English Samgha/Saggi/Segnalazioni

Italy from Without

di Giuseppe Gazzola* 

Bruno Catalano

There is no doubt that current debates on Italian national identity, and on the meaning of Italian history, are very lively; of late, these discussions have been effective in questioning the many clichés and many established paradigms concerning nationalism and nation-building. But it is equally true that reflections on Italian national identity have, over time, been mired in a narrow internalist perspective that has neglected the larger historical and geopolitical processes which shaped the emergence of the nation before and during the first one hundred and fifty years of its existence. It is only recently that scholars interested in the many aspects of Italian nationalism have begun to account for the international dimensions of Italy’s creation. Indeed, if our idea of the Italian nation is “a cultural artifact of a particular kind,”[1] as Benedict Anderson defines it (encouraging us to look at the concept of national identity not as an inherited or inevitable happenstance, but as a deliberate and artificial creation linked to the emergence of a new ruling élite), we need to expand our critical field to ask how such a cultural artifact has been created from both inside and outside of the geographical and conceptual borders of the nation.

However, attention to the European – indeed global – aspects of the Italian nation has not always been central to nationalist expressions, celebrations, histories, and historical reconstructions of the Risorgimento, which have generally focused on the fight for unification and the figure of proverbial and quintessentially Italian heroes, Garibaldi above all. This is perhaps hardly surprising, since the process of Italian unification was, in significant part, a proxy battle against attempts by competing external interests to intervene in and control the peninsula. The history of the Italian Risorgimento has consequently been constructed as fundamentally a history from within, one founded on a myth of an essential Italianità, that binds together the diverse communities of the region to produce an integral national whole.[2]

This belief in the existence of an ancient Italianità, understood as a historical entity shaped by the native populations of the peninsula through successive generations, was the presupposition shared by all the patriots of the Risorgimento; it served to affirm the right of Italians to a unified State that was independent, sovereign and free from foreign rule. The consequent symbiosis between Italianità, geographical and linguistic unity, and political unification, precipitated the birth of the State in 1861, which in turn has developed a revisionist history of Italians over the following one hundred and fifty years. These years of Italian statehood have been punctuated by three major anniversaries: in 1911, 1961, and most recently, 2011. Each time, the birth-anniversary of the State has been celebrated by a historically distinct “Italy,” each marked by difference, change and political antitheses.[3]

In 1911, the fiftieth anniversary of Italian unification was celebrated by a liberal and secular monarchy intent on foregrounding its own power, but its interpretation of Italianità was bitterly contested by all others forces who had competing conceptions of the patria and the State: Catholics, republicans, socialists. For the crown, about to initiate its colonial adventure with the Italo-Turkish war, the first landmark anniversary of the nation was an occasion to demonstrate its growth in economic, cultural and scientific spheres. Commemorative celebrations were held in Turin, Florence and Rome – that is, in the three cities that had been capitals of a unified Italy. Rome, the long-desired capital, that has been stripped from the control of Papal forces only in 1871, received the lion’s share: apart from a “Rassegna internazionale d’arte contemporanea,” there were mostly exhibits devoted to local and regional matters, including an “Esposizione etnografica delle regioni italiane,” an exhibition on “Topografia romana” and a similar “Retrospettiva su Roma medievale e moderna.” Among the permanent monuments, the citizens of the Eternal City would celebrate the inauguration of a bridge across the Tiber dedicated to the first King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and dulcis in fundo, the inauguration of the monumental Vittoriano degli italiani, built to overlook the Roman Forum, thereby symbolizing an ideal continuity between Imperial Rome and the imperial ambitions of the young kingdom of Italy.[4]

Fifty years later, during the centennial celebrations of 1961, a nation steadily governed by the Christian Democratic Party and definitively reconciled with the Catholic Church in the person of the Papa buono Johannes XXIII,[5] was enjoying an unprecedented period of economic growth. Looking back on these celebrations, the official government website highlights important distinctions between 1911 and 1961: “L’Italia che si apprestava a celebrare il centenario dell’unità era una nazione completamente diversa da quella del 1911. Le due guerre mondiali, il fascismo, la resistenza, la nascita della Repubblica e l’approvazione della Costituzione avevano modificato in maniera sensibile la coscienza storica e le condizioni del paese. Allo stesso tempo il “miracolo economico” ne stava rapidamente cambiando la geografia e le strutture sociali.”[6] [“The Italy, which was preparing to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of unification was a nation completely diverse from that of 1911. The two world wars, Fascism, the Resistance, the birth of the Republic and the approval of the Constitution had transformed the historical conscience and condition of the country. At the same time, the “economic miracle” was rapidly changing the geography and social structures.”] Scholars agree in discerning, in the Italy of 1961, the formation of a new collective notion of Italianità developed through massive internal migrations, television and the diffusion of mass media, which finally de facto equalized Italians (in a sociological sense). This new Italianità  was dissociated from the nation-state, towards which it was at best indifferent, at worst diffident or in active rebellion: the collective sense of shame derived by the memory of the Fascist Ventennio and the consequent defeat in WWII did little to sustain any kind of national pride among Italians, and the celebrations of the Centennial made little use of the fanfare of the nationalistic tones.

