Saturday, March 21, 2015


To speak of Italy is to speak of the ingloriousness that was Rome, and then the true glory of the Renaissance, and finally to realise that neither of these were Italy, because Italy did not come into existence until the 19th century, quickly collapsed into the fascism of Mussolini and the corruption of the Mafia, and has been more or less a failed state ever since.

I say the ingloriousness that was Rome, and no doubt that will have taken you by surprise. But surely Rome was the greatest empire, the longest-enduring empire, the world has ever known? Indeed it was - and precisely this is the problem. What, if you stop and think about it, did Rome actually achieve, what did it contribute to the betterment of human society? Absolutely nothing. It conquered. In order to conquer it fought wars, very brutally, and won by massacring tens of thousands on the field of battle, or in the sieges of towns and cities, most of which it then burned to the ground. It enslaved, and used the slaves to build endless long, straight roads, so that its armies could march on to the next conquest, or to transport home the resources dug out of the ground by other slaves, for the exclusive use of Rome. There was some culture, true, not much but some, but most of it was back at home, and most of it was Greek, not Roman. And what did it leave behind? Garrisons. Throughout today's world there are towns and cities which still include the Latin word castra in their name. A castra was a garrison, a fort or castle erected to ensure the servility of the conquered people. Marks For: 0 Marks Against: at least 100, for each of the other quasi-Romes that continue to dominate our history books, from Alexander the Great to Richard the Lion-Hearted, the endless glorification of conquest, enslavement and empire-building by men and nations regarded as heroes when in fact they are the true villains of history.

The glory of the Renaissance, on the other hand, is surely unchallengeable, and the list too long and too self-evident to be worth writing here; and yet, if you look at a map of Italy, it took place almost entirely in the extreme north, in the duchies of Milan and Modena, the republics of Genoa and Venice, Florence and Siena, with almost nothing in the Papal States (Pope Julius V was the exception; the Church found most of the Renaissance abhorrent and burned it at the stake), and absolutely nothing further south in the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, which comprised more than half of the country.

The Renaissance began in Florence in the late 13th century, with poetry first of all - Dante and Petrarch - then painting - Giotto in particular - and then architecture, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, science and more, reflecting in one tiny corner of Europe what was the norm across the entire Moslem world from Bahgdad to Cordoba, and trickling, but only trickling, into France, Austria, Germany and England, before it died out again, crushed into non-existence by the Roman Inquisition, which was established for precisely that purpose at the Council of Trent in 1545.

And then there is modern Italy, which came about largely because of that other inglorious empire-builder Napoleon Buonaparte, whose theories of liberalism, never actually turned into practice, inspired the charcoal-burners - the Carbonari - to imagine a unified Italian state with a democratic Parliament. Led by Cavour and Garibaldi they achieved something like that, though again it is more theory than practice, with twenty-one years of dictatorship under Mussolini, failed government following failed government for decades, and more importantly a continuation of the same old map: a modern, industrialised north undergoing a different sort of renaissance - fashion, film and finance mostly - and the southern half still living pretty much as it was living in the days before Dante, Petrarch and Giotto: mafiosi, corruption, high unemployment, especially high youth unemployment, and an impoverished rural economy which was once over-populated, until millions fled overseas (mostly to America), and which is now becoming densely over-populated once again, because Italy is the favoured destination of asylum-seekers in Africa and Asia, and where do you think the Italians are putting up the reception camps? 

Marks For: Millions and millions for the Renaissance.

Marks Against: 2.1 trillion (the size of Italy's current national debt, in Euros; and you thought the Greek economy was the problem!)

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