******If you are a secret Italophile or dream of touring Venice, Florence, and Pompeii like I do, then this book is for you. Although the talented author, Sir David Gilmour, says that this is not an academic work and is suitable for tourists and amateur historians, the depth and breath of this work is stellar. Almost 20 hours of audio (480 pages) provide the listener with everything you ever wanted to know about "the peninsula." As mentioned before when I review audio books, most of this material is paraphrased.
|Audio book provided by Tantor Media.|
The author opens with the geography of the peninsula providing insight into the role the mountain ranges and rivers (which are less navigable then France or England) to the country’s agriculture and economy.
From there he delves into mythology as well as ancient Italy including Cicero, Anthony, and other political leaders in the years before Christ. Immigration from other countries brought a variety of peoples to the peninsula including Greeks and Celts.
The Roman Empire was brutal in conquest but granted privileges of Roman citizenship, protection, tax advantages, and the right to stand for office. Around 91 BC the army was the chief agent of the process of Romanization of Italia with the hopes of creating a peaceful, united country. In fact, Italy was a land of city states, not a federation with a national ethnic identity. Empire building was the priority resulting in slavery, corruption, crucifixions, and commonplace murders.
The barbarian and Byzantine period which stretched from 330-1453, was colored by the presence of foreign rule, the memory of the pagan past, and the overwhelming force of the Catholic tradition. This era was marked by wars over territories, vying emperors, the territorial dominion of popes, and struggles for power and control between popes and emperors. Secular rulers who disobeyed the pope were commonly excommunicated. One example was Emperor Henry 4th who dismissed Pope Gregory and called him a false monk. In retaliation, the pope excommunicated the emperor and encouraged subjects to rebel. Although Gilmore didn’t spend much space on origins of papacy, he did comment that the papacy “didn’t care about religion until the reformation.”
In Gilmour's opinion, Italy's system of city states was predestined to fall. Although the town centers were well preserved, small towns that were close together led to suspicion, anxiety about spies, and large predatory neighborhoods. Fears led to alliances and endless progression of little wars and "endemic factionalism."
Conflicts with the Hapsburg Empire during the Middle Ages was a history of wars, conquests, divided republics and states. Italy tried to be a great nation and made alliances with France, Prussia, and Austria in attempts to be great.
At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon led several campaigns to conquer Italy. Although Napoleon successfully carried off many works of art, he was unsuccessful in conquering the country. Instead, Italy became more unified because the people were disillusioned with his unmet promises.
Gilmour discusses the origins of words and organizations. The word ghetto was used in Venice to put Jews and other races in separate parts of the city for their protection. Jew wore particular clothing, but were bankers and doctors in a city known to be tolerant of various ethnicities. Caesar led to the Russian word Czar. The International Red Cross was founded because Henry Dunant’s reaction to a bloody battle in Solferino, Italy in 1859.
Gilmore incorporates Italy’s long history of love for written, visual, and musical arts. Virgil’s poetry had impact on Dante and Milton. In fact, Virgil’s description of the Italian countryside has had an enduring visual impact. Over time, art was often a window into politics. 1848, Italian operatic tradition gained a reputation no one would have predicted. The re-emergence of Italian opera was accomplished almost single handedly by Rossini.