The brothers Ashwell, Benjamin and Adam, are a pair of theoretical chemistry PhD students with a passion for history. Inspired by other history podcasts (most notably Mike Duncan, Zack Twamley’s When Diplomacy Fails, and Jamie Redfern’s The History Of) and time spent in Italy, they decided to put together a podcast series on the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. The topic wasn’t chosen based on any expert knowledge but with a growing interest in the era and spotting a gap in the podcast market, they sketched out an idea. My own background is actually rather similar – as a particle physics DPhil student (recently completed) with an amateur enthusiasm for history, deciding to do a blog on some books and podcasts that I felt hadn’t received that much attention. I also have a twin brother, with whom I once made a student radio show. With these similarities, I feel like I am fairly well placed to judge their efforts.
On my brief radio show, me and my brother would usually have taken turns to be lead presenter on different segments, and the Ashwells do similar in the fairly standard ‘lecture’ format of the podcast. They do however make the most of the co-presenter, with interjections from the other acting to break up the show and add some texture – something that other shows like When Diplomacy Fails are sometimes lacking. There’s a good dose of humour as well (I did love the suggestion that one can tell an Anti-Pope by placing him in a room with the real Pope and looking for gamma radiation). It’s nothing revolutionary, but they manage to take the common ‘History of X’ format and keep it fresh with the switch between the two presenters. One mild criticism I would have though is that while Benjamin sounds relaxed and comfortable on the microphone, Adam can sound a bit strained and distant; as if he is positioned ever so slightly too far from the microphone.
As for the content itself, as they say in their opening episode, they’re not already experts in the field – and some of their Italian pronunciations will be off. However, they are clearly smart, organized and able to put the hard work and research into the show. The well-planned structure of the show is definitely one of the standout elements, they know how to stress elements and introduce characters such that the development of Italian culture (or culture in Italy) is smoothly introduced and any misconceptions or elements of confusion are cut out before they begin. Although “good structure” doesn’t really sound like a glamorous or fun feature, it works as a base from which the more eye-catching parts of the story can spring.
At time of writing I’m only about half way through the series (around episode 13), but there has also been a good use of the website so far – with a bibliography and a number of maps and images for reference. However it looks like this may tail off in the future with fewer images being added from later episodes. This may not be down to neglect however, most of these figures were used when setting up the background of the story.
We start with a number of episodes which run from the end of the Roman Empire to Charlemagne, from the early Medieval period to the Renaissance, and through the French Revolution. There are interesting stories here, but the podcast keeps on track and focuses on the relevant elements for the unification of Italy. They set up questions about nationalism, how unified Italy was then (and how unified it is now) and who really benefited by the unification. They also focus on getting the listener up to speed on the political and geographical history of the region. There are also some side podcasts purely on Venetian history, partly because it’s not as relevant to unification and partly because it’s utterly fascinating. Once these are through, the show settles down to something closer to the usual narrative ‘History Of’ style.
At first these tackle the story of Napoleon. Obviously this is a great one, but it’s also of great importance for the later unification of Italy – with his reorganization and reform providing a early model for what a united Italy could be. This tale extends over too much of Europe for a simple focus on Italy alone, and indeed the Ashwells give a broad history of Napoleon’s larger escapades. In the end, Bone-y will be defeated and die in exile but his impact on Europe and Italy would not disappear as easily. In the aftermath of his wars, the old orders would be restored in much of Europe but these would never be quite as stable as they had once been, and very soon revolutions would spring up again. This time though, some of these would be nationalist in nature, with figures like Guiseppe Mazzini and Guiseppe Garibaldi (of biscuit fame) aiming to produce a unified Italy.
The full story is not one that I know particularly well, but it’s definitely one that I’m very much enjoying finding out. This isn’t a historically irrelevant topic, and the unification of Italy is far from a closed book – only three months ago, Venice voted strongly for independence1 (albeit in a non-binding poll). The regional variations and knock on effects even fall beyond the sphere of politics, featuring heavily in many aspects of life (as I recently discovered in the excellent and highly recommended football book A Season With Verona by author Tim Parks). The story is told with this modern day relevance in mind, and the Ashwells do a good job of keeping this modernity and concept of continual (but not inevitable) change in the story.
This is a generally very competently made podcast, though I do still have a few issues with levels and editing but they’re relatively minor. For a topic which could definitely be better known outside of Italy, it tells it in a way that I imagine would work for a range of audiences. It’s detailed, but it introduces those details slowly and carefully enough for a complete novice to follow. The style using two alternating presenters is one that helps the show stand out from its contemporaries and keeps it from ever getting bogged down. It’s definitely worth a listen for anyone who enjoys this sort of narrative history or has an interest in Italy (past or present). Visit it at http://www.talkinghistorypodcast.com/.