Writing a book like this about Italy isn’t an easy job. The country has only officially existed for around one hundred and fifty years, and the debate is still open on how unified it has ever been. Black takes two hundred and sixty pages to rush through pre-history, the middle ages, multiple revolutions, more than a few wars and modern Italian politics. It’s obviously tough, but he leaves regional events or trends aside and does succeed in painting a general but chaotic picture of the peninsula. Some bits are better than others – there’s a lot of information to pack in and at times the book feels rather over edited: casually mentioning characters who are only introduced a few pages later, and the occasional garbled sentence.
Things get rather better once he’s past the Romans and early middle ages and into the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries. This is closer to Black’s specialist era, and he does feel more comfortable in both his summarising and his detail. I liked the build up to modern Italian politics – giving a brief overview of the trends that have led to the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord entering into power together. Black isn’t afraid to call out cases of corruption, incompetence or dishonesty, but the whole thing feels (to me, anyway) fairly balanced.
The last part of the book looks at the different regions of Italy via travellers through previous centuries. That feels like a nice curiosity, but one that is neither detailed enough to really engage or modern enough to be a true travel guide. I liked the idea, but I would rather have had a full two hundred pages of it! Overall, this is a nice introduction to a varied country – it was never going to be an easy task to do everything justice. Some bits work better than others, but at its best it is an entertaining and informative read.