The Art of Denis Mack Smith

Jonathan Steinberg

  • Cavour by Denis Mack Smith
    Weidenfeld, 292 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 297 78512 5
  • Cavour and Garibaldi 1860: A Study in Political Conflict by Denis Mack Smith
    Cambridge, 458 pp, £27.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 521 30356 7

There are not many historians who matter. Not many whose works have changed the way people see themselves. Of that little list, there is an even smaller number whose works have mattered to those in another society. The obscure American naval captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was one. His Strategy of Sea Power, published in 1890, had earned him honorary degrees in Oxford and Cambridge by 1893: Mahan told an anxious British public what it most wanted to hear about its navy. Denis Mack Smith is another. His Cavour and Garibaldi, published in 1954, told many Italians what they did not want to hear, but told them at a special point in their history when they had no choice but to listen. Denis Mack Smith became and has remained one of the most important historians of Italy. His confrontations with Renzo De Felice over their respective interpretations of Mussolini have taken place before huge audiences of Italian television watchers and his books are widely available everywhere in Italy. Readers of history in this country now have an unusual chance to get to know Mack Smith’s work at its very best. Weidenfeld and Nicolson published his new biography of Cavour a few weeks before the Cambridge University Press reissued Cavour and Garibaldi. The English-speaking reader has the first full-scale biography of Cavour for more than fifty years to compare with the book that made Mack Smith famous in Italy.

When Cavour and Garibaldi appeared, A.J.P. Taylor said of it, ‘With brilliant, though well-founded perversity, Mr Mack Smith turns things upside down,’ and that was certainly part of the reason for its impact. The traditional view of the main actors in the drama of the Italian unification movement had been neatly put by the American A. Lawrence Lowell in his massive study of the politics of the great Continental states which appeared in 1896: ‘Victor Emmanuel is the model constitutional king; Cavour, the ideal of a cool, far-sighted statesman; Garibaldi, the perfect chieftain in irregular war, dashing but rash and hot-headed; Mazzini, the typical conspirator, ardent and fanatical – all of them full of generosity and devotion.’ Mack Smith’s Cavour and Garibaldi were literally reversed. The 1954 text is sprinkled with references to Garibaldi’s ‘moderate and unrevolutionary’ attitudes, his ‘empirical’, ‘cautious’ ‘statesmanship’, while Cavour is ‘deceitful’, ‘maladroit’, ‘mistaken’, ‘artful’, but above all intent on preventing the unification of Italy if there were the slightest threat that radical, republican, popular or democratic forces were to gain credit or power as a result. Far from being cool and far-sighted, Cavour had no plan, reacted to events, had ‘rushes of blood’ to the head and outbursts of rage so towering that he had no memory afterwards of what had happened. In Mack Smith’s version, the hero of Risorgimento mythology came close to being its villain – ‘on the wrong side in the civil war’. Cavour’s main object, Mack Smith writes at one point, ‘continued to be the defeat of the whole’ – the defeat, that is, of Garibaldi’s expedition.

That was not what the school books said and Cavour and Garibaldi caused an uproar. It attacked the official mythology of the Italian state at a time when that mythology had begun to disintegrate. The Risorgimento, like most 19th-century nationalism, had swallowed a strong dose of romanticism. The young men who donned red shirts and joined Garibaldi’s expedition in May 1860 had heads full of poetry, Classical mythology and Verdi’s music. Giuseppe Cesare Abba, 21 when he sailed with ‘The Thousand’, has left a record of his exalted state of mind not only during the voyage but during the entire campaign – an exaltation apparently impervious to any information about Sicilian reality, its illiterate, diseased, dialect-speaking peasants, its rural Mafia, its cranky and idiosyncratic feudal nobility (beautifully recorded in Lampedusa’s The Leopard), its extortion, corruption and crime. Abba was not unusual. The whole of literate Italian society shared many of his attitudes and blind spots. Cavour, who had never been south of Florence, had not even visited part of the kingdom over which he ruled, the island of Sardinia: he had neither the temperament nor the inclination to face intractable and deep-seated local difficulties. Italy was unified in a hurry and in what may have been the worst possible way – by imposing a French-style prefectoral system and Piedmontese centralisation on a society which had been divided since the end of the Roman Empire.

