This year marks the 150th anniversary of the formal proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. I have long had a fascination with Italy, which was only whetted by my two too-short trips there. Art, architecture, history, food, wine, warmly hospitable people, and (often) glorious weather and landscapes. But at the same time Italy is such a dysfunctional country - crime, corruption, bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, Berlusconi, and a burgeoning debt crisis. (I realize, of course, that the same problems - minus "Berlusconi" - loom large in the United States.) In THE PURSUIT OF ITALY, David Gilmour does a good job of explaining why in its 150 years Italy, the nation, has had such a star-crossed existence and why it still has an uncertain future.
In Gilmour's view, geography and the vicissitudes of history over millennia have worked against a unified Italian nation. For centuries, the peoples of the peninsula existed -- even thrived, at least in comparison to many others in Europe -- in various city-states (such as Venice, Genoa, Savoy, Florence, Siena, and Naples). Even today, "the city-states remain embedded in Italy's psyche, the crucial component of its people's identity and of their social and cultural inheritance." When the tide of 19th-Century nationalism swept over Italy, there were no inherent ties or associations that predisposed those city-states to unite in a peninsular nation, and the founding fathers - Cavour, Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Victor Emanuel - who brought about that nation-state did so without the support or approval of the majority of the citizenry. Italy as a nation was flawed in conception, and the nation-building since has been badly flawed in execution.
In arguing for his thesis - which I find quite plausible - Gilmour supplies the reader with a one-volume history of Italy (or, perhaps more accurately, history of its many and varied constituent parts). That history is a little tedious at times and the book occasionally takes on the feel of a textbook -- albeit, better written than most textbooks. But on the whole I found THE PURSUIT OF ITALY both engaging and educational. I learned more about Italy than I have from any other single source in my reading career. The book certainly should be considered by anyone looking for a one-volume historical overview of Italy before travelling there.