The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question / Edition 1

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The vexed relationship between the two parts of Italy, often referred to as the Southern Question, has shaped that nation's political, social, and cultural life throughout the twentieth century. But how did southern Italy become "the south," a place and people seen as different from and inferior to the rest of the nation? Writing at the rich juncture of literature, history, and cultural theory, Nelson Moe explores how Italy's Mezzogiorno became both backward and picturesque, an alternately troubling and fascinating borderland between Europe and its others. This book shows that the Southern Question is far from just an Italian issue, for its origins are deeply connected to the formation of European cultural identity between the mid-eighteenth and late-nineteenth centuries.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520248267
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 5/17/2006
  • Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Nelson Moe is Associate Professor of Italian at Barnard College, Columbia University.

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The View from Vesuvius

Italian Culture and the Southern Question
By Nelson Moe

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24826-0

Chapter One

Italy as Europe's South

In the years around 1825, two Italian writers working independently of one another took up the question of Italy's character as a "southern" country. Each was responding in some way to what foreigners had written about Italy, but their views were dramatically opposed. The economist Melchiorre Gioia argued that the categories of northern and southern said little about the character of a people. Whether to the north or the south of the Alps, the laws governing human society are essentially the same. The poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi, on the other hand, asserted that Italy's southern nature provided the key to its supremacy in the past and its decadence in the present. "It would seem that the north's time has come," he writes (Discorso 83). Establishing an equation between modernity and the north, Leopardi assigned Italy the status of southern has-been.

Between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, north and south became charged moral categories in the cultural imagination of Europe. In the work of philosophers and poets, historians and novelists, the idea that Europe was divided between northern and southernpeoples and countries acquired a new evocative power and explanatory force. For many, Italy was the southern country par excellence. The lands and peoples of Italy were central to the elaboration of the idea of the south, while the south played an important role in the representation of Italy and Italianness. I begin my study by situating the image of the south within this broader geopolitical and conceptual framework, examining the representation of Italy as Europe's south in a set of texts written both by Italians and foreigners in the century before unification. This expanded perspective will enable us in subsequent chapters to highlight that which is specific to representations of the Italian Mezzogiorno as well as to appreciate the overarching geographical division of which it forms a part. In my readings of texts ranging from Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws to Giacomo Leopardi's Discourse on the Current Customs of Italians, I shall pay special attention to Italy's place in the cultural construction of modern Europe and to Europe's place in the cultural construction of modern Italy. For it is precisely the question of Italy's relation to, and its difference from, western European civilization that will play a decisive role in accentuating visions of southern difference from the mid-nineteenth century on.

"L'Italie, c'est rien": Foreign Views of Italy

The discursive construction of Italian identity in the century before unification was deeply enmeshed in the geopolitical and cultural context of Europe. To be sure, every national identity has taken shape in a comparative frame of reference and through cultural exchange with foreigners. But in the Italian case, these international aspects of national identity formation were especially pronounced owing to the particular history of the relations between Italy and western Europe in the modern era. Over the course of the seventeenth century, a radical inversion in the relations of force and cultural prestige between Italy and western Europe took place. Model to and "master" of Europe since the fourteenth century (Le Goff, 2,074), during the 1600s, Italy was dramatically upstaged by countries to the north and west of the Alps: Holland, England, and France. What was taking place in fact was a massive shift of geopolitical and economic power away from the Mediterranean world as a whole. As Fernand Braudel writes, from the mid-1600s on "the Mediterranean lay firmly outside the mainstream of history which it had almost exclusively dominated for centuries on end" (Perspective 79). Henceforth the north would dominate the south, within Europe and across the globe.

Italy marked this epochal shift in a special way. The Italians had lorded their economic power and cultural supremacy over the rest of Europe since the fourteenth century. Italian intellectuals referred to those beyond the Alps as barbarians, using a conceit dating back to the days of Petrarch and central to the consciousness of Italian elites right through the Risorgimento. Now the tables were turning. Italian civilization was certainly not eclipsed overnight; in the visual arts and music, for example, Italy remained preeminent even as its political influence and economic power declined. But by the end of the 1600s a new vision of western Europe's superiority vis-a-vis Italy had clearly emerged. As Franco Venturi notes in his classic study of foreign views of Italy in the modern era, over the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, western European charges of Italian "decadence, corruption, weakness, political and moral passivity" became "ever more frequent and severe" ("Italia" 999). English politicians, men of letters, and travelers increasingly insisted upon the "extreme misery and poverty that are in most of the Italian states" ("Italia" 1,012). Montesquieu, writing of Italy's "entirely deserted and depopulated" towns in the late 1720s, reflected, "it seems that their only reason for existence is to mark the spot where those great cities once stood of which history has spoken so profusely" ("Italia" 1,026). Fifteen years later an English traveler noted that the cities of Italy are "now thin of Inhabitants, their soil barren and uncultivated, and themselves a pusillanimous, enervated, lazy people" (quoted in Mead 270). The most succinct expression of this claim to northern superiority and Italian inferiority was penned by a Frenchman around 1670: "l'Italie, c'est rien."

