It has a peculiar charm for all foreigners, even when they are not aware of its nature or cause. It is not merely the charm of beautiful country or delightful people though it may be that there is no country so beautiful and no people so delightful. It is that, while the towns of Italy are all Italian, they are also all individual with the intense individuality of men of genius or works of art. Each one is a different world from the other, as if its inhabitants had consciously made it to express themselves, whereas many towns in England and other countries seem to have grown through an economic accident. They are circumstances to which the people who live in them are subdued ; but in Italy towns great and small are not merely circumstances. They are to towns elsewhere what poetry is to ordinary speech. In them the spirit has been master, and has expressed itself through the material.
And this is so because the fate of Italy in the past has been peculiar, both in its glory and in its misfortune. When elsewhere in the dark ages civilisation was lost in a barbarous equality, out of which nations grew, in Italy there remained cities that never were reduced to this equality, but kept the memory of the world alive within their walls, and with it the freedom and the hope of the world. In the words of Shelley :
“Many a warrior-peopled citadel,
Like rocks which fire lifts out of the flat deep,
Arose in sacred Italy,
Frowning o’er the tempestuous sea
Of kings and priests and slaves, in tower-crowned majesty ;
That multitudinous anarchy did sweep,
And burst around their walls like idle foam,
Whilst from the human spirit’s deepest deep
Strange melody with love and awe struck dumb
Yet, when Shelley wrote this in Italy, the towered cities which he loved had lost their freedom, and seemed to live only in memory.
It is the long tragedy of history that, whereas the mind of man grows finest in little states, and does in them best express all the intensity of the human spirit, there also comes a time when the larger, grosser and more inert states have learnt from them enough of civilisation to overcome their spiritual superiority with brute force. So it was with Greece ; and so again it was with Italy. For centuries the little city-states taught the world out of the fulness of their own knowledge and power. Each city was to its citizens a hundred times more than any mediaeval country could be to its inhabitants. They kept the very idea of patriotism alive with the idea of freedom ; for freedom was their peculiar treasure, guarded within the walls of their own city ; and they made their city, as it were, a beautiful casket in which to guard it. Other men might like the countryside in which they were born, but it did not belong to them as Florence belonged to the Florentine. It did not express their love and power, nor were they moved to beautify it with labours beyond what were needed to win their daily bread. If they fought, it was in a quarrel they did not understand ; but the Florentine fought for his own city, and, when he walked its streets, he saw those great men who made it famous through the world. It was not merely an idea to him, but a fact always close to him in its beauty, always to be made more beautiful with his labours a fact so concrete and so dear that he could not think or feel beyond it. And so it was with the other cities ; and they remained city-states, each with its own passionate and narrow patriotism, while the nations round gained knowledge and power from them, until they began to turn greedy eyes upon their teachers. Italy united would have been safe against the Spaniards, and French, and Germans ; but Italians had too fierce a love, each of his own city, to unite. They first in the modern world knew what patriotism was, and with it freedom ; but it was so intense that they could not enlarge it ; and therefore they lost their freedom, city by city, and without even the glory of one common struggle for it.
They lost it almost unawares ; and then gradually their minds were prepared in adversity for that hope which, in their freedom and happiness, they had never even wished to entertain the hope of United Italy. We do not know when it first began as a dream, or when it changed from a dream into a hope. Perhaps it was at that very moment when the last republics died ; or perhaps it grew into power at the Congress of Verona, concerning which Byron addressed Italy in bitter words :
“Crowd to the theatre with loyal rage, The comedy is not upon the stage ; The show is rich in ribandry and stars,
Thou gaze upon it through thy dungeon bars ; Clap thy permitted palms, kind Italy,
For thus much still thy fettered hands are free.”
What an English poet said then aloud must have been felt more keenly in many Italian hearts. There were nations all round growing more conscious of themselves after the , war of the nations ; but Italy was not a nation, and no one, but a poet or two, called her one. She was only the tourists’ country and the curator of her own past. If she would be quiet and show her treasures to the world, she would not be treated ill by her masters ; but she must not force them to take her seriously.
