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.

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