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Historians of Italy only (and maybe not even)


I’ve been thinking this week much about the (last) Kingdom of Naples (1735-1861). In part because I have been travelling to several parts of the territory that once made up that kingdom and in part because I have been reading about the period, including documents at the Archivio di Stato in Naples. More exploratory work for a future project.

On a related topic, in recent years I have been interested to note a sort of pre-unification nostalgia creeping into Italian historiography. So David Gilmour’s odd The Pursuit of Italy (2011) seems to find its main purpose in regretting the demise of the Venetian Republic (I think he should have just written a history of the latter as that is the best part of the book). And Gianni Oliva’s fine Un regno che e’ stato grande (2012) corrects the largely negative view that much post-Risorgimento historiography has had of the Bourbon kingdom. It is certainly unhistorical to do so – what else are blogs for than breaking the rules? – but why not explore a series of counter-factual hypotheticals in Italian history? What if Cardinal Ruffo’s moderate line had held following his defeat of the Parthenopean Republic in 1799? Might Naples rather than Turin have been the first capital of united Italy and so dramatically changed the history that followed? What if (for Gilmour) the Venetian Republic had been one of the restoration states in 1815? Hard to say what that would have meant half a century later when instead Austrian Venice became part of Italy. Or what if Garibaldi had not sailed to Sicily in 1860 (a decision no small number of Italians, both north and south, today openly regret)? Would a northern Kingdom of Italy have coexisted with that Ruffo-inspired Kingdom of Naples? Or what if King Victor Emmanuel III had called out the troops in 1922 and crushed the Fascist March on Rome? Surely that would have been a good thing. Would revolutionary fears have abated and liberal democracy evolved? And what if Giuseppe Saragat and Pietro Nenni had not split the Socialist Party in 1947? Might a viable non-Communist party of the left have developed in Italy (as it did in France) and so offset 50 years of Christian Democratic dominance? Finally, I’ll confess that I am at a bit of a loss trying to imagine a different scenario for what is probably the mist significant Italian political transition I have witnessed firsthand, namely the election of Berlusconi in 1994 and his dominance of the political scene for the subsequent 20 years. There were really few mysteries about il cavaliere; people believed or felt about him as they chose. The 1994 victory was a surprise to many but it was not an anomaly as Berlusconi won multiple elections after that. It is true that he dominated national media as few politicians ever have in a democracy, but can we really attribute 20 years of berlusconismo to the legge Mammi’ of 1990 that allowed the future prime minister to own three national TV networks?


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