For me Italy has always been an area of Europe, both physically or culturally, that has managed to evade my interest and, due to my brief and few worldly collisions with the matter, I’ve always looked on anything Italian with, at best, indifference.
The only things I knew about Italy were woefully inept: they had something called the Roman Empire, the people all love their mums and gesticulate wildly when speaking, and their former Prime Minister was a strange looking man who seemed to have a penchant for underage sex and tax evasion. Now, being an enlightened and self aware guy, I realised that all I possessed for an impression of Italy were a couple of ignorant stereotypes, picked up from the hackneyed cultural products in my own country, and with that in mind I was ready for a more sophisticated view of my fellow Europeans.
Armed with the belief that there must be something I was missing, I turned to David Gilmour and his book The Pursuit of Italy. Surely – bar actually going to the country - if there was a ‘thing’ that Italy processed, that I had yet to find, it would be found here in the heavily bound, 400 hundred page, ‘quirkily subjective’ and comprehensive romp through Italy’s history.
Gilmour delivers some fascinating insights into Italy and its culture through a fluid, wry and witty prose and the depth of his knowledge appears to be staggering. I was thoroughly captivated reading about the geographically determined nature of Italy’s development in both civilization and character and, being used to British history, I was totally shocked at the pure free-for-all Italy had become after the fall of the Roman Empire; the amount of invasions described swelled my head.
The Italy that Gilmour portrays, existing right up to the present day, is one of a pronounced disunity, its many parts, all somehow held together by a fragile alliance of government and administration. It is this rendering of Italy that forms the purpose of the book, which appears to be a controversial one, arguing that due to the massive differences in the cultures and peoples of its many regions, Italy lacks a cohesive national character and should never have been created at all some 150 years ago. As someone that started reading with very little knowledge of Italian history I didn’t feel that this was something I could engage with, or indeed comment on, and at times the book did feel more polemical than the informative entertainment I was after as a layman in the subject.
As an introduction to Italy (which it doesn’t claim to be) this book was quite challenging and it suffered from attempting to fit so much information into just one small volume; as good as the writing was there were times that I felt as if I was reading a written commentary of a Wacky Races cartoon, with all the different names being mentioned and changes in regime going on it did get confusing. Things do look up in the second half of the book, however, as Gilmour moves on to more recent history, with much less to cram in it is much easier to follow, but despite persevering it never really clicked with me, that’s not to say I didn’t learn a hell of a lot. Some of the details that have stayed with me are fantastic, for example during the Renaissance the Polish people believed Italian Merchants to be ‘feeble, effeminate, weedy lute players’ , Southern Italy has skinny cows and France has more types of cheese; I don’t think I can now claim to be an expert, but it’s a start.
Not for people looking for an introduction to Italian history unless you are particularly hardcore, but for the seasoned veteran I imagine this is a gold mine, whether you agree with the conclusions or not.
The Idiotllectual © 2013. All Rights Reserved