Modern Italy, John Foot

Reviewer: Joost Westerweel

Modern Italy, John Foot (second edition)

Palgrave Macmillan, London 2014

ISBN: 978 0 230 36033 4

Paperback, with list of abbreviations, list of boxes, bibliography and further reading and index

331 pages

₤22, 99

A new take on Italian history

Given its subject, this review will be somewhat different than other published reviews on this website. This is due to the fact that Modern Italy is more of a textbook for students, as is mentioned in its introduction, than a historical work that can be leisurely read. Nonetheless, it is perfectly readable and the content makes it surprisingly gripping. Its author, John Foot, is Chair of Italian in the Department of Italian at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom.
The first edition of Modern Italy was published in 2003. After eleven years filled with important events this second edition came out in 2014 and the major update from the last edition concerns the impact of, perhaps not surprising, Silvio Berlusconi. In the words of the author: ‘At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Silvio Berlusconi might have appeared as an eccentric, short-term politician, a mere blip in Italy’s history. However, it is clear, today, that we now need to talk about a ‘Berlusconi era’. (p. xi)
Although Modern Italy is a textbook, it does try to approach its subject in a new way. Usually, textbooks on Italian politics and history are chronological and their authors narrate the subject. However, this book approaches the subject thematically, ‘using various kinds of material both as part of the historical account of Italy and (above all) as stimuli to further reflection on and study of these themes’ (p. 2). Also, it is not just composed of views of historians on Italy, but also encompasses views from economists, legal scholars and political scientists. This leads to a multidimensional but well-balanced book on modern Italian history
As mentioned, the book is organised thematically. There are four themes, namely: the nation, the state, the economy and society, and politics. Before these themes are elaborated, however, there is a very useful and interesting introduction. Some general aspects and questions concerning modern Italy are addressed here in a brief and clear way, such as: stereotypes, democracy, fascism, the role of the Catholic Church, emigration and the territorial division between the North and the South. Especially this last subject will conjure up images with the vast majority of the readers. However, these might be oversimplified, as Foot explains: ‘Historians began to ask themselves [in recent years] very simple questions, the answers to which had previously been taken for granted. Where is the south? Is it, or has it ever been, a unified entity?…All of these questions have led to a reassessment of the ‘southern question’ as a far more complicated set of issues involving ideology, the creation of national identities…and a detailed analysis of the history of the southern economy’ (p. 13). It is this approach to Italy’s history, challenging conventional ideas, that makes Modern Italy refreshing to read.
Another aspect which make this work pleasant to read is the large amount of what are called ‘boxes’. In these boxes the author gives extra information on the subject that is being described in that paragraph. For instance, there is a box on the question of Trieste, on sport and national identity, on unions and the law, and populist movements to name but a few. The boxes help to answer certain questions the reader might still have and are also a good way to present the reader with optional extra information. At times, however, especially in the first chapter the amount of boxes is somewhat too much, making it a distraction.
As mentioned, Modern Italy is a textbook for students of Italy. Keeping that in mind, it is all the more spectacular that it is such a good read. Although it is not a book that you won’t be able to put down, it does well to find a balance between purely informing the reader on certain important topics and entertainment. For anyone who is generally interested in Italy after 1945, this book is a great way of gaining some insight in the Italy of today while at the same time providing you with further reading materials. For the more advanced students or enthusiasts of Italian history, this book might be a bit too general, although it might inspire with an until then unknown topic.

Joost Westerweel