Società italiana per lo studio della storia contemporanea


The Risorgimento and the unification of Italy

Derek Beales and Eugenio F. Biagini

Longman (2nd edition), London, pp. XVI-297, £ 16.99 2002

This is a much revised and expanded version of Derek Beales's small volume on the Risorgimento, first published in 1971. The original book was intended primarily as an introduction for students, and was a model of compression. It was notable for its judiciousness, clarity of style, and firm grasp and clear exposition of the political context of unification. It was also, and inevitably, a product of its time. The main emphasis was on high politics, with a leavening of economic, social and cultural history. And in keeping with the tone that had been set in those years in Britain in the works of Denis Mack Smith and Christopher Seton Watson, the accent was on liberal pragmatism, and avoidance of the Scylla and Charybdis of extreme materialism and idealism. Eugenio Biagini, Reader in Modern British and European History at the University of Cambridge, has done an excellent job of revision designed to take on board developments in Risorgimento historiography in recent years. He has added four entirely new chapters: on Romanticism and the questione della lingua; on the role of women in the Risorgimento; on the Roman question and the problems of the South and brigandage; and on trade and public finances in the 1860s and 1870s. And he has interspersed Beales's original chapters almost seamlessly with new material. The documentary section ? comprising a third of the book ? has also been expanded to reflect the greater prominence given by Biagini to cultural and socio-economic issues. The new volume reflects something of the more problematic view of the Risorgimento of recent historiography (the cover illustration sets the tone: a detail from Fattori's Italian Camp at the Battle of Magenta showing a group of rather sombre and uncertain-looking soldiers gazing at a column of wounded). Biagini is careful to eschew older nationalist teleologies, and posits as the central theme of the volume the question of how far national unification was the product of the Risorgimento. His answer is a qualified one. Unification was certainly due in large measure to the extraordinary and in many ways fortuitous political events of 1858-60; but the successes of these years (for example in the central duchies, where, he suggests, ?the Risorgimento comes into its own in the process of unification') could not have been achieved without the development of nationalist sentiment, certainly among the elites. Biagini follows Beales in providing, on balance, a positive reading of the Risorgimento. He is keen to highlight the progressive political components in the national movement and to stress the extent to which Italy in this period (and after 1860) was broadly in step with other parts of liberal Europe. He is averse to ideas of Italian exceptionalism. Such a view has much to recommend it; and it is good to be reminded in this fine book of the extent to which the Italian moderates were indeed men of European outlook and formation. Perhaps, though, it is not so much the quality of liberalism within the Risorgimento that needs to be evaluated, as its diffusion, and the extent to which this ideology would thus be able to resist the challenge of other less individualistic currents of nineteenth-century thought.

Christopher Duggan