Italy and the Federal Alternative

Italia 150
Italy and the Federal Alternative - DAVID GILMOUR


In March 2011 Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary as a unified country. However, it did so with little of the enthusiasm that had greeted previous anniversaries in 1911 and 1961. Increasing numbers of its citizens have, in recent years, come to wonder whether their long failure to construct a viable political system may be a consequence of a process of unification that had disregarded the history and diversity of their peninsula. This article argues that centralized power was destined to fail in Italy, and that only a federal system will reconcile people of its very different regions to continue living together under the same flag.

When I was at school in England in the late 1960s, I was taught that the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy had been an uplifting story of liberty triumphing over tyranny and oppression.  Heroic young Italians up and down their peninsula had risen against foreign oppressors and reactionary tyrants, conquering them all and uniting their nation.  I was thus surprised a few years later when I met Paolo Rossi, a distinguished Tuscan judge and a former minister of education, who said to me, “You know, Davide, Garibaldi did Italy a great disservice.  If he had not invaded Sicily and Naples, we in the north would have the richest and most civilized state in Europe.”  Then he added in a low voice, “Of course to the south we would have a neighbour like Egypt.”

I have never thought that an independent southern Italy - what until 1861 had been the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - would have been like Egypt.  I think that today it might be quite like Spain, or perhaps more like Spain without Catalonia.  Yet it was not this example of northern prejudice that was interesting to me but the other part of his remark which has made me wonder ever since whether the north might have been better off by itself, either as a single unit or perhaps as several units.

For more than a century following 1861, this idea would have been dismissed as cranky, a view of reactionary nostalgists or Bourbon apologists. In recent years, it has been taken more seriously because it is the central theme for the ideology of the Northern League. Until May 1860, when Garibaldi invaded Sicily, it was the dominant view of what we might call the Piedmontese “Establishment” of King Victor Emmanuel and his ministers in Turin - the future “Establishment” of united Italy.  Garibaldi and Mazzini were plotting to create a single Italian state from the seven that had existed until the summer of 1859, but they had the support of only a small patriotic movement, consisting largely of middle-class young men from the north.1 Few northerners in positions of power either wanted or expected the destruction of the Neapolitan regime and the annexation of its territories.  One of the last prime ministers of Piedmont, Massimo d’Azeglio, a man who knew the south, was aghast at the idea of “swallowing down Naples,” and later warned against making the national capital in Rome, “that immense monument of human arrogance.”2 His successor, Camilo Cavour, was even more forthright.  Until the last years of his life he scoffed at the idea of unification, and complained as late as 1856 that the Venetian patriot, Daniele Manin, was too preoccupied with “the idea of Italian unity and other such nonsense.”3 Two years later he indicated his version of the future Italy to France’s Napoleon III, when they met secretly at the spa town of Plombières in Lorraine.  The two men agreed to fight Austria, which then ruled Lombardy-Venetia and indirectly controlled much of central Italy, and after their victory they envisaged an Italy consisting of three sizeable states: Piedmont, expanded to include Parma, Modena, Lombardy-Venetia, and Romagna; Tuscany, enlarged by the addition of Umbria and the Papal Marches; and the Two Sicilies, whose boundaries would remain much the same as before.

Garibaldi’s conquest of the south, which gave Cavour the chance to unite almost the entire peninsula around Piedmont, made this scheme redundant. Cavour was a brilliant politician - astute, intuitive, opportunistic, and unscrupulous – and he seized the unexpected opportunity to create the Kingdom of Italy.  Unlike Azeglio, however, he was ignorant of much of the territory he had come to rule: he never went south of Siena and thought Sicilians still spoke Arabic.  Almost unaware of Italian diversity and thus heedless of its implications, Cavour insisted on making a unitary state, what was in effect not a new Italy but a Greater Piedmont with the same monarch, the same capital (in the early years) and the same constitution; the first legislature of the new state was labelled the eighth because it followed Piedmont’s seven previous ones.  It was understandable that many of the kingdom’s new subjects, who resented the “Piedmontization” of their laws and customs, should regard the process less as voluntary unification than as conquest and annexation.