What captured the European imagination was not reality but romance. Garibaldi’s expedition led to an outburst of enthusiasm from unlikely quarters. Lord Shaftesbury wrote to Cavour in 1860: ‘Your revolution is the most wonderful, the most honourable and the most unexpected manifestation of courage, virtue and self-control the world has ever seen.’ Cavour himself wrote to Durando that ‘the expedition of Garibaldi has turned out to be the most poetic fact of the century and is praised by almost the whole of Europe.’ Even as late as 1896, the cold Boston Brahmin A. Lawrence Lowell could write that ‘the chivalrous nature of the principal actors makes the struggle for Italian unity more dramatic than any other event in modern times.’ It took another decade to complete the unification of Italy, and Cavour died before the job was finished. He never lived to see the revolts of southern Italian peasants against their new ‘liberators’, nor the violent clash between church and state which led to the withdrawal of the Pope and the entire hierarchy into an inner exile. Nor did he see the 1870s when the debts had to be paid, the laws passed, the revolts suppressed and realities faced. By then Baron Ricasoli could say that the generation of heroes had been replaced by a ‘race of pygmies’. Mazzini called the unified state ‘a corpse’, and in one of his great pre-1914 novels Pirandello charted the awful fate of the generation which was compelled to live on: ‘the true hero always dies, with the moment; the man survives but goes wrong.’ ‘The blue-bottle flies of international politics,’ said Sir Edward Grey of the Italians, ‘always buzzing when one wants to be quiet’. This ‘Italietta’ or Little Italy – as the nationalists contemptuously called it – home of boarding-houses, museums and crooked signori in white suits, was not the vision that had moved ‘The Thousand’. The myth became harder to maintain and so the effort redoubled.

Official Italy contracted an elephantiasis of its public monuments. Huge triumphal arches, vast palazzi and great colonnades destroyed ancient neighbourhoods and bankrupted city administrations, as in Florence. When the buzzurri, as the ‘foreign’ Piedmontese were insultingly called by their Roman subjects, settled into their new capital, it spread from the old city to the meadows across the river, and in due course Cavour was suitably memorialised in the Piazza Cavour, a huge, hideous, dusty square ringed by spindly palms in the midst of a solidly middle-class shopping district. In the desolation of the square a greenish statue of Cavour, streaked with bird droppings, represents the great statesman. His gaze is turned towards what Romans call the palazzaccio, otherwise known as the Ministry of Justice and Grace. The Ministry of Justice may be the ugliest building in the world. It is so covered by Classical friezes, allegories, entablatures and marble that its great ornamental weight has for some time been sinking into the Tiber, a perfect symbol of the Risorgimento’s romantic heritage.

Such a state, which excluded the majority of its people from a say in government and which alienated its most important religious institution by the violence of its anti-clericalism, had very great need of its official mythology. Like the palazzaccio, the official edition of Cavour’s letters published in the 1880s had to be prettied up to correspond to the bronze façades of the new kingdom. Historical truth was a minor casualty in the struggle of the old liberal kingdom of Italy to survive.

By the time Fascism brought the Risorgimento state to an end, a younger generation had already begun to attack the myth of the Risorgimento, but it was left to the years immediately after the Second World War to complete the process. The humiliating and ignominious defeats of the Italian armed forces, the horrors of German occupation and the bravery of the resistance, the huge circuses and empty bombast of the Fascist regime with its fantasies of empire, its cult of romanita and its uniforms, had left the new, poor, turbulent republican Italy with a complex legacy. To this was added the sudden emergence of the Communist Party from a clandestine sect numbered in thousands to a mass party numbered in millions and possessed of its own variant of Marxism associated with the name of Antonio Gramsci. Denis Mack Smith’s Cavour and Garibaldi was published a few years after the appearance of the selections from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which opened a new phase in the intellectual history of Italy. As a Sardinian and a prisoner of the Fascist regime, Gramsci had motive and time to rethink the meaning of the unification of Italy. It was clear to him that the failure of the Risorgimento to establish a stable consensus lay with the radicals, the followers of Garibaldi, who, unlike their Jacobin predecessors, had lacked the courage and foresight to ally with the peasantry and to carry out the great transformation of society.

Here was a society in flight from the land and lurching toward its burst of economic change, which produced Japanese-style growth in the Fifties and Sixties, a society in search of legitimacy, struggling to come to terms with twenty years of Fascism imperfectly eradicated: into it came Cavour and Garibaldi. Here, in Collingwood’s words, was ‘the right man to study that object’. Mack Smith was right in his methodology. He told Italian audiences saturated with general theory that ‘the subject is more accurately studied in the particular than in general.’ His touch was right – its constant play of irony and amused detachment so unlike the fanatical earnestness of Italian controversy. And he was right in his assertion of chance and contingency: ‘Wherever historians can spend longer studying a statesman’s reaction to a problem than that statesman once spent on the problem itself, it often occurs that events appear to have happened more unpredictably and with less conscious purpose behind them than had formerly been thought.’

