David Gilmour: The End of Italy

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Gilmour is a British historian and the author of award-winning biographies of George Curzon, Rudyard Kipling, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. His most recent book, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples, was published this month.

Italy is falling apart, both politically and economically. Faced with a massive debt crisis and defections from his coalition in Parliament, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- the most dominant political figure in Rome since Benito Mussolini -- tendered his resignation last week. Yet Italy's problems go deeper than Berlusconi's poor political performance and his notorious peccadilloes: Their roots lie in the country's fragile sense of a national identity in whose founding myths few Italians now believe.

Italy's hasty and heavy-handed 19th-century unification, followed in the 20th century by fascism and defeat in World War II, left the country bereft of a sense of nationhood. This might not have mattered if the post-fascist state had been more successful, not just as the overseer of the economy but as an entity with which its citizens could identify and rely on. Yet for the last 60 years, the Italian Republic has failed to provide functioning government, tackle corruption, safeguard the environment, or even protect its citizens from the oppression and violence of the Mafia, the Camorra, and the other criminal gangs. Now, despite the country's intrinsic strengths, the Republic has shown itself incapable of running the economy.

It took four centuries for the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England to finally become one in the 10th, yet nearly all the territories of the seven states that made up 19th-century Italy were molded together in less than two years, between the summer of 1859 and the spring of 1861. The pope was stripped of most of his dominions, the Bourbon dynasty was exiled from Naples, the dukes of central Italy lost their thrones, and the kings of Piedmont became monarchs of Italy. At the time, the speed of Italian unification was regarded as a kind of miracle, a magnificent example of a patriotic people uniting and rising up to eject foreign oppressors and home-bred tyrants....

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