The writer Alessandro Manzoni hated the word “diversity” because for him it summed up Italy’s “long history of misfortune and humiliation.”4 Yet for most scholars and observant travellers, it is a word that epitomizes the Italian experience.  At the end of the nineteenth century, Giustino Fortunato, one of the wisest Italian politicians, quoted his father’s view that “the unification of Italy was a sin against history and geography.”5  The old man was arguing that the peninsula’s history and geography had produced a land too diverse to be satisfactorily welded into a single nation.

Italy’s position in the centre of the Mediterranean has ensured that it has been one of the most easily and frequently invaded places in the world.  Centuries of aggression from across the sea or over the Alps have made it a divided place of profound ethnic diversity.  The Anglo-Saxons of England might coalesce to resist the Danish invasions of the ninth century, but how could the peoples of Italy coalesce when at that time they consisted of Arabs in Sicily, Byzantine Greeks in Apulia, and a mixture of Franks, Goths, Lombards and Romans in the rest of the peninsula?

The diversity of peoples and societies naturally produced diversities of culture and language.  The philologist Tullio De Mauro has estimated that in 1861 only one in forty Italians actually spoke Italian – that is the Florentine Tuscan that had evolved from the writing of Dante and Boccaccio.6 Even if that is an exaggeration, and we can allow that perhaps ten per cent of the population at least read and understood the language, that still means that ninety per cent of the new nation spoke in regional dialects or different languages that people in other places could not understand.  The King of the Two Sicilies spoke in Neapolitan, and so did his court.  The King of Piedmont - the future King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy - spoke in Piedmontese when he wasn’t speaking his first language, which was French.

Three bearded Giuseppes - Mazzini, Garibaldi and Verdi - all hoped for a united Italy, and they remain the three great romantic heroes of unification, commemorated in statues and street names all over Italy.  Their near legendary status, coupled with Cavour’s, has helped obscure the fact that a unitary state was the ambition of only a small minority of Italians as late as 1860.  Leaving aside the millions of people in Tuscany, Naples and elsewhere who had no wish to change the regimes they lived under, there were many northern patriots who believed that Italy’s future should be as a confederation of states.  One of them was Carlo Cattaneo, the brilliant Milanese intellectual who considered liberty to be more important for Italy than unity.  Another was Vincenzo Gioberti, a theologian who briefly served as Piedmont’s prime minister, who proposed a confederation under the presidency of a pope.  A third was another prime minster in Turin, Cesare Balbo, who thought the confederation should be led by the Piedmontese monarch.  Like Cattaneo, he considered political unity to be unimportant: indeed it was a “childish” idea because a confederation was clearly the system “most suited to Italy’s nature and history.”7

After Garibaldi’s conquest of the south, Cavour promised autonomy to the people of Naples and Sicily if they voted to become “an integral part of Italy” under Victor Emmanuel. However, as Cattaneo foresaw, this was simply a way of attracting public opinion. Cavour was not, in fact, prepared to grant autonomy to any region, nor were any of his successors, until defeat in the Second World War forced them to make a new constitution. In defiance if its history and its diversity, Italy was forced to become a centralized state.

After unification, Azeglio supposedly said, “Now we have made Italy, we must learn to make Italians.” Alas, the primary means chosen to do this was to try to turn Italy into a Great Power, one that would compete militarily with France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, an aspiration certain to fail because the new nation was much poorer than its rivals. To become a Great Power, argued the future Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, Italy needed a “baptism of fire”, a war it could win by itself against one of its rivals. After the “baptism” had led to embarrassing defeats on land and at sea with Austria in 1866, Italy turned to Africa with the objective, according to Crispi, of showing its “barbarian inhabitants” that Italians were a strong and virile race.8 This led to further defeats, first in Ethiopia, where an Italian army was wiped out in 1896, and later in Libya. Yet the obsession to “make Italians” by turning them into conquerors and colonialists continued. Italy had no enemies and no need to fight in either of the World Wars, but in each conflict it joined in the fighting nine months after the start of hostilities when it thought it had identified the winner and had extracted promises of territorial rewards. Mussolini’s continuation of his predecessors’ policies - albeit in an even more aggressive manner - led to disaster and the death of nationalist Italy in 1943. For the next half-century, the dominant ideologies in Italian politics were no longer nationalism, imperialism, or even liberalism, but rather the international creeds of communism and Christian Democracy.

