10 MARCH 1900, Page 10


THE interesting volume on "Modern Italy" in the "Story of the Nations Series" (London : T. Fisher Unwin) suggests to the reader the relation which Italy bears to the modern world, and the answers it is trying to give to modern problems. To each traveller in Italy that most wonderful and fascinating of all lands reads its own moral. Most of us wander thither to study the remains of the past. We view the ancient walls and vases of Etruscan art, or the mighty monuments of Imperial Rome, or the palaces and paintings of medimval or Renaissance Italy. But we cannot help being reminded on every hand that, though a marvellous storehouse of antiquities, Italy is not an exhausted, dead nation. It is in no way whatever one of the so-called "dying nations " about which Lord Salisbury spoke with more eloquence perhaps than discretion not long ago. A nation which sends out millions of its sons to the New World, which displays a remarkable energy in many kinds of social reform, which produces a literature interesting and suggestive, even if not great, cannot be called a dying nation. Italy has often with some reason been pronounced decadent and even mori- bund, and yet she has revealed signs of vitality after tragic experiences all but unrivalled in the history of mankind. When the French Republic extinguished the Republic of Venice, who would have dreamed that a Venetian Professor would live to write, a century later, a story of daring, heroism, political sagacity, such as that of the rejuvenated Italy of our own time ? The old Romans held it a crime to despair of the Republic : we may well believe in the wonderful self-renewing life of the Italian people.

The first thing that strikes the observant traveller in Italy is the fact that the modern Italian has conceived an almost profound distaste for the very things which we are apt to identify closely with the Italy of history and romance. We think of Italy as a land of art and song, but we generally find modern Italian art far from satisfactory, and when we listen to contemporary Italian music (not the music of Rossini or Donizetti) we hear a distant strain of Wagner. There is but little satisfactory original artistic work in modern Italy. We do not care to decry contemporary Italian work, but when it comes to com- parison with French, German, or English work of our time, it does not satisfy us; there is in it very little which reminds us of the great work of the Italy of the past. But if we suppose that this is due to cessation of intellectual energy on the part of modern Italians, we soon find out our mistake. Italy has turned from art to utilitarianism, from the contemplation of beauty to the overwhelming need for social reform. It is as though the nation after arriving at a national consciousness, had said :—" we have made pleasure for the world long enough; we have been too long masters of the revels to mankind. We have wasted our substance, we have lived for an ideal of softness and material beauty and sensuous show; now it is time that we faced the stern realities of modern life and tried our prentice hand at the things which make for modern civilisa- tion." Accordingly, Italy has broken out into a perfect saturnalia of utilitarianism. Electric light illuminates every village, drainage schemes are discussed with an eagerness unknown even in utilitarian England or America; the Tiber is embanked with a solidity surpassing the embankment of the Thames ; Florence prepares to pull down her old pictu- resque insanitary quarters with the eagerness of Chicago; cast-iron bridges, as ugly as sin, span such romantic streams

as the Adige; Milan is encircled with a forest of tall chim- neys; electric cars rash round the Forum of Trajan. One is almost appalled by the inrush of the modern spirit, and the scant regard shown for the sentiment which entwines itself around the vestiges of the antique world. All Italy is in a transition towards modernity.

It is not only in the material sphere that this spirit is shown; it is visible also in the close attention given to modern social problems. It is doubtful whether even in Germany, where they write about every problem under the sun, more has been written about Socialism in its various aspects than in Italy. The writing is very suggestive too, for the balanced Italian mind is far less apt to construct ideal systems out of its head than is the German; there is always a full recognition of reality and the attainable. Of course the wildest sort of vague revolutionism is talked and written in Italy, bat at the same time there is no more practicable and attractive Socialism in Europe than that of some of the leading Italian writers of to-day. One would scarcely care to accept the extreme materialistic theories of Lombroso in the realm of criminology, but no one can deny that he has suggested something that is valuable to Europe. In jurisprudence excellent work has been done, and in political economy it is only necessary to mention the valuable work of such writers as Nitti, Molinari, Loris, and others to show how fully the modern economic problems are grasped by the best Italian thinkers. The most purely materialistic problems of drainage, street construction, farming, have been handled by Italian writers with masterly skill. In short, the modern Italian has turned with something almost approaching to scorn from what we thought was his special business, from Raphael's paintings, and Giotto's frescoes, and Michael Angelo's prophets and sibyls, to the commonplace work of rendering Italy a safe, healthy country fitted from end to end with appliances like unto those of Illinois or New South Wales.

In all this, if we think of it, there is nothing very strange. Italy has passed through more experiences than any other people, but in all she has endeavoured to relate herself to the world of actuality. We should not care to express our approval of all the manifestations of this new spirit; we should not care to apologise for that hideous bridge which crosses the embanked Tiber near the Castle of St. Angelo, or that which crosses the brimming waters of the Adige at Verona, or the vulgar little steamboat which puffs its smoke into the windows of the palaces of the Grand Canal. But that which is now being done in Italy is but a repetition of what has always been done. In Rome, in Verona, in Milan, in Pavia, one finds layer upon layer of past social structures embedded in brick, stone, and marble. Each layer represents a new attempt to touch the actual, to revitalise the marvellous country in the terms of its actual life at the time. Our life to-day is not picturesque, it is not artistic, it does not express itself in forms of beauty, but in forms of science. Italy is endeavouring to relate herself to this life, in politics, in social life, in hygiene, in practical arts. The process seems to us uninteresting because we are so familiar with it, and because we go to Italy for something else. But we must not be overcome by any historic glamour, or permit the [esthetes to control our thinking entirely. We may justly regret the loss of the Ludoviei Gardens ; but if we admire the work of Trajan, we are also bound to admire that modern government of Rome which has embanked the Tiber, and has made of the Eternal City as healthy a place as London. As Bacon says, all innovations are lacking in beauty; but in time Mother Nature will clothe the stonework of modern Rome with beauty as lovely as that which takes our imagination in the walls of Aurelian or the basilica of Constantine.