Italy – General Aspects

THE limits of the Italian peninsula have been most distinctly traced by nature. The Alps, which bound it in the north, from the promontories of Liguria to the mountainous peninsula of Istria, present themselves like a huge wall, the only breaches in which are formed by passes situated high up in the zones of pines, pastures, or eternal snows. Italy, like its two sister peninsulas of Southern Europe, thus constitutes a world of its own, destined by nature to become the theatre of a special evolution of humanity. Its delightful climate, beauteous skies, and fertile fields distinguish it in a marked manner from the countries lying beyond the Alps ; and an inhabitant of the latter n ho descends the sunny southern slope of this dividing range cannot fail to perceive that everything around him has changed, and that he has entered a ” new world.”

The protecting barrier of the Alps and the sea which bounds it have imparted to Italy a distinct individuality. All its countries, from the plains of Lombardy to the shores of Sicily, resemble each other in certain respects. There is a sort of family likeness about them ; but still what delightful contrasts, what picturesque variety, do we not meet with ! Most of these contrasts are due to the Apennines, which branch off from the southern extremity of the French Alps. At first they run close to the seashore, like a huge wall supported at intervals by powerful buttresses ; subsequently they traverse the whole of the peninsula. At times they are reduced to a narrow ridge, at others they spread out into vast masses, rising in plateaux or ramifying into chains and promontories. River valleys and plains intersect them in all directions ; lakes and filled-up lake basins are spread out at the foot of their cliffs ; and numerous volcanoes, rising above the general level, contrast, by their regular form, with the rugged declivities of the Apennines. The sea, following these sinuosities in the relief of the ground, forms a series of bays, arranged w ith a certain degree of symmetry. In the north these bays do not much encroach upon the land, but in the south they penetrate deeply, and almost form veritable gulfs. There once existed an Italy of granitic rocks, but it exists no longer, for the rocks of the Apennines and of the plains teach us that the Italy of the present is of recent origin, and that the many islands of which it consisted formerly were united into a single peninsula as recently as the Eocene epoch.

Italy, compared with Greece, exhibits much sobriety in its configuration. Its mountains are arranged in more regular ridges, its coasts are less indented, its small archipelagos bear no comparison with the Cyclades, and its three great dependent islands, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, are regular in their contours. Indeed, its contours mark its intermediate position between joyous Greece and severe Iberia. Thus there exists a correspondence between geographical position and contours.

Italy, as a whole, contrasts in a remarkable manner with the Balkan peninsula. The former faces the AEgean, and looks towards the east, whilst in the truly peninsular portion of Italy, to the south of the plains of Lombardy, the westerly slopes offer most life. Secure harbours are most numerous on the shores of the Tyrrhenian, and the largest and most fertile plains slope down towards that sea. It results from this that the western slopes of the Apennines have given birth to the most enterprising and intelligent populations, who have taken the lead in the political history of their country. The west represents the light, whilst the east, bounded as it is by the Adriatic, an inland sea almost, a simple gulf, represents the night. True, the plains of Apulia, though on the east, are wealthier and more populous than the mountain regions of Calabria, but the vicinity of Sicily, nevertheless, even there insures the preponderance of the western littoral. Whilst Greece was in the height of her glory, whilst every initiative went forth from Athens, the cities of Asia Minor, and the islands of the AEgean, those republics which looked towards the east, such as Tarentum, Locri, Sybaris, Syracuse, and Catania, enjoyed a pre-eminence over the cities on the western littoral. The physical configuration of Italy thus facilitated the march of civilisation from the south-east to the north-west, from Ionia to Gaul. The Gulf of Taranto and the eastern coasts of Greater Greece and Sicily were freely exposed to Hellenic influences, whilst further north the peninsula faces about to the west as it were. There can be no doubt that these features greatly facilitated the expansion of ideas in the direction of Western Europe, and that if it had been otherwise civilisation would have taken another direction.

