He begins with the Romans and proceeds chronologically, giving a broadly accessible narrative political history, but the focus is on ideas of Italy: "under foreign rule", "romantic", "enlightened", "operatic", and so forth. A whole slew of nationalist myths are debunked — many that now have credence only outside Italy — and some other less familiar facets of Italian history are revealed.
"Generations of European schoolchildren were taught that Napoleon had brought the idea of unity to Italy, that his defeat had led to a dismal interlude of oppression and reaction, and that Italy's destiny had finally been fulfilled by the heroic endeavours of its patriots. Yet the determinist theory is completely unhistorical. Italy was no more preordained to unite than Scandinavia, Yugoslavia or North America. Equally mistaken are the ideas that Naples was a foul despotism deserving of destruction, that Lombardy-Venetia was a monument to foreign tyranny and that Piedmont was the liberal knight predestined to rescue Italy and lead her to glory and to unity."
There is a fair bit of biography in this, with full portraits of Victor Emmanuel, Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi; Gilmour is sympathetic, but cuts through the forest of myths that has grown around them. Verdi also features — he was no great nationalist — along with other opera composers, and there is also good coverage of post-War film (including a full two pages summarising the plot of Bertolucci's 1976 film Novecento). There's less on literature, and only incidental economics or social history.
The Pursuit of Italy may be personal and idiosyncratic in its choice of material, but it coheres as an overview. And it is both engaging and compelling.
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