The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Italy
Andrea Mammone et al, eds.
Routledge 366pp £131
How can we understand contemporary Italy? A country where Silvio Berlusconi held sway for some 20 years or so has had some serious image problems in recent years and has struggled to get itself taken seriously abroad. Yet Italy is crucial to an understanding of European history and politics.
As a frontline border state it is at the centre of a new migrant crisis and as a political laboratory it has seen not just the rise and fall of Berlusconi but also the arrival of a figure like Matteo Renzi and the emergence of an extraordinary group called the Five Star Movement, which won 20 per cent of the vote in the last general election and continues to poll well in local and regional elections.
Italy has also seen deep social and cultural changes in recent years: deindustrialisation, large-scale foreign immigration, the transformation of the family unit, the exodus of young Italians searching for work elsewhere and a deep crisis in the welfare state and the economy as a whole. In fact, crisis and decline are two of the key terms which recur time and again when Italy is discussed today – and this decline/crisis shows no signs of abating. The political system appears to be at record levels of delegitimation, so much so that Italian voters, who used to turn out in huge numbers for each election, now cannot even be bothered to vote any more.
This eclectic collection of essays advertises itself as covering history, society and politics, but the focus is very much on the political world, with discussions of new movements, the right and the left, regionalist movements and political reform. There are extremely useful pieces on the ongoing issues of anti-fascism and debates over public memory, as well as timely studies of clientelism, Italian mafias and the economy. As a self-proclaimed handbook intended almost exclusively for the library market (given its £131 price tag) this book is not really for the general reader and does not really work as a coherent whole, but will be useful for those dipping in and out and looking for up-to-date material on Italy for reading lists and students of all levels. Strangely, however, there is no specific piece here on Silvio Berlusconi, although many articles do examine his influence and legacy; nor is there much on television (either in a political sense or culturally). There is also nothing at all on sport; a common failing in academia, despite the fact that football fandom is one of the key identifiers in Italy today (26 million Italians profess to be football fans) and the ‘footbalisation’ of Italian society has been identified by many as one of the most important features of everyday life in the postwar period. This is a useful collection, but it is by no means an exhaustive one.
John Foot is author of Modern Italy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).