Denis Mack Smith became a celebrity in Italy and took on the role of myth-breaker by appointment. His Italy: A Modern History appeared in the late-Fifties, and is still the best textbook on the period. He collected material for an exercise in bunk removal published in 1971 by Oxford University Press under the title Victor Emanuel, Cavour and the Risorgimento. Of the heroic king Victor Emanuel he writes that, far from being Lowell’s ‘model constitutional king’, ‘there was less of a parliamentary monarchy under Victor Emanuel than there had been under Charles Albert’; and he goes on to delight the reader with eyewitness accounts of the King’s boorishness and of his ‘strong predilection for blackguards of the spy genus’, as the British Ambassador wrote in one dispatch. Another dispatch recorded that amidst his innumerable amours, the King ‘is still faithful to his Rosina, the daughter of an officer of low extraction, a great thumping woman talking broad Piedmontese, the most awful jargon in or out of Christendom’. There is a footnote in Victor Emanuel, Cavour and the Risorgimento which sums up Mack Smith’s project of demolition perfectly. According to legend, the King announced his grand design at the moment when the Bersaglieri broke through the walls of Rome on 20 September 1870, and in the following grandiloquent phrase: ‘Finalmente si siamo e ci resteremo.’ ‘We are here at last and here we shall remain.’ Well, not quite. In fact, he said in Piedmontese, not Italian, ‘finalment i suma’ – roughly, ‘we’ve made it at last.’ It is as if General MacArthur had said on the Bataan Peninsula in 1941: ‘be back in a bit.’

Denis Mack Smith went on to publish work on Sicily and to tackle the greatest of all myth-makers, Mussolini. By now debunking had become a way of doing history, and simply telling us funny stories about Mussolini’s pretensions misses much of the truth of Fascism – the structural, impersonal reasons for its existence and the complex reality beyond the reach of even so grasping a figure as Mussolini. The two books on Mussolini did well in Italy but provoked much of the same anger – for different reasons and with more justification – as the work on the Risorgimento.

Now in 1985 Mack Smith offers us work on the figure on whom he first made his reputation. Having found the Mussolini biography disappointing, and in a way misleading, I read the Cavour with relief and with genuine enjoyment. Cavour has a smoother surface than Cavour and Garibaldi. The long citations have given way to Mack Smith’s unruffled, elegant prose, and there are few historians alive today who write better. The Cavour of Cavour is a more complicated, less cunning, more impulsive, more eccentric figure than the artful, implacable opponent of Garibaldi of the 1954 reading. Cavour’s impetuous habits as a boy, his inveterate gambling, his love of risk-taking, his charm and affability, his gluttony, his sombre home-life in the Palazzo Cavour, make the historical figure step down from the plinth and walk among us as a fellow human being. I liked the Cavour I met in these pages and believed in the picture which Mack Smith presents. I gather that Luigi Firpo, the distinguished Turin historian, has attacked the book for its gossipy tone and for reducing the stature of the Piedmontese statesman. I cannot see that in the text. Cavour is a biography. It told me about Cavour, the man and his life; if I want more, I can turn to Rosario Romeo’s Cavour e il Suo Tempo which takes four volumes to do what Mack Smith does in one.

In the thirty years since he began these studies, he has moved, if not to the right, then up. His first important work, an essay on the peasants’ revolt of 1860, appeared in 1950. In it Mack Smith traced the wild jacqueries and burnings which accompanied and preceded Garibaldi’s expedition and showed how little the peasant rebellion had to do with the politics of Italian unification. The peasants wanted justice and were given constitutions. This sense of the bassa gente still infuses Cavour and Garibaldi published four years later. But it is gone now. The most we get are grudging admissions that mass politics were ‘sometimes a decisive factor in the Risorgimento’. It’s not that Mack Smith does not know what the peasants and townspeople did or did not do. Who knows it better? It is rather that in his reading of events they have receded to give place to the purely biographical, to the acts of named persons at the top of the heap.

Biography – especially when the debunking habit has become ingrained as it has in Denis Mack Smith – can tell us how flawed, unreliable, hasty and confused the actors may have been: but it cannot explain all those aggregate, large-scale, long-lasting, slow-moving elements which condition those actors whether they know it or not. For those who know little of the period or the man, this is a wonderful introduction. It reads grippingly from beginning to end. It may not be a portrait of the era – for that I think one has to turn to Rosario Romeo – but of the man it is as good a likeness as we can ever hope to have, painted by an artist whose hand has not lost its cunning. Few historians are good enough to see their first and their most recent book, published more than thirty years apart, appear at the same time with neither book suffering.