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Byzantium for Rome: The Politics of Nostalgia in Umbertian Italy, 1878-1900 (1980)

Richard Drake’s Byzantium for Rome is a study of politics and culture in Unbertian Italy, 1878-1900. The book focuses on the political thought and activity of a highly influential group of reactionary intellectuals in the post-Risorgimento period: Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907), Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), and the other so-called bizantini writers on publisher Angelo Sommaruga’s Cronaca bizantinastaff.

Mazzini and others in the Risorgimento generation of intellectuals had confidently predicted the beginning of a Third Rome once the country was unified, a modern Rome worthy of its classical and medieval past. Post-Risorgimento events did nothing to confirm this sanguine vision. Instead, after 1860, the country met with disaster at every turn: massive social and economic dislocations, humiliating affronts to its prestige in international affairs, and shattering defeats in war.

Post-Risorgimento Italy provoked the scorn and hatred of practically everybody then writing about the country’s political life, especially the disciples of Mazzini. Among Italian writers Carducci was the leading Mazzinian of his generation, and his most famous denunciation of liberal Italy expressed in poetic form the country’s disgust: “Italy the unready called for Rome/Byzantium they have given her.” He became a cultural and political hero to the Umbertian intellectuals belonging to D’Annunzio’s generation. They were horrified by the dissolution of the Risorgimento’s virile Roman ideal into the Post-Risorgimento effeminate Byzantine reality. “Byzantium for Rome” summarizes their sense of loss, betrayal and disillusionment.

The “politics of nostalgia” which arose from an aesthetic critique of liberalism, developed in this atmosphere of intense and constantly exacerbated intellectual alienation. Blaming the stress of contemporary life on the rule of businessmen, the esthetes looked back nostalgically to Italy’s past and longed for a revival of political traditionalism that alone, they felt, would make possible a new Latin Renaissance.

These reactionary ideas pervaded Italian cultural and political life long after the disappearance of Sommaruga’s Cronaca bizantina in 1885. The author carries his study forward to 1900 when the politics of nostalgia underwent a final crisis in the career of Enrico Corradini (1865-1931), leading to the development of a fresh ideological alternative for the country’s politically right-wing intellectuals — nationalism, itself an important link between nineteenth-century traditions of conservative protest and the twentieth-century ideology of fascism.

“Richard Drake’s Byzantium for Rome is an unusual and original piece of historical writing both as it is conceived and as it is executed…. [T]his book is well written, and the author is gifted in his ability to turn most appropriate and felicitous phrases on almost every page…. [The book] explores some of the leading political and cultural problems of the so-called post-Risorgimento. . . . [It] makes an original and significant contribution to Italian history. The late nineteenth century is an especially neglected period and it has seldom been looked at on its own terms. Drake’s work has the additional merit of exploring an area, cultural history, which for various reasons. . . has been almost totally neglected by Italian historians.”
Benjamin F. Brown, Editor and Director of the Opera Omnia di Sidney Sonnino
Byzantium for Rome was republished in 2012 as a University of North Carolina Press Enduring Edition