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Italy in the Age of Reason, 1685-1789

By Derek Beales | Published in History Today 1988 
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Derek Beales reviews a new book by Dino Carpanetto and Giuseppe Ricuperati (translated by Caroline Higgitt)

  • Italy in the Age of Reason, 1685-1789
    Dino Carpanetto and Giuseppe Ricuperati. Translated by Caroline Higgitt - Longman, 1987 – x + 357pp - clothbound £17.50, paperback £9.95

The eighteenth century is the least favoured period of Italian history, a time of foreign domination and of relative political, economic and artistic decline. Only a handful of books on it exist in English. In Italy itself, on the other hand, the period has been subjected since the war to a massive assault by historians, especially economic and intellectual historians. The latter have claimed for Italy, once considered a helpless victim of the Counter-Reformation, a major role in the Enlightenment. The main contribution of this volume is to put this case to English readers on a scale not previously attempted.

To begin with, however, Dino Carpanetto supplies in five chapters a general survey of the economy and society of the peninsula. This is very well done. In less than eighty pages population development, the varying experience of towns and country, trade and manufacture, and the relationship between classes are described, with statistics where possible, and taking account of regional variations. The fifth chapter is particularly impressive in demonstrating the continued hegemony of the nobility all over Italy while indicating the great variations in the character of the aristocracy between the different states.

In the remainder of the book the story of the Italian Enlightenment, broadly understood, is divided between the two authors, with Giuseppe Ricuperati taking the theories of the illuministi and Carpanetto dealing with the progress of reform. Both writers show mastery of recent Italian historiography in their field. In Ricuperati's chapters can be found valuable brief accounts of the work of many thinkers. Carpanetto's sections deal with rather more familiar material, concentrating on Enlightened reform in Tuscany, Milan, Naples and Parma. As is to be expected from a book written by two professors at the University of Turin, the kingdom of Sardinia (i.e. Piedmont and Savoy) receives particularly good treatment bringing out the peculiarities of its development. A final chapter by Ricuperati surveys the ItaIian historiography of the period.

This book was written for an Italian audience, and it makes few concessions to Anglo-Saxon ignorance. The reader is nowhere explicitly told how the peninsula was politically divided, and the only relevant map, though the caption does not say so, relates only to the second half of the century. 'The Spanish domination' has many entries in the index, but under none of them is its extent and collapse described.

More difficulties arise with the sections on intellectual history. Ricuperati's very first sentence refers without further explanation to 'the years when baroque conceptions seemed to predominate'. 'Great' scholars abound, of whom virtually no one outside Italy has heard, contributing to not a few 'great inteIIectual movements'. The reader has to get used to being informed out of the blue of such events as a 'crisis of pyrrhonism which had struck southern culture a hard blow'. There is much talk of 'jurisdictionalism', a term explained only in a glossary to which the index gives the wrong page-reference. This is arcane history of thought, for cognoscenti with strong digestions.

Italy in the Age of Reason displays many characteristics common in Italian historical writing. It assumes that the writings of intellectuals are of overwhelming interest and significance. Though some attention is given to reformers and reform among Roman Catholics and in the Papal State, the church, its religion, its priests, its adherents, even its property, escape serious attention. A painting of Tiepolo's graces the dust-jacket, but neither he nor any other Italian painter of the period is referred to from one end of the book to the other. Nor is it ever revealed that Italian musicians existed. Armies and navies are not discussed, and little is said about Courts.

Essentially, this is a history of aspects of the economy, society, thought and politics of eighteenth-century Italy that a respected tradition believes to be progressive. It does not matter how few people read the works of the intellectuals or, on the other hand, how many devout Catholics there were. The massive contribution of church, courts, artists and musicians to the economy and to social and intellectual life is largely ignored.

The volume remains the best scholarly account in English of the aspects of the period with which it deaIs. But readers new to the field should keep by them a historical atlas, a dictionary, and a table of dates, and should counteract its bias by reading Burney's Music, men and Manners in France and Italy 1770 and Owen Chadwick's The Popes and European Revolution.

DEREK BEALES is author of Joseph II, Vol I: In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741-1780 (Cambridge University Press, 1987).



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