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Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad
Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad
Mark I. Choate
Harvard University Press, 2008
340 pp., $55.50

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David A. Skeel


Emigrant Nation

Italy, giving and receiving.

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Emigrant Nation reflects the shift in the last several decades to a more pluralistic perspective—one that considers the sending nation as well as the receiving one, and no longer assumes that assimilation is always the goal. Choate traces the ideology of Italian emigration and the institutions that facilitated and shaped it as millions of Italy's citizens, especially from the depressed South, departed for North and South America. (The desolation of the region left behind is poignantly chronicled in Carlo Levi's astringent memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his exile by the Fascist regime in this land from which the "men have gone and the women have taken over"; the perils of immigration are brilliantly chronicled in stories such as Leonardo Sciascia's "The Long Crossing," about would-be emigrants who are hoodwinked by the shipping company they pay for transit.)

Italian history "offered two very different models for achieving imperial greatness based upon population settlement," Choate writes. The first took the expansion of the Roman Empire as its touchstone: "Ancient Roman legions had conquered and then settled colonies in the Mediterranean, spreading Italian language and culture by force as well as by persuasion." The Venetian and Genoan trading empires of the medieval era suggested an alternative strategy: "Instead of exploiting foreign populations by force, Italy's 'colonies' of emigrants would voluntarily maintain ties with their mother country, at less expense and with less bloodshed." In this second model, the millions of Italian emigrants would form a vast, interconnected trading network.

In 1890, Italian prime minister Francesco Crispi inaugurated the Roman model by establishing an Italian colony in Eritrea in East Africa. "What is our purpose in Eritrea?", he asked. "Our purpose is the institution of a colony that can accommodate that immense emigration which goes to foreign lands, placing this emigration under the dominion and laws of Italy." The African natives were less enthusiastic than Crispi, however, and the colonial experiment ended quickly and badly; in 1896, the Italian army was humiliated by its Ethiopian counterparts at Adwa, a defeat which prompted Italy to shut down the colony.

Fifteen years later, Italian nationalists reinterpreted Italy's Eritrean experience as a failure of nerve, arguing that Crispi's experiment would have succeeded if Italy had not abandoned it at the first sign of trouble. The nationalists goaded Italy into war with Libya in 1911, unleashing a new wave of imperialist sentiment that centered on Libya as the site for another go at establishing a colonial outpost.

After each of these bouts of militaristic fervor, Italian leaders promoted the second, trade-oriented model. The two most important chapters of Emigrant Nation recount Italy's substantial efforts to strengthen its emigrants' ties to their homeland. After rampant abuses of emigrants by private Italian bankers, the Banco di Napoli set up branch offices throughout the Americas to handle the flow of remittances back to emigrants' family members in Italy. Closely tied to the Italian government, Chambers of Commerce aggressively promoted the trade and manufacturing of Italian goods not just at home but also abroad, reasoning that the growth of Italian-run businesses abroad would spur demand for Italian exports.

These business and financial efforts were supplemented by a wide range of cultural initiatives. Italian societies sponsored patriotic celebrations on foreign soil, vestiges of which still remain—as in the "race of the saints" celebration in northeastern Pennsylvania, which mirrors the original festival in Gubbia, Italy. In addition to these celebrations and the Dante Alighieri Society's efforts to foster patriotism, Italy also promoted Italian language schools in both North and South America. In 1910 alone, Choate reports, the Italian government spent 1.65 million lire to help fund Italian schools abroad, three-quarters of which went to 93 schools run by the Italian state, with the remainder split between 301 secular private schools and 244 religious schools, all but a few of which were Catholic. This history of sizable financial commitment to Italian language schools on foreign soil brings Italian subsidy of the American Advanced Placement Exam into perspective.

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