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.
This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show). There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book. Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times. I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.
Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects. In fact he tweeted this the other day;
The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.
He does seem to manage the time better nowadays. When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series. Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes. It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary. Some introductions add a nice personal touch too. The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.
The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish. There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy. Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show. It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it). I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).
Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas. I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven. The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good). I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison. The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative. I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.