Hodder History Expert Blog

Italian Unification
By Ed Podesta
30 Mar

Fascinating historiography

When I was first asked to start teaching this topic at AS level in my second year of teaching, I quickly became hooked. One of the great things about starting to teach a new area of history (new for me that is) is reading more widely and then in more depth about the period. 

In the case of the unification of Italy, as I explored beyond the textbooks that we had in school, I found that the historiography and the culture of the Risorgimento were both as interesting as the story of the creation of Italy.  Christopher Duggan’s excellent book ’The Force of Destiny’ was a particularly engaging read and led me to other works, such as Trevelyan’s trilogy on the exploits of his hero Garibaldi, as well as helping me understand the role that culture, language, literature and music had on the spirit of Risorgimento. (I was really pleased that Christopher agreed to act as our expert advisor whilst we wrote our book on the subject and we have been very grateful for his patient explanation and fact checking.)

Strong story line and interesting characters

Teaching a course on the unification of Italy is a pleasure, with a strong story and interesting characters to enliven it.  From the high handed put down delivered by Metternich in 1815 that Italy was ‘merely a geographical expression’, to the brave but futile attempts by Garibaldi to take Rome and finish the process of unification during the 1860s, there are more than enough high points and low points to spark the interest of any student.  The process of unification of Italy also links in with broader political, cultural and intellectual developments on the continent such as the growth of Enlightenment ideas, Nationalism and Romanticism.  In making an effort to understand how these processes worked, students gain a good grounding in the history of the continent in this crucial period, and potentially an enhanced understanding of how the modern world of the 20th Century came to be the way it was.  

Where Italian Unification features in the A Level specifications

Whilst we were writing this book curriculum change at AS and A Level were an important shadow on the horizon, and now that the specification are published and approved I’m delighted that the unification of Italy features prominently on the specifications. 
  • Edexcel offers a paper 2 topic on Italian unification, which is a combination of a source question and a choice of essay papers.   This paper covers the whole period from 1815 to 1870. 
  • OCR also have this period on their specification, with (at AS) a focus on historical interpretation as well as explanation. The A2 unit on Italian Unification also has a traditional essay question, but there is a shorter question which asks students to make a judgement about the ’significance’ of two events, people or factors.  The OCR Italian topics run from 1789 to 1896, but the core of the unit is what we cover in our book.
Our book has a strong focus on historiography and covers the impact of the French occupation of Italy from 1792 and has as an overview of the period after unification in 1870, and could easily be the core text around which these courses are planned.

The 'nation' 

The approach in our book flows out of our experience of teaching this unit and one of the particular things that my students struggled with when they first started to study Italy in the early 19th Century was the idea of ‘nation’.  They often have some ideas about nationality and national pride, but they find it hard to understand that nations could be created, and that countries were not predestined to be created.   If they didn’t break the mental habit of thinking of Italy as a whole country then they often treated the course as a simple story that led to a natural conclusion - that Italy would be a unified country.  It is really hard for them to imagine an Italy that isn’t one country, and therefore for them to analyse the ways in which a new country was stitched together in 1860.  How can we help them with this?
  • Videos, such as this one can help students to start to grasp the differences between the different parts of Italy.  Ask students to watch this video, and ask them to theorise about how North and South might feel about each other, from the information in it.
  • Ask them to take a look at a map of Italian dialects like this one or to have a play with the table on this page which shows how different dialects have completely different words for apparently simple words like ‘ear’ and ‘eye’.   
  • For a homework, ask them to make a photo montage of pictures that make them think of ’Scotland’, ‘Ireland', ‘Wales', or ‘England’ or ‘Britain’, to see if there are different ways of thinking about the ‘nation’ or ‘nations’ that make up Great Britain, and to help them think about the way that a modern country like Britain manages to stay together. 
Ed Podesta currently teaches History in Yorkshire as well as writing and training History teachers. His co-author on Italian Unification was Pam Canning and Series Editor is Ian Dawson.

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