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Reviewed by:
  • Italian National Identity in the Scramble for Africa: Italy's African Wars in the Era of Nation-Building, 1870-1900
  • Richard Reid (bio)
Italian National Identity in the Scramble for Africa: Italy's African Wars in the Era of Nation-Building, 1870-1900, by Giuseppe Maria Finaldi Bern: Peter Lang, 2009; pp. 354. $100.95 paper.

Outside Italy, even among seasoned historians of modern northeast Africa, comprehension of the nature and meaning of Italian colonialism is often, at best, sketchy; at worst, this subject is largely unknown territory. This is a reflection, no doubt, of the language limitations of scholars working on the region, who rely heavily on the relatively small number of Italian historians writing in English; it is also, perhaps, a reflection of prevailing research interests—although the resultant lacuna is all the more curious, given the obsession with the colonial era in other parts of Africa. It is certainly the case that an understanding of the culture of colonialism in late-nineteenth-century Italy, again at least among non-Italian scholars, is almost completely lacking, beyond a vague appreciation of the complex machinations of post-Risorgimento Italian politics and the role of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, the would-be imperial hero who presided over the catastrophic Italian defeat at the battle of Adwa in March 1896. By [End Page 123] contrast, John MacKenzie's voluminous scholarship on British imperial culture and propaganda—evidently a source of inspiration to the author under review—has worked its way onto university reading lists the length and breadth of Britain and beyond.

Here at last, however, is an accessible and exhaustive study of Italian colonial culture between the 1870s and the immediate aftermath of Adwa in 1896—a refreshingly unpretentious, wide-ranging contribution to both northeast African and European imperial historiography. Giuseppe Maria Finaldi has drawn on a truly impressive range of sources in order to make the case for the existence of a deeply rooted and pervasive colonial culture in Italy during the era of high imperialism. He persuasively critiques the tendency of postwar left-wing intellectuals in Italy to exonerate "the masses" from involvement in or even knowledge of past misdeeds, with these intellectuals denying that there ever was such a thing as a "popular colonial culture." Certainly, the existence of an Italian "colonial culture" has been routinely ignored in the major studies of late-nineteenth-century European imperialism, and the predominant argument among Italian scholars has been that only in the decade prior to World War I did Italy develop a nation-state that was sufficiently articulate and self-assured to impose such a culture: the war in Libya (from 1911) has been assigned much greater significance, as it represented the confident expansionism of a "mature" nation. Yet Finaldi demonstrates that during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the ideas around nation-building and patriotism have external as well as internal dimensions, and that "empire"—with all its related issues with regard to Italian military heroism, Italy's civilizing mission, and the country's grand destiny—sat at the very heart of what "Italy" represented, at the most popular cultural levels.

The prevailing interpretation of Italian high culture in the late nineteenth century has rested upon the notion of deprecatio temporum—a tendency toward gloominess about the current age, juxtaposed against a supposedly glorious ancient past—and, indeed, many appear to have bewailed the inability of Italy to impose itself on the world stage, to compete among the great nations of Europe—chiefly Britain and France—and, more specifically, to win any significant battles, whoever the enemy might be (and it was military glory that postunification nationalists craved above all). But Finaldi argues, in fact, for the presence of a pervasive culture of martial and imperial celebration, of heroes, militarism, and empire. [End Page 124]

The core of the author's thesis is to be found in part 2 of the book, in which Finaldi explores the various media through which this imperial culture was expressed—and through which, indeed, popular colonial mentalities were shaped. Popular newspapers were replete with colonial reportage, focusing on Eritrea, and with an obsessive gaze fixed on Ethiopia, especially...


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pp. 123-127
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