Girolamo Arnaldi, Professor Emeritus of Medieval History, University of Bologna and University of Rome, La Sapienza, invites the reader to move beyond the minutiae of daily research and to consider fifteen hundred years of Italian history over 203 pages of text. His interests stretch from the sack of Rome by Alaric to the American liberation of Italy in World War II. Although forcefully denying that he has found any central theme to Italy’s history, he adopts a specific approach to this portrait of Italy: to define the Italians, at every step, in relation to the invaders breaking down the gates to loot, ravage, conquer and occasionally to liberate them. He starts, in a sense, with the foils — those who are not Italians — and shows how the Italians so often called upon foreign powers to free them from the clutches of other foreign powers. The presence — or more typically the lack — of a “national identity” is his primary concern, and he clearly wishes not only to document the history behind this, but also to motivate his fellow Italians to rise above it. This elegant volume is an opportunity to consider the broad sweeps of history, illustrated through selected examples. But it remains neither an introduction nor a systematic history, but rather a portrait, drawn with the brush of deep concern for the past and present state of Italy, and for the Italians’ views of themselves.
The chapter titles read as a framework for understanding Italian history in political terms:
1. From the Sack of Rome to Odoacer, “King of the Nations” (1-15)
2. Ostrogoths, Romans of Italy and Romans of the East (16-29)
3. The Longobards in War and Peace and the Origins of the Temporal Dominions of the Popes and of Venice (30-53)
4. In the Empire of Charlemagne and within the Shelter of City Walls (54-75)
5. Germans at Legnano, Normans in Southern Italy and Sicily (76-99)
6. The Meteor of Frederick II and the Bitter “Chickpeas” of the French in Sicily (100-123)
7. The Chalk of Charles VIII and the Lance of Fieramosca (124-149)
8. Milan and Naples in the Castilian Empire (150-167)
9. The Austrians and the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom (168-186)
10. A Pseudoconquest and a True Liberation (187-203)
The onslaught of Alaric in Chapter One caused the resurgence of disagreements among the Romans that had been buried for a century. Such fragmentation was only partially overcome by the Ostrogoths under Odoacer and his successors. Christianity was a powerful source of unity, which Arnaldi plainly favors at several points throughout the book, but rather than serving to reinvigorate the empire, it had produced resignation and surrender, except perhaps in matters of heresy. Arnaldi makes the impact of Alaric, and the consequences for the next century, vivid through quotations from Claudian, Jerome, and Orosius, and with a few pages on Galla Placidia, Attila and Odoacer. Much turns here on the status Arnaldi assigns to the actors: Alaric is a foreigner, to be mollified with gifts while Christian authors came to terms with his incursion; Odoacer is rather a patrician, one of us, the proposed husband of Honoria who aims to unite the empire rather than invade it. Through it all we get a picture of the ending of the era of the Imperial court and its replacement with the era of Bishops — surely a grand theme of the period. But a question is already arising: who exactly are the Italians, and who are the invaders? The central ambiguity of both is the theme of Arnaldi’s book.
Arnaldi wisely never tries to be comprehensive. His broad generalizations (the “days of imperial princesses, wives of supreme commanders of Roman barbarian descent and mothers of ‘child emperors’ were coming to an end”) usually follow from one or two examples, text passages or persons, and without a flotilla of facts; the point is to illustrate the issue at hand rather than to prove it. But this does leave questions about why certain incidents have been included, and the stances taken towards them. Why, in Chapter One for instance, do three pages out of fifteen deal with Galla Placidia’s relationship with Athaulph? The book motivates me to want to know more at every step — a positive comment on the text. Perhaps the intent is to ask readers to consider why Italy has been so little efficacious in resisting foreign incursions — and whether something shouldn’t be done about this.
Chapter Two, focused on Ostrogothic Italy, establishes King Theodoric not as an invader, given the approval of his arrival by the Eastern Emperor Zeno, but as “the founder of the first Romano-barbarian kingdom” in Italy. Relations between the barbarians and the Romans are good when relations with the east are bad, and vice versa, a shifting ambiguity given the unsettled status of each. Following the Gothic-Byzantine War, in which the easterners are more foreign than the so-called barbarians, a singular incident suffices to illustrate the great changes occurring in Italy. The Gothic King Totila expropriated many senatorial holdings, declared those coloni living in servitude to be free, authorized marriages between slaves and free persons, and inducted many into his army. The result was that not a few of the coloni took sides with the landholders against Totila, finding safety in the landowners and not in the central authority. Arnaldi stresses that there is a question about how great a generalization can be taken from this. However, from a passage that also illustrates something of the book’s style,
the choice of the Lucanian coloni still preserves its exemplary value on the boundary of an age in which a strong state authority guaranteed, and therefore gave meaning to, the distinction between free men and slaves, and the new era of the High Middle Ages, in which a single individual, whatever his legal status, could find needed protection only by entering into a relationship of personal dependency with someone of greater material resources and therefore greater power (28).
