The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945 by John Foot review – sparkling chronicle of a nation divided

Victor-Emmanuel III, Italy’s pro-fascist king who abdicated in 1946
Victor-Emanuele III, Italy’s pro-fascist king who abdicated in 1946. Illustration: UIG via Getty Images

Italy’s pro-fascist King, Victor Emanuele III, abdicated in disgrace in the spring of 1946. Mussolini was dead – but not quite departed. Neo-fascists had stolen the dictator’s corpse from its grave in Milan: the unburied body became a potent symbol of totalitarian resurrection. On 2 June that year, Italians were asked to decide by referendum if they wanted to become a republic. A clamour of books, films and newspapers exhorted them to join the democratic world. Raised under fascism, many Italians had never seen a ballot box before. For the first time, Italian women were allowed to vote. Armoured cars stood outside the polling stations in anticipation of violence; there was none.

John Foot’s lively history of Italy since 1945, The Archipelago, describes how the referendum divided the nation grievously. The impoverished south remained monarchist; the prosperous north, republican. All across Italy at this time, Rita Hayworth’s raunchy hit Amado Mio (from the Hollywood blockbuster Gilda) boomed out from bars and cafes. In the north, the Hayworth anthem seemed to crystallise the republican spirit. The Duce and his cohorts had gone for good; the nationalist myopia of fascism was no more.

Needless to say, Italy is unrecognisable today from the nation that ousted the royal family in 1946, says Foot. With high levels of political corruption and tax evasion, the nation-state is under immense strain. The triumph of Eurosceptic, anti-establishment politicians in Italy’s recent general election has spelled death for the old mass parties. The Christian Democrats, long tainted by nefarious business interests, no longer exist, while the Italian left has lost touch with the classe operaia (working class). Not surprisingly, young Italians are wary of democracy. Non-parliamentary politics offer a “virile” alternative to the discredited dream of multiculturalism. The “anti-elite” animus now affecting much of the world has taken hold in Italy: increasingly, Italians speak of the fascist past as a romantic adventure that went wrong only when Mussolini allied himself with Hitler.

Foot’s book, the product of 20 years’ reading and teaching about Italy (he is professor of modern Italian history at Bristol University), unfolds in episodic fashion. Newspaper stories (The Duce’s Body) combine with court cases (The Battle Over Divorce), sporting events and biographies of Berlusconi, Craxi and other corrupted politicians to build a teeming picture. “Italy had never been an entirely mono-cultural or mono-ethnic country,” he writes. Albanians, Normans, Arabs, Greeks and Germanic langobardi (“long-beards”, later Lombards) have intermarried to form an indecipherable blend of Italic peoples. Today, Italians are weighed down by debts and doubts, as are all Europeans. The nation’s salvation will not come with the populist Five Star Movement or a sleek redeemer figure like Berlusconi, but with Italy’s many medium-sized firms and its surprisingly stable banking system. Italian capitalism has rarely been about “punters”; family-run firms and the local banks that support them thrive on budgetary stringency. The Archipelago, superbly researched, is the beginning of wisdom in these matters.

• The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945 by John Foot is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99