Italofilia. Opinione pubblica Britannica e Risorgimento italiano 1847-1864

Elena Bacchin
Roma, Carocci, 268 pp., € 39,00

Anno di pubblicazione: 2014

Enthusiasm for the cause of Italian independence or unification was a notable feature of the British cultural landscape from the time of the Napoleonic wars. Elena Bacchin’s thorough and extremely well researched work builds on older studies by the likes
of Harry Rudman, Noel Blakiston and Derek Beales, and more recent ones by Maura
O’Connor, Lucy Riall and Maurizio Isabella, to chart how, and (to a slightly lesser extent)
why, British public opinion was mobilised so effectively during the Risorgimento.
While she recognises that support for Italy was contingent to a considerable degree
on elements of political self-interest – not least the growing concern in the 1850s for the
balance of power in Europe, as France looked to replace Austria as the hegemonic continental state – as well as on long-standing cultural and religious impulses (love of classical
and Renaissance art and literature and hostility to Catholicism), she suggests that the degree to which pro-Italian sentiment permeated British society was largely the result of «le
strategie mobilitative di ampio spettro e la retorica impiegate dagli attori politici italofili»
(p. 235). To this end she examines how the democrats on the one hand, led by Mazzini
and his influential circle of British radical friends (Stansfeld, Holyoake, Linton, White
etc.), and the moderates on the other – whose key figures were the very well connected
Antonio Panizzi and the Piedmontese ambassador Emanuele d’Azeglio – made use of instruments such as political associations, subscriptions, conferences, lectures, newspapers,
journals and networks of contacts to orchestrate support for the Italian cause.
She also looks at the rhetorical strategies that were employed, noting how older
stereotypes of Italian decadence were neatly converted into weapons with which to beat
Austrian and papal rule and engender sympathy for Italians – seen, now, as the unhappy
victims of corrupt despotisms.
The result is a highly impressive survey, based on a broad range of archival and contemporary sources (above all newspapers), of the energetic and often imaginative methods
employed by the Italian exiles and their supporters to generate enthusiasm. Almost inevitably, given the book’s focus, questions about how the broad emotional sphere intersected
(or failed to intersect) with the domain of rational politics are left largely unaddressed.
Passion and idealism – as the works of the great Italophile novelist George Eliot show –
were prominent features of the cultural landscape of mid-Victorian Britain. Whether, and
how much, they impacted on the choices and decisions of policy-makers, whose concerns
in these years were largely with barricades and great power rivalries, would involve a
different study – one based on rather different research questions and premises. But this
should in no way detract from Elena Bacchin’s excellent book, which offers a vivid picture
of the activities of a remarkable generation of Italian exiles and of an extraordinary period
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Christopher Duggan