This use of a narrow example to illustrate a wider point is Arnaldi’s central method of exposition. Contrary to expectations, but understandably, the coloni rejected the chance to live under a central authority, and rather opted for self-protection through personal loyalties. This was the new trend of the day, a symptom of the collapse of the imperial authority. The chapter ends by shifting to the example of the Rule of St. Benedict, another way of finding personal protection in an enclave set aside from central authority. The Rule required its followers to welcome strangers, all the while erecting a “barrier of silence” against them. Perhaps the example is intended to illustrate the broader reactions in Italy against foreigners and foreign powers, and the meaning of the imperial collapse at the level of the individual.
Chapter Three tells us about the Longobard invasions, the origins of the political papacy, and the birth of the Republic of Venice. The Longobards entered Italy in 569 under their King Alboin. They had fought as allies on the side of the Gothic empire during the Gothic-Byzantine war, and 200,000 of them came into Italy with their families, to set up homes and stay — nevertheless, Arnaldi states that they were “the first real invaders.” The Longobard expropriation of the aristocracy, the dearth of evidence for routine interactions between Longobards and locals, and the numerous religious heresies add to the complexity. But it remains difficult to figure out what constitutes an invader; on the one hand, the Goths were given their original sanction by the Eastern Emperor, and are thus not invaders; on the other hand the invading Longobards had fought on the side of the Goths at a time when the Byzantines were considered to be strangers. The important point remains: “Both the part of Italy that had become Longobard and the part that remained imperial were ruled by people that had come from the outside and from far away.” There is more richness to this chapter — including the relations between the pope, the Frankish and Longobard kings, and the emperor — than can be expressed in this review. The rise of Venice in particular exemplifies an Italian city with an ambiguous identity; self-consciously independent of other Italian cities after the fall of Ravenna to the Longobards, it grew in the process more dependent upon Constantinople and the east.
Enter the Carolingian Franks, in Chapter Four, their liquidation of the Longobard kingdom at the invitation of the pope in 773, and their restoration of the papacy over the west. Given the sanction of the pope and their retreat after accomplishing their task, Arnaldi considers the Franks not to be invaders in the same sense as the Longobards, even though the changes they brought were arguably more foreign and long-term. Arnaldi reveals his interest in later attempts to create an Italian national identity by stepping into a 19tth century tragedy, Adelchis, written by the Catholic Alessandro Manzoni in 1822. Manzoni wished to portray the pope as a defender of the Italian people, while skirting “the notion that liberation for the Italians could once again come from foreign powers” (55). This is of course the very point that Arnaldi wants Italians to confront, for ever since Alaric the fighting in Italy has been driven dominantly by foreigners, and the Italians have not been able to rise to their own effective defense. Arnaldi’s book may be read less as a history of Italy than a plea for Italians to make this rise.
The Carolingian reformation takes us again into the distribution of land, which Arnaldi frames in terms of Marxist theory as exemplified by the French revolution. The main point is the introduction of feudalism — unknown to the Longobards — in the form of a “rural seigniory.” The Carolingians, Arnaldi maintains, merged together practices that allowed a freeman to pass into the protection of a more powerful freeman ( commendatio), and provided the lifetime concession of a plot of land in return for a service ( beneficium). The Carolingians thus empowered an important change in the social order, while the limits to their control hardened the boundaries between the “two Italies” in the south and the north. But there was also, Arnaldi maintains, a deep change in Europe’s relationship to the rest of the world. He follows Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society in seeing the multitude of invasions that followed — under the Hohenstauffen Emperor Otto and his successors, the attacks of Muslims and soon the Normans and Hungarians — as the last non-European invasions of Italy; henceforth Italy would remain largely a pawn between European powers. The subsequent decline in the ability of the Carolingians to defend Italy would leave it to develop an internal anarchy of individual walled cities, the political precursor to the republics of the Renaissance — but I must wonder why this twenty page chapter ends with four pages on pilgrims and pilgrimages, including the capture of the Abbot of Cluny in 972. There is surely an important point here, but the purpose of the example eludes me.
