Italy San Gimignano

Book Review: The Pursuit of Italy

December 7, 2011

A book recommendation for all Italophiles: The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. The author is a British historian who has a long association with Italy beginning in childhood and continuing to the extent that he resided in all Italy’s 20 regions to research the book: a revisionist look at the history of Italy as a nation.

When I think of Italy I think of a country where the disparities of culture, cuisine, climate, and geography were more apparent than elsewhere in Europe when I lived there and now when I visit. I wondered why the the Italian flag was so little in evidence – instead it was medieval flags representing the town or modern ones for the local soccer team. The national anthem never seemed to be played either.

This year Italy is celebrating it’s 150th anniversary of unification, 2000 years after the founding of the Roman empire. Politicians in the north regularly float the idea of dis-unification claiming to be tired of sending their money to the south. They refused to join the celebrations making me wonder if Italy will become like Yugoslavia – put together by politicians and broken apart by revolution.

Gilmor explains it all in his story of how nationalist myths put the creative regions of the north, the backward center and the forgotten south into a single state when many of the inhabitants had no concept of “Italy” and didn’t understand why there needed to be one country.

The book is full of interesting tidbits. One example is that the Tuscan town of San Gimignano so popular with tourists was partly created by Mussolini. He thought that Baroque style was effeminate so he destroyed the nave of a church, added crenellations to the towers and built a vaulted loggia to make the town look more medieval and masculine. So now what we see is somewhat like Disneyland.

A lengthy review was published in the New York Times Book Review Section for those who want to read more.

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