The tendency to denigrate contemporary Italy and the Italians had thus become commonplace in the culture of western Europe by the mid-1700s and would continue well through the next century. These accusations, repeatedly voiced by the English, French, and increasingly by the Germans as well, would have a significant impact on Italian representations of Italy in the Risorgimento. Foreign views of Italy after 1700 tended to have a contrastive structure. In the first place, foreigners repeatedly contrasted the glory of Italy's past with its decadent present. Their visions of the greatness of Roman and Renaissance civilization transformed contemporary Italy into the "shadow of a nation," as Goethe put it in his Italian Journey, or in the famous verses of Lamartine, a "land of the past ... where everything sleeps." Elizabeth Barrett Browning was no less succinct when she wrote that "it is well that they have great memories-nothing else lives" (quoted in Pemble 229). Secondly, foreigners tended, with increasing frequency after 1750, to contrast Italy's beautiful natural surroundings and Mediterranean climate with its human failings. These two contrasts would structure foreign perspectives on Italy throughout the century before unification.

From the last decades of the eighteenth century on, however, some significant changes in the representation of Italy took place. Foreign visions of Italy were refocused in the context of the ascendancy of bourgeois civilization in western and central Europe. The contrasts described above would remain insistent, but they would increasingly interact with a new vision of time and space that placed western and central Europe at the head of the movement of human progress. Progress, which was understood to have reached the highest levels in western and central Europe, was increasingly measured in terms of the material well-being and technological development of society. Italy had not simply fallen from its previous heights; it was backward with respect to the most advanced, modern societies in Europe. Thus Goethe, who conceived of his journey to Italy as a form of pilgrimage, nevertheless observed that "this Italy, which enjoys nature's richest favor, has lagged very badly behind other countries with respect to mechanics and technology, which after all are the basis of a more modern and comfortable way of life" (99).

In German, English, and French culture from the late eighteenth century on, contemporary Italy became a key point of reference against which intellectuals and travelers measured the superiority and modernity of their own countries. Yet as the example from Goethe suggests, western Europeans did not take the measure of their own modernity only by denigrating Italy. With the ascendancy of bourgeois civilization after the mid-eighteenth century, a heightened appreciation for Italy's very decadence, its lack of civilization, and its natural qualities emerged. Italy's very lack of civilization and Mediterranean climate could delight, entertain, regenerate. From the perspective of the bourgeois subject's needs and desires for recreation and restoration, Italy's perceived lack of contemporary civilization was appreciated and celebrated as "picturesque."

The vision of Italy that takes form between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries thus alternates between denunciations of backwardness and exaltations of picturesqueness. In the former case, a more or less explicit comparison is made, and Italy is found to be inferior. In the latter case, Italy in its decadence and backwardness offers the bourgeois subject an encounter with remnants of an ancient past and the experience of a warm, verdant natural world that cannot be found north of the Alps.

Madame de Stael's 1807 novel, Corinne, or Italy, offers an important example of the relation between these two perspectives. One of the most influential representations of Italy produced in the nineteenth century, Corinne is in fact a sustained exploration of the significance of the encounter between the northern subject and the southern land that is Italy. Through the figures of Oswald, the protagonist, and his traveling companion, Count d'Erfeuil, Stael rehearses at the outset the comparative and evaluative perspectives, in their English and French variants respectively, introducing both men as "prejudiced against Italy and the Italians" (19). She uses their approach to Rome in one of the opening chapters as an occasion to stage their negative evaluations. The passage is worth citing at some length:

The Italians are much more outstanding for what they have been and by what they might be than by what they are now. The wasteland surrounding the city of Rome, a land weary of glory, which seems to despise being productive, is only an uncultivated, neglected area to anyone who judges it by standards of utility. Oswald, accustomed from childhood to a love of order and public prosperity, was, at first, unfavourably impressed as he crossed the deserted lands that herald the approach of the city that was once queen of the world. He blamed the indolence of the inhabitants and their leaders. Lord Nevil judged Italy as an enlightened administrator, Count d'Erfeuil as a man of the world. So the one because of reason, and the other because of frivolity, did not experience the impression which the Roman Campagna makes on the imaginations of those who are steeped in the memories and sorrows, in the natural beauties and the celebrated misfortunes, which imbue the land with an indefinable charm.

