Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 300-301
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Naples in the Eighteenth Century:
The Birth and Death of a Nation State
Naples in the Eighteenth Century: The Birth and Death of a Nation State. Edited by Girolamo Imbruglia (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 204pp. $59.95
It is a pleasant surprise to find available to the broad English-speaking academic public this collection of mainly fine essays on the Kingdom of Naples in the age of Enlightenment. The Italian South of the early modern period generally--and of the eighteenth century particularly--has [End Page 300] suffered from the benign neglect of Anglo-American historians. Only during the last decade has this lapse begun to be remedied.
The volume consists of nine essays on disparate topics, mostly concerned with intellectual and cultural history. Together they chart the rise and ultimate failure of reform programs and innovative ideas during the first phase of the Bourbon dynasty's rule in Naples (1734-1799). Although the essays, by and large, assume prior knowledge of the details of the Kingdom's history (especially political and international), they offer both an interesting discussion of important trends and ideas, and a good model of the characteristics and strengths of current Italian historiography.
The collection suffers from some of the usual flaws of the genre: repetitions (especially between chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5--focused on institutional and intellectual developments) and common themes announced in the brief introduction that are, at best, marginal to some essays. But the main themes are likely to interest many historians (though the authors rarely deploy a broad comparative approach). In particular, the formation of public opinion, the cooperation or conflict between intellectuals and absolutist monarchy, the hierarchy and interaction of various elites, and the processes of state and nation formation during this crucial time of European history all receive insightful analysis from the perspective of a country that was, at the same time, one of Western Europe's poorest in wealth and one of its richest in culture, art, music, and ancient sites. Regrettably, in spite of its subtitle, the volume contains no coherent discussion of the concept of the nation-state.
A few traits mar the enterprise--for one, the old-fashioned criticism of the period of Spanish rule (1503-1707). The arrival of the Bourbons is repeatedly hailed, anachronistically, as independence for the Kingdom (the term Kingdom of the Two Sicilies is also used anachronistically). Furthermore, the book contains no glossary of the many Neapolitan institutions and terms; the index includes only names; the contributors are not identified; and the origins of the whole project are not discussed. Presumably, the volume stems from the many activities celebrating the bicentennial of the Neapolitan Jacobin Republic of 1799. Most essays seem to present summaries of the authors' larger works, but the editor provides no context for the volume or for its appearance in English. On a positive note, the translators make Italian academic prose reasonably accessible, and the high level of most contributions make the volume a welcome addition to the materials available in English on the history of the Italian South.