A Concise History of Italy by Christopher Duggan
294 pages, 1994, Cambridge University Press, $12.95
Review score: *** out of *****

I have never visited Europe. When I graduated from high school I did not have the money to make the trip to Europe that some American kids make at this time. When I graduated college I went right to work, so I did not travel then either. Now I have a twelve year old son, so although I have more money than I did when I was younger, travel is complicated by parental responsibilities. Despite all this, my wife and I dream of going to Europe, especially Italy.

I thought that one way to prepare for an eventual trip to Italy would be to read a bit about Italy's history. I have read several histories of the Roman empire and several books on the Italian city states during the Renaissance. But I have not read anything on Italy in modern times. I was fortunate to find Christopher Duggan's A Concise History of Italy, which provides a survey of Italian history from the end of the Roman Empire to the present time.

A Concise History of Italy is published by the Cambridge University Press and Christopher Duggan is a lecturer in Italian history and Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of Italian Society at the University of Reading. Some books with a pedigree like this might be dry and boring. In fact Christopher Duggan is an engaging writer as well as an authoritative historian.

A complete history of Italy would consume a library worth of books and would take years to read. As the title suggests, this book provides only a survey of Italian history. For reviews of non-fiction books, I usually try to go into some detail and summarize some of the main points of the book. For a book which is itself already a summary, it doesn't make a lot of sense to summarize further. If you are interested in Italy and its history, I recommend reading Prof. Duggan's book. I will just include a few random points of interest below.

Italy as a unified country has only existed at two times: during the days of the Roman Empire and in modern times, when Italy was unified by a band of idealistic Italian nationalists lead by Giuseppi Garibaldi, in 1861. Between the dissolution of the Roman Empire and 1861, Italy was divided up into the city states of Northern Italy, the Papal States in central Italy and the Kingdom of Naples in the south. Until the 1700s, Sicily was also a separate kingdom. Even the Italian language is not unified. The language that foreigners think of as Italian is based on the dialect from Tuscany. Prof. Dugan provides an interesting map showing the various dialects spoken on the Italian peninsula.

One of the central themes of Italian history is the cultural and economic separation between southern and northern Italy. This separation dates back to 1100 AD. During this time, the Normans conquered Southern Italy (the areas that eventually became the Kingdom of Naples) and Sicily. With the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the cities in the north evolved toward autonomy. In contrast the Normans instituted a strong centralized government in the south. For the south, the Norman period was a time of economic wealth and cultural sophistication. Southern Italy was a center of Arab and Greek trade and the Norman court of this era was known for its wealth. Eventually the trade with the Greece and the middle east declined as the Arabs were forced out of Europe by the crusades and the unification of Spain. The different histories of northern and southern Italy set the pattern that continues to this day. The north was politically diverse and looked toward Europe. The north also had some tradition of republican rule in Florence and Venice. The history of Southern Italy was feudal, with land ownership concentrated in the hands of a few land owners. The government in the south rarely served the people and out of this grew the mafia (For a great book on the fight against the Mafia by two Sicilian judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, see Excellent Cadavers: the Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic by Alexander Stille).

Except for the Norman period, when Southern Italy flourished, Northern Italy has always been richer than Southern Italy. This is largely due to the north's access to European markets and culture. Until the end of the second world war, Southern Italy resembled a third world country more than it resembled a European state. Although the grinding poverty that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century is gone, Southern Italy still lags behind the north economically.

A Concise History of Italy includes a chapter on the rise of Mussolini and Fascism. It is interesting to contrast the Italian Fascists with the German National Socialists (Nazis). Although the Italian Fascists were repressive, they were content to allow private dissension, as long as there was public cooperation. The Nazis undertook a major purge of the German Universities. In Italy under Mussolini, University professors where left to teach as they wanted, as long as they confined free thinking to the classroom. Although the Fascists had local thugs who seemed to live mainly to smash things, the Fascists never developed an efficiently repressive secret police like the Gestapo. I tend to think that this reflects a difference in the national characters of the Italians and the Germans. The casual (some might say cynical) approach taken by Italians toward government does not lend itself to a repressive totalitarian regime.

Ian Kaplan - 6/96

Book review table of contents

back to home page