March 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Italy!

Italy is a long country—about 745 miles from the northern to the southern border—running from the mountainous north down to the sunny south “kissed by the Mediterranean,” and so on. Ok, it’s an old refrain, but, as Denis Mack Smith puts it, “it is with geography that any history of this country must begin” (Modern Italy. A Political History). Almost everybody knows that regional differences in per capita income are large in Italy: the north is as rich as central and northern Europe (if not richer), while the south is much poorer. Statistics—if ever were needed—showing the differences in mentality, living standards and lifestyles between the-prosperous-north and the-poor-south became available in the mid-19th century. Well, these differences persist to the present day. If in 1861 per capita incomes were about 15-20 percent higher in the north than in the south, by 1911 the north-south gap had widened to 50 percent. And this difference has persisted into the twenty-first century.

And yet, this strange country—perhaps a “non-nation,” under a certain point of view—not only industrialized, but also became the sixth industrial power in the world. And (would you ever believe it?) Italy has regularly been among the countries that have won the highest number of medals in the Olympic Games… Strange country! Perhaps it’s just because the Bel Paese, as again Mack Smith puts it (great book!), was a territorial unit many centuries before she became a national state—unlike the Netherlands which was politically a state before it was either a nation or a geographical entity. Or perhaps not. Who knows?

Giuseppe Garibaldi
Be it as it may, 150 years ago, Italy became a unique state (or, if one prefers, reunified), and it was a very good day. But don’t expect the Italians to celebrate too much, because their patriotism, as the Neapolitan historian Luigi Blanch wrote back in 1859 or so, “is like that of the ancient Greeks, and is love of a single town, not of a country; it is the feeling of a tribe, not of a nation. Only by foreign conquest have they ever been united. Leave them to themselves and they split into fragments.” And after all, we must admit that Italy is quite a recent invention. In fact, even in the times of ancient Rome, while enjoying political, linguistic, and cultural unity, it was more of a geographic than a political expression, since the boundaries of the Roman Empire (and Republic before it) stretched far beyond the Alps and across the Mediterranean. And therefore, Prince Metternich was not that wrong when he wrote in a letter to Austrian ambassador to France of April 1847, “The word ‘Italy’ is a geographical expression, a description which is useful shorthand, but has none of the political significance the efforts of the revolutionary ideologues try to put on it, and which is full of dangers for the very existence of the states which make up the peninsula.” But never ever think that because of this the Italians are not a people: they simply are united by what divides them—and divided by what unites them, but let’s not overreach here...

Now it’s time to celebrate. But if you want to read something more detailed and elaborate about the subject, I suggest you to have a look at this article by Tony Barber. It’s worth your time. Happy Birthday, Italy!