For nearly two thousand years, from the fall of Carthage to the discovery of America, Italy remained the centre of the civilised world. It maintained its hegemony either by conquest and organization, as in the case of the ” Eternal City,” or by the power of its genius, the relative liberty of its institutions, its sciences, arts, and commerce, as in the times of Florence, Genoa, and Venice. Two of the greatest events in history, the political unification of the Mediterranean world under the laws of Rome, and at a later epoch the regeneration of the human mind, so appropriately termed ” Renaissance,” originated in Italy. It behoves us, therefore, to inquire into the geographical conditions which may account for this preponderance during these two ages in the life of mankind.

Mommsen and others have pointed out the favourable position of Rome as an emporium. From the very first that city became the commercial centre of the neighbouring populations. Built in the centre of a circus of hills, and on the banks of a navigable river, not far from the sea, it likewise possessed the advantage of lying on the frontiers of three nations—Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans. When Rome had conquered the neighbouring territories it undoubtedly rose into importance as a place of commerce. This local traffic, however, would never have converted Rome into a great city. Its position is not to be compared with that of places like Alexandria, Constantinople, or Bombay, upon which the world’s commerce converges as a matter of course. On the contrary, its situation hardly favours commerce. The Apennines, which environ the territory of Rome in a huge semicircle, constituted a formidable obstacle until quite recently, and were avoided by merchants ; the sea near Rome is treacherous, and even the small galleys of the ancients could not enter the inefficient harbour at Ostia without risk.

The power of Rome, therefore, depended but in a small measure upon commercial advantages resulting from geographical position. It is its central position to which that city is mainly indebted for its greatness, and which enabled it to weld the whole of the ancient world into a political whole. Three concentric circles drawn around the city correspond with as many phases in its development. During their first struggles for existence the Romans enjoyed the advantage of occupying a basin of limited extent, shielded on all sides by mountains. When Rome had exterminated the inhabitants of these mountains the remainder of Italy naturally gravitated towards her. The plains of Cis- and Transpadana in the north presented no obstacles, whilst the resistance of the uncivilised tribes of the mountain regions of the south was soon broken, for they found no support amongst the Greek colonies scattered along an extensive coast. Nor were the populations of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica sufficiently united to offer an effective resistance to the organized forces of the Romans, who were thus able to extend their power over all the countries comprehended within the second concentric circle referred to.

It happened that the plains of Northern Italy and Sicily were both rich granaries, which enabled the Romans to push forward their conquests. The whole world of the Mediterranean gravitated towards Rome and Italy : Illyria, Greece, and Egypt in the east, Libya and Mauritania in the south, Iberia in the west, Gaul in the north-west, and the transalpine countries in the north.

Rome maintained her power and influence as long as the Mediterranean constituted the world ; but, in proportion as the borders of the known world were enlarged, so did Rome lose the advantages which a central position had conferred upon her. Even during the latter days of the Roman empire Milan and Ravenna usurped the position once held by Rome, and the latter became the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom, and subsequently the seat of the Byzantine exarchs. Rome, the city of the Csars, had fallen for evermore ! True. the emperors were succeeded by the popes, but the real masters of the ” Holy Roman Empire ” resided beyond the Alps, and only came to Italy to have their power consecrated. Even in Italy itself Rome ceased to be the leading town, its place being taken by Pavia, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Venice, Bologna, and even Turin.

The unity of Italy has been realised in the course of this century, and, excepting a few Alpine valleys, its political boundaries coincide with its natural ones. It may surprise us that this unity should riot have been established long ago, but the geographical configuration of Italy readily lends itself to the establishment of small states. Its islands, its mountain-bound plains, and coast districts, shut off from the interior of the country by abrupt mountains, formed as many centres where populations of diverse origin were able to lead a life independently of their neighbours. Now and then the whole of Italy acknowledged a single master, but it only did so on compulsion. That spirit of nationality which has given birth to a united Italy only animated very few citizens of the mediaeval republics. They might unite to resist a common danger, but no sooner was it past than they went their separate ways, or, still worse, fought amongst themselves about some trifle.

Cola di Rienzi, the tribune of Rome, appealed to the cities of Italy in the middle of the fourteenth century ; he adjured them to ” throw off the yoke of the tyrant, and to form a holy national brotherhood, whose object should be the liberation of Rome and the whole of Italy.” His messengers, carrying a silver wand, went to every city with greetings of amity, and asked that deputies should be sent to the future parliament of the Eternal City. Rienzi, full of the memories of the past, declared that Rome had not ceased to be the ” mistress of the world,” and had a natural right to govern all nations. It was his aim to resuscitate the past, not to evoke a new life, and his work disappeared like a dream. Florence and `Venice, the most active cities of that period, looked upon him as a visionary. ” Siam Veneziani, poi Cristiani,” said the proud citizens of Venice in the fifteenth century. They, whose sons fought so valiantly for Italian independence, never thought of calling themselves Italians. At the same time we must bear in mind that the impulse which has made Italy one did not originate with the masses, for there are still millions of Sicilians, Sardinians, Calabrians, and even Lombards who do not appreciate the vast changes which have taken place.

If Italy no longer remains a ” geographical expression,” it is owing in a large measure to frequent foreign invasions. Spaniards, French, and Germans in turn have seized the fertile plains of Italy, and their hard oppression has taught the Italians to look upon each other as brothers. The Alps might be supposed to offer an effective protection against such invasions, but they do not. They are steepest on the Italian side, whilst their exterior slopes, towards France, Switzerland, and German Austria, are comparatively gentle. Invaders, tempted by the delightful climate and the wealth of Italy, were able to reach easily the Alpine passes, whence they rushed down upon the plains ; and thus the “barrier of the Alps” is a barrier only to the Italians, and has always been respected by them, excepting during the Roman empire. Nor is there any reason why they should cross it, for there is no country beyond equal to their own French, Swiss, and Germans, on the other hand, have always looked upon Italy as a sort of paradise. It was the country of their dreams ; they yielded frequently to their desire to possess it, and dyed its coveted plains with blood.

Italy, exposed as it is to attacks from beyond, and no longer situated in the centre of the known world, has definitively lost its primate, or foremost place amongst nations, which some of its sons, carried away by an exclusive patriotism, would restore to it. But though no longer the most powerful nation, and eclipsed in industry, commerce, and even literature and science, it still remains unrivalled in its treasures of art. There is no other country in the world which can boast of an equal number of cities remarkable on account of their buildings, statues, paintings, and decorations of every kind. There are provinces where every village, every group of houses even, delights the eye either by a fresco painting or a work of the sculptor’s chisel, a bold staircase or picturesque balcony. The instinct for art has passed into the blood of the people, and we need not wonder if an Italian peasant builds his house and plants his trees so as to bring them into harmony with the surrounding landscape. This constitutes the greatest charm of Italy ; everywhere art goes hand in hand with nature. How many artists are there not in Lombardy, Venetia, or Tuscany who would have become famous in any other country, but whose names will never be remembered, in consequence of their overwhelming numbers, or because their lot was cast in some remote village !

Italy owes the rank it has held for more than two thousand years not merely to its monuments and works of art, which attract students from the extremities of the earth, but also to its historical associations. In a country which has been inhabited for centuries by a civilised people there cannot be a town the origin of which is not lost in the darkness of tradition. The modern cities have replaced the Roman towns, and these latter rose upon the ruins of some Greek, Etruscan, or Gallic settlement. Every fortress, every country house, marks the site of some ancient citadel, or of the villa of a Roman patrician ; churches have replaced the ancient temples, and though the religious rites have changed, the altars of gods and saints arise anew in the spots consecrated of old. An examination of these relics of all ages is full of interest, and only the most obtuse can resist the influence of the historical reminiscences which surround him.

Italy, after a long period of decay and foreign domination, has again taken its place amongst the foremost modern nations. The aspect of the peninsula has undergone many changes since it received the name of Vitalia, or Italia, from the herds of cattle which roamed over it. Its well-cultivated plains, carefully tended gardens, and busy cities entitle it now to some other appellation. The passes of the Alps and its central position give Italy the command of all the routes which converge from France, Germany, and Austria upon the Gulfs of Genoa and Venice. Its quarries, sulphur and iron mines, its wines and agricultural produce of every description, and its industry afford ever-growing resources. Its men of learning and inventors may fairly claim to be on a level with those of other countries. The population increases rapidly. It is not only more dense than in France, but also sends a considerable contingent of emigrants to the solitudes of Southern America.