Italy is famous for its culture: the delicious food, it’s fantastic wine, the incredible architecture and its rich history that’s ingrained in every aspect of Italian life. It is loved by many of foreign lands for all these things, but its own people are equally the nations’ champion. For many Italians their patriotism does not stem from political ideals or societal gains, but rather from an inherent identity associated with their everyday lives. It is not a blind faith in the goodness of their country that makes them believe in it, but a love that is a result of their appreciation of its strengths. It is by no means without imperfection, it has its problems just like every other country in the world, but of what it has, it is proud. Many Italians still choose to holiday within their own borders, not just out of practicality, but to bask in the beauty of the nation. From the fantastic beaches of Sardinia to the magnificent lakes of the North, an explorer is spoilt for choice.
However, Italy is far more diverse than many acknowledge. Even iconic Italian food such as pizza means something very different from one region to another. There is also a great North/South divide, both economically and culturally. In short, Italy is a country that has an abundance of fascinating details, many which can be attributed to its rich history – a history that collectively only dates back to 1861.
A Brief History
The country to which we now refer to as Italy had long been a divided “nation”. The land mass that makes up the modern-day Italia, was then presided over by various different governments, and each was a separate nation or city-state. The people of Italy were, and remain to this day to an extent, a vastly diverse group, who indeed barely shared a common language, evident today in the distinctive dialects from one region to another. Italy was also politically divided, with northern city-states completely independent from kingdoms in the south. Many are ignorant to Italy’s history, but when one is informed of its struggle for unification in the latter part of the 19th Century, this diversity becomes far more understandable.
The unification of Italy was not a peoples’ movement. Napoleon wished to unite several parts of Italy for selfish reasons, in creating a stable enough state that would be a useful ally but not one that would rival his own power. Even though he failed in his quest, he inadvertently paved the way for the overthrow of the various regimes. His support against the Austrian army in Lombardy in 1859 led to him winning Milan for Cavour’s Sardinia. Cavour’s intentions aside, Napoleon’s contribution was invaluable, and he could have no claim whatsoever to Italian nationalism, although he sympathised, and was merely acting in the name of his own desire to protect France and strengthen its power in Europe once more.
There is a strong argument for the necessity of industrialisation and resultant generated profit being a main incentive. The issue with a divided mainland was just that; it was divided with all the issues that that implies. Transport was slow and problematic, communication was poor and the whole process of industrialisation was halted. The Lombardy region was an exception to the rule. Whilst the rest of Italy was relatively economically backward, Lombardy silk producers had a flourishing trade. However, preventing them from expanding and prospering more so were the tariffs that existed between the separate states and so Lombardy businessmen became interested in the unification of Italy, not for its own sake, but they were merely demanding a system that would allow the flow of capital and a reduction in the limitations placed on their business.
The most successful leader in achieving Italian unification was not a budding nationalist, but rather a politically shrewd and practical man, Camillo di Cavour. He was the Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia, and yet knew very little of Italy, and held the notion of a unified Italy with contempt. It was only once Garibaldi’s successes in the south of Italy occurred that he began to also strive for the union. One could argue that Cavour was a nationalist in his own way, although he didn’t himself envisage a completely unified Italian nation, his vision of an independent nation with ‘the expulsion of the Austrians’ was in itself, nationalist. Nevertheless, his hope to see Austria’s power wane was not a uniquely nationalist sentiment; it was a natural and reflexive response to the over-bearing power of the empire in a suffocated Italy.
Unlike Cavour, Giuseppe Garibaldi was a man that had always been devoted to and believed in a unified Italy. He was a visionary nationalist at heart, in the sense that he, too, was committed to the Italy he believed would be formed rather than to the one that already existed. Garibaldi and his Red Shirts had tried to take advantage of the 1848 uprisings that occurred and form a democratic rebellion, but this had failed once power was re-established across Europe. Cavour had been wary of Garibaldi’s military success in the south and regarded him as somewhat of a threat to the constitutional monarchy of Sardinia, leading to the deployment of the Sardinian army into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Papal states in an attempt to reassert his own control. Garibaldi was an opportunist, and took advantage of many a peasant revolt, one in Sicily in particular which led to the overthrow of the last Bourbon ruler. However, despite Garibaldi’s politics and ideologies, there were men involved in the war in the south who were not by any measure Italian but had their own agendas in becoming involved in the fighting. Many of his volunteers were merely anti-authoritarian and rebelling against the systems of rule that were in place.
It is corroborated by most historians that the fight for Italian unification and the Risorgimento was not a people’s movement. The plebiscites that took place that showed strong support for a united Italy under King Emmanuel were described as a ‘sham’: only 15 per cent of the male population voted, and the fact that no alternative to a union under Sardinia was offered. The extensive propaganda in favour of the union was nigh on indoctrination and suggested in an indirect sense that there was no alternative to a unified Italy. Davis states that even among the wealthier classes ‘nationalism remained a vague, ambiguous and contradictory idea’ that bore no resemblance to their own reality in which their loyalties were to their city-state, if they were to anything at all.
For the lower classes that constituted the rest of Italian society, the notion of nationalism was even more remote. Meriggi asserts that it was a period of revolt against existing structures of authority rather than a devotion to an “Italian” future. The people wanted change from their existing way of life, and nationalists such as Garibaldi and Mazzini were quick to convert them, perhaps even just in their own minds, to their nationalist ideal of unification.
Prior to 1861 “Italy” was not a nation but rather land fought over by the great powers in Europe seeking military leverage and a valuable ally in the Mediterranean, much like Napoleon’s desire for a united northern Italy that would not be strong enough to pose a threat to French power. Garibaldi’s role however cannot be underplayed, although his successes in the south were simply another conquest of lands than a popular movement. Furthermore, it was the politically-minded Cavour that was most successful in his manipulation of the international political climate, making use of military allies in the form of France and Prussia when he saw fit. The problems caused by separate city and nation-states without clear boundaries or a claim to a common heritage, language or identity as such, were great, not least in limiting industrialisation and trade which many times it has been evident is one of the most significant factors in implementing change. Many of these things were factors, but none so much as the changing attitudes and the shift in politics and governance in Europe. New nations formed throughout nineteenth century Europe: Romania, Germany, Belgium and Greece to name a few.
The Italian Legacy
But what brings so many tourists to Italy? What is it about Italian culture that allowed it to disperse so successfully throughout the world?
Indeed, it’s the birthplace of some of the most fantastic dishes, most brilliant minds and most enchanting artists in history, but it’s more than that that really captures the heart. It is, in essence, a way of life – la dolce vita. In Italy, life is a passion: a pursuit of pleasure, an appreciation of the finer things and those of mother nature. It’s a celebration of home and family life and a devotion to friendships. This may not reflect the lives of all Italians, but it remains the ideal, the measure by which to live life – not to be merely endured, but to be thoroughly enjoyed, and it is this sentiment that truly makes one fall in love.