Garibaldi didn’t unite Italy

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Moldbug, in discussing the larger issue of progressivism, notes that Garibaldi didn’t unite Italy:

Quick association test! The unification of Italy — good or bad? I’ll bet you said “good.” Well, here’s a little story.

A couple of years ago Mrs. Moldbug and I spent three weeks in Italy. For the first week we split a villa in Cilento with some friends, which was lovely if a little buggy, and involved inhaling enormous quantities of Limoncello. Next we thought we’d take our backpacks and bop around on the train a little. Our first stop: Naples.

I’m afraid it’s not for nothing that northern Italians say “Garibaldi didn’t unite Italy, he divided Africa.” Obviously, this is a racist statement and I can’t condone it. But even the Lonely Planet warns travellers that “you might think you’re in Cairo or Tangier.” I have never been to Cairo or Tangier, but if they are anything like Naples, God help them.

The 3000-year-old city of Naples is a reeking, garbage-ridden sewer. This year there was an actual garbage strike, but the problem is perennial — there was a giant, seemingly permanent mound of it right across the street from our LP-recommended albergo. At all times, almost everyone on the street appears to be a criminal, especially at night. The streets are ruinous, unlit, and patrolled by thieves on mopeds. We saw one pull up in front of an old lady carrying a bag of groceries, openly inspect her goods for anything worth stealing, then scoot away. Apparently they have a reputation for ripping earrings out of womens’ ears.

From Naples you can take the Trans-Vesuviano to Pompeii. This train has a wonderful name, but its main purpose appears to be to transport criminals from the Stalinist banlieues in which they live, to the city in which in which they steal. Signs in every language known to humanity warn the tourist that pickpockets are everywhere. The trains are stripped to the metal and covered with graffiti, which is not in Latin. As the train stopped at one station, we saw a couple of carabinieri carrying a body-bag away from the platform.

He goes on. But here’s the greater point:

Obviously, Naples being this way, I assumed that Naples had always been this way. There was that old line, “see Naples and die,” but presumably it referred to a knife in the ribs. That poor bastard on the Trans-Vesuviano had seen Naples, and died. Was it worth it?

So I was surprised to discover a different version of reality, from British historian Desmond Seward’s Naples: A Travellers’ Companion:

‘In size and number of inhabitants she ranks as the third city of Europe, and from her situation and superb show may justly be considered the Queen of the Mediterranean,’ wrote John Chetwode Eustace in 1813. Until 1860 Naples was the political and administrative centre of the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies, the most beautiful kingdom in the world. Consisting of Southern Italy and Sicily, it had a land mass equal to that of Portugal and was the richest state in Europe… For five generations — from 1734 till 1860 — it was ruled by a branch of the French and Spanish royal family of Bourbon who filled the city with monuments to their reign…

The ‘Borboni’ as their subjects called them, were complete Neapolitans, wholly assimilated, who spoke and thought in Neapolitan dialect (indeed the entire court spoke Neapolitan)… Until 1860, glittering Court balls and regal gala nights at the San Carlo which staggered foreigners by their opulence and splendour were a feature of Neapolitan life… In 1839 that ferocious Whig Lord Macaulay was staying in the city and wrote, ‘I must say that the accounts I which I have heard of Naples are very incorrect. There is far less beggary than in Rome, and far more industry… At present, my impressions are very favourable to Naples. It is the only place in Italy that has seemed to me to have the same sort of vitality which you find in all the great English ports and cities. Rome and Pisa are dead and gone; Florence is not dead, but sleepeth; while Naples overflows with life.”