In 2011, on the eve of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of unification, the presence of a secessionist movement within the government, which denied the very existence of an Italian nation and proposed a dismantling of the country’s political unity, raised questions about the basis for the official celebrations. Nevertheless, despite such doubts, the celebrations did take place, accompanied by hymns to a rediscovered Italian national pride and with a level of popular participation that was probably greater than during the anniversaries of 1911 and 1961. Once again, the nation celebrated itself and its heroes from within: the Palazzo del Quirinale held a self-reflexive exhibit entitled, “Il Quirinale: dall’Unità d’Italia ai nostri giorni,”[7] while the Palazzo di Montecitorio put forward “Rappresentare l’Italia: 150 anni di Storia della Camera dei Deputati.”[8] Between March and December 2011, hundreds of monuments across Italy dedicated to the heroes of the Risorgimento (Vittorio Emanuele II, Camillo Benso di Cavour, Giuseppe Verdi, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Giuseppe Mazzini are the most recurrent names) were restored, and the statues of Garibaldi in every Italian city received a flaming mantle in red velvet. Yet for the first time there were also traces of a celebration ‘from without:’ the exhibit in Turin of four hundred photographs by nine international artists echoing the tradition of the Grand Tour, suggestively entitled, “L’Italia e gli italiani”[9] is symptomatic of the ramifications of a rethinking of the national identity that includes solicitations and suggestions from the outside.[10] Thus, for the first time, this one hundred and fiftieth anniversary has also been the occasion for a renewed, revisionist reflection on Italian identity over the historical long durée.

Now that the third celebration is behind us, it is time to overcome the interpretation of the movement for Italian unification as a movement internal to the history of Italy. To do so is to conceive of the Italian nation as, paradoxically, not only a strictly “national” entity contained by its borders, but as a fluid product of the contamination and commingling of ideas that derive from the experiences of individuals who have crossed those frontiers in various ways. As a result, we are now beginning to recognize how Italian national identity is shaped as a constellation and synthesis of diverse, plural experiences. Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as Italy struggles to maintain its place within the European Union and within the rapidly shifting currents of a global, interdependent world, scholars of Italian nationhood are being forced to rethink conceptions of national identity through a larger perspective.[11] We are ready to consider reframing “Italy from Without.”

The international conference of the same title, held at the Center for Italian Studies of Stony Brook University on October 14 and 15, 2011, responded to precisely this imperative. Drawing scholars from across the globe, the conference’s theme focused on examining the forces that have contributed to Italian unification  from the outside. In its focus on the international networks of encounter and exchange that grew out of the Italian peninsula, the conference aimed to provide a new, multifaceted approach to imagining the Italian nation. The shaping of Italy from without has a long history full of unexpected turns. From the French cultural polemicists of the seventeenth century, to the German archaeologists of the eighteenth century, to the Italian emigrants at Ellis Island of the nineteenth century, the idea of Italy emerges among Italians who travel abroad and foreigners who travel within the shifting geographic space known as “Italy.” To the Grand Powers fighting over territorial control of the peninsula, Italy was a geo-political prize which conferred strategic and symbolic gains on the victor. For the grand tourists traveling to Italy in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Bel Paese was both museum and mausoleum, and they contributed to a vision of the country defined by both cultural antiquity and alterity. This long-standing tension between geographic and cultural integrity on the one hand, and political fragmentation on the other, is captured resonantly by the Prince Klemens von Metternich, chancellor to the Austrian state, who wrote to the Count Dietrichstein, the Austrian ambassador in Paris in April 1847: « The word ‘Italy’ is a geographical expression, a description which is useful shorthand, but has none of the political significance the efforts of the revolutionary ideologues try to put on it, and which is full of dangers for the very existence of the states which make up the peninsula.» As Metternich perceived, the political unification of Italy founded on the idea of Italianità would spell the end of Italy as a political pawn in the hands of foreign powers by unifying the many, small warring states that littered the region. Ironically, this trenchant observation by a foreigner hostile to Italian nationalism, itself becomes a powerful shaping force in the making of the nation-to-come, for it articulates – through its very denial – the vision of an integral “Italy” that few could even hope for in the late 1840s.

