Italy Stirs

Adrian Lyttelton

  • Mazzini by Denis Mack Smith
    Yale, 302 pp, £19.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 300 05884 5
  • Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz
    Oxford, 941 pp, £30.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 19 313204 4
  • The Real Traviata by Gaia Servadio
    Hodder, 290 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 340 57948 X

The struggle for national independence often takes on a significance which transcends its immediate and local aim. Its leaders, who require resources of courage, sacrifice and determination much beyond what is needed in the ordinary run of politics, are invested with a romantic halo, Garibaldi, to take one example, has claims to be considered the most popular political figure of the 19th century. Poetry and music helped to spread the idea of the Risorgimento as a peculiarly noble enterprise, transforming history into myth and symbol. After his dismissive biography of Mussolini and his scathing treatment of Italy’s royal family, Denis Mack Smith has turned back to a figure who fully engages his sympathies, and some may miss the darkly satirical tone of those earlier essays in denunciation. Mazzini is a work of passionate advocacy, which aims both to remind us of its subject’s enormous importance on the European as well as the Italian stage, and to convince us that on the essential issues he was right. Mack Smith succeeds in conveying the moral and, indeed, physical fascination which Mazzini exerted over his friends and admirers. At a deeper level, Mazzini was admired as the living symbol of a political faith, a man who fought with extraordinary tenacity against overwhelming odds to achieve the fulfilment of the ideals he believed in. The great Russian exile, Alexander Herzen, credited him with ‘an infinity of persistence and strength of will’: ‘Such men do not give in, do not yield; the worse things go with them, the higher they hold the flag ... In this inflexible steadfastness, in this faith which goes forward in defiance of facts ... there is something of grandeur and, if you like, something of madness. Often it is just that grain of madness which is the essential condition of success.’

In 1919, the two most important architects of the Versailles peace settlement, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George, both acknowledged Mazzini’s inspiration. According to Lloyd George, ‘the map of Europe as we see it today is the map of Joseph Mazzini. He was the prophet of free nationality ... He taught us not merely the rights of a nation; he taught the rights of other nations ... He is the father of the idea of the League of Nations.’ Disillusionment with Versailles, and the revulsion against nationalism, were the major reasons for the decline in Mazzini’s reputation, particularly in the English-speaking world. It cannot be denied that the idea of the ‘national mission’ lends itself to dangerous uses, and that Mazzini did not resist the temptation to assign Italy a more exalted role than that of other nations. Yet, as he understood it, the ‘national mission’ did not imply an exclusive nationalist pride, but on the contrary, the interdependence of free nationalities. Each nation had to discover its own special virtues in order to perform its particular mission in the general cause of humanity. His ideal was not the self-sufficient, autarchic national state, but a ‘Europe des patries’. A look at contemporary Europe might confirm the importance of Mazzini’s vision. Is a community founded only on common interests enough? What should be the role of national states within the EC, and how does this relate to their separate national traditions? In trying to answer such questions, one could do worse than take Mazzini as a starting-point, even if his historicist mysticism may be unacceptable.

Mack Smith shows that, in one respect, Lloyd George’s claims for Mazzini were excessive. To attribute the map of Europe in 1919 to his paternity is to credit him with a detailed foresight which he did not possess, and to saddle him with a responsibility he does not deserve. He confessed frankly that his ideas about the future national organisation of Europe were tentative. He was unusual in his knowledge of, and sympathy for, the national movements of the Czechs and the southern Slavs. But he was not an advocate of the ‘balkanisation’ of Europe into small states. Instead, he tended to favour broader federations of nationalities to ensure political and economic viability (for example, the union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway). In detail, Mazzini’s solutions may have been unrealistic, and he never really faced the problem of how to reconcile self-determination with natural frontiers, but at least he was aware of the dangers of excessive fragmentation.

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