Chapter Five is concerned with three issues dominating Italy: the papacy and the matter of investitures; the Germans to the north, and the Normans to the south. The first of these can illustrate Arnaldi’s own methods and their implications. The needed reforms of the church began with the German Emperor Henry III, who deposed three rival popes in 1046, and imposed four German popes between 1046 and 1057. This broke the hold of the Roman aristocracy over the appointment of bishops, and empowered a “reform party” to challenge the kings over land. The crisis came to a head with the famous confrontation between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. The result was the liberation of the Church ( libertas ecclesiae) from temporal authority. But this interpretation leaves open many questions, beginning with the role of Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) in the control of the papacy after 1056. This is Arnaldi’s “reform party,” presented without discussion of Hildebrand’s global theocratic intentions, his connections to the aristocracy and his power behind the papacy. Rather than a separation of the Church from the temporal power, such a theocratic pope wanted the subordination of the kings to his authority. Arnaldi’s emphasis may be right — completeness cannot be the standard when considering a book of this length — but he has at best illustrated conclusions that require further reading to validate.
At the start of Chapter Six, the Normans have established a “kingdom” of a kind in Sicily and southern Italy — never as unified as in Britain — and the Italian communes have begun to grasp their common interests in relation to the German threats from the north. There is a distinct change in emphasis and tone in this chapter, the first half of which discusses “The Meteor Frederick II” (1194-1250) in terms consistent with modern political histories, royal intrigues, and a dash of encomium towards the linchpin of his age. To discuss Frederick in terms of dynastic struggles is fitting; he is often considered to be the first modern ruler. Crowned king of Sicily at age four, he was used to maintain Sicily as a feudal holding for the papacy. The death of Frederick plunges Arnaldi into conflicts between Angevin France and the papacy, including the humiliation of Boniface VIII by the emissaries of Philip IV. The major effect of the Avignon papacy that followed was to foster conditions in which neither the French, the Germans, the Normans nor the pope could impose its will upon the fragmented Italian cities. The result was an “Italian national sentiment.” (The “chickpeas” refers to the Italian word ciceri, which the French attempting to hide in Sicily could not pronounce.) But the fate of fragmented Italy still largely depended upon the relations between the French and the Germans, and the ability of the Italians to hire mercenary commanders was their greatest source of strength.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Chapters Six and Seven, which take us from the death of Henry VI in 1196 to the siege of Florence by the Emperor Charles V in 1530, is the lack of attention to Renaissance culture in any primary sense. There are exceptions; Arnaldi quotes 19th century historian Francesco De Sanctis’s denunciation of the Renaissance, given the fall of the cities to foreign invaders; the century was both “corrupt” and “great” because of “a profound indifference to religion and morals” that was “accompanied by diffusion of culture, growth of intellect, and the development of the feeling for art” (130). Arnaldi’s concern is rather with the precarious balance between the five main regional states, with no one power able to dominate the others. The results, after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 (so quickly the Renaissance went by!) were attempts by the Italian cities to maintain their autonomy by appealing to external rulers. This is the cause, Arnaldi holds, of the entry of Charles VIII into Italy in 1494 — albeit without direct discussion of how the dynastic struggles in Milan and Naples brought this to be, or of the role of Savonarola in the events of the day. The latter gets a sentence only with respect to the siege of 1530, in which the Florentines were harking back to the “rigorist teachings” of the monk. But there is little offered here as to why the Florentines preferred an ascetic preacher to the glories of the Renaissance.
The watershed event for Italy after the events of 1530, and the start of Chapter Eight, was the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559, which left Spain as the dominant power in Italy. For a hundred and fifty years, Italian identity was defined in relation to the Spanish. Although some in Italy recognized the common interests of the Italians, in general people continued to think of “foreign intervention as the only possible solution to every local problem” (150). Arnaldi further defines the issue through a distinction between the German Reformation (an introverted state of mind) versus the Italian Counter-Reformation (an external focus on beauty and art). As in the book as a whole, Arnaldi’s purpose here is to foster a sense of history for his country, rooted in Catholicism, presented in contrast to a foreign influence and couched in a view of the Italian psyche:
Diametrically opposed to Voltaire is an entire tradition of typically Italian thought, scarcely negligible in its influence, which emerges especially when the future of our country is most called into doubt, comprehends the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, and at the same time the failure to institute religious reform, as the root of all the ills that plague us. Because we failed to take the inner life of the Protestants into consideration at the appropriate time, the mental structure of the Italians is said to have been irredeemably imprinted with a form of extroversion, which is nothing more than a facile approach to things and a willingness to compromise, first of all with one’s own conscience, too easily pacified in the shadow of the confessional. Since we obviously cannot offer any remedy for that failure, we would therefore be condemned without possibility of appeal to a condition of inferiority with respect to almost all the other peoples of Europe, who, having passed through the experience of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, are made of sterner stuff than are we (153).
