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The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796
Christopher Duggan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
688 pp., $30.00

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Eugenio F. Biagini


The Irony of Providence

A history of modern Italy.

Flamboyant leaders, rousing music, splendid architecture, fascism, the mafia, and the pope: a country combining these features and boasting a unique place in the history of Western civilization must inspire great historiography. And it does. In fact, over the past fifty years, it has attracted so many publications that it is not easy to write anything like an innovative survey on the topic. Yet Christopher Duggan has triumphantly managed to do so, producing a work which will appeal equally to beginners and to those who are already familiar with Italian history. It is also elegantly written, its gripping prose making it difficult to put the book down once you start reading. Part of Duggan's success formula is his use of mini-biographies to bring the past to life—not only from the point of view of the élite and those who left behind major archive collections, but also from the perspective of "ordinary" people such as peasants, schoolteachers, trade unionists, and magistrates. This results in a powerful, often moving, reconstruction.

Duggan's central theme is the making of national identity. In Italy's case, he argues, this was a process primarily involving the agency of the élites: first the intellectuals, then the Romantic agitators of the age of the Risorgimento, and eventually the Piedmontese state and its officials. They all faced resistance from deeply rooted municipal interests and a conservative peasantry. In this respect, Duggan follows the familiar thesis of the creation of the Italian nation state as a transformation imposed from above and never fully successful because it lacked the support and legitimacy that only the masses could provide. Although he does not explicitly engage with any historiographical debate, and despite not being a Marxist in any sense of the word, his interpretation is reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci's theory of the Risorgimento as a "passive revolution," enriched by more recent ideas about "orientalism in one country" ...

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