Academic journal article Environment and History

Guilty, Sexual and Local: Nature for the Nation in the Italian Narrative of the Bel Paese (19Th Century)

Academic journal article Environment and History

Guilty, Sexual and Local: Nature for the Nation in the Italian Narrative of the Bel Paese (19Th Century)

Article excerpt


Significant historiographical works have been dedicated to the role of nature in many national cultures, but such studies for the process of development of Italian national identity are still rather rare. This article aims to partially fill this gap, attempting to provide insight into the corpus of the so-called 'Risorgimental canon': in other terms, the most influential literary texts of the cultural and political movement aiming to unify the States beneath the borders of the Alps in a single nation, Italy. The 'Risorgimento'--the act of 'rising again'--of Italian national identity. This paper examines patriotic poetry and novels in the context of their contemporary culture as both expressions and performances of the relationship between the environmental approach and national narrative. In particular this essay explores the rhetorical use of the environment in national discourse, through the representation of the imagined geographical identity, the poetry of national landscape and the value attributed to Nature. At this time, while the new national sentiment was being built, local identities continued to persist, and emerged in the canon, striking intellectuals with the great difficulties of mixing together old and new identities. As it inherited a long environmental tradition, relating to Romanticism, and imagined a new political identity, the Risorgimento shaped and institutionalised the general idea of nature in the national discourse about the Bel Paese.


Risorgimento, Italy, landscape, nature, national identity, imagined communities


In their special issue of Environment and History Marco Armiero and Wilko Graf von Hardenberg confront the theme of 'Nature and Nation' in order to 'raise awareness' of the autonomous role of nature as an historiographical category, together with the well known topic of national building. (1) In this sense the Alps, the wilderness, rivers, woods and many other natural elements have become interesting objects of study concerning various nations, giving a more exhaustive understanding of the history of environmental institutions, laws, politics and policies typical of each State. (2) Despite the great effort made to increase knowledge of the role and use of the environment in existing States, further study is necessary on the topic of 'national building', especially in one particular case: Italy and its process of unification.

Before 'the Mountains of the Fatherland' entered into the modern age with their electrification, and into the politics of the Italian national State, when defended by the Italian army (3) and marked by the Fascist footprint on the landscape, (4) there were 55 years--1815-1870--during which the Alps, the Apennines, the sea, rivers and trees were uncertain symbols of identity, that carried different political and economic meanings. The very important concept of the 'perceived' bond between nature and nation, underscored by Armiero and Graf von Hardenberg as well as by Simon Schama some years ago, (5) is the theme analysed by this paper: what type of national image of nature was considered during the cultural process of the shaping of Italy? What are the reasons for and meanings of such a choice?

In order to answer these questions I have chosen patriotic literature as a main source of research. The reason lies within Italian nationalism itself. As the new cultural historiography has demonstrated, literature has played a great, and maybe even main, role in the making of Italy during the Risorgimento: both the period of construction of national identity and the patriotic culture. Novels and poetry were central in bringing together a large number of men (6) around shared and accepted 'deep figures' of what was called and imagined as 'Italy'. (7) Alberto Mario Banti and Paul Ginsborg have studied this cultural process based on different steps: managing inherited images, creating new tables of value, transmitting the message amid the urban middle class, shaping public opinion in favour of Italian unity. …

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