"Italy," complained Napoleon,"is too long." It is hard not to warm to a book that begins in this vein. I think that Gilmour's aim is to show not only how Italy came into existence as a single nation state, but why it has proved so difficult both to achieve and sustain unification. Even now, the economic and social divide between north and south remains far stronger and more bitter than that of England.
The author uses his obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for Italy to create a popular history in which each chapter is like a self-contained essay, drawing not only on key events but also on the diverse geography, different regions, peoples and cultures of Italy. For instance, after World War 2, five peripheral regions had to be given special status, including a good deal of autonomy to stem strong separatist demands based on physical separation, as for Sicily and Sardinia, or different languages, as in northern areas speaking mainly French, Italian or Slovene. There are some useful maps to help identify the various regions.
I appreciate why Gilmour felt that a full analysis required him to go back in time to the Bronze Age traders travelling through Alpine passes. After an initial chapter to spell out the physical and social diversity of Italy, he moves systematically forward in time, with a unifying theme for each chapter e.g. the various empires which dominated Italy, starting with the Romans; the growth of city states from the Middle Ages or the period from C15 when Italy was a battleground for foreign warring armies.
Some chapters e.g. 5 on "Disputed Italies" proved hard to follow without a level of background knowledge which would have made it unnecessary to read the book in the first place! I can see that Gilmour wanted to avoid getting bogged down in facts, but perhaps needed to think himself more into the position of a willing reader who may not know enough about the history of say, the Hapsburgs in Austria and Spain versus the French dynasties to understand their complex activities, warring and installing puppets on Italian soil, from 1494 to the early 1800s.
I resorted to reading the chapters in reverse order. Perhaps because they interest him most, Gilmour seems to write best about more recent events such as the modern resurgence of "centrifugal Italy" and the rapid rise of the racist and divisive Northern League under Bossi. Once I had absorbed all the fascinating events from say, Garibaldi through Mussolini to Berlusconi, I had the motivation to go back further in time and make the effort to understand the more distant, important yet often less engaging detail which underpins the current situation.
Overall, this is quite an ambitious work, which might benefit from a slightly clearer stated aim, and sometimes becomes too fragmented in its attempts to provide a synthesis, but on balance it is for the most part informative and readable.
It ends on a provocative note. Despite creating "much of the world's greatest art, architecture and music and…one of its finest cuisines" and possessing "some of its most beautiful landscapes and many of its most stylish manufactures", united Italy has never lived up to its founders hopes, "predestined" by its history and geography "to be a disappointment….never as good as the sum of its people".