At the same moment, as the expanding European empires looked at their southern neighbor with calculating eyes, the first waves of the migration by Italians to the New World had begun. For these emigrants, seeking refuge from the squalor of their lives in the old world and dreaming of possibility in the new, Italy was a post-facto memory, the trace of a past left behind. The power of the limen, of the margin as a threshold, thus gave an Italian identity to the millions who had never been Italian in Italy, and who would shape the nation’s future by their contributions from afar. The present volume ranges across these various registers, exploring particular international vantage points on the Italian national experience.  The contributions, organized in three distinct sections, respond to both geographical and conceptual criteria. Beginning with a more regional lens, the first section, “Italy from Europe,” gathers together essays that explore European perspectives on Italy, while the second part, “Italy from a Global Perspective,” moves further afield. A final section, “Italian Identity across the Disciplines,” shifts from particular geographic interconnections to examine how Italian identity has been theorized from different disciplinary stances, such as political economy, art history, and the social sciences.

At one end of the volume’s diachronic spectrum, the article by Ayesha Ramachandran (“Montaigne’s Tasso: Madness, melancholy and the enigma of Italy”) examines the question of the French humanist Michel de Montaigne’s view of contemporary Italy and Italians in the late sixteenth century by focusing on textual references and allusions to the figure of Torquato Tasso in the Essais. Placing Montaigne’s Italianism in the context of the virulent anti-Italian polemics in France in the 1570s and 1580s, the paper argues that the strategic choice of Tasso as an emblem for Italy points to a conflicted, deeply ambivalent perspective on Franco-Italian relations in the early modern period.

Jonathan R. Hiller’s article, “The negation of God erected into a system of disaster relief: The British press, Household Words and the great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857,” derives its title from a famous quote. For in a letter to his wife in 1845, the British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone had defined the Kingdom of Ferdinand II as the “negation of God erected into a system of government.” Hiller recounts the story of the earthquake that, in 1857, flattened five cities in the region of Basilicata causing the loss of at least 10,000 lives, and explains how the Bourbon king’s failure to provide substantive relief to the affected population had been amplified and criticized in the British press (and specifically in Charles Dickens’ literary journal Household Words), ultimately shaping British sentiment and public opinion into a powerful an anti-Bourbon weapon that would become instrumental in the subsequent struggle for Italian unification.[12] The next three articles form a thematic nucleus within the volume. The first, Luigi Fontanella’s “Poesia e Risorgimento fuori d’Italia,” examines the poetry written by famous (Ugo Foscolo, Giovanni Berchet) and less famous (Giuseppe Andreoli, Tito Speri, Pier Fortunato Calvi) patriots who had to undertake the path of exile. Arguing that these writers represent the most valuable aspects of the canon of Italian Romanticism, Fontanella reflects on how the cosmopolitan poetry of the Italian exiles effectively contributed to the achievement of Italian unification. In the following essay, “Giovanni Ruffini’s Doctor Antonio and the healing power of the Italian landscape,” Tullio Pagano rediscovers the English romance of a political exile which enjoyed great success when it was first published in Edinburgh in 1855. In discussing this novel written in English by an Italian author, Pagano explores the place it merits in both the Italian and English literary canons. In a third reflection on the relationship between literature and nation-building in the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Gazzola’s “A false edition of the Comedy, and its truth,” recounts Foscolo’s last years in London in order to uncover why Giuseppe Mazzini did not write his long-anticipated biography of Ugo Foscolo, and instead, completed and published under Foscolo’s name, the edition the Divine Comedy that the latter had merely begun to sketch.

The final essay in the first section, Thomas Harrison’s “Istrian Italy and the homeland: The lessons of poetry,” moves the volume’s temporal axis into the twentieth century, taking Eugenio Montale’s poem Dora Marcus as a pretext to reflect upon the volatile condition of the eastern Italian national border. Harrison recalls the most dramatic Italian diaspora in history through a close reading of Montale’s text, as he meditates on how the relationship between geographic landscapes and their distillation into abstract concepts (such as homeland, origin, or place of belonging) can and must be processed into existence by art.

