Thomas F.X. Noble

title.none: Holmes, ed., The Oxford History of Italy (Noble)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.011 99.01.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas F.X. Noble, University of Virginia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Holmes, George, ed. The Oxford History of Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 386. $45.00. ISBN: ISBN: 0-198-20527-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.11

Holmes, George, ed. The Oxford History of Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 386. $45.00. ISBN: ISBN: 0-198-20527-9.

Reviewed by:

Thomas F.X. Noble
University of Virginia

This book is likely to grace more coffee tables than scholars' studies, and its sales will exceed its readership. That is a shame because its twelve individual chapters come up to a pretty high standard. Still, and even if it seems a cliche to say it, the book suffers from all the inevitable flaws of a collective volume whose editor carried his charge unobtrusively.

The book's first four chapters are arrayed as follows: one chapter for Roman Italy ("From Augustus to Theodosius"), one for the medieval period proper, one for the years 1250 to 1600, and one for "Renaissance Culture." These are most likely to be of greatest interest to the readers of The Medieval Review. The eight remaining chapters generally alternate between political histories of discrete periods and then cultural histories of those same periods. On this basis, a general reader might well conclude that neither Roman nor medieval Italy had a culture, or a cultural history. Most of the chapters are nicely written and all seem to be current in matters of scholarship and interpretation (after the eighteenth century I am, frankly, out of my depth). The book has a fair number of nicely chosen, often unusual, and generally well- produced images, thirty-two of them in color. The volume concludes with a modest but helpful list of suggestions for "Further Reading." The roster of contributors is impressive.

My disappointment with the volume stems from the fact that the individual authors were not, as far as I can tell, invited to address common themes or to respond to common questions. In his introduction, Holmes says that "The writers of this book aim to give readers an introduction to the whole story . . . . The plan of the book is governed by the idea that narrative is essential but that history should also show the interrelationship between society, politics, and culture" (p. vii). That is unobjectionable as an aim. But the bolt missed the target. The narrative chapters do not link up neatly with each other. The chapters on culture do seek to establish interrelationships, but rarely the same ones or the same kinds. And just occasionally the cultural sections become so catalogue-like as to be baffling to anyone who is not an expert. I'll cite one example. In the midst of what is actually a good and readable treatment of "Twentieth-Century Culture," David Forgacs gives readers this passage: "In poetry, too, there were various strategies of modernism: Guido Gozzano imported the everyday objects of bourgeois kitsch into poetic vocabulary; Ungaretti stripped the verse line right down; Dino Campana experimented on the margins between poetry and prose, dreams and waking; Montale mixed symbolism and pastiches of tradition with a rich musicality. Other writers maintained that one could innovate while staying within the furrows of tradition" (pp. 301-2). There are lots of passages like that in the book. I cannot imagine the reader for whom they will be helpful or informative.

Now, what might readers of this review whose primary concerns turn around medieval subjects learn from this book? A few data from the modern period will both seem familiar to medievalists and serve to open up some ways of thinking about the long course of Italian history. The Risorgimento, a somewhat inapt name for the various movements and ideas that led to Italian unification in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, was led by three men, Cavour, Garibaldi, and Mazzini, who had irreconcilable understandings of the current situation and incompatible aspirations for the future. In the 1870s, only 31% of the Italian population was literate and in the 1880s just over 40% of Italian children were in school. The clergy still maintained a monopoly on the dissemination of ideas. Deep into the twentieth century a majority of Italians still earned their slender livelihoods from agriculture. Not until 1976, with the advent of La Repubblica, did Italy have a truly national newspaper. Regionalism, clericalism, and farming have been the great constants of Italian history. Each of the essays in this book acknowledges these primordial facts, but few do so explicitly, and none comparatively or continuously.

In addition to regionalism, to which I shall return presently, another great force in Italian history has been foreign intervention. From the appearance of the Ostrogoths in the late fifth century to the Nazi invasion after the fall of Mussolini, Italy was never free from outside interference, although its intensity varied with time. This was true especially in two different areas of Italy and in two different respects. The north, roughly speaking Lombardy, was the base of operation of Goths, Lombards, Franks, Germans and French each in several versions, and Austrians. These interventions both linked northern Italy to transalpine histories and retarded coherent historical development within the region. Each essay in this book frankly and effectively treats this issue. The south, on the other hand, had a similar experience except that (usually) different intruders manifested themselves. In the lands south of Rome, sunny Mezzogiorno, it was Byzantines, North Africans, Normans, Spanish, but also, once again, Germans and French. What is more, those with interests and influence in the south were normally the sworn enemies of those with claims to the north. This hostility was powerfully and continuously disruptive. The situation persists today in some respects. The Northern League wants to separate "Padania" from the rest of Italy and the people of the south still cast a suspicious eye to Rome. All of this will be familiar to medievalists.

