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The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples Paperback – November 13, 2012
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“Amazingly compendious . . . The best one-volume history of Italy now available . . . [The Pursuit of Italy] has the same tonic, exhilarating impact as the thigh-slapping overture to a Verdi opera.” ―Jonathan Keates, The Literary Review
“[The Pursuit of Italy has] a freshness and readability often lacking in more laborious histories, an attractiveness reinforced by the quality of the writing, which is versatile and vivid and frequently witty, able to encompass both densely factual material and complicated narrative without loss of clarity or elegance . . . Compelling to read and highly informative . . . Brilliantly accomplished.” ―Barry Unsworth, The Spectator
“Lucid and elegant, clever and provocative . . . Tracing Italy's history from Romulus and Remus to the misdemeanours of Silvio Berlusconi, Gilmour develops his thesis with wit, style, and a great deal of learning.” ―Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times (London)
“[A] well-researched and engaging canter through the peninsula's history.” ―Peter Popham, The Independent
“[Gilmour is] a witty guide with an elegant prose style and a mind delightfully furnished with anecdotes and dictums, sensual impressions and conversations . . . [His] prose smells not of the archive but of a convivial meal eaten beneath a pergola in the Pisan hills.” ―Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Daily Telegraph
“Gilmour's elegantly written book . . . is full of impressive insights . . . A stimulating, up-to-date and reliable guide to modern Italian history.” ―Tony Barber, Financial Times
“In this superb history of Italy and the Italian people, Gilmour celebrates a nation of bewilderingly mixed bloods and ethnicities . . . The Pursuit of Italy offers an enduring tribute to a various and wonderful people.” ―Ian Thomson, Evening Standard
About the Author
Sir David Gilmour is one of Britain's most admired and accomplished historical writers and biographers. His previous books include The Last Leopard, The Long Recessional (FSG, 2002), and, most recently, The Ruling Caste (FSG, 2006).
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The two things that I most enjoyed and admired about this superb overview of Italian history are, first, its coherence. From beginning to end, David Gilmour, the author, makes the case that Metternich, who in the early 19th century declared that Italy was not a nation, but rather a "geographic expression," was profoundly correct. For it is Gilmour'c conviction that what we now call the nation of Italy was and continues to be a mistake. Italy, in his persuasive view, ought not to be a single nation, but rather it would have fared far better as four five or six independent yet far more integrated and coherent countries such as Piedmont, Tuscany, Venezia, Sicily, the Southern half of the country, etc. Of course, no one will ever know whether Gilmore is right, but he does make an excellent case that Italy, as it is today, is not a coherently integrated and unified country. Far from it.
The second dimension of this fine book that I admire and enjoy is Gilmour's willingness to opine on all of Italy's leading men of the last 200 years. From Garibaldi, to Cavour, to Pius IX, to Verdi, to Victor Emanuel, to Mussolini, to De Gasperi, to Berlusconi - his perspectives and insights into each of these men (as well as many others) are always interesting and usually persuasive. Plus, his perspectives on the country as a whole are similarly engaging. As but one example, let me share with you his perspective on Italian nationalism, which he perceives to have had its emotive origins in a romantic harkoning back to the Roman Empire, but which in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries caused nothing but hardship and devastation to the people of the country. Happily, by reason of these multiple historical disasters, Italy today has abjured itself of all nationalistic pretension.
Bottom-line, it is a pleasure for me, as an ardent admirer of Italy and of Italian culture, to recommend this book to one and all.
David Gilmour, in this authoritative overview of Italian history, describes the central problem with Italy. "Geography and the vicissitudes of history made certain countries, including France and Britain, more important than the sum of their parts...In Italy the opposite was true. The parts are so stupendous that a single region...would rival every other country in the world in the quality of its art and the civilization of its past." Italy, Gilmour concludes, has produced an unending kaleidoscope of great human achievement but continues to be unable to create a strong, effective national government that can produce a great society. In fact, in the two great periods of Italian history - the Renaissance and the Middle Ages - Italy was in fact not a nation but a collection of vastly different regional kingdoms, in many cases kingdoms in which Italian was not a well-understood language.
Italy has had occasional national leaders, some of whom were not in fact Italian, but it has also had its full share of destructive, power-mad leaders, including Mussolini and, more recently Berlusconi. Only with Julius Caesar, now two thousand years in the past, has Italy produced a leader on the scale of Bismark, Peter the Great, deGaulle, or Churchill. Gilmour searches for reasons to explain why it is that Italy has failed to become the great nation-state that its enormous talents deserve. He does this with skill, copious knowledge, terrific insight and a continual sense of ironic humor. He knows Italy well. He explains Italy's plight with great clarity and a firm grasp on the consequences of its citizens to place their region first and the nation second.
This is, at times, a sad story. Just as the Civil War in the United States ultimately made a strong nation out of two strong regions, Italy was in the midst of a failed effort to make a nation out of regions, some not larger than cities, such as Venice, Naples and Florence. These divisions and regional jealousies exist today. Sicily is still only remotely governed by national authorities. The difference between the North of Italy, industrious, developed and European, and the South of Italy, economically weak and close to ungovernable, remains stark.
You will find in this book a wonderful series of historical sketches, outlining the high and low points of Italian history. One reads the book, however, with a mounting sense of disappointment that Italy could not have become more than it is. It is a complex story and Gilmour tells this tangled tale very well. You will not, however, find the key to the way out. Italy is the land of Italians and it seems that these enormously talented people have a way of living that is totally unique and admirable in so many ways. Their life has worked for them for two thousand years and will probably carry on roughly the same, with all the achievements and all the disappointments, for quite a bit longer.