[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Author Index][Search Archives]

FW: TMR 99.01.11, Holmes, Oxford History of Italy (Noble)

Poster: "Garrett, William" <WGarrett@sierrahealth.com>

> George Holmes, ed. <i>The Oxford History of Italy</i>.  Oxford: 
> Oxford University press, 1997.  Pp. xiv + 386.  $45.00.  ISBN 
> 0-19-820527-9.
>    Reviewed by Thomas F. X. Noble
>         Department of History, University of Virginia
>         tfn@virginia.edu
> 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 <i>The Medieval 
> Review</i>.  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 <i>La Repubblica</i>, 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 
> <i>parente, amici e vicini</i> 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.  
List Archives, FAQ, FTP:  http://merryrose.atlantia.sca.org/
            Submissions:  atlantia@atlantia.sca.org
        Admin. requests:  majordomo@atlantia.sca.org