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  • Verso la Modernità: I bresciani e le esposizioni industriali 1800–1915
  • Gabriele Balbi (bio)
Verso la Modernità: I bresciani e le esposizioni industriali 1800–1915. By Sergio Onger. Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2010. Pp. 442. €45.

Modernity is a broad concept, differently defined in diverse scholarly perspectives. It was a movement of transition from feudalism toward capitalism, industrialization, secularization, rationalization, and the nation-state. During the nineteenth century, modernity reached a small, backward Italian city in the most developed part of Italy, quite close to Milan and to central Europe: Brescia. Sergio Onger’s book aims to show how an “entire civic community” consisting of cultural, political, and economic forces struggled to gain a new status for the city that would help it close the gap they saw in its economic and social development. Achieving this new status would require “hooking up to the wagon of modernity” (p. 15).

Onger studies this movement toward the new by considering a major topic: industrial expositions. In almost every country, there is a great deal of literature on expositions and their high level of importance for politics, industry, techniques, and especially the social imagination. In Italy, this topic is studied almost exclusively by economic historians, who naturally focus on the economic aspects of industrial modernity (see Linda Aimone and Carlo Olmo, Le Esposizioni universali 1851–1900 [1990], Mariantonietta Picone [End Page 831] Petrusa, Le grandi esposizini in Italia 1861–1911 [1988], and the special issue of Memoria e Ricerca 17, 2004). While Onger is also an economic historian, he approaches the topic from a broader perspective. For this reason, the book provides new and welcome insight into a quite-neglected topic in Italian scholarship. The author searched among the proper archives, linking local and national dimensions: he focused on chambers of commerce (the dei ex machina of local initiatives in Italy at that time), city halls, historical archives in Brescia and Milan, and the national archives. Other major sources are local and popular journals of the time. The sources, though, are so abundant and so overwhelming in the historical narration that a stronger attempt at synthesis, or at least a summary conclusion, would have benefited readers.

Brescia was a peripheral city at the beginning of the 1800s, but it had a favorable geographic position for entering into contact with modernity. The first chapter concentrates on how Brescia soaked up the changes of modernity through expositions in Milan and Venice during Napoleonic, and later Austrian, dominance at the beginning of the 1800s. This contact with the new produced a diffusion of scientific and technical ideas in the city; eminent Brescians started to look at foreign countries and, especially, to join international expositions, collecting ideas and transferring them into the local realm (p. 98). This virtuous circle, well analyzed in the second chapter, led to a general exposition set up in town in 1857, primarily by the local university. The third chapter aims at surveying another classic topic of modernity: inventions and inventors. Before the unification of Italy in 1861, Brescia did not acquire a relevant position in inventing, lacking the appropriate talent, especially engineers (pp. 115–16). The most successful inventions occurred in already-developed industries: armaments, paper, farming, and clothing.

The second part of the book concentrates exclusively on industrial expositions. The fourth chapter reviews all the expositions organized in Brescia after the unification, a period in which “an expositive hysteria” affected the whole of Europe (p. 205). The topics were agriculture and industry in 1864, hygiene in 1888, working-class industry in 1889, a general exposition in 1904, and finally, an international exposition of electrical applications in 1909. The latter year represents the highest point of the “expositive fever” that hit Brescia in the late 1800s to early 1900s, a period when the city also promoted tourism through expositions (p. 266).

The last two chapters reflect on the role of Brescia’s industries in other national and international expositions and well-organized attendance at European exhibitions by the inhabitants, pressure groups, companies, and local politicians. Brescia representatives were in London in 1862, Paris in 1867 and 1889, Turin in 1884 and (with special reports from working-class visitors) 1911, and Brussels in...