Traveling further away from the patria, the second section of the volume explores the making of “Italy from Without” in a global perspective. Daria Valentini provides “A view from Africa” with her “Edmondo De Amicis and the formation of a national identity in post-unification Italy.” Analyzing the travelogue Morocco, she investigates how De Amicis’ representation of the country is an ideological construct that provides its author with the opportunity to shape a notion of ‘Italianness’ based on a comparison between European traditions and the Muslim world. In this account, the encounter with an ethnic and religious alterity powerfully frames the formation of an Italian national identity. In contrast, the subsequent article by Patricia Vilches, “Monumental Italians: Machiavelli, Risorgimento and nation-building in Chile” uses the conceptual frame of Machiavelli’s Prince to narrate the accomplishments of Italian emigrants in Chile and their local nation-building efforts. Here, the movement of Italians abroad and their enacting of key Machiavellian values (such as virtù and fortuna) in turn amplifies an underlying sense of Italianità.

The concluding essays of this section, by Ernesto Livorni and Nick Ceramella, complement one another: while the former talks about “American writers in Rome during the Risorgimento,” the latter is concerned about the depictions of Italian- Americans by North American writers. Livorni discusses the discovery and engagement of American writers with Italy over a quarter century through the work of Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Henry James, who lived and wrote in Rome through the troubled period of Italian revolution that paralleled the years of the American Civil War. In contrast, Ceramella traces the portrayal of Italian-American immigrants in North America and the development of sterotypical cultural markers over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

These reflections on Italian identity are further theorized in the volume’s final section, which offers four distinct disciplinary paradigms for analyzing the foundations of Italian nationhood. A delicate theme concerning the relations between the governors and the governed is the subject of Eugenio Mazzarella’s essay, “Picturing oneself: Politics and Society in Berlusconi’s Italy.” A representative in the Italian Parliament as well as a professor of theoretical philosophy at the Università Federico II di Napoli, Mazzarella echoes the sentiments of the eleventh and twelfth President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, in lamenting the decline of national pride in the ideal of the Italian nation. Analyzing the voting habits of the Italian electorate, and by way of a quote from the famous newspaper editor, Piero Ostellino, Mazzarella claims that Italy did not fall into a political vacuum while the rest of the country continued to make progress, rather that the existence of a social and moral vacuum has precipitated the political crises of the last twenty years.

Alessandro Vanoli’s “The Muslim World and the Italian Identity: New Directions for Historical Research” offers historiographical critique and wonders whether it is in fact possible to write a history of the relationship between Islam and Italy. Rejecting an uninterrupted grand narrative that extends from the Middle Ages to the present day, Vanoli instead identifies specific spaces and topics that can serve as the basis for cross-cultural historical study: war and politics, diplomatic relationships, and trading history across the Mediterranean. Focusing on these points of contact, he suggests, is an effective means to interrogate the relationship between these two seemingly opposed worlds.

Opening an art historical perspective on the imagination of Italy, Sharon Hecker focuses on the Italie, a series of mixed-media scultural installations by the arte povera artist Luciano Fabro, which feature the iconographic geographical boot. Tracing the development of Fabro’s curious mappings of Italy, Hecker explores how such works question the contradictory terms of Italy’s emergence by playing on a range of imaginative expressions. The volume’s final essay, Gianpiero Bianchi’s, “It was not only the Cold War: Italian and American trade unionism for the economic development of the country (1947-1960),” recounts the history of the trade union CISL. Bianchi claims that CISL marked a new direction for Italian labor relations because it drew on the influence of American economic theorists and union activists, insisting on an “American” model of productivity, industrial democracy, and complete autonomy from the state and political parties.

Each of these articles seeks to balance the existing, traditionally Italo-centric approach with a new internationalist frame that brings into view new dimensions of the Italian experience. Thus, by the conference’s end, participants of the final roundtable agreed that the study of the forces that contributed to building the unitarian state ‘from without’ is not in competition with the study of the forces that have contributed to the creation of the state ‘from within’ the geographical and imaginary boundaries of Italy. Indeed, the two aspects are complementary and are inextricable. Such consideration is not limited to the Italian case, of course: every community can, and by certain regards has, been imagined as the product of collective networks of ideas and experiences that transcend particular geopolitical boundaries.[13] Yet the contributors to the present volume hope to demonstrate how, in the study of Italian nationalism, the widening of perspectives will open a pathway to new, broader connections and new directions for research.

