Not All Roads Lead to Rome

Book review of The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples by David Gilmour

Books Europe Italy

Facing the music: Silvio Berlusconi addresses supporters in front of the Colosseum (Gregorio Borgia/PA)

“If you finally think you’ve understood Italy,” a senior Italian Treasury official warned a group of journalists the other day, “then they’ve probably explained it wrong.”

This year, official celebrations are to be held to mark the 150th anniversary of a crucial episode in Italian unification, the declaration of the United Kingdom of Italy, with its temporary capital in Florence. Only ten years later did the capital move to Rome, and the Papacy, to the Vatican.

For most of history, Italy has been a notion as much as a nation, a language and culture as much as a state. Dante and Machiavelli both wrote of Italy — but for them it was an aspiration and little more than a political fantasy. Since unification, the path of statecraft, let alone good governance, has been far from smooth. The first years brought the failure of the liberal monarchy,  followed by the terrible upheaval and slaughter of two world wars, interspersed with Fascist hegemony, and then the frozen years of “blocked democracy” of the Cold War.

More recently, this has been followed by the Berlusconi years, in which Italy has been the first modern state to be ruled by, with, and through television.

Berlusconi’s Italy is the backdrop to David Gilmour’s book, the major offering from Penguin for this year’s anniversary of the Risorgimento. He tackles the assignment of a personal explanation of Italy with thoroughness and aplomb — but even so it is worth bearing in mind my Treasury official’s warning.

Today, despite the official celebrations, the signs of disunity and dysfunction are ominous. Some statistics claim that Italy is the second industrial power in Europe, behind Germany but now ahead of France and the UK. Yet for ten years the economy has been growing at a plodding one per cent per annum. 

In the north, which boasts a huge number of new small enterprises and businesses, growth has been around three per cent. The south correspondingly has shrunk by around two per cent a year. For the first time in my 45 years’ experience of reporting on Italy, officials and government politicians will state that organised Mafia crime is the key ingredient in the crisis of the Mezzogiorno, and if anything it is getting worse.

A further symptom of juridical and political dysfunction is the plight of the prime minister himself. In the next six weeks, Silvio Berlusconi faces five serious prosecutions. Magistrates in Milan are bringing two for abuse of the prime ministerial office in the affair of a teenage prostitute, Karima el-Mahroug, known as Ruby “Rubacuori” (heart stealer). Berlusconi is accused of procuring sexual favours from her when she was 17 during the so-called “Bunga Bunga” orgies at his villa in Sardinia. He is also accused of using his position to get her released after arrest for theft, on the grounds that she was a relative of Hosni Mubarak.

At the same time, the Constitutional Court has removed Berlusconi’s prime ministerial and parliamentary immunity for him to stand trial on three counts of bribery, including one involving the British lawyer David Mills. In all cases, the magistrates have requested “fast-track” trial procedures, which is a story in itself. In Italy there are currently nine and a half million  trials pending.

David Gilmour deftly guides us through all the upheavals, and twists and turns of a similar nature in the Italian past. This makes the book an ideal travelling companion, particularly for those trying to get to grips with the mysteries of Italy for the first time. It provides a very good summary of the best contemporary writing about the subject, particularly by English and American historians and commentators.

Any compendium account such as this is bound to be selective, but it is when the book turns from history to assessing the present day, the Italy of journalism, that the touch is less sure. Severe judgment is meted out on the standards and behaviour of Italian politicians and officials, and the corruption and chaos in environmental and urban planning, and rightly so. But pretty soon the glass, bottle and fiasco become more than half empty. The judgment is too severe, too transalpine and Anglo-Saxon.

In the end he has to explain the success, why Italy survives and why so much of Italian thinking and creating is so much admired. The last few pages rather unoriginally conclude that the winning ingredients are the failure of Italy as a unified state, and the strength of local loyalties and rivalry, or campanilismo, and the strength of the family — with only a superficial glance at both.

My Italian colleagues and friends are currently indulging themselves in a wave of pessimism about the state of their country, from the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, to the crapulous condition of the law, and the way women are treated in popular culture. But then politics in Italy has always been treated with a healthy dose of cynicism and realism — what really matters for most is il paese reale, (the real country), and not il paese politico (the political nation). And part of the genius of Italian social life is how well it runs itself outside government.

In his appreciation of the arts and cinema, David Gilmour favours the melancholy of books like The Leopard, of whose eccentric author he has written a brilliant biography, and the gritty realism of films such as Bertolucci’s Novecento. He leaves out altogether two of the most illuminating writers of the late 20th century; Leonardo Sciascia, bard of Mafia Sicily, and Italo Calvino, master of magic realism, and one of the wittiest people I have known.

For in Italy it is the magic that trumps the realism. Even in bad times, the sheer exuberance of friendship, craziness, creativeness and fun make the Italian experience something to enjoy, and even to admire.