After the Second World War, Italy abandoned its pretensions to become a Great Power and concentrated, with far greater success, on achieving prosperity for its citizens. Yet the defeat of militant nationalism did not lead to the creation of a stable and satisfactory political system. In 1948, a revival of Cattaneo’s idea of federalism prompted the creation of the autonomous regions of Sicily, Sardinia, Val d’Aosta, and Trentino-Alto Adige, to be followed in 1963 by Friuli-Venezia Giulia. But this tardy recognition of peninsular diversity was, however, not extended to the rest of Italy until 1970, when the ‘ordinary’ regions with their own elected assemblies came into existence. Their ‘autonomy’ was so limited, however, that many people came to regard them as simply an unnecessary and expensive extra tier of government. Federalism was moreover discredited by the extravagance of the new regional administrations: in 2006 for example it has been calculated that the entertainment expenses of the president of Campania were twelve times higher than those of the president of Germany.9

Demands for a truly devolved government increased in the 1990s, emanating largely from Lombardy and Veneto. One does not have to be a supporter of the Northern League to see that its policy of “fiscal federalism” - a system that allows regions to spend their own revenues on their own projects - is appropriate for Italy because it recognizes the importance of regionalism and diversity.  In countries such as Britain and France, where the process of unification lasted for centuries, it is taken for granted that richer provinces subsidize poorer ones. Yet in Italy, most of which was hastily and artificially united between the summer of 1859 and the spring of 1861, this is not the case. Italian businessmen of the north - people trying to compete with rivals in Austria and Slovenia - resent losing so much of their revenue to a south with which they feel little affinity. Not only have their taxes been allowing Sicily and Calabria to spend fifty per cent more than what they earn; they know that a lot of their money is ending up in the pockets of the southern mafias.

Last year Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary as a united country in a distinctly under-stated manner.  The Northern League, the second party of the government, even criticized the decision to make the day a holiday, claiming it should have been a day of mourning instead.  Whether Italy is able to celebrate a 200th anniversary may depend not on how it deals with an economic crisis common to us all but on whether it manages to create a political system that functions, something it has failed to achieve ever since 1861.  Corrupt and inefficient government from the centre in Rome has alienated so many people for so many decades that it must surely be replaced by a system that respects the history and embraces the diversity of the country.  Only if Italy becomes what it should have been all along - a federation of sorts - might it become a nation contented and reconciled with itself.

Notes & References

  1. In 1859 - the decisive year that united most of the north - just 20,000 Italians out of a population of nearly 25 million volunteered to fight for the nationalist cause.
  2. Ronald Marshall, Massimo d’Azeglio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 275; Massimo d’Azeglio, Things I Remember (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1966), 180.
  3. Denis Mack Smith, Cavour (London, Virginia: Knopf Publishing, 1985), 112.
  4. Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 (Great Britain: Allen Lane, 2007), 100.
  5. Girolamo Arnaldi, Italy and its Invaders (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005), 251.
  6. Tullio De Mauro, Storia linguistica dell’ Italia Unita (Bari: Laterza, 2001), 43; Claudio Marazzini, Breve storia della lingua italiana (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004), 185-186.
  7. Stuart Woolf, The Italian Risorgimento (London: Longmans, 1969), 45.
  8. Christopher Duggan, Francesco Crispi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 281, 500, 528-530.
  9. Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, La Casta (Milan: Rizzoli, 2007), 192.
David Gilmour is a British historian and author of prize-winning biographies of George Curzon (Curzon), Rudyard Kipling (The Long Recessional) and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Last Leopard). His most recent book, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples, was published on the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of united Italy. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a former research fellow of Oxford University, he has written on Italy for numerous publications including the Sunday Times, the Spectator, the Corriere della Sera and the Times Literary Supplement.