Count d'Erfeuil made amusing laments on the environs of Rome, 'What! No country houses, no carriages, nothing which suggests the proximity of a big city!' he said. 'Oh, my goodness, isn't it dreary!' (19)

This passage outlines two overarching perspectives on Italy: one condemns its differences from England and France; the other represents the same scene as a source of aesthetic pleasure. The book as a whole champions this second perspective, showing the spiritual enrichment that Oswald experiences through his encounter with both Corinne and Italy, the woman and the country being symbolically interconnected, as the title suggests. Yet Oswald ultimately returns to the north to find a wife, whereas Corinne dies. And upon returning to England, Oswald is immediately "struck by the order and prosperity, by the wealth and industry, that greeted his eyes" (304). He thinks of Italy now only "to pity it. It seemed to him that in his native land human reason had left its noble imprint everywhere, while in Italy, in many respects, the institutions and social conditions only reflected confusion, weakness, and ignorance" (304). As the land of the dead, ruins, and nature, Italy provides the north with memories and rejuvenation. But the same qualities that "delight the mind and imagination" of the northerner also mark Italy as inferior to and distinct from the civilized core of Europe (13). It may be true that the south is the land of the spirit, as Stendhal put it under the influence of Stael a decade later, but the north is the land of force.

Perhaps the most succinct expression of this ensemble of problems, in particular the link between the backward and the picturesque perspectives, can be found in two passages from the travel journal of the English writer Anna Jameson published in 1826 as Diary of an Ennuyee. In the first passage Jameson makes clear that her interest in Italy is exclusively restricted to its past and the natural surroundings:

Let the modern Italians be what they may,-what I hear them styled six times a day at least,-a dirty, demoralized, degraded, unprincipled race,-centuries behind our thrice-blessed, prosperous, and comfort-loving nation in civilization and morals: ... it concerns me not. I am not come to spy out the nakedness of the land, but to implore from her healing airs and lucid skies the health and peace I have lost, and to worship as a pilgrim at the tomb of her departed glories. (277-78)

Whether or not she agrees with the way the Italians are "styled," Jameson makes it clear that she has not come to Italy to evaluate and thus condemn its level of contemporary civilization but rather to take advantage of its natural attractions and remnants of the past. In the second passage she makes clear that this very difference with respect to her "prosperous and comfort-loving nation" constitutes the condition of possibility for the picturesque. "Civilization, cleanliness, and comfort, are excellent things," she admits,

but they are sworn enemies to the picturesque: they have banished it gradually from our towns, and habitations, into remote countries, and little nooks and corners, where we are obliged to hunt after it to find it; but in Italy the picturesque is every where, in every variety of form; it meets us at every turn, in town and in country, at all times and seasons; the commonest object of every-day life here becomes picturesque, and assumes from a thousand causes a certain character of poetical interest it cannot have elsewhere. (321-22)

Backwardness and the picturesque are two sides of the same coin. "Civilization, cleanliness, and comfort" are invoked here as prime bourgeois values, and Jameson makes clear that England's superiority to Italy lies precisely in modern achievements like these. Yet such modernity also generates a longing for those picturesque aspects of the world that are being destroyed. In contrast to England, where one is "obliged to hunt after it" in "little nooks and corners," Italy is picturesque in its entirety. As Henry James, one of the most passionate seekers of the picturesque, wrote after his first day in Rome, "for the first time I know what the picturesque is" (quoted in Buzard 192). Yet James, too, was well aware that "the picturesque is measured by its hostility to our modern notions of convenience" (quoted in Buzard 196).

"The Abomination of All Nations": Italian Views of Italy

If foreigners both condemned Italy for its difference from the rest of Europe and praised it for its lack of modernity, what were the views of Italians themselves? Between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, Italians had developed a keen awareness of the massive shift in geopolitical power and cultural prestige taking place around them. The evolution of their relations with the French during this period is particularly illuminating. As Francoise Waquet notes in her study of the "imperfect dialogue" between French and Italian intellectuals:

The relationship between French and Italian culture between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cannot be understood without taking into account the phenomenon of amplification through which the unequal positions of the two cultures were accentuated. The French, sustained by formidable self-confidence, exalted and placed themselves at the head of civilization; the Italians, assailed by anxiety and doubt, depreciated and weakened themselves.


Excerpted from The View from Vesuvius by Nelson Moe Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: How Did Southern Italy Become "the South"? 1
I Imagining the South, c. 1750-1850
1 Italy as Europe's South 13
2 "L'Europe finit a Naples": Representations of the Mezzogiorno in the Century before Unification 37
II Representing the South in the Risorgimento, c. 1825-1861
3 The North Looks South, 1825-1848 85
4 Of Bourbons and Barbarism, 1848-1860 126
5 "This Is Not Italy!": Ruling and Representing the South, 1860-1861 156
III Representing the South in Postunification Italy, c. 1870-1885
6 Terra Vergine: Picturing the South in Illustrazione italiana 187
7 The Emergence of the Southern Question in Pasquale Villari and Leopoldo Franchetti 224
8 The Geographical Poetics of Giovanni Verga 250
Conclusion: What the South Enables Us to Say 297
Bibliography 301
Index 337
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