"150 years from Italian unity." "And we’re still waiting for the law decreeing it."

150 years old, and feeling it

On the 150th anniversary of Italian unity, British historian and columnist Timothy Garton Ash looks at the "bel paese" - its fractiousness a mirror of the European Union - and is less than impressed.

Published on 16 March 2011 at 13:36
"150 years from Italian unity." "And we’re still waiting for the law decreeing it."

The 15th-century pope Pius II, who really initiated the modern discourse on "Europe", wrote a famous letter to Sultan Mohammad II, the conqueror of Constantinople, in which he celebrated the manifold powers of the old continent: "Spain so steadfast, France so warlike, Germany so populous, Britain so strong, Poland so daring, Hungary so active and Italy so rich, high-spirited and experienced in the art of war."

Now as then, Europe is unthinkable without its nations. To see Europe only as the European Union and its Brussels institutions is like describing a beautiful old house by reading out the instruction books for its plumbing, electrical system and central heating. To be sure, Europe is much more than the sum of its nations – but without them, it is nothing. So it is appropriate that as the Guardian launches a month of special European coverage, it will do so by looking in depth, week by week, at four nations mentioned by Pius II more than five centuries ago: Germany, France, Spain and Poland.

Meanwhile, let us consider Pius II's own nation, Italy, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of its supposed unification into a modern nation-state on 17th March – the Kingdom of Italy having been proclaimed on 17 March 1861. Italy is the ur-European country. Nowhere else can you find so many closely piled layers of European history. Only in Rome can you have lunch near the place where Julius Caesar was murdered, then pop over to hear St Peter's heir proclaim his 2,000-year-old message to the city and the world. Most of what made the traditional, early modern identity of Europe – especially the heritage of ancient Greece and Christianity – came to us through ancient Rome. Europe: from Julius Caesar to Silvio Berlusconi.

Every European country is unique, yet they all have much in common with each other and each part tells us something about the whole. Here are eight things that I think today's Italy tells us about today's Europe. Read full article in the Guardian...

Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic