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entry Mar 2009

iustino Fortunato

Giustino Fortunato (1848-1932) was a southern Italian writer, historian and politician. (He is not to be confused with his uncle of the same name, who was the prime minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from 1849 to 1852.)

In 1861, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies —i.e. the entire southern half of the Italian peninsula plus the island of Sicily— was joined by force to the north, thus creating the modern nation state of Italy. There arose immediately a species of socio-political thinker called the “meridionalista” (precisely: “southernist”), someone concerned with what was called “the problem of the south.” That problem, briefly expressed in the northern cliché of the day —many of which still persist (as does the phrase “problem of the south")— was that the liberal industrializing north had inherited a backward, feudal state and had taken on the task of trying to fix what was wrong with it. The southern cliché was that the south was not that backward to begin with and had simply lost a war and was paying the price exacted by the victors, less interested in pan-Italian equality than in using the newly conquered provinces as a colony.

Somewhere in between these extremes, perhaps, was Giustino Fortunato, a southerner and a political moderate, which meant that he accepted the irrevocable unity of the new nation and dedicated himself to creating the conditions by which the south could play an equal role in that nation. In his 84 years as a writer, historian, and politician, he lived through the entire risorgimento (the movement to unite Italy); he saw the new nation’s colonial expansion into Africa, her involvement in WWI and the rise to power of Benito Mussolini (whom he opposed). Fortunato was witness to all the difficulties of being a southerner in the new nation; indeed, he saw his own home area near Potenza dramatically depopulated by emigration from the south between 1880 and WWI. He remained one of the most articulate spokesman for the view that creating a new nation involved more than just conquering an old one. (#See notes 1 & 2, below.)

Fortunato studied at the Jesuit College in Naples and then studied law at the university there; he founded two journals: Unità Nazionale [National Unity] and Patria [Nation]. He declared himself a moderate —not left, not right— interested only in the “civil reconstruction” of the nation. He left behind an important book from 1911, Il Mezzogiorno e lo Stato Italiano [The South and the Italian State.] It was a collection of 30 years of his writings and speeches. He did not hesitate to express what many in the south felt. In 1899, he wrote:

The unification of Italy was, perhaps, our economic ruin. In 1860, we were in complete condition for an economic reawakening, healthy and profitable. Unification left us behind. If that weren’t enough, it showed, contrary to what many think, that the Italian state sinks its financial resources into the north much more than into the south.

Fortunato and others made the strong claim that the economic policies of the central government of the new state discriminated against the interests of the south while favoring those of the north. Fortunato put his money where his mouth was by buying and distributing quinine at his own expense in order to combat malaria in his region of Basilicata; as well, he promoted the construction of new railway lines in that area and promoted literacy and the opening of new schools. He said many things worth repeating; two of them are, “A free nation in the modern world is impossible without the well-being of the masses” and “The study of history is worthless unless it tells you something about the present.” Late in life, he had another most curious phrase: Fascism was “not a revolution but a revelation.” He thus set himself apart from historians such as Benedetto Croce, who was quite willing to believe that Italian liberalism after unification had been on track and had been disrupted by WW I, thus setting the stage for the aberration of Fascism. Fortunato’s “revelation” was that the Italian liberal state, itself, had failed, especially in its dealings with its own south because Italian liberalism had been a kind of crypto-authoritarianism that led quite naturally to the rise to power of a dictator.

There is, indeed, a small square named after Giustino Fortunato in Naples. (It is as obscure as he is. A woman told me, "I was born and raised in this house"
—about two blocks from where I eventually found the square—"and I have never heard of it." There is a medium-sized hotel and a post-office in the square.) So he is not particularly well-remembered; maybe this is because he was a reformer in an age of revolutionaries. He lived through the invasion and conquest of his nation, the fall of the thousand-year-old Papal States, The Communist Manifesto, the demise of absolutism, the birth of modern European liberal democracies, and the deaths of a number of European monarchs and politicians by anarchist assassination. Oh, and a World War ("The war to end all war," as they said at the time). It was an age of great passion in Europe, and Fortunato was not a passionate man. He was, thus, anathema to revolutionaries such as Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, who called him and Croce "the most active reactionaries on the entire peninsula."

So, Fortunato was not a philosopher of sweeping change, but he was concerned with the nuts and bolts of how to bring well-being to the masses
. He was in the Italian Chamber of Deputies for many years and spoke out for things such as agrarian reform and universal suffrage. His Il Mezzogiorno e lo Stato Italiano was published for the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Italy. In the introduction, he recalls the French ditty from the age of Charles VIII that sang of "conquering the Italies" and how uncomfortable that plural reference —"Italies"— was for modern united Italians. Yet, he said, 50 years after unification, "there are still two Italies." He realized, he said, that he was "by now obscure" and just a "modest scholar." It was typically moderate and self-effacing, an apology for pointing out that there was much work yet to be done.

note 1: There is a revealing passage in Cinel (below), citing Fortunato as saying to a northern colleague in the Chamber of Deputies, "We were still in the Middle Ages and all of a sudden you northerners pushed us into the modern world. Gunshots were the most powerful argument you had to convince us not to oppose national unification." To this, the northerner replied, "Had we known then what we now now, we would not have fought for political unification. This was an honest mistake on our part, stemming from a set of erroneous assumptions about the true nature of the south..."

One of the erroneous northern assumptions was that the south was some sort of a giant, fertile bread-basket. (Even Cavour, the first prime minister of united Italy, said that "within 20 years," the south would be the most productive part of Italy.) Except for the two large centers of population, Naples and Palermo, the south was, at the time of unification, largely rural; that much is true, but, beyond Campania, much of the land was not particularly well-suited to farming. Even where it was, land-management policies in the south were medieval hold-overs; absentee tenancy and management were the rule and in no way easy to incorporate into the new nation. The new national government started publishing studies in the 1870s on the true nature of the agrarian situation in the south; Fortunato was one of those who helped reveal to the rest of the nation just how different the south really was.
 (^ to text)

note 2: There is a great deal of picking and choosing in supporting one's point of view. There are "nostalgic" Bourbon sources that—while ignoring the disastrous agrarian situation—take pains to point out that by the standards of early industrialization, the south was at least on a par with the combined states of the northern part of the peninsula: a larger navy and mercantile fleet, comparable gross national product, similar per capita number of hospitals and doctors, etc. So pick and choose away! (^ to text)


Cinel, Dino. (2002) chapter:"The emergence of a national problem: the south." in The National Integration of Italian Return Migration, 1870-1929. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

—Fortunato, Giustino. (1911) Il Mezzogiorno e lo Stato Italiano [The South and the Italian State], Bari, Italy, pub. Laterza;

Gramsci, Antonio (1926). "Some Aspects of the Southern Question" in Antonio Gramsci: pre-prison writings. Cambridge University Press, 1994. Edited by Richard Bellamy, translator: Virginia Cox.

—Kogan, Norman. (1968) Review of Italy from Liberalism to Fascism, 1870-1925 by Christopher Seton-Watson (London: Methuen, 1967), in the  Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 378;

—Reece, Jack E. (1992) Review of La Questione Meridionale Prima Dell'Intervento Straordinario by Amedeo Lepore (in Uomini e cose della nuova Italia, number 40. Manduria, Italy, pub. Piero Lacaita), in The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 3.

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