The greatest result of the Reformation was “the preservation of our country’s religious unity,” even if achieved at the price of a certain “hibernation” from the affairs of Europe (155). But, Arnaldi reminds us, this did not extend to a capacity for self-assertion; to counter the Spanish, many Italians (will they never learn?) called for French intervention. Arnaldi goes to the point of asking whether the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571 can be considered in a sense an Italian victory, given the resources needed to maintain the fleet and the involvement of the Venetians qua Italians. In the end, the division of the Hapsburg kingdom when Charles V divested himself of political responsibilities, and the Thirty Years War in the next generation, left Italy again divided and slumbering as a pawn between greater powers.
This theme continues in Chapter Nine, with the replacement of the Spanish over Italy by the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1713 and their multifarious intrigues with the Spanish Bourbons and others. “During this succession of events, the states and statelets of Italy failed to develop a common line of action. Once again, Italy was the passive object of the wishes of other states, which used the peninsula as a field of battle” (169). Arnaldi finds new sources of energy in Milan, Naples and Florence, and in a new generation of “‘enlightened’ Italian intellectuals” with realistic concerns for contemporary affairs, not the ancient or medieval past. Yet this too is fraught with ambiguity; the “Church of the Counter-Reformation far preferred a discounted and calculated risk of paganism to the far more unsettling novelties of Protestantism and rationalism.” Such tensions, exposed during the French Jacobin attacks and the Napoleonic Wars to follow, led to a sense of conservatism among those intellectuals who worked with politicians on real problems. Meanwhile, Italian cities were subject to the deals of the greater powers (Venice asks Napoleon for the right to defend itself), and the French Jacobin republics faced attacks by motivated Italian patriots such as Cardinal Ruffo.
It was not until 1866, at the end of the third war for independence against Austria and in Chapter Ten, that “the victory won by our Prussian allies earned the newborn kingdom of Italy the right to annex Venetia as well” (187). Again, Italian fortunes are centered on foreigners — Prussians, Austrians, French — and Arnaldi again projects a home-grown sense of Italian inferiority due to insufficient bloodshed:
It seemed distasteful that the reattachment of Rome to the New Italy should not have enacted an adequate cost in blood, while on the various fronts of the Franco-Prussian War then raging, rivers of blood were being spilled … A new and remarkable inferiority complex toward foreigners was thus becoming part of the collective psychology of the Italians. The complex was cured only with the First World War(188).
The unification itself is framed in terms of ambiguity over Italian identity; veterans of the Bourbon armies, for instance, see themselves as attacked by foreigners coming up from the south. Arnaldi tells us that it took a southern Italian, Giustino Fortunato, to give voice to the deeper value of unification: “Progress, thanks to unification, moral progress has been astounding.” Let Italy survive a decade, and it will be enough “to ward off the danger of a fatal division” (192). This is both Arnaldi’s historical subject and his normative project; to contribute to the sense of identity in his Italy. The fatal errors of alliance with Germany and the Italian fascists in the two World Wars “smack of the paradoxical at first glance … unless of course we hasten to conclude that they simply reflect the unreliability and fickleness that is characteristic of our own country”: allies considered as invaders, enemies greeted as liberators. The “number one ‘internal enemy'” is the lawyer who screamed the fascist cry louder than the others, and then applauded the Americans as they entered in July, 1943. The old Italian of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 comes to mind. He toasted both the Germans and the Americans, with flowers for the invaders but wine for himself, always wanting to lose the war rather than to win. In the end, Arnaldi’s theme is less a study of what Italy was than what it is and should be.
Italy and its Invaders is in many ways history turned upside down, its subject defined in terms of what it is not; Italians defined as not non-Italians. But in another sense it is a good old-fashioned political history — and I mean that as a compliment — in which the actors and events of political and military history illustrate broader issues of culture. It in some ways accomplishes more than the author claims, by making clear the central issues of Italian identity over centuries, and illustrating the shifting nature of how Italians have viewed themselves. A reader will be enriched by understanding the central flow of events that Arnaldi presents in their broadest context, all the while maintaining a critical eye towards his particular conclusions.