Modern Italy and the contradictions of modernity

There are many reasons why the history of modern Italy continues to fascinate historians and political scientists hardly less than the country’s illustrious earlier epochs. In its most recent histories, Italy has experienced the conflicting and often contradictory forces that for over two centuries have shaped the emergence of the contemporary world as intensively as any other European country. Indeed, Italy’s path to the twentieth century has been marked by deep and dramatic contradictions. The triumphs of national unification were followed by difficulties that threatened to overwhelm the newly established constitutional monarchy. The first of the European Mediterranean countries to industrialize at the end of the 19th century, down to the First World War Italy also remained a desperately poor country. Between 1890 and 1914 over 11 million Italian citizens emigrated to escape unbearable poverty. Many came to the US, and a majority came from Italy’s South - a clear signs of the internal differences that half a century after Unification continued to divide Italy. Yet this did not prevent the new Italy from following the models and aspirations of Great Power politics, developing its military strength, establishing colonies and ambitions for empire.

On the eve of the Great War Italy was nonetheless as deeply divided as any of the western European states, and even though Italy emerged as a victor the strains of total war and mass mobilization had fatally undermined Italian democracy. In the crisis that followed the war Italy once embarked on a path of political innovation that gave birth to fascism - a political model that would soon be imitated across the European continent and beyond. Fascism may have fascinated contemporaries, but for Italy the legacies of Mussolini’s bid for empire and the alliance with Hitler’s Germany proved disastrous. Military defeat, dual occupations, terrible human suffering, widespread material destruction and bitter civil war were the legacies from which the new Italian democratic Republic founded in 1946 struggled to break free in the menacing shadow of the Cold War. Yet in the 1950s Italy’s ‘economic miracle’ would again surprise the world: nowhere in Europe was economic and social change more raid in the 1950s , the decade of the Fiat 500, the Vespa and the triumphs of Italian film-makers, architects and designers that made Italy a model for post-war reconstruction
Yet rapid economic and social change brought dangerous new tensions - mass emigration emptied and transformed the southern rural area, while internal migration resulted in the rapid and largely unplanned expansion of Italy’s great industrial metropolis. Tensions increased in Italy’s leading industrial cities as workers organized and protested for better pay and conditions. Demands for greater freedom, especially for women, collided with conservative interests and with the power of the Catholic church, provoking the extremist political reactions that turned the 1970s in a decade of terrorism - ‘the years of the bullet’. The crisis seemed to ease with renewed prosperity in the 1980s, political discontents remained deep and exploded again in the 1990s when the end of the Cold War caused the collapse of the parties that had dominated Italy’s political life since 1946 and revealed the scale of systematic corruption that had become inseparable from the Italian political system. As hundred so politicians and businessmen faced trial, the authority of the state was being openly challenged by organized crime in many parts of the South, culminating in the shocking murders of two loading anti-mafia judges in Sicily in 1992.

Hopes of fundamental reform were high, but the progressive left-wing coalition that successfully steered Italy into the new European currency was overcome by internal divisions. In 2001 it succumbed to the rival right wing coalition led by a former tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of a loose alliance between his own recently formed Forza Italia party, the secessionist Northern League and the heirs of Mussolini’s former fascists who now call themselves the National Alliance. Although Berlusconi’s government was narrowly defeated in national elections in April 2006, many commentators have argued detected in Berlusconi’s monopolistic control of the media and the integration of politics and corporate power a prototype of political tendencies present in many other mature democracies

In the rapidly changing world of the 21st century, Italy’s capacity to innovate and astonish may not yet be exhausted, while its deeply contradictory experiences over the past two centuries continue to make Italy’s history a rich and rewarding vantage point from which to explore and explain the forces that have shaped the modern European world.

The University of Connecticut has a long and distinguished tradition of teaching and scholarship on Modern Italy. Emiliana Pasca Noether (History), Norman Kogan (Political Science) Glauco Gambon and Robert Dombroski (Literature) were all members of the UConn faculty who have left their imprint on the field of Italian studies, politics and history. In addition, Americans of Italian descent have also played distinguished and important roles both in the history and development of the State of Connecticut, and in promoting the study of Italian history, politics and culture at the state’s flagship research institution.

It was thanks above all t the generosity of the state’s Italian American communities that the first endowed chair in modern Italian history in the US was established in 1992, named after Emiliana Pasca Noether who retired from teaching in the UConn History Department in 1986.Since it inception in 1992 the Chair in Modern Italian History has been held by John A Davis, a leading scholar of modern Italy. Under Davis’s leadership the EPNC has developed a major graduate program, established contacts with Italian Universities, promoted exchanges of graduate students, senior and junior faculty, and organized numerous scholarly conferences and workshops. In 1996 Davis was one of the -founding editors of the Journal of Modern Italian Studies, the leading English language peer review journal in the field. The JMIS continues to be produced at the EPNC and offers graduate students opportunities to be involved in the production of a major academic journal.

Within the graduate programs offered in the History Department, the EPNC provides a specialist focus on modern Italy. As well as courses in modern Italian and comparative European history, courses on Italian Renaissance history are also offered by a leading specialist in the field, Professor Kenneth Gouwens. Courses in early modern Italian Art History are offered by Professor Bette Talvacchia in the School of Fine Arts. The EPNC has also taken a lead in establishing a new Masters program in Italian History and Culture, and is currently planning graduate and research initiatives. in conjunction with the Institute at the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence (Italy).

Graduate students wishing to develop their studies at the EPNC should apply to the graduate program in the History Department. In addition to the financial aid available through the History MA and PhD programs, the EPNC offers two graduate fellowships:
- the Bozzuto Fellowship in Italian History
- the Aldo De Dominicis-UNICO National Fellowship in Italian American history.