09.03.07, Arnaldi, Italy and its Invaders

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Thomas S. Brown

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.007


Arnaldi, Girolamo. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Italy and its Invaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 229. ISBN: 978-0-674-01870-2, 978-0-674-03033-6.

Reviewed by:
Thomas S. Brown
University of Edinburgh

Any medievalist might well approach this translation of a book originally published in Italian in 2002 with an air of excited anticipation. Girolamo Arnaldi is a figure of Le Goffian stature in Italy, Professor Emeritus at the Universities of Bologna and Rome, long-time director of the Istituto per il Medio Evo in Rome, and one of the most wide-ranging and provocative of Italian medievalists. His subject matter is vast, no less than the study of the impact of "invaders" on Italy from the Visigothic sack of Rome in AD 410 to the present day--although, as the author admits, the term "foreigner" might be more appropriate, since pilgrims, ultramontane students, visitors on the Grand Tour and even present-day immigrants are included. The title is based on the detailed work of Thomas Hodgkin, whose multi-volume work Italy and her Invaders appeared in the early twentieth century, but only covered the period up to 814. It has to be said, however, that the first reaction of Anglo-Saxon readers, familiar with a recent succession of overweight monographs, may be one of puzzlement. Arnaldi covers his vast theme in the commendably brief compass of 200-odd pages, but he incorporates much greater depth and originality than any popular history or general textbook. He has produced an extended literary essay, a rich work of "haut vulgarisation" in the best continental European tradition, which abounds in insight, flair and sophisticated literary allusion.

Arnaldi eschews any elaborate theory that Italy's repeated exposure to invasions is the main theme of the peninsula's history, admitting with typical modesty that this is still being sought and that the nature of Italy's national identity is a complex question. What he offers instead is a brisk canter through the complex sequence of external interventions in Italy, summarising the nature and impact of each, and illuminating his narrative with well-chosen passages from contemporary sources, modern scholars and literary texts. Most of these are well- chosen, but the reader will benefit from some acquaintance with the preoccupation of Italian writers from Machiavelli and Guicciardini to Manzoni and Croce with the enduring political weakness of Italy and its lack of unity.

This reviewer will concentrate on the seven chapters which cover the middle ages (although the remaining three continue similar themes, illustrating the continued diversity of Italy and the difficulties which it faced in achieving unity). The first chapter covers the period from the sack of 410 to the reign of the first Germanic king, Odoacer, and is fairly conventional, emphasising the limited damage perpetrated by the "barbarian" invaders, the imperial failure to reach an accommodation with them and the Romans' resort to a consolatory Christian world-view. Here as elsewhere revealing and sensitive use is made of contemporary texts, in this case especially Orosius.

The second chapter deals the uneasy relations of the Romans with the Ostrogoths and later the "other Romans," those of Byzantium. Here too Arnaldi relates with gusto the abundant ironies of the period: Theodoric's attempts at an accommodation with the Romans whom he so much admired, ending in the failure symbolised by execution of Boethius, and the shallow and unfulfilled promises of "liberty" made both by Justinian (to Italian aristocrats) and by the Gothic king Totila (to the coloni and slaves of Lucania).

Paradoxes abound also in the third chapter, devoted to the Lombards. Here Arnaldi returns to the vexed "questione Longobarda" which has dominated Italian historiography for centuries. The Lombards are portrayed as progressing from the destructive pagans denounced by Gregory the Great to sophisticated Christian patrons of cities and the arts as typified by King Liutprand (712-744), thanks in no small part to the remarkable Bavarian-born queen, Theodelinda. But the prospect of a reunited Italy is dashed by the determination of the popes to build up their temporal power, even at the cost of summoning in another set of invaders, the Franks. Here Arnaldi also brings in the rise of what he sees as the other great autonomous Italian power, Venice, whose republican government survived until its abolition by Napoleon in 1797.

Chapter 4 is perhaps the most original and illuminating, dealing with the significant changes brought in the later eighth and ninth centuries. In the North the Carolingian conquerors embraced a wide range of northern groups including Alamans and Bavarians, all of whom adapted creatively to their new home. On one level they are portrayed as one of a series of invaders turned liberators who helped free Italians from the Lombard yoke, but at the same time they introduced new northern institutions, including systems of serfdom and seigniorial power. Here, as throughout his work, Arnaldi also devotes commendable attention to Southern Italy, with some acute remarks about the growth of incastellamento, the resilience of Lombard power and culture in the South, and the changes wrought by aggressive Muslim invaders on Sicily and by a resurgent Byzantium on Apulia and Calabria.

