Pili on Roveri, 'Italy and the Military: Cultural Perspectives from Unification to Contemporary Italy'

Mattia Roveri. Italy and the Military: Cultural Perspectives from Unification to Contemporary Italy. Italian and Italian American Studies Series. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 410 pp. $109.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-3-030-57161-0; $139.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-030-57160-3; $139.99 (paper), ISBN 978-3-030-57163-4.

Reviewed by Jacopo Pili (Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia)
Published on H-Italy (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58735

The Italian people’s perception of their own military is a subject that has been largely overlooked. This is particularly remarkable considering the centrality of the Italian military in the country’s history since the Risorgimento and, conversely, the peculiarly anti-militaristic attitude of the Italian people. Italy and Its Military aims to fill this gap by tackling the issue from a wide range of perspectives and periods. The volume’s originality lies first and foremost in its innovative research focus, shifting from military culture to the cultural perception of the military, that is, how the army was and is perceived in Italian society. It is also innovative, however, in its interdisciplinary approach. Drawing on an extremely diverse source base—including archival documents, newspapers, memoirs, correspondence, paintings, and films—the contributions place the army at the core of Italian society and culture after 1861. Far from being simply an—often far less than effective—instrument of foreign policy, the esercito (army) was given the immense task of “making the Italians,” in more than one way.

The volume is divided thematically. The first section focuses on how journalism shaped the perception of the military among the Italian population from the unification of the country to the Great War. Marco Mondini’s and Francesca Gatta’s essays explore the long-overlooked theme of the representation of the Great War by the Italian press, constricted by censorship and the need to present a comforting and heroic view of the conflict—the latter essay stressing the role of sport as preparation and metaphor for the war. Moving back in time, Morena Corradi’s essay focuses on the conflict between the Milanese radical press’s radical criticism of the role of Italian military institutions in the nation-making process, conscription in particular, during the last phase of the Risorgimento.

The second section describes the impact of military culture on Italian literature between 1861 and 1914. While Susan Amatangelo’s chapter addresses Giovanni Verga’s depiction of the social strife opposing the Italian carabinieri and the Sicilian briganti (brigands) after unification, Marco Rovinello analyzes the struggle between militarist and anti-militarist narrative up to the Great War by comparing publications aimed at soldiers and civilians alike. Giuseppe Gazzola’s essay moves chronologically forward by examining Marianna Montale’s account of her brothers’ experience in the Great War.

The third section focuses on memory. David Forgacs recounts two civilian massacres carried out by the Italian army (with Fascist militias taking a central role in the second) in Libya and Ethiopia, stressing how foreign countries’ calculated indifference and a consistent policy of removal from Liberal, Fascist, and Republican governments conjured to remove them from the Italian national memory. Relying on Nuto Revelli’s interviews in rural Piedmont, Fiona M. Stewart’s essay questions the long-time accepted assumption that conscription helped shape the Italian national character and cohesion, suggesting that the result was often the opposite. As David Aliano’s essay demonstrates by analyzing a number of guidebooks and tours published after the Great War, the construction of a shared patriotic heritage was also the goal of the policy of valorization of that conflict’s battlefields.

The fourth section focuses on the relationship between the military and Italian art, culture, and politics, in particular in relation to the rise of Fascism. Ernest Ialongo’s essay focuses on Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s consistency rather than rupture with Liberal and Fascist Italy’s emphasis on military life as a unifying force for a country still divided along regional and class lines. Simona Storchi takes into account the impact of the Great War in shaping an authoritarian and nationalistic mindset, while Alessandro Saluppo’s essay stresses how the strong emphasis on military-derived aesthetics, discipline, and violence among the squadristi (Fascist squads) paved the way to the Fascist regime’s totalitarian attempt.

The fifth and last section of the volume addresses the visual impact of the military on Italian art and culture. Adrian Duran’s contribution, spanning from unification to this day, describes the evolution of the representation of the military in the ever-changing artistic landscape of the country. Rebecca Bauman, on the other hand, covers the increasing usage of military lexicon by Italian organized crime and the representation of this phenomenon in television and cinema. Finally, Shelleen Greene and Mattia Roveri explore the representation of Black American soldiers in Italian cinema, underlining how their representation, while nuanced in some cases, was instrumental to construct Italians’ self-image after the war and far from immune to racist elements.

While the range of topics is vast, it is by no means exhaustive. As underlined by the author, gender-based research approaches could, for example, say much about the process leading to the inclusion of women in the military around the end of the twentieth century. Indeed, while the volume’s historiographical approach analyzes the perception of the army from unification to the present, most of the contributions focus on Liberal and Fascist Italy, paving the way for further research on the history of the Italian republic. Attention could be devoted, for example, to the galaxy of civilian associations or groups that do not belong to the military yet help build its image in the country.

Citation: Jacopo Pili. Review of Roveri, Mattia, Italy and the Military: Cultural Perspectives from Unification to Contemporary Italy. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58735

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.