Creating political heroes over 150 years

Written by Rosie on . Posted in Profiles

Lucy Riall by Francesco Filangeri

Credit: Francesco Filangeri

After nearly 20 years at Birkbeck, University of London, Professor Lucy Riall moved to the EUI in September 2012. A specialist in Italian and modern European history, she deciphers the country’s present-day politics from its founding 150 years ago.

“There is the weight of history that can help explain the political situation,” she says. “There is a tradition of charismatic leaders, and a pattern that is the result in part of the way in which Italy was unified and the way political parties developed.”

In 2007 Riall authored ‘Garibaldi – Invention of a Hero’, which explores the cult of the 19th century leader whose success in battle led to the creation of the Italian state. Strong leaders continue to dominate the Italian political sphere, yet Riall says