I'd love to be a travel writer . . . but I can't afford to travel enough - so I use my imagination and write fiction that takes me places instead - great isn't it!
I have been to Italy on three occasions but I'm still mastering the perfect Ragu (to which there is more than you think) so, to try and become as cultured as my characters this was one of six books I read on Italy in between my strict 1000 words a day on Resurgence. It is also the only one I have re-read since and I can't recommend it enough!
Did you know that Italy's famous Buffalo Mozzarella was neither famous nor fashionable until as recently as the 1980s? Nor are the Buffalo that produce it native to Italy. One of many delectable knowledge delicacies to be found in David Gilmour's book which combines the best facets of engaging travel writing with a well-researched and engaging narrative of the peninsula's history. "Italy," Napoleon once complained, "is far too long". Even as the peninsula strove for unity in the 19th century, Goethe described it as "the shadow of a nation", and many Italians found themselves in surprising agreement. David Gilmour claims that only two Italians between ancient times and the 19th century actually entertained the idea that Italy was, or might be, or ought to be a unified country: Virgil, the myth-making epic poet, and Machiavelli, some 14 centuries later.
The late 19th-century statesman Giustino Fortunato declared that "the unification of Italy was a sin against history and geography", while one of his contemporaries warned that "the head and the tail will never touch each other, but if they are made to do so, the head will bite the tail". So if Italy has never been a state, just what was it? Gilmour has attempted to answer this question by providing an alternative history of Italy, not taking the usual line but emphasizing the country’s long-time “centrifugal tendencies”. The modern nation stretches from the town of Aosta in the northwest, where the official language is French, to the Apulia region in the southeast, where many people still speak Greek. With it's 4,500 miles of coastline, the peninsula was for centuries subjected to countless invasions. It's mountainous interior and un-navigable rivers made communications difficult and encouraged the growth of one of the world’s most eclectic collections of civilizations and mutually incomprehensible dialects. Only one in 40 Italians spoke standard Italian at the time of unification, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that the language became commonly known within the country.
There was no unified Italy at any time between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1861, as Gilmour explains, but a bewildering variety of alternatives: the Italy dominated by ancient Rome, the Italy of the barbarian invasions, of the papal states, of the see-sawing wars between the Pope's allies and those of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, and many others. In the absence of any sort of enduring unity or centralisation – especially after the fall of Rome – Italy's special genius proved to be the creation of city states: the descendants of the earliest communes in the peninsula, founded by the ancient Greeks.
For Gilmour, the star of them all was Venice, governed with ingenuity and maturity by a ruling class that never got above itself. In his rather cozy depiction, it is an England in miniature: maritime, sensible, tolerant and ruled by a doge almost as well reined-in as a Hanoverian king.
Despite triumphs like the “economic miracle” of the 1950s and ’60s, united Italy, according to Gilmour, cannot be called a success story: its citizens still see themselves more as Roman, Sienese or Sicilian than Italian. Italy is really - and always has been - a "country" of its regions and communes, and that it is too much to expect the average Italian to place his primary loyalty to the modern Italian nation state. Is it time, then, to give up on a failed union? If so, Gilmour’s detailed, learned and politically challenging book provides a picture of what such a community of nation-states might look like.
Thanks for reading, I'm making do and won't be getting out to Italy this year - so I hope some of you out there are - let me know if you come across a great place to set a story.