Friday, September 24, 2021


History of Italy

Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, tr. Frances Frenaye (New York: Time Incorporated, 1964), pp. 142-145:
I was struck by the peasants' build: they are short and swarthy with round heads, large eyes, and thin lips; their archaic faces do not stem from the Romans, Greeks, Etruscans, Normans, or any of the other invaders who have passed through their land, but recall the most ancient Italic types. They have led exactly the same life since the beginning of time, and History has swept over them without effect. Of the two Italys that share the land between them, the peasant Italy is by far the older; so old that no one knows whence it came, and it may have been here forever. Humilemque videmus Italiam; this was the low-lying, humble Italy that first met the eyes of the Asiatic conquerors as the ships of Aeneas rounded the promontory of Calabria.

There should be a history of this Italy, a history outside the framework of time, confining itself to that which is changeless and eternal, in other words, a mythology. This Italy has gone its way in darkness and silence, like the earth, in a sequence of recurrent seasons and recurrent misadventures. Every outside influence has broken over it like a wave, without leaving a trace. Rarely has it risen to defend itself from mortal danger and only on those few occasions has it fought, in vain, a truly national war. The first of these was the resistance to Aeneas. A mythological history must have its root in myth and for this reason Vergil is a great historian. The Phoenician invaders from Troy brought with them a set of values diametrically opposed to those of the ancient peasant civilization. They brought religion and the State, and the religion of the State. The religious tradition or pietas of Aeneas could not be understood by the ancient Italians, who lived beside the beasts of the field. The invaders brought also arms and an army, escutcheons, heraldry, and war. Their religion was a violent one, demanding human sacrifice; on the funeral pyre of Pallas the pious Aeneas made a burnt offering of prisoners to the gods of the State. The ancient Italians, meanwhile, lived on the land, knowing neither sacrifice nor religion. The Trojans met with insuperable hostility among the natives, and the two civilizations clashed. Aeneas found his only allies among the Etruscans, city people, like him from the Orient, perhaps of the same Semitic origin, and similarly ruled by a military oligarchy. With these allies, then, he waged war. On one side there was an army in shining armor forged by the gods; on the other, as Vergil describes them, were peasant bands, risen in self-defense, with no god-given weapons but only axes, knives, and scythes, the tools of their daily work in the fields. These, too, were valorous brigands, doomed to defeat. Italy, the humble Italy, was conquered:
Per cui morì la vergine Cammilla
Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.

On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus of their wounds.
Then came Rome and perfected the governmental and military theocracy of its Trojan founders, who had to accept, however, the customs and language of the people they had conquered. Rome, too, met with opposition among the peasants, and the series of Italic Wars were the most stubborn obstacles in its path. Here again the Italians suffered a military defeat, but they kept their individuality and did not mingle with their conquerors. After this second national war the peasant world, hemmed in by Roman order, lay in waiting, dormant, as it were. The feudal civilization that came after, with the passing of time and peoples, was not a creation of the peasants, but it was close to the earth, limited by the boundaries of great estates, and less in opposition to the rural way of life. This is why the Swabians are popular even today with the peasants; they speak of Conradin as a national hero and mourn for his death. After him, indeed, this flourishing land fell into ruin.

The fourth national war of the peasants was brigandage and here, too, the humble Italy was historically on the wrong side and bound to lose. The brigands had neither the arms forged by Vulcan nor the heavy artillery of the government troops. Even their gods were powerless: of what avail was a poor Madonna with a black face against the Ethical State of the Neapolitan followers of Hegel? Brigandage was an access of heroic folly and desperate savagery, a desire for wreaking death and ruin, with no hope of final victory. "If the world had only one enormous heart, I'd tear it out," said Caruso, one of the most fearful brigand chiefs.

This blind urge to destruction, this bloody and suicidal will to annihilation, has lurked for centuries beneath the patient endurance of daily toil. Every revolt on the part of the peasants springs out of an elementary desire for justice deep at the dark bottom of their hearts. After the end of brigandage this land sank into an uneasy peace. But every now and then in some village or other, when the peasants have no representation in the government and no defense in the law, they rise up with death in their hearts, burn the town hall or the barracks of the carabinieri, kill the gentry, and then go off in silent resignation to prison.

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