Thursday, March 17, 2011

Italy is 150 today

Today is the 150th birthday of Italy, that is, of the unification of Italy in 1861, and celebrations are being held. Italian unity came about in the 19th century in a process that roughly began in the early decades of the century and continued with the struggle against Austria-Hungary, which occupied parts of Italy. The period is know as the Risorgimento (resurgence) and its hero is Giuseppe Garibaldi. The most famous work of art associated with the Risorgimento is Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), which is force-fed to Italians in school. I got through half of it, and have never wanted to go back.

The truth is that I find this period in Italian history, which is otherwise so long, rich and compelling (sometimes I think too long, rich and compelling), singularly dull and uninspiring. As an American I think our process of national unity, going roughly from around the War of Independence in the 18th century to the end of the Civil War in 1865, is infinitely more interesting. Who can compare Washington, Jefferson (with their faults), and Lincoln with the corresponding Italian figures? The US also attempted to make a clean break with the old world, with revolutionary ideas embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Italy opted for a monarchy, and continued to give the Papacy its ancient hold on the country. The relative weakness and mediocrity of Italian unity then had repercussions in the future, ranging from poverty and mass immigration, to Fascism, and even to the strengthening of the Mafia.

I may be raining on their parata, but I sense that the Italians themselves do not feel the occasion deeply. One example of this is the continued bickering among political factions, and the rather silly protests of the Lega, a secessionist party based in the North, some of whose members have gone as far as burning poor Garibaldi in effigy.