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  • Material Nation: A Consumer’s History of Modern Italy by Emanuela Scarpellini
  • Raymond Grew
Material Nation: A Consumer’s History of Modern Italy. By Emanuela Scarpellini (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. xi plus 343 pp.).

Material culture and consumerism are now among the familiar categories of historical study, and modern Italy is surely among the most promising targets for such research. Having been famous for centuries for the quantity and beauty of [End Page 800] the objects produced, Italian society experienced an expansion of consumption as extensive and as sudden as any ever seen in Europe. Emanuela Scarpellini, who has written extensively on related subjects, begins this account at the formation of a united Italian state and proceeds more or less chronologically almost to the present. She correctly understands that developments in Italy should be seen as part of a larger Western pattern, and she cites a great many of the best-known works on the social history of France, Britain, Germany, and the United States. For those who already know that literature, her account is thus a largely familiar summary, one in which Italy follows a common path but a generation or two later.

The well-focused chapters on the Fascist years benefit from concrete examples, and the prominence of advertising, specific products, and official policy. Here, the author is forced to condense matters on which she has previously written at length. Knowledgeable readers will recognize scholarly effort to modify common generalizations; students are likely to take them as textbook abstractions. Half the book treats the period after World War II, when the explosion of consumerism is strong evidence for the author’s belief in the formative impact of consumer culture. Here one sees a remarkably direct American influence on products and marketing (another topic Scarpellini has studied elsewhere) that in turn had immediate effect on the way Italians live. And in this period the idea of material culture expands to include health care and sympathetic reflections on youth culture.

As she notes, Italian responses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to all these changes were distinctive, often ambiguous, and even contradictory. That complexity can point to important historical questions about the nature and process of cultural change. When that complexity is left abstract, however, its significance tends to become submerged in the emphasis on a broader Western pattern. The enormous number of Italian companies and brands that are named adds a kind of concreteness, suggestive of local flavor for readers who have lived in Italy or know it well. Those lists will mean less to most of those reading this work in English. Statistical tables comparing European nations on various measures of consumption illuminate context and invite further reflection; and within the study’s chronological framework, Scarpellini often allows herself welcome digressions on meanings and interpretations that extend beyond the period under discussion.

Properly displayed, objects used by human beings stimulate the historical imagination because they are tied to many aspects of history: modes of production, cultural fashion, social symbols and divisions, technology, markets and advertising, family life, demography and more. This awareness of historical connections clearly underlies Scarpellini’s commitment to the study of consumer culture. Fresh historical understanding and significant analysis, however, require that such interconnections be systematically probed. That task can employ all sorts of data and theory; but its presentation needs a delicate hand, a requirement in which this book is disadvantaged by the fog of awkward translation. The author’s erudition shows most clearly in the extensive footnotes, which merit regular attention. Her sensibility and insight shine in descriptions of her imaginary visits in different eras to an upper-middleclass apartment, a supermarket, and a country house. Here, too, the translators’ misty syntax sometimes undermines the effect of such admirable if risky novelistic devices by unintentionally [End Page 801] highlighting their artificiality. For the rest, with so much to touch upon, forced brevity often seems like a precis of established literature. The author clearly has much more to say and must say it much better in Italian. What escapes through the static of translation edges toward the middlebrow tone of a popular magazine (a blandness often said to be characteristic of...


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