In 1962 Giorgio Bocca, a social commentator and essayist, fatalistically predicted the submergence of Italy's rich diversity of regional and local identities under a tide of modern materialism.
He wrote: "What the Medici's pope-king, Dante's emperor-messiah, Machiavelli's prince, Cavour's Piedmontese bureaucracy and Mussolini's fascists all failed to accomplish is coming together under the auspices of the consumer civilisation and its television oracle. Before long the Italians will be a compact people with identical customs, habits and ideals, from Sicily to the Alps. They will dress, think, eat and enjoy themselves all in the same way, as the small screen dictates and imposes."
At the time it might have seemed a plausible forecast. During Italy's "golden age of capitalism", stretching from roughly 1950 to 1973, rapid economic growth and social modernisation produced a mass national market in which increasing numbers of Italians drove the same cars (Fiats), rode the same scooters (Vespas), watched the same television programmes (Carosello – a show that popularised TV commercial messages), drank the same coffee (Paulista) and ate the same pasta (Barilla). It was as if centuries of difference were disappearing in the solvent of a standardised prosperity.
Today, as Italy marks its 150th anniversary as a nation-state, Bocca's fears appear much exaggerated. In their political outlook and economic status, their cultural preferences and regional loyalties, even their local food and dialects, Italians remain as diverse as ever. For outsiders, this is one of the country's most attractive qualities and explains why millions flock to Italy every year. But as the four books under review remind us, Italy's rulers – until the catastrophe of defeat, occupation and civil strife in the second world war – often saw matters differently. Their persistent efforts to forge a single national identity out of material that was stubbornly resistant to manipulation are among the main threads of the peninsula's history since Italy's unification in 1861.
David Gilmour's elegantly written book, The Pursuit of Italy, is full of impressive insights and can be recommended without hesitation as a stimulating, up-to-date and reliable guide to modern Italian history for the general reader. Like his much-praised biography of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the classic novel The Leopard, Gilmour's book displays deep knowledge of Italy and is scholarly but not dense. It follows Denis Mack Smith, Christopher Duggan and other eminent English-language historians in arguing that Italian unification was neither inevitable nor particularly successful in answering the question of what it meant to be an "Italian".
Not so long ago, this would have been a highly contentious proposition. As Gilmour observes: "Generations of European schoolchildren were taught that Napoleon had brought the idea of unity to Italy, that his defeat had led to a dismal interlude of oppression and reaction, and that Italy's destiny had finally been fulfilled by the heroic endeavours of its patriots. Yet the determinist theory is completely unhistorical. Italy was no more preordained to unite than Scandinavia, Yugoslavia or North America."
Of the three great heroes of the unification era, Camillo Cavour, the Turin statesman, spoke better French than Italian and initially favoured an enlarged Piedmont ruling northern Italy rather than a fully united peninsula. Giuseppe Mazzini, the revolutionary nationalist, was so obsessed with the dream of independence that he lost sight of the importance of Italy's regional traditions. Only Giuseppe Garibaldi, the patriot and military adventurer, was an indisputably heroic figure, contends Gilmour: the British navy recognised this by firing their guns in salute as he sailed to the island of Caprera after his victories in 1860.
Yet the Risorgimento fell far short of its dreams. Piero Gobetti, an anti-fascist intellectual, was to argue in the 1920s that it failed because it was the work of a minority, with little popular participation. In the three decades preceding Benito Mussolini's seizure of power, socialists, like Catholics and southerners, were alienated from the state; nationalists scoffed at democratic values. The roots of fascism lay in the liberal state's failure to win the people's support or produce a creditable ruling class.
Gilmour makes an even more important point when he writes that "it was an axiom of united Italy that the state should be martial". In no phase of its 150-year history has Italy actually needed to fight a war. For the most part, those it has fought have gone horribly wrong. Yet politicians and thinkers clung desperately to the delusion that war would make an Italian nation.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Futurist poet, even called for the abolition of pasta on the grounds that it encouraged pacifism. His credibility was punctured when he was photographed munching spaghetti.
Gilmour's conclusion is that if there had to be an Italy, it should have been a federal state from the start, celebrating the diversity of its regions. Today the second-largest component of Italy's ruling centre-right coalition is the Northern League, a party that pours scorn on unification and holds the southern half of the country in contempt. It is a reminder, says Gilmour, that for all the glories of Naples, Rome, Tuscany, Venice and other places too numerous to list, in Italy "the parts have not added up to a coherent or identifiable whole".
As for today's Italians, they appear not to take much pride in their "Italianness" in spite of having shared the same state for 150 years, Gilmour observes. A successful national football team stirs common emotions but, by the turn of the millennium, "the sense of national identity, such as it had been, seemed to have disappeared, and increasing numbers of Italians were now questioning the legitimacy of the state".
Michael Ebner's excellent study of the Mussolini era gives a convincing account, based on much original research in the archives, of how the dictator and his followers deployed systematic violence over a period of more than 20 years that were the most shameful in Italian history. The book's scope extends beyond the "violence" of the title, however. Like Gilmour, Ebner is fascinated by questions of Italian identity.
