The Culture of the New Italy
World War I and the Red Biennium
As Italy worked itself through the hard decades between
1870 and 1900, it gradually built
its domestic infrastructure. The suffrage was repeatedly
broadened. The development of
hydro-electricity on a large scale gave new impetus
to industrial development in the north.
Giolitti’s policies of meeting the just demands of
labor half-way, seemed to presage social
stability. New wealth and a thriving urban culture
supported a remarkable flowering of
literature, opera, and theater, which DiScala describes.
In the north, Italy shared with the
rest Europe most of the attributes of the “Belle
Epoque”; in many ways, Italy’s future
At the same time there were problems, among the landless
peasants, the “bracianti,” in the
north and especially among the peasantry in the south.
The ever-increasing stream of
emigration testified that fundamental problems in
the south had not been resolved.
The Twentieth Century, then brought both promise and
problems to Italy. It also brought
new intellectual currents. One was a rejection of
“mechanistic” view of life, as exemplified
by contemporary science and Darwinism. Another was
a rejection of the placid, stable
existence symbolized by the comfortable bourgeois
and contemporary parliamentary life.
Such critics of society included the German Friederich
Nietsche, the Frenchman Georges
Sorel, the Russian Fedor Dostoyevsky. In Italy they
were echoed by poets like Gabriele
D’Annunzio and Futurists like Filippo Marinetti. What
united these disparate voices was
dissatisfaction with complacency and the elevation
of the individual over the masses. The
result has often been called a neo-romanticism or
a new irrationalism in society. In Italy it
meant a rejection of the status quo and the search
for novelty, excitement, and action. The
Futurist Manifesto, which Marinetti wrote in what
must have been a fevered state,
captures the dissatisfaction with the old and the
striving for action which was a major facet
of this period.
In August 1914 the First World War broke out. And that
changed everything in Europe,
forever. All told, it constituted a major revolution.
Although the initial cause was the
incompatibility of Serbian nationalism with the multi-national
the treaty systems which had involved all of the major
powers broadened the conflict. Italy
might have joined in, too, but argued that her treaty
obligations did not oblige her to fight.
The relief of the general population that Italy had
remained neutral was disguised by the
Futurists and extreme nationalists. They constituted
a vocal and visible minority pushing
for war. The leaders of the state, Prime Minister
Antonio Salandra, Foreign Minister
Sidney Sonnino, and Victor Emanuel III, meanwhile
plunged into negotiations with both
sides. Them, this was a unique opportunity to complete
Italian unification by incorporating
Trento and Trieste, both held by Austria. The Entente
powers were far more willing, of
course, to concede them this territory than Austria.
Having signed the Treaty of London
with Britain and France, Italy cast its lot with those