This dual approach continues in chapter 5, which deals with the German empire in the North and the Normans in the South. The weakness of the former is underlined through the opposition of the papacy and the communes, culminating in the latter's victory over Frederick Barbarossa at Legnano (1176). The Norman conquest in the South is shown by have a fundamentally different character from that of England, not least "because they came here in tiny numbers and not as invaders" (97). Benedetto Croce's criticisms of the Normans for failing to build a nation in the South are rejected as anachronistic and unrealistic, and their assimilation with local Italian elites and their cultures is rightly stressed.

In chapter 6 Arnaldi turns to one of his heroes, Frederick II, and his failed attempt to set up an effective imperial regime covering all of Italy, interestingly pointing out that "the meteor," as he calls him, attempted to counterpoise a notion of a resurgent Rome to the incipient national feeling of the Italians (112). Following David Abulafia, Arnaldi rightly sees Frederick as a medieval ruler pursuing traditional dynastic policies. He then demonstrates how the papacy and the communes were only able to counter the Hohenstaufen threat by summoning in yet more invaders, in this case the Angevins of France. The divisions and opposition which soon followed their success are highlighted with some relish, especially the famous "Sicilian Vespers" of 1282, a popular revolt which led to the establishment of an Aragonese kingdom on the island and its separation from the mainland until 1443. Arnaldi then turns to the French domination of the papacy, which led first to the humiliation of Boniface VIII at Anagni and then to the setting up of the Avignon papacy, resentment of which contributed to the "creation of a Italian national sentiment" (119).

The final medieval chapter (7) deals with fifteenth century, and explains how the exceptional political fragmentation of the peninsula led to the creation not of strong national states as in the North, but of regional powers (Milan, Venice, Florence, the papacy and the Kingdom of Naples). Arnaldi notes the paradox that this coincided with the greatest outpouring of humanistic culture and Renaissance art, and quotes with approval Guicciardini's comment that Italy could never have had so many flourishing cities "under a single dominion" (128). These powers pursued a fragile "policy of equilibrium" for a time, reflected in the Peace of Lodi and the Italian League. This, however, broke down, and provoked from 1494 the "Italian wars", which led to "foreign domination" of the peninsula and the "dark centuries" of Italy's history. Even so, a vestigial national feeling persisted, reflected in pride in the victory of thirteen Italian knights over their French opponents at the Battle of Barletta (1503), not to mention the general characterisation of the new disease of syphilis as il mal francese!

Even such a magisterial tour de force has its flaws. Arnaldi is reluctant to define what he means by "invaders," apart from moving beyond the "full-fledged invasions" familiar from Marc Bloch's Feudal Society to foreign "sway" or "domination", whatever these terms mean (68). He singles out Venice and the papal dominions as two areas which remained unaffected by invaders. However this merely underlines the problem of the concept, since Venice was long a dependent province of Byzantium and Rome had to face repeated and often devastating external attacks, concluding with the imperial Sack of Rome in 1527. Arnaldi could say a lot more about the distinctive Roman institutions and traditions which survived in areas which were nominally under "foreign" occupation, particularly perhaps in Romania/Romagna (the former Byzantine Exarchate). The relentless concentration on politics and personalities leads to the skimming over of many social and cultural issues. Other forms of foreign settlement do get a mention (e.g. pilgrims, pp. 121-3, modern migrants, pp. 201- 3), but there is no mention of the significant immigration around the tenth century of Jews, largely from the East, who contributed so much to Italian economic and cultural life. Terms such as "national feeling" are used glibly and loosely, with no attempt at definition, let alone any discussion of the (admittedly vast) recent literature. Christianity is adduced as the cement which held Italian identity together at key moments, without this notion being elaborated. The fondness for anecdote irritates at times. Close to four pages concentrate on the personal life of Galla Placidia at the expense of other important developments such as the enhanced authority of popes like Leo the Great and of bishops in general.

The translation leaves some things to be desired. The long sentences which are customary in Italian could usefully have been broken up, and some terms are oddly translated (e.g., "iconcoclasty" instead of iconoclasm, p. 42 and "Genoans" instead of Genoese, p. 126). The somewhat technical term lansquenet (from the German landknecht) is used frequently in unnecessary contexts where "mercenary" would have sufficed.

Altogether Arnaldi's work is a dense and demanding read but a deeply informative and rewarding one. Italian medievalists are not renowned for their readability, but this rich work is an exception. One can still regret that the difficult and complex issues which the author raises are not addressed in a fuller and or even more clear-cut way, but such a quick-fire, even elliptical, approach is perhaps inevitable in this slim but elegant volume.

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Author Biography

Thomas S. Brown

University of Edinburgh