Ask a local: where should history buffs travel in Italy?

by Gigi Griffis


Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.

Today I’m happy to introduce you to Christopher Duggan, a Professor of Modern Italian History and author, here to tell us where history buffs should visit in Italy. 

First, tell us about yourself, your background, and your books.

I’ve worked on the modern history of Italy ever since graduating from Oxford back in the late 1970s. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by Italy. I spent many summer holidays there and my first love was for the Renaissance period. Venice, Florence, and Siena were the places that I was really smitten by and it was the extraordinary art and architecture—so far in advance of anything that you could find in England in the same period—that I found really exciting.

I guess I belong to that tradition of English Italophilia, which goes back to the time of the Grand Tour in the 18th century and, to some extent, beyond. I started work on a doctorate in 1980 and decided to concentrate on a topic in the modern period, as one of the things that I had become interested in was how a country with such a remarkably strong tradition of cities and regions with independent identities and histories could have successfully been unified into a single state in 1860.

I studied the campaign conducted by the fascist government against the Sicilian mafia in the 1920s and was intrigued to see just how deeply embedded in the fabric of Sicilian society the tradition of private violence was—and just how difficult, as a result, it was even for an authoritarian police state like fascism to tackle organized crime.

If someone is visiting Italy for the first time and is interested in modern history, where would you recommend that they travel and what should they make sure to see?

For modern history, that is since Italy was unified in 1860, you might want to start in Turin. This was the capital of the dynasty, the House of Savoy that spearheaded the unification process in the 1850s. There are many monuments and palaces connected to the Savoys in and around the city.

The Savoys were a highly ambitious dynasty, with territories on both sides of the Alps, and they were always looking to take advantage of the international situation—especially during wars—to improve their standing. They were extremely conscious of their status and this is reflected in the magnificence of their royal buildings—such as the royal palace in the center of Turin or Palazzo Racconigi, a few miles to the south.

Turin was the capital of Italy for a few years after unification; Palzzo Carignano, a splendid baroque palace, was home to united Italy’s first parliament. The capital moved to Florence in 1865—where the Palazzo della Signoria became the parliament building—and then to Rome.

If you want to get a sense of modern Italian history in Rome, you need to look out for all the signs of how the new Kingdom of Italy looked to imprint itself on a city which was home to the papacy—and the papacy, it is important to recall, refused to recognize the Italian state until the so-called “conciliation” of 1929. Until then, the pope and the Italian king were rivals in Rome. The popes had, for centuries, ruled over a large swathe of territory in central Italy until these lands were invaded by Piedmontese troops in 1860 as part of the unification process—this was the main reason for the refusal of the pope to recognize the Italian state.

Huge monuments—above all, the massive white memorial to King Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy, in Piazza Venezia, known as the Vittoriano—along with statues and public buildings were constructed in an attempt to show that Rome now belonged to Italy and not just to the papacy. A key figure celebrated in statues was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the flamboyant soldier who played a vital part in the unification process in 1860. In Rome, he is commemorated in a fine equestrian statue on the Janiculum Hill, gazing out significantly over the Vatican. His statue can be found everywhere around Italy.

For more seasoned history lovers, are there any lesser-known sites you would recommend visiting?

For those interested in the fascist period, a visit to Predappio, the small town in the Romagna in northeastern Italy where Benito Mussolini was born, and is now buried, is fascinating. The town was turned into a site of mass “pilgrimages” during the 1920 and 1930s, with thousands visiting it on a daily basis to see the small house where the Duce was born and pay their respects at the tombs of Mussolini’s parents in the cemetery of Cassiano.

The town has good examples of fascist modernist architecture, especially the Casa del Fascio, once the headquarters of the local fascist party.

There are also very disturbing elements to visiting Predappio—or the Villa Carpena, a few miles outside the town, which was the Mussolini family’s summer retreat and now a museum. Italy has still not exorcised its fascist past and many people come to Predappio out of a sense of nostalgia; the often highly celebratory comments left in the register in front of Mussolini’s tomb in San Cassiano seem extraordinary given the extent to which almost everywhere else fascism has come to seem an unconditionally evil regime.

What are three historic sites or cities in Italy that you find personally fascinating and why?

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, gives you a remarkable sense of the different cultural layers of Italian history. The Arabs turned the city into a glittering capital between the 9th and 11th centuries, before the Normans and later the Aragonese and Spanish took it over. Traces of all these different civilizations abound in and around the city. I spent a lot of time in this city back in the 1980s when I was researching my first book on the fascist campaign to eliminate the Sicilian mafia and it gave me a sense of just how distinctive—culturally and historically—the various cities of Italy are.

Another city that, of course, gives you this sense is Venice. Its wealth was built on its maritime dominance of the Mediterranean, the eastern Mediterranean especially, and its art and architecture were heavily imbued with influences from the Byzantine world. Venice was not only stunningly wealthy in the medieval and Renaissance period—it also had an extraordinary sense of civic identity and a highly complex system of governance, at the heart of which was the figure of the doge.

A place that I recently enjoyed visiting was San Martino della Battaglia on the south edge of Lake Garda. This was the site in June 1859 of one of the key battles of unification movement and is commemorated with an enormous tower, more than 70 meters high, with splendid views from the top. Inside are frescoes celebrating King Victor Emmanuel II (who led the troops against the Austrians at the Battle of San Martino in a very inconclusive engagement) and the unification movement.

The Battle of San Martino was the Piedmontese contribution to a much larger battle being fought in a long line running south from Lake Garda on 24 June, 1859 between French and Austrian troops. This battle, the Battle of Solferino, was one of the bloodiest engagements of the 19th century. A Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, happened to be passing in the vicinity when the battle was being fought and was so horrified by the lack of proper care for the wounded that he was inspired subsequently to set up the Red Cross. At San Martino there is a good museum with information about the Battle of Solferino, as well as a rather gruesome ossuary of bones collected from the battlefield.

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