The Hunchback's Tailor: Giovanni Giolitti and Liberal Italy from the Challenge of Mass Politics to the Rise of Fascism, 1882-1922

By Alexander De Grand | Go to book overview

Introduction

In March 1896, after surviving a scandal that almost destroyed his career, Giolitti wrote to his daughter, Enrichetta:

Men are what they are in all times and in all places with their vices, their defects, their passions and their weaknesses. Government must be adapted to people as they are. Certainly, government must aim at correcting, at bettering, but even it is composed of men and the perfect man does not exist.

He went on to compare himself to a tailor who “does not succeed in dressing a hunchback if he does not take the hump into account.” He tried, not entirely successfully, to soften the underlying pessimism about human nature and about Italy evident in the letter:

I am not a conservative. Quite the contrary, I see too clearly how much is ugly and displeasing in the present direction of Italian politics. But I do not want to aid those who would carry us to worse things. Unfortunately, it is not a choice between good and evil, but between different evils and this is the saddest part of political life. 1

How did a man with such a bleak vision of his own country come to dominate Italian politics for over twenty years? And how did a political leader whose belief in the possibilities of radical change was so limited become identified with the Italian transition to a more democratic political system? The years from 1901 to 1914 are commonly referred to as the era of Giolitti. He was certainly one of the outstanding progressive liberal statesmen in Europe during the pre-1914 era, but he remains an atypical figure in Italian political life: a realist, a pragmatist, and a man of few words in a land often attracted to rhetoric and grand gestures. As

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