The Reinterpretation of Italian Economic History from Unification to the Great War. By Stefano Fenoaltea . Cambridge University Press. 2011. xxi + 296pp. £50.00.


Let's put it simply: this book is probably the most significant overview of the (macro)economic history of post-unification Italy to be written since Gerschenkron's 1955 seminal paper. The previous vernacular edition (2006) was already a landmark for anyone interested in modern Italy as it provided the first consistent, reliable and disaggregated reconstruction of Italian sectorial and regional economic statistics from 1861, backed by a thorough historiographical discussion of the construction of these time series. The fantastic quantitative richness of the book (especially in chapters 1A, 5 and 6.9 which, despite being the driest sections, will also prove the most useful) has been amplified in the present English edition, and will constitute an invaluable resource for all Italianists. It will also certainly be compulsory reading for graduate students interested in modern Europe – and not only statisticians and economists – as it provides definitive arguments for both rejecting previous models of Italian modernization (such as agrarian accumulation, the role of entrepreneurial banks, the crisis of the 1880s, etc.) and reveals crucial under-researched aspects of the economic transformation of the peninsula during the second half of the nineteenth century, especially the determinant regional dimension of Italian development.

When it was first published in Italy six years ago the book garnered mixed reviews (some of them listed on page xxi). Although every reviewer acknowledged the immense contribution of Fenoaltea's thankless reconstruction of economic data and, at least partially, his conclusions regarding the so-called crisis of the 1880s, many of his most distinguished colleagues attacked his radical interpretations of Italian trade policies and his no less radical dismissal of the role of the state in favour of capital flows. The new English edition is greatly enriched by the author's responses to this first salvo of criticisms and, despite not wavering or moving an inch from his initial positions, he greatly clarifies, simplifies and documents all the tenets of his analysis. This added confrontation ultimately results in a potentially fascinating debate between historians and economists regarding the question of agency and rationality (p. 105) and the interpretation of statistical data (p. 142).

All that said, Fenoaltea does not answer some of the most profound arguments raised by his Italian colleagues, especially regarding the very narrow perspective his account adopted and the provocative dismissal of almost all traditional historical agents such as the state, the peasantry, innovators, investors or even the effects of changing social structure. Unfortunately, the same could also be said of the present edition, which should probably have dropped the pedantic definite article and should rather be entitled ‘an economist's interpretation of Italian economic history’.

More importantly, though, even if we accept this economic partiality, it seems astounding that the author has failed to perceive the consequences of some of his own analyses. A significant argument of the book, for example, is that national political economy is not the key to understanding the evolution of Italian economic development and that flows of international capital are a better indicator of these cycles. The adoption of an international perspective is indeed perfectly justified, but how could one neglect the social, cultural and economic aspects of what made Italy an attractive (or not) destination for international capital, in particular from Britain? Overcoming the ‘old’ account of nationalistic political economy does not entail getting rid of states, culture and political economy altogether.