She did force them to take her seriously ; and the freeing of Italy was the greatest triumph of the spirit in the modern world. For it was the spirit of Italy that freed her ; and even if she had great allies, it was her spirit that won them. And when her freedom was accomplished, and with it her unity, men might well believe that the victory was won for national freedom once for all, and that nothing remained but to make that victory else-where and inevitably complete.
Yet in that same year another national unity was accomplished, a unity no less natural and lawful, which was to involve a new danger to national freedom all over the world. Men did not know it at the time. They did not see that while the unity of Italy was in freedom, the unity of Germany was in the willing slavery of a people who, because they were themselves content not to be free, would in time surely threaten the freedom of other nations. In the unity of Italy there remained the memory of all those lovely city-states, for the cities them-selves remained and kept the love of their citizens ; and so their common freedom was, and remains, a complex and harmonious thing, aiming at no uniformity and ever ready to sacrifice the proper diversity of freedom to power. The task for Italy, her highest ambition, which she has always kept before herself, is to solve that old problem which has never been solved before to preserve the diversity and energy and spiritual intensity of the city-state within a larger unity powerful enough to defend itself against all attacks from without. But that was not the task which Germany set her-self, the ambition which slowly possessed her with her greedy power. At the very outset of her unity, obtained in a war of conquest, she submitted herself to the predominance of Prussia, because Prussia, she believed, could teach her to be powerful. She gave away her freedom for a great price ; and it was inevitable, as we see now, that she should try to exact that price from the world.
It was not unity in diversity that she desired, but uniformity for the sake of power. She deliberately refused that higher idea of a nation without which unity itself would have been to Italy too costly, and chose rather an idea as old as Assyria, the sacrifice of all inner richness to outward power ; and it was all the worse because she had so much inner richness to sacrifice. In a generation the old diverse, musical, philosophical Germany was changed into a machine, conscious of its own purpose morbidly conscious, indeed because of all the sacrifices it had made, but with a purpose entirely mechanical. And so it was certain that, when the trial of strength came at last, the two lately united nations would be found on opposite sides. The alliance which held them together for a time was purely artificial. Germany was the link between Italy and her ancient oppressor ; it was Germany indeed who seemed to secure her from the attempted revenge of that oppressor ; but all the while, unknown to her and to the world, Germany was becoming a more dangerous enemy to the common freedom of Europe than Austria herself had ever been or had ever hoped to be.
And as the threat of Germany began to reveal itself, her alliance with Italy grew of necessity more and more formal, as it was more and more against nature. The old oppressor, Austria, had become Germany’s vassal ; and there was nothing for Italy but to become either her enemy or her vassal too. This grew every day more plain in the years just before the war, and Italy did not need to nerve herself up to a decision when that was necessary. The decision possessed her like a passion ; and she turned to her sister nations of the west because they were her sisters in mind and purpose, and joined to her by a tie stronger even than the tie of blood. If Italy had fought for the German cause, if even she had remained neutral, she would have belied the very hopes in which she was reborn. She would have been no longer the Italy of the city-states and all their great children, not the Italy of Mazzini and Garibaldi, but a mock-Germany who had sold her own soul without even a chance of getting the price for it.
The German statesmen profess indignation at the treachery of Italy ; but in their hearts they cannot feel it. For, apart from the fact that for them there is no such thing as treachery, they knew that for years there had been no interchange of confidence between Germany and Italy. They never told Italy that they meant an attack upon the liberties of the world. They were afraid to tell her that, because they knew that she was an ally, not an accomplice like their vassal Austria. And they knew that she could not be an accomplice because of her character and past history and present aims. If one is a partner in honest business with a man, one is not therefore bound to assist him in a burglary. And if one discovers that he is a burglar, there is nothing to be done but to dissolve the partnership and to assist justice against him. That was the course Italy took when the German power was at its height. It could not be said of her that she turned against her old ally in the hour of defeat. The moment at which she made war was the moment at which the pressure of her popular will became irresistible. In all the negotiations before, that will was only becoming conscious of itself. Italy knew at last that she could not consent to a German victory. She is a part of Europe ; before she was a nation, she did more to make Europe what it is than any nation ; and she became a nation because the Europe which she had helped to make was Europe. How then could she sit still and watch the unmaking of Europe ? It was impossible, and we knew it from the first. We waited for the inevitable day ; and when it came, we were glad to have our sister with us. But we had loved her too much before ever to doubt her.