Under the Volcano: Revolution in a Sicilian Town. By Lucy Riall. Oxford University Press. 296pp, Pounds 35.00. ISBN 9780199646494. Published 24 January 2013
In the first days of August 1860, as Giuseppe Garibaldi's Thousand traversed the island of Sicily in a bid to see the South take its place in a united, national and liberal Italy, a bloody revolt erupted in the small town of Bronte. As Lucy Riall describes it evocatively: "to cries of 'Viva l'Italia', 'Death to the rats', and 'Death, annihilation, let's set fire to everything!' the crowd began ferociously to attack public and private property". By 3 August, they were indulging in murder of the most brutal kind: a notary had his liver cut out and allegedly eaten. Seventeen people in all were killed amid wild violence. But on 6 August, Nino Bixio, Garibaldi's lieutenant, reached Bronte. Within days he rapidly and sternly restored order, publicly executing five townsmen, including the radical lawyer Nicolo Lombardo, putative chief of the uprising.
By the dreadful standards of our own times, the death toll was meagre. But the events of Bronte lasted in history and memory to become a symbol for rival readings of the Italian Risorgimento and of the lights and shadows of the relationship between the Italian state and its subjects. In the recent troubled celebrations of the nation's 150th anniversary, Lombardo, Bixio and the Brontesi were again to the fore, "proving" different theses about the past, present and future of Sicily.
It is therefore good to have a sober account by the leading English- language historian of the Risorgimento of Bronte's myths and realities. As Riall relates, part of the story is environmental. Bronte is set on the slopes of Mount Etna and for centuries its population has lived under the unpredictable threat of damage and destruction from the volcano. Simultaneously they have utilised a volcanic bounty that brought fertility to at least some of the local land. Wayward nature had its spiritual effect on Brontesi confirmed by wayward administration from Catania or Palermo or Naples (or Rome or London).
Riall promises a micro-history, although the book is five-eighths over before she reaches the events of 1860. Then we discover that Bixio, in his peremptory repression, misconstrued everything; the revolt was neither class war nor ideological dispute but rather part of a longstanding and continuing "battle between two internal factions for jobs, property and influence". …