Italian diversity has an ancient history that could not be suppressed in a few years. In the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greeks spoke the same language and thought of themselves as Greeks; Italy's population at the time spoke about 40 languages and had no common sense of identity. The diversity became even more pronounced after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Italians lived for centuries in medieval communes, city-states, or Renaissance duchies. This communal spirit is still alive today: When you ask citizens of, for example, Pisa how they identify themselves, they are likely to answer first as Pisans, then as Tuscans, and only after as Italians or Europeans. As many Italians cheerfully admit, their sense of belonging to the same nation becomes apparent only during the World Cup, when the Azzurri, the members of the national soccer team, are playing well.
Language is another barometer of Italy's fractiousness. The distinguished Italian linguist Tullio De Mauro has estimated that at the time of unification, just 2.5 percent of the population spoke Italian -- that is, the Florentine vernacular that evolved from the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Even if that is an exaggeration and perhaps 10 percent understood the language, it still means 90 percent of Italy's inhabitants spoke languages or regional dialects incomprehensible to those elsewhere in the country. Even King Victor Emmanuel spoke in the Piedmontese dialect when he wasn't speaking his first language -- French.
In the euphoria of 1859 to 1861, few Italian politicians paused to consider the complications of uniting so diverse a collection of people. One who did was the Piedmontese statesman and painter Massimo d'Azeglio, who is reported to have said after unification, "Now we have made Italy, we must learn to make Italians."
Alas, the chief means chosen by the new government to achieve this aim was an effort to turn Italy into a great power -- one that could compete militarily with France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. This attempt, however, was bound to fail because the new nation was so much poorer than its rivals.
For 90 years, culminating in Mussolini's fall, Italy's leaders were determined to create a sense of nationhood by turning Italians into conquerors and colonialists. Vast sums of money were therefore spent on expeditions to Africa, often with disastrous results; at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, in which an army was wiped out by an Ethiopian force, more Italians were killed in a single day than in all the wars of the Risorgimento put together. Although the country had no enemies in Europe and no need to fight in either of the world wars, Italy joined the fighting in both global conflicts nine months after they had begun when the government thought it had identified the winner and extracted promises of territorial rewards.
Mussolini's miscalculation and subsequent downfall destroyed Italian militarism and at the same time punctured the idea of Italian nationhood. For 50 years after World War II, the country was dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Communists. These parties -- which took their cue from the Vatican and the Kremlin, respectively -- were not interested in instilling a new sense of national identity to replace the old one.
Postwar Italy was in many ways a great success. With one of the highest growth rates in the world, it became an innovator in such peaceful and productive fields as film, fashion, and industrial design. Yet the economic triumphs were uneven, and no administration was able to reduce the disparities between north and south.
The government's political and economic failures are not the only cause of the malaise that now threatens Italy's survival. Some flaws in the national structure were inherent in the circumstances of the country's creation. The Northern League -- Italy's third-largest political party, which suggested that the country's 150th birthday in March should be cause for mourning rather than celebration -- is not simply a bizarre aberration. Its attitude to the south, xenophobic and even racist as it sometimes is, demonstrates the truth that Italy has never felt itself to be a properly united country.
The great liberal politician Giustino Fortunato used to quote his father's view that "the unification of Italy was a sin against history and geography." He believed that the strengths and civilization of the peninsula had always been regional and that a centralized government would never work. Now he looks more prescient by the year. And if Italy has a future as a united nation after this crisis, it must accept the reality of its troubled birth and build a new political model that takes account of its intrinsic, millennial regionalism -- if not as a collection of republican communes, hilltop duchies and principalities once more, then at least as a federal state that reflects the essential features of its past.