Nation-Building in 19th-Century Italy: The Case of Francesco Crispi

By Duggan, Christopher | History Today, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Nation-Building in 19th-Century Italy: The Case of Francesco Crispi


Duggan, Christopher, History Today


THE RE-EMERGENCE of nationalism as a powerful and virulent factor in international relations -- in the Balkans, the former Soviet empire, and elsewhere -- together with the increasing momentum in Europe towards ever-greater political integration, has focused minds in the last decade on problems of national identity. The question famously posed in a lecture of 1882 by the French philosopher and historian, Ernest Renan, `What is a nation?' has acquired a new relevance. Following the pioneering work of Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner in the 1980s, issues of how (and when) national identities are constructed, the degree to which they co-exist and interact with other more local or cosmopolitan identities (religious, linguistic, ethnic), and whether material (economic, social) or non-material factors (ideas, images) can better explain their formation and continuance, have produced a good deal of speculation and debate.

Nowhere was the problem of constructing the nation more acutely felt than in Italy in the half-century that followed the country's sudden and largely unexpected unification in 1860. This period of Italian history had not been well served. It has frequently been portrayed by Anglo-Saxon historians as a rather dull interlude between the Risorgimento and Fascism, between the heroics of Garibaldi and the buffooneries of Mussolini. It has been characterised as an era of colourless politicians, ill-judged initiatives in foreign policy, tentative reforms, parliamentary corruption, and economic weakness. Italian historians, too, have not always given the period its due -- in part, perhaps, because of a widespread desire after 1945 to see Fascism as a `parenthesis', a rupture with the liberal idealism of the era of Mazzini (1805-72) and Garibaldi (1807-82), and not as something whose roots may in fact have reached deep into the culture of the Risorgimento itself.

Up till now no academic biography has been written of the life of the man who dominated Italian politics in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Francesco Crispi (1818-1901). The omission is all the more surprising in that Crispi was one of the towering figures of the Risorgimento: a revolutionary and a conspirator, a close friend of Mazzini, and a key player in the events of 1860. Without him Garibaldi would almost certainly not have set sail for Sicily, and probably not have reached Naples. When he was prime minister in the late 1880s and 1890s Crispi was internationally famous. He was the subject of hagiographies in many languages, and was often bracketed along with Bismarck, Gladstone and Salisbury in the pantheon of world statesmen. His death in 1901 resulted in lengthier obituaries in Europe's press than for any Italian politician since Cavour (1810-61)

Why then has he received so little attention from historians? In part because his career ended amid controversy and failure: he got caught up in a major banking scandal and fell from power in 1896 following a disastrous colonial defeat in Africa. But the main reason for his neglect is also, ironically, the reason why he deserves most to be studied today. During the 1920s and 1930s Crispi was celebrated extravagantly by the Fascist regime. He was feted as the `precursor' of Mussolini, and as the only figure of the liberal era, apart from Cavour, who deserved to be honoured. He was the subject of a day of national commemoration in 1927. Streets and buildings were named after him, and monuments erected. However, with the collapse of Fascism Crispi's reputation was left fatally tarnished. A pall of embarrassed silence settled over his name. How could it be that this friend of Mazzini and Garibaldi had ended up being hailed as a forerunner of the Duce?

Francesco Crispi was born in Sicily in 1818 into a middle-class family of Greek-Albanian extraction. He studied law at Palermo University, but like many of his background and generation he soon got sidetracked into the exciting world of political and literary romanticism. …

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