Politically, diplomatically, and institutionally, then, Italy was subjected to influences over which she had no control. Closely related to these developments, and yet separate from them, is the ongoing relationship between the invaders and the papacy. The sword was double edged. When invaders swung it one way, they aimed to use the popes to legitimate or facilitate their rule in Italy. When invaders swung it the other way, they hoped to exert influence on papal policy in other parts of Europe. The popes often realized the possibilities offered to them by their precariously intermediate position and occasionally made good use of it. Thus Rome and central Italy were usually actors in the same dramas being played out in the north and in the south but, rather like a Pirandello play, there were more plots running simultaneously than one can count or comprehend.

Italy, then, provides an object lesson on the dangers of supposing that European history has been marching since the disappearance of the Roman order toward the modern, sovereign, territorially integral nation state. Modern telecommunications, film, popular music, mobility, and increasingly prevalent and homogeneous educational institutions may be doing more, at the close of the millennium, to make an Italy than Dante, or opera, or the Catholic Church, or the Risorgimento ever did. Medievalists can feel confident that the land(s) and issues which they study are not aberrations in a "national" history but instead normative conditions in an ancient and complicated land.

As a nation, Italy remains a "geographical expression." Is there an Italian culture? Amidst such political complexity, a single culture is hardly to be expected. Regionalism is again the law. Three broad themes seem particularly significant to me. The first relates to the ways in which the various Italian regions related to one another. The second relates to the perennial flood of northerners who visited Italy. The third relates to Italians who traveled to other parts of Europe and, later, to North and South America.

Neither imperial intruders, nor urban city-republics, nor Renaissance courts, nor the Roman Church have ever been able to impose a single language, an artistic vision, a literary canon, an architectural style, or a musical repertoire on the lands that can be called Italian. The splendors of Arichis' ducal court at Benevento was unmatched in the north. The hauntingly formal beauty of Rome's ninth-century mosiacs accords ill with the delicacy of the frescoes of Santa Maria in Castelseprio. Milan's Gothic duomo does not "look" much like Florence's version of Gothic. Neapolitan and Milanese opera differ significantly. The saints venerated in the south are often unknown in the north. The bumptious competitions of those parente, amici e vicini who left northern cities of the medieval and Renaissance periods with built environments that are as startling in their profusion as in their diversity, are paralleled by the fractious competition of the Renaissance and baroque courts that sought to outdo one another more than to do the same thing. Giorgio Vasari tried to write a history of Italian painting but in the process he limned the multiple histories of painting in the many Italys of which he knew.

Charlemagne copied Italian models, Roman and Ravennese above all others. He also imported Italian scholars to his own court. So did the Ottonians. The papal court from at least the eleventh century attracted northerners as did medieval cities and the courts of Renaissance princes. Lorrain and Poussain, great French painters both, spent most of their productive careers in Rome. John Colet studied in Florence, like so many of his contemporaries. Leonardo lived and worked in France. Michelangelo executed commissions for northern cardinals. Was Thomas Aquinas an "Italian" thinker or a French professor? If Galileo seems somehow very Italian, in what sense were physicists such as Fermi, Marconi, and Segre "Italian"? Beginning with George Holmes' fine essay on Renaissance culture (an essay which nevertheless slights Naples and the south generally as well as science and technology) all the essays in this book that deal with culture provide sharp insights and helpful summations, in appropriately pointillist perspective, of the history of Italy's cultures. I do wish that the several authors had provided more quotations from, especially, poetry.

In looking specifically at the medieval and late medieval chapters, one sees a solid narrative and that is the chief virtue and the most serious flaw in both contributions. Bryan Ward-Perkins tells Italy's story from about 500 to 1250 as if it were a story, and then at the end apologizes for having attempted to do so. It is hard to quarrel with what he includes and all too easy to spot what he omits. He devotes six lines to culture (p. 56), and leaves out or slights topics that many would consider central to the story: incastellamento, the Patarenes, Arnold of Brescia, monastic reformers, canon lawyers, and the papal court. Not many will feel that he did a satisfactory job with the immensely complicated subject of the origins and evolution of the communes. Michael Mallett, writing on the period from 1250 to 1600, does so century-by-century. This strikes me as an odd way to do things. The many Italys did not live by centuries. His account flattens out the peaks ands valleys of the stories of war, politics, diplomacy, economic development, and cultural history. His account (pp. 76ff) of what Guiciardini called the "crisi d'Italia" in the 1490s is handled with sensitivity and insight and the very issues he raises in those few pages might have served to organize his thoughts on his whole period. In fact, all of the contributors to this book could have gone to school on Mallett's treatment of this dynamic moment.

This book is disappointing as such books must almost inevitably be. But it is a good book, and a good read. I read a good deal of it on a plane ride home from Italy. That's about right.