* The present essays proposes, with minimal variations, the introduction to the collected volume Italy from Without (Sage: New York and London, 2013) and is reproduced with the consent of the publisher.



Acciaresi P (1911) Giuseppe Sacconi e l’opera sua massima: cronaca dei lavori del monumento nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, illustrata da 300 incisioni. Rome: Tipografia dell’Unione Editrice.

Anderson B (1991) Imagined Communities (revised edition). New York and London: Verso.

Bouchard N (ed.) (2011) “Special Issue on the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy.”  Italian Culture 30 (1).

Brera M and Pirozzi C (eds.) (2011) Lingua e identità a 150 anni dall’Unità d’Italia. Florence: Cesati.

Croce B (1928) Storia d’Italia dal 1871 al 1915. Bari: Laterza.

Fleres U (1911) Roma nel 1911. Rome: Amministrazione della rassegna “Roma.”

Gellner E (1983) Nations and Nationalism. New York: Wiley and Sons.

Gentile E (2011) La grande Italia. Il mito della nazione nel XX secolo. Bari: Laterza.

Gramsci A (1949) Il Risorgimento. Turin: Einaudi.

Hobsbawm EJ and Ranger TO (eds.) (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Isabella M (2009) Risorgimento in Exile. Italian Emigrés and the Liberal International in the Post-Napoleonic Era. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Macry P (2011) Unità a Mezzogiorno: Come l’Italia ha messo assieme i pezzi. Bologna: Il Mulino.

Roncalli AG (Pope Johannes XXIII) (1959) Scritti e discorsi Vol. 1. Rome: Edizioni Paoline.

Verdecchia E (2010) Londra dei cospiratori. L’esilio londinese dei padri del Risorgimento. Milan: Tropea.


[1] See Anderson (1991), pp. 4 et passim.

[2] Even the two most influential –and conflicting- accounts of Italian unification, by Benedetto Croce (Croce 1928) and Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci 1949), which reconstruct the historical events between the Council of Vienna and the rise of Fascism according to a liberal and Marxist paradigm respectively, draw on ideologies that were developed ‘without’ and then applied internally to the Italian context. Both thinkers are emblematic of distinctly “Italian” political visions, and yet broader consideration must position their thought within the international networks of the time.

[3] Here and infra, see Gentile (2011).

[4] See Acciaresi (1911).

[5] Cfr. Roncalli (1959), pp. 162 et passim.

[6] Quoted from the official Governmental website for the 2011 celebrations, http://www.italiaunita150.it/le-celebrazioni-passate/celebrazioni-1961.aspx, accessed on May 23, 2013.

[7] Rome: Palazzo del Quirinale, Nov. 30, 2010 – Mar. 17, 2011.

[8] Rome: Palazzo di Montecitorio, Oct. 17, 2011 – Dec. 10, 2011.

[9] Turin: Palazzo Reale, Nov. 25, 2011 – Feb. 26, 2012.

[10] See as an example Verdecchia (2010). Furthermore, Bouchard (2011) and Brera and Pirozzi (2011) are collections of essays actively engaged in such paradygmatic shift.

[11] Cfr. Isabella (2009). Isabella, for instance, studies the theme of Risorgimental exile not with a narrative approach, but by devoting attention to the international dimensions of the exiles’ conceptualization of Italy, developed through their cosmopolitan experience.

[12] Hiller’s essays resonates, in topic and methodologies, with Paolo Macry (Macry 2011), a book that investigates the reasons of the collapse of the Bourbonic kingdom.

[13] Besider the mentioned Anderson (1991), other essential texts on the topic are Gellner (1983) and Hobsbawm and Ranger (eds.) (1983).


beppe Center*Giuseppe Gazzola is Assistant Professor of European Literatures and Cultures at Stony Brook University. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame; his research focuses on European literature and cultural history of the Nineteenth and Twentieth century. He has published articles on Foscolo, Petrarch, and Italian Orientalism in various international journals. His most recent books include Versi e Prose: Marinetti traduce Mallarmé (forthcoming); Futurismo: Impact and Legacy (2011); Ugo Foscolo: Essays über Petrarca (with Olaf Muller, 2008)He is currently completing a book project on the analysis of landscape in the poetry of Eugenio Montale.

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