Explaining All the Italian-Americans in New York

And the situation in Libya—at least in part; a new history of Italy shows that accidents happen even with the best of intentions

Mr. Gilmour shows that as is often the case with accidents people get hurt. Cavour died suddenly in 1861, and Garibaldi the same year shuffled nobly off the stage. Victor Emanuel—who, tellingly, kept the “II” after his name as if continuing to rule as the king of Piedmont rather than as the first king of Italy—was not much of an administrator; and he left his new country at the whim of northern politicians who saw the south as inferior and perhaps hopelessly so. “The Piedmontese who came uninvited in 1860 felt they had arrived in another country but in another continent.” A racist joke circulated in Victor Emanuel’s court that Garibaldi had not united Italy but had split Africa.

And, despite the northerners’ “sprees of statue-making and street-christening in homage to the heroic four” of the king, Garibaldi, Cavour and Mazzini, southerners rebelled, sometimes in large numbers, against what many considered a foreign occupation. Indeed, Mr. Gilmour guesses that long-forgotten uprisings in the former Kingdom of Naples could have cost as many as 60,000 lives in the 1860s. The northerners dismissed the fighting as “brigandage,” with Victor Emanuel authorizing brutal reprisals against southern peasants who hadn’t gotten the memo re: the unification of Italy; that it was clean and foreordained, and most certainly did not involve conquest.

So, instead of economic development for the south or political reforms across the board to welcome disparate former states into the new kingdom (Venice, an independent republic for hundreds of years, was as discontented as Naples—maybe more so—at being dragooned into Italy), the king’s governments chose a succession of ill-fated wars to … to what, really? To show that Italians could be as militant and imperialistic as Germans or Englishmen, one guesses. Revenue that could have been steered toward road and railroad building, education and trade, was instead spent on colonial conquests in Africa, including in Libya, and on fighting on the (barely) winning side in World War I. In that conflagration, the Italians were soundly and routinely beaten by the Germans and Austrians, time and again having to be rescued by the French and British.

A national inferiority complex set in. Millions on the peninsula simply threw up their hands and emigrated away from the grinding poverty and the anemic social mobility (including this writer’s grandparents). Of the four million, mostly southern Italians who emigrated from the late 19th century through the 1920s, most settled in the U.S., and the vast majority passed through New York City on their ways.

Italy’s more recent history will be familiar to many, though Mr. Gilmour gives Mussolini and the corruption-infused march to modernity since World War II, all the way through Berlusconi, their thorough due (as he does Italy’s history from antiquity to the early 19th century). But it’s those years of unification upon which he hinges his argument—the Italian state was an accident, though one that need not have been so damaging.

“It was a very different Italy which I spent my life dreaming of,” Garibaldi wrote shortly before his death in 1882, “not the impoverished and humiliated country which we now see ruled by the dregs of the nation.”

tacitelli@observer.com  ::  Follow on Twitter @tacitelli



Explaining All the Italian-Americans in New York