I didn’t start out reading this book, Italy: A History by Vincent Cronin for my Italy history. I was actually working my way through In Pursuit of Italy, but by the time I got to the Renaissance, I realized that I had yet to pick up many notable names from the pages and the actual historical events remained vague and blurry. What’s the point of a history book that doesn’t clearly outline the history?
On the other hand, the book described the geography of the country, and how it had much to do with Italy’s fragmentation for centuries. Italy was not only divided by the Apennine Mountains into the west and the east sides, but it was also divided into the north and the south. Even these divisions were broken down into smaller city-states due to the rugged geography and difficulty in uniting the pieces into a whole.
After I gleaned these useful tidbits from the book, I moved on to the succinct Italy: A History, and it gave me all the clarity I desired. Armed with the knowledge from both books, I think I have a pretty good overall idea of how Italy was formed over the last 3,000 years.
Because there’s so much history here, I’ll outline the main events:
- The Founding of Rome – Latins founded Rome around 2,000 B.C., but it wasn’t really anything more than a village for the longest time with no particular importance in the surrounding Mediterranean. However, the Romans started expanding their territory. After routing the Carthaginians in the 200s B.C., the way was clear for a dominant position in the known world.
- The Fall of Rome – All good things come to an end, it seems, and the Roman Empire became too big, too vast with too much corruption. The power was held by the military instead of the Republic, and in 455, the Visigoths sacked Rome. The Roman Empire fell.
- Rise of City-States – The next several centuries were characterized by the rise of city-states and clashes between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope with some sacking by Muslims. Despite this drama, a few big city-states managed to spread to grow: Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples, and the Papal States.
- The Renaissance – While each of the major city-states had a different government—ranging from a republic to a oligarchy—this sort of regional patriotism and success led to the Renaissance, which began in Florence in 1400. There was an explosion of art and science. However, when Florence had government problems, the Renaissance moved to Rome (of the Papal States) and finally Venice. Sadly, the Renaissance ended in Italy before the 1600s. While it became distributed to the rest of Europe, Italy suffered under foreign control for the next two centuries.
- Invasion of Napoleon – Napoleon (who was for all intents and purposes an Italian), “freed” Italy in the early 1800s, but the country was unable to self-govern or establish a democracy. A few more decades of outside rule finally spurred on nationalistic and patriotic fervor.
- Italy as a Nation – Italy became united in 1861. The new country had a lot to learn and a lot of government to implement. It wanted to spread into colonialism, and this—along with a willingness to follow Germany’s example—got the country into trouble during World War I and World War II. However, after ousting the monarchy and fascism, Italy settled into democracy.
The end. Or not, because history’s still being written.
The book really walked me through the history of Italy. I loved the emphasis the book put on the Roman Empire and the Renaissance—two of Italy’s greatest historical periods and achievements (if you want to call them that)—instead of World War II, which is what my German history book emphasized.
The modern world owes a great debt to Italy: It gave us Latin (a common language) and Roman law; it gave us a Renaissance of classical thought; it gave us some of the most beloved works of art. It gives us pasta and mozzarella (which alone should earn our eternal gratitude).