Italy has long occupied a peculiar position within the concert of Europe. By wealth and population it belongs alongside France, Britain and Germany as one of the four leading states of the Union. But it has never played a comparable role in the affairs of the continent, and has rarely been regarded as a diplomatic partner or rival of much significance. Its image lacks any association with power. Historically, that has no doubt been one of the reasons it has long been the favourite country of foreigners. Germans, French and English alike have repeatedly expressed a warmth of affection for it they have rarely felt for each other, even if the objects of their admiration differed. Few of their comments are without some contemporary ring. Escaping from the pruderies of Weimar to Rome, Goethe found it 'morally salutary to be living in the midst of a sensual people'. In Italy, Byron decided, 'there is no law or government at all; and it is wonderful how well things go on without them.' Stendhal, who knew the country better, felt at times that 'music alone is alive in Italy, and all that is to be made in this beautiful land is love; the other enjoyments of the soul are spoilt; one dies poisoned of melancholy as a citizen.' Yet Italians were also, paradoxically, masters of another practice:
Never, outside Italy, could one guess at the art called politics (way of making others do what is agreeable to us, when force or money is not to hand). Without patience, without absence of anger, no one can be called a politician. Napoleon was truly small in this respect, he had enough Italian blood in his veins to be subtle, but was incapable of using it.
LRB 21 March 2002 | PDF Download