The weakness of Italian nationalism

Historian David Gilmour writes that Italy is facing a crisis of unity. Whether that is an exaggeration or an accurate statement I can’t say, but his survey of Italian history was interesting and showed the artificial nature of a lot of modern nationalism. Here are two excerpts about law and language:

However, the patriotic movement that achieved Italian unification was numerically small — consisting largely of young middle-class men from the north — and would have had no chance of success without foreign help. A French army expelled the Austrians from Lombardy in 1859; a Prussian victory enabled the new Italian state to acquire Venice in 1866.

In the rest of Italy, the Risorgimento (or Resurgence) wars were not so much struggles of unity and liberation as a succession of civil wars. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had made his name as a soldier in South America, fought heroically with his red-shirted volunteers in Sicily and Naples in 1860, but their campaigns were in essence a conquest by northern Italians of southern Italians, followed by the imposition of northern laws on the southern state known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Yet the southern city of Naples did not feel liberated — only 80 citizens of Italy’s largest city volunteered to fight for Garibaldi — and its people soon became embittered that the city had exchanged its role as the 600-year-old capital of an independent kingdom for the status of a provincial center. Today, its status remains reduced, and southern GDP is barely half what it is in the regions of the north….

Language is another barometer of Italy’s fractiousness. The distinguished Italian linguist Tullio De Mauro has estimated that at the time of unification, just 2.5 percent of the population spoke Italian — that is, the Florentine vernacular that evolved from the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Even if that is an exaggeration and perhaps 10 percent understood the language, it still means 90 percent of Italy’s inhabitants spoke languages or regional dialects incomprehensible to those elsewhere in the country. Even King Victor Emmanuel spoke in the Piedmontese dialect when he wasn’t speaking his first language — French.

In the euphoria of 1859 to 1861, few Italian politicians paused to consider the complications of uniting so diverse a collection of people. One who did was the Piedmontese statesman and painter Massimo d’Azeglio, who is reported to have said after unification, “Now we have made Italy, we must learn to make Italians.”



  1. I didn’t realize that the history of Italy left it so precarious. Thanks for sharing, Scott.

    Gilmour not only illustrates the artificial nature of Italy’s modern nationalism, he also suggests that without genuine nationalism, Italy will fall apart.

  2. It was an interesting take. I don’t have enough context to know whether it’s a real crisis of an integrated nation-state or just a crisis that Italy will weather.

  3. Interesting. I knew about the north/south divide, but I didn’t know about the language divisions.

    I do think the article misses out on the Roman Catholic Church’s role. The Catholic Church with its aversion to government control would have resisted any unification which would have made it vulnerable to secular power. Given how deeply Italians have historically identified as Catholic, this would have been a significant obstacle to political unity, promoting neighboring governments which were weak regional powers and city states in order to maintain the independence which the Orthodox and even some early German Lutheran denominations lacked.

    • Yes, I think that his omission of the Church is significant. During the 1860s, the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia played the same role as Prussia in Germany, wedding the pursuit of expansion with the romantic aspirations of nationalists. During the conquest of the peninsula, the Church lost the papal states in central Italy (as Gilmour mentions) and then the territory around Rome itself, and was confined to the Vatican. This left the Church and the Italian state at odds until they reconciled in the Lateran agreement in 1929. This loss of the papal states was the context in which the Syllabus of Errors was released and papal infallibility was proclaimed. My understanding is that many Catholics were ambivalent to the new Italy because of the way that the Church was treated, which undermined unity.

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