Early in the book he quotes a scornful Mussolini as saying: "The Italian race is a race of sheep. You need to keep them lined up and in uniform from morning to night. And then they need bastone, bastone, bastone [the club, the club, the club]." By 1938 Mussolini was declaring war on "those fools [in Italy] and abroad who prefer the carefree, disordered, amusing, mandolin-playing Italy of the past and not the organised, strong, taciturn and powerful [Italy] of the fascist era".
Scholars such as Renzo De Felice assert that Mussolini's Italy, for much of its existence, was a "normal" police state that often governed with the consent of the people. This comforting picture appeals to rightwing politicians such as prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who in 2003 caused a scandal when he claimed that Mussolini did not kill his political opponents but merely "sent them on holiday" by confining them on remote islands.
Gilmour, who like Ebner cites this episode, remarks that Berlusconi "had a hold over the Italian people as no other politician had had since Mussolini", and attributes his success to the fact that many Italian voters recognise themselves in him – a sly, roguish character, even a sinner, but lovable all the same.
As Ebner suggests, a benign view of Mussolini's dictatorship has persisted in certain circles to this day, because the post-1945 republic's official anti-fascist political culture has largely ignored the regime's persecution of ordinary people or outsiders – ethnic and religious minorities, abortionists, the unemployed, homosexuals, habitual criminals, apolitical grumblers, drunks and others. And, of course, most victims of Mussolini's regime were killed beyond Italy's frontiers and out of sight of Italian citizens – in military atrocities in Libya, Ethiopia, Greece and Yugoslavia.
Like his liberal predecessors, Mussolini yearned to create a united national community and to harness war for that purpose. But the real legacy of his dictatorship was the discrediting of the national idea. Insofar as the regime forcibly integrated people into political life, it was the politics of brutality that constituted the shared national experience.
Emanuela Scarpellini, an expert on consumer culture who is professor of modern history at the University of Milan, tells an absorbing story of how Italy evolved from a fragmented peninsula characterised by poverty and "a primeval, gnawing hunger" to a country of material abundance and brand names known the world over. Who has not heard of Zanussi electrical appliances, Cirio peeled tomatoes and the stylish clothes of Giorgio Armani, Max Mara and Versace? Or Ferrari luxury cars, Gaggia coffee machines and Ferragamo shoes?
Yet for many decades Italy trailed its neighbours. Telephones were so scarce that in 1938 Italians made only 40m calls, compared with 960m in France and 3bn in Nazi Germany. In the postwar era, Italian supermarket trolleys were deliberately made smaller than in the US in order not to embarrass customers with little money. As for the millions of Italians glued to their television screens, Scarpellini suggests that the late arrival of universal literacy meant that "many people were unable to develop a reading habit in time and 'jumped' directly to television".
For business readers, the interesting question is what made Italian design so stunningly successful after 1945. Craftsmanship, mass production and affordable prices sent a certain signal about Italian products, says Scarpellini. "The message they gave out was that all human space is important and anything can have an aesthetic dimension, thus breaking – or at least tarnishing – the taboo whereby aesthetic value was an exclusive prerogative of the social elite."
What, in the opinion of foreigners, does it mean to be Italian? In Beauty and the Beast, Elisabetta Girelli takes up what ought to be the highly entertaining as well as serious subject of how Italians have been depicted in British films over the past 70 years. As one might expect, it is often a tale of tired old stereotypes – Italians are wild, sensual, primitive, excitable, cowardly, comical, lawless and "united by a love of garlic, promiscuity and music". Early British film directors used foolish or dubious Italian characters to set off British virtues of bravery, stoicism and reason.
But it has not always been so. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) is a film about a journey of self-discovery for British people in Italy. In contrast to many films of the 1940s and 1950s, it focuses its criticisms on flaws in the British character: inhibition, hypocrisy, snobbery, emotional vacuity.
The prose of Girelli, a film studies lecturer at St Andrews University in Scotland, is often laboured and difficult to follow but there is no doubt that she digs up some extraordinary material. In The Glass Cage (1955), a film about foreign circuses and freak shows, the Italian character is a monstrously fat man whose act consists of sitting in a glass vault and starving himself. "Its construction of Italian masculinity is so outrageously bizarre, so perversely grotesque, that it must leave many viewers lost for words," she fumes.
Quite so – though I prefer her condemnation of Norman Wisdom's excruciatingly dire portrayal in On the Beat (1962) of an Italian gangster who runs his operation from a ladies' hairdressing salon ("limp-wristed and hip-swinging, he flits from one customer to another, brush and scissors in hand, executing silly steps").
Most memorable of all is a scene in Another Time, Another Place (1983), a film set in 1944 in rural Scotland, where an Italian prisoner of war has an affair with a married Scotswoman. This otherwise admirable film, which represents Scotland as an oppressive, frigid place where the woman turns to the Italians for emotional warmth, contains what must be the worst chat-up line in history. "Is it possible to do jiggy-jiggy?" asks Luigi, an Italian prisoner.
Not a question one can imagine putting to Sophia Loren.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.