Stompin’ with the Savoy

Italy and its Monarchy

by Denis Mack Smith
Yale University Press, 402 pp., $29.95

Denis Mack Smith is the leading writer in English on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history. Over nearly forty years he has done much to challenge many myths and to counter the view of the liberal prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, who once said, “It would not be right to let beautiful legends be discredited by historical criticism.”1 In the preface to the 1985 reissue of his first book, Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860, Mack Smith wrote of the reception his work has had in Italy. There was surprise that any historian could write without being a member of a school, Catholic or Marxist or Crocean; there was admiration for his scholarly use of new sources; but there was also outrage at the challenge to hallowed historical legends. With his subsequent books, which include biographies of Cavour and Mussolini, a study of Sicily since 1713, and what is still the best general history of modern Italy, Mack Smith has acquired a privileged position in Italian historiography, perhaps, as he himself has suggested, because the Italians are flattered that a foreigner should have devoted a lifetime to the study of their controversial recent past.2 He certainly seems able to say things that are unflattering to the Italians: his Cavour is an unscrupulous and devious politician for whom raison d’état justified any behavior however dubious. His Mussolini is not only a cruel, vindictive, and boastful tyrant but also a mountebank who deceived the gullible Italian people, even if he deceived himself as much as he did them.

Mack Smith has now written a study of the Italian monarchy that subjects the four kings of united Italy to the same debunking treatment. He shows how indispensable the monarchy was for the working of the Italian political system, but also how it was ultimately disastrous. He exposes the limitations and peculiarities of each of the monarchs and their apparently total lack of interest in most of the problems of the Italian state—the question of the South, relations between Church and State, the economic situation, the raising and spending of fiscal revenue, except where it affected the royal pocket or expenditure on that royal preserve, the army.

The limited interests of the successive sovereigns necessarily limit the interest of Mack Smith’s book. The sovereigns were not at all interested in those questions of social or regional history with which most younger historians today are concerned. But in his view from the top, so to speak, Mack Smith has written a detailed, brilliant, sometimes sardonic political history of Italy that sets much of it in a new perspective, even if he leaves unanswered the question how the four kings whom he depicts as so unattractive, deceitful, or just plain stupid succeeded in retaining their throne for so long.

In June 1946 the Italians voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic. The majority against the king, Umberto II, was a comparatively small one (2 million out of some 23 million votes).…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.