The Borboni’s memory have been systematically blackened by partisans of the regime which supplanted them, and by admirers of the Risorgimento. They have had a particularly bad press in the Anglo-Saxon world. Nineteenth-century English liberals loathed them for their absolutism, their clericalism and loyalty to the Papacy, and their opposition to the fashionable cause of Italian unity. Politicians from Lord William Bentinck to Lord Palmerston and Gladstone, writers such as Browning and George Eliot, united in detesting the ‘tyrants’; Gladstone convinced himself that their regime was ‘the negation of God.’ Such critics, as prejudiced as they were ill informed, ignored the dynasty’s economic achievement, the kingdom’s remarkable prosperity compared with other Italian states, the inhabitants’ relative contentment, and the fact that only a mere handful of Southern Italians were opposed to their government. Till the end, The Two Sicilies was remarkable for the majority of its subjects’ respect for, and knowledge of, its laws — so deep that even today probably most Italian judges, and especially successful advocates, still come from the south. Yet even now there is a mass of blind prejudice among historians. All too many guidebooks dismiss the Borboni as corrupt despots who misruled and neglected their capital. An entire curtain of slander conceals the old, pre-1860 Naples; with the passage of time calumny has been supplemented by ignorance, and it is easy to forget that history is always written by the victors. However Sir Harold Acton in his two splendid studies of the Borboni has to some extent redressed the balance, and his interpretation of past events is winning over increasing support — especially in Naples itself.

Undoubtedly the old monarchy had serious failings. Though economically and industrially creative, it was also absolutist and isolationist, disastrously out of touch with pan-Italian aspirations… Beyond question there was political repression under the Bourbons — the dynasty was fighting for its survival — but it has been magnified out of all proportion. On the whole prison conditions were probably no worse than in contemporary England, which still had its hulks; what really upset Gladstone was seeing his social equals being treated in the same way as working-class convicts, since opposition to the regime was restricted to a few liberal romantics among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie…

The Risorgimento was a disaster for Naples and for the south in general. Before 1860 the Mezzogiorno was the richest part of Italy outside the Austrian Empire; after it quickly became the poorest. The facts speak for themselves. In 1859 money circulating in The Two Sicilies amounted to more than that circulating in all other independent Italian states, while the Bank of Naples’s gold reserve was 443 million gold lire, twice the combined reserves of the rest of Italy. This gold was immediately confiscated by Piedmont — whose own reserve had been a mere 27 million — and transferred to Turin. Neapolitan excise duties, levied to keep out the north’s inferior goods and providing four-fifths of the city’s revenue, were abolished. And then the northerners imposed crushing new taxes. Far from being liberators, the Piedmontese administrators who came in the wake of the Risorgimento behaved like Yankees in the post-bellum Southern States; they ruled The Two Sicilies as an occupied country, systematically demolishing its institutions and industries. Ferdinand’s new dockyard was dismantled to stop Naples competing with Genoa (it is now being restored by industrial archeologists). Vilification of the Borboni became part of the school curriculum. Shortly after the Two Sicilies’ enforced incorporation into the new Kingdom of Italy, the Duke of Maddaloni protested in the ‘national’ Parliament: ‘This is invasion, not annexation, not union. We are being plundered like an occupied territory.’ For years after the ‘liberation,’ Neapolitans were governed by northern padroni and carpet-baggers. And today the Italians of the north can be as stupidly prejudiced about Naples as any Anglo-Saxon, affecting a superiority which verges on racism — ‘Africa begins South of Rome’ — and lamenting the presence in the North of so many workers from the Mezzogiorno. (The ill-feeling is reciprocated, the Neapolitan translation of SPQR being Sono porci, questi Romani.) Throughout the 1860s 150,000 troops were needed to hold down the south.

Note the pattern. What made Italian unification happen? Why did Ferdinand of Naples, with his 443 million gold lire, just roll over for Charles Albert of Piedmont, with his mere 27? Two reasons: Lord Palmerston and Napoleon III. Where did exiles such as Mazzini and Garibaldi find their backers? Not in Pompeii, that’s for sure.

The unification of Italy was an event in the 19th century’s great struggle between liberalism and reaction. The international liberal movement of the 20th century, in which a figure such as Carl Schurz could go from German revolutionary in 1848 to Civil War general in 1861, was the clear precursor of today’s “international community.” And once again, we see it playing the same predatory role: conquering and destroying in the name of liberation and independence.

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