Among the Italians

  • Themes: History, Italy

David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy was published in 2011. It retains its allure as one of the finest evocations of Italophilia.

Start of the public horse at the Palio de Siena.
Start of the public horse at the Palio de Siena. Credit: Dietmar Rauscher / Alamy Stock Photo

Italy is glory, art, music, poetry and a dream. For Northern Europeans, there is an abiding temptation. The echoes of the pipes of Pan easily resonate from the South. Even in the  mezzo del camminof an interesting and fulfilled life, there are few moments when a sensible person would not rather be in the  centro storico  of a great Italian city, or in a café in the piazza of a Tuscan hill town, planning a day’s culture, an evening’s dining – or just looking forward to  dolce far niente. If you need to keep such feelings at bay in order to chain yourself to the oar of duty in the  centro mercantile  of some cold northern city, then avoid David Gilmour’s aptly-titled book, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples.

This tribute to Italy was conceived in the union of love and exasperation. David Gilmour opens with Virgil: ‘Italiam non sponte sequor’ ‘[It is by divine will] not my own that I pursue Italy’. Although the author does not claim to be obeying heaven’s decrees, he has been thinking about Italy for many years. At Oxford, Gilmour was taught by Richard Cobb, who published some essays on France under the title,  A Second Identity. Over the decades, Professor Cobb had indeed evolved a second, French, identity. David Gilmour could make a similar claim about Italy. ‘The incomparable Richard Cobb… used to say that much of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French history could be walked, seen, smelled and above all heard in cafés, buses and on park benches in Paris and Lyon’. Gilmour may not specialise in olfactory evocations, but during the long research for this book, he spent time in all twenty regions of Italy. The result is synopsis and authority, and the reader should be deterred neither by the author’s modesty nor by the one untrue statement which he makes:

‘Since this is not an academic work, I have allowed myself to be quirkily subjective in my selection of topics and to give perhaps disproportionate space to those that seem especially illustrative of various moments or eras.’

If this is not an academic work, so much the worse for the academy. Even though David Gilmour may not be attached to a university, he is one of our foremost historians and cultural commentators. For all his self-deprecation about quirky subjectivity, this is not an idiosyncratic work. Our author asks questions, as all historians must. His book is about a contrast and a question. The contrast is between historic Italy’s grandeur and the modern state’s government. The question follows on: should Italy have been united? He approaches that conundrum by considering the history of Italy over three millennia.

David Gilmour’s Italian identity has deep roots. For many years, his parents had a house near Lucca. During those decades his father Ian, the former Tory cabinet minister who was himself a master of lucid prose and subtle argument, performed two minor miracles. Despite being a man of broad interests and sympathies, he managed to spend many summer months in Italy without acquiring more than half-a-dozen words of Italian. He also insisted that he could not stand garlic. In Italy, and unable to cope with garlic, we would need H. M. Bateman to depict that improbability: ‘The man who tried the echo in the British Museum Reading Room – the man who told an Italian chef that he did not like garlic.’ Even though cooks were imported from England, the Gilmours cannot have eaten every meal at home. Telling an Italian cook to eschew garlic is even harder than telling a Manhattan barman not to put ice in your Scotch. One suspects that Sir Ian ate a lot more garlic than the others let on. His son had much less difficulty in going native. He describes early encounters with Angelo, a local peasant who had a share-cropping arrangement with the Gilmours. His rent came in the form of murky olive oil and rough wine, but he introduced young David Gilmour to the realities of agricultural life – and the complexities of Italian politics. Angelo belonged to a Communist trade union, voted Christian Democrat and thought that ‘Mussolini had been a good chap, molto bravo’.

That was part of David Gilmour’s apprenticeship in Italophilia.

The second phase came from Lucca. It is an enchanting city, full of Romanesque churches, serious food and inhabitants who instinctively appreciate life’s pleasures. David Gilmour believes that this all rests on a foundation of civic pride. He argues that the medieval Italian city-state was one of the finer forms of government ever devised. In making this case, he cites Siena. A petitioner to the government of Siena in the fourteenth century would have encountered disinterested magistrates who operated under the rule of law and were determined to administer justice fairly, in order to maintain their city’s reputation. The city’s authorities were magnificently successful as patrons of the arts, thus endowing not only Siena but all mankind. They also imposed planning restrictions to ensure that all buildings were in harmony with the cityscape: a further endowment for posterity. So, if you had dealings with Siena’s magistracy: ‘you might feel that you were before a just and more or less ideal government’. 

Modern Siena still glories in the enchantments of the Middle Ages, and the continuities can be appreciated by anyone who attends the Palio. Two of these celebrations take place every year, one in early July, to commemorate a local saint, the second in mid-August, in honour of the Assumption of the Virgin. The Palios  are most famous for their climax – the horse races in which ten jockeys gallop around several circuits of the Piazza del Campo, to regular falls and tremendous enthusiasm. I witnessed one from some scaffolding in front of a restaurant; the excitement was such that the planks shook like leaves. The jockeys are imported from Sicily, and there are frequent allegations that the race has been fixed. There is usually a mini-riot at the end, with hundreds of young men squaring up to each other and scuffling. But that only lasts for a couple of minutes. It is all part of the fun. The jollification continues throughout the  evening. By midnight, the entire young male population of Siena will be awash with wine, yet the atmosphere is entirely harmonious. The visitor from northern Europe can only conclude that he is in the presence of a superior civilisation – especially the visitor from London, contrasting the Piazza del Campo with Leicester Square.

Moreover, the  Palio  is more than a horse race. That is preceded by several hours of processions and pageantry. Over the previous weeks, the youth of Siena has been rehearsing, spending hours in medieval costumes. Perhaps  further evidence of a superior civilisation; could anyone imagine London young doing likewise?

But the medieval city-states had their difficulties. Often, their prosperity attracted more incomers than the city could comfortably accommodate. Siena never had enough water. Overcrowding led to hygiene problems, sometimes to outbreaks of the plague. Equally, prosperous cities in close proximity developed rivalries, leading to conflict. Dante thought that the ideal form of government was civic power within the Holy Roman Empire, creating an overall framework of order. Machiavelli agreed, and David Gilmour, sympathetic to their arguments, is an admirer of Frederick II, Stupor Mundi, who might have been such an emperor had he not been brought down by the papacy. As it was, Italy remained disunited. The country was also rich and tempting. Viewed across the Alps, it must have seemed like a reclining Venus, inviting the embraces of a northern Mars. From 1494 onwards, Italy endured centuries of rough wooing, fought over in wars, sliced up one treaty, then reapportioned in the next.

This process only ended with the Risorgimento, a subject on which our author is a ruthless revisionist. That might seem surprising. Despite his antecedents, David Gilmour is an old-fashioned Liberal: the sort of Whig who may have found himself in the Tory party, but was never of it. Gladstone lauded the Risorgimento; almost all his Liberal followers agreed. It was left to Disraeli to introduce a note of scepticism, which David Gilmour wholly endorses. Although this is not a conclusion that our author draws, the Liberal response to the Risorgimento was a classic example of the dangerous naïveté of politically-minded intellectuals who are determined to see what they want to see and clever enough to intimidate any evidence which points the other way.

David Gilmour is ruthless in exposing the misconceptions. In this, as he acknowledges, he is following on from Denis Mack Smith, who began to demythologise the Risorgimento a generation ago, for which official Italy will never forgive him. But David Gilmour goes even further. He tries to rehabilitate the Bourbon monarchs of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Gladstone described their rule as: ‘The negation of God erected into a system of government’, a judgment which Puccini set to music. Even those of us who rather admire Scarpia (he would have made a good Chief Whip) and find Cavaradossi tiresome have usually assumed that Tosca was more or less accurate. But Gilmour thinks that that the Bourbons, though far from perfect, were not too bad, and compare favourably with Victor Emanuel II. Like Denis Mack Smith before him, David Gilmour is dismissive of Il Re Galantuomo. He portrays him as  a Piedmontese expansionist, himself brutal in repressing dissent, whose association with the apparently generous aspects of the Risorgimento was reluctant, opportunistic and insincere.

Gilmour also argues, with weight of evidence and passion, that the Risorgimento was a disaster for the South, locking it in backwardness, corruption and self-pity. In general, he believes that it would have been much better if Italy had become a loose confederation, in which local forms of government could have flourished, enhancing local particularisms. There is one exception to his benign view of pre-Risorgimento governments: the Papal States. There, Gladstone would have had a point. Almost any alternative form of government would have been better than the one the popes provided. It almost sounds as if, after 1870, those responsible for maladminstering the papacy’s territories were then sent off to impose discipline in Irish Catholic schools.

The Risorgimento also endowed Italian politicians with a taste for an operatic style of government. At times, public life resembled a performance of Cav and Pag. Theatrical characters flourished. ‘D’Annunzio, the bastard son of Garibaldi; Mussolini, of Victor Emanuel II: discuss. The outcome was often the theatre of the absurd. There was no reason for Italy to go to war in 1915, inflicting dreadful sufferings on ill-trained, ill-equipped troops. ‘We go to gain a little patch of ground…’ That war did bring one uncovenanted benefit. In 1940 Mussolini rushed to the aid of the victor, as he assumed. But the traumatic legacy of the First World War helped to ensure that his forces were frequently a liability in the Axis campaigns. In 1941 Hitler had to reinforce the Italians’ faltering efforts in Greece, thus postponing the launch of Barbarossa and contributing to Germany’s ultimate defeat. That was Mussolini’s greatest achievement.

David Gilmour does not have a theatrical temperament. He is a macro-historical pessimist. The contrast which he addresses remains unresolved. But the book ends on a note of quietist triumph: a celebration of campanilismo, the Italians’ attachment to their own locality. ‘This [is] the real Italy, the one trampled on by the Risorgimento: the communal Italy, result of a millennium of natural evolution, not the nationalist Italy, product of a drastic and insensitive imposition.’ These pages express their author’s veneration for that Italy.

It is hard to enhance a love for Italy. For most of us, that is already entwined in the soul. But David Gilmour has managed to add to enhancement and refresh enchantment. This book remains a superb achievement.


Bruce Anderson