eastward Ho!

Americans were supposed to go west, at least if they were young. West, wrote Arthur Chapman, was where the handclasp was “a little stronger” and the smile dwelt “a little longer.” In “The Long Trail” Rudyard Kipling suggested one could run “East all the way into Mississippi Bay,/Or West to …

Nobs & Nabobs

At one of Lady Spencer’s parties in 1881, King Kalakaua of Hawaii was given precedence over the crown prince of Germany. When the prince (the future Kaiser Friedrich III) objected, his brother-in-law (the future King Edward VII) told him that Kalakaua was either “a common or garden nigger,” in which …

Little War, Big Mess

The Crimean War left the world a curious jumble of bequests: trench warfare, war correspondents, power to the press to mobilize public opinion for or against fighting, Florence Nightingale, the Victoria Cross, two garments of doubtful sartorial value (the balaclava helmet—much favored by late-twentieth-century terrorists—and the rather more domestic cardigan), …

The Man Who Would Be Good

In a valedictory appeal Rudyard Kipling begged posterity to spare him the attention of a biographer: If I have given you delight By aught that I have done, Let me lie quiet in that night Which shall be yours anon: And for the little, little, …

The Empire’s New Clothes

In 1914 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding for over four centuries at an average daily rate of fifty-five square miles, or more than 20,000 square miles a year. At first this seems an absurd statistic, the sort of mistake made by people …

The Ballad of Federico García Lorca

An acquaintance in Buenos Aires described Federico García Lorca in 1933 as a “conceited fool, a fat and petulant little charlatan.” In the course of an afternoon’s tour of the city, Lorca had been pedantic, vain, and egotistical, giving his companion the impression that “Spanish poetry began and ended with …

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), the explorer, writer, sexologist, and linguist, has not lacked biographers. Three decades ago, Graham Greene hailed the eleventh account of his life as “by far the best, and surely the final, biography.” In a competition for inaccurate prophecy, this could be a winner. Since Fawn Brodie’s …

Adrift in Iberia

The Pyrenees have been more of a psychological barrier for mankind than a physical one. Although armies have long known how to go round them, ideas have seldom followed the drums. So often they seem to have been launched at the center, to have hit the mountain tops and then …

Homage to Catalonia

One hundred years ago a British traveler described Barcelona as “combining the business of mill and shop, of warehouse and dock…of Liverpool and Manchester in one.” The comparison was in fact a compliment to the Catalan city, for its port was smaller and less efficient than Liverpool’s while its factories …

Desert Ruritania

Few subjects lend themselves so naturally to enraged satire as the development of the Gulf states. The emergence of these desert Ruritanias has been so fast and so preposterous that the weapons of Horace and Pope seem inadequate to deal with it. Mild and witty mockery of the follies of …