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Response to Review no. 276

In replying to John Foot’s review, I am, of course, hindered by the fact that the majority of the book’s text is not my own, but that of the late Harry Hearder. My role was to add a final chapter covering the period that had elapsed since Hearder completed the original volume, and to update the bibliography. This response is probably best written, therefore, not as a defence of the text, so much as of the project upon which I felt Hearder was engaged, and with which I was happy to associate myself.

During his lifetime Harry Hearder did a great deal to promote interest in Italian historical studies. This book represents an attempt to communicate his enthusiasm for the country to the widest possible public – as Foot rightly states it is indeed intended as a first or only introduction to Italian history. Consequently the book has a far broader coverage than most of the works of synthesis mentioned by Foot in his review – the only remotely comparable text is Duggan’s admirable A Concise History of Italy which, however, devotes little more than a quarter of its length to the history of the peninsular prior to the nineteenth century Risorgimento, in contrast to the two-thirds of the space this occupies in Hearder.

Hearder’s project therefore entails a very different kind of synthesis to those of the other texts mentioned by Foot (many of which I have now included in the brief guide to further reading on specific periods). The audience I had in mind when writing my contribution was that of inquiring travellers in Italy who wished to understand something of the historical forces that had shaped the landscape (cultural, political and physical) through which they were passing. To enable the reader to navigate through these unfamiliar surroundings, the text provides a chronological map of Italian history presented in the form of an analytical narrative, rather than a potentially disorientating selection of fragments or contending interpretations. If this narrative is mostly concerned with ‘traditional’ themes in history, it is probably because these also provide the most recognisable features that travellers encounter when beginning such a journey.

The opportunity to write a synthesis of this type was one of the reasons I was attracted to the project. My task was to explain as succinctly as possible why the post-war world, depicted by Hearder in terms of Communism and Christian Democracy, eventually disappeared. As Foot suggests, one soon learns that the key discipline is that of knowing not what to leave in, but what can be left out, without making either the narrative or analysis impossible to follow. I had to use short vignettes that can communicate broader truths about a period – for example, I used the careers of the television comic Beppe Grillo and the stripper cum politician, La Cicciolina to illustrate the peculiar cultural and political ambience of the 1980s. I also needed to integrate pieces of information – such as those I included on industrial districts and the mechanisms of corruption – that are essential to analysis into the narrative, without disrupting its flow. While it is true that I used a greater variety of tools and approaches than Hearder did (reflecting the differences in both our disciplinary and generational backgrounds), the difficulty I experienced in compressing twenty years into the space of one chapter, heightened my admiration for his achievement in summarising centuries of history at similar lengths.

In his preface to the book Hearder lamented that ‘British historians often seem to write of Italy in a slightly condescending, patronising – if not positively disparaging – tone, and, in so doing, merely betray their own insularity’. Sadly this tendency still survives, even in some of the syntheses mentioned by Foot, with the result that similar attitudes have inevitably permeated into the public perception of Italy and its history. Hearder’s response was to try ‘to give a positive view of Italian history’ that might counter this tendency. This may seem a somewhat naïve statement of position, but the intention behind it was a good one. If this book enables new readers to engage with Italian history without retreating into prejudice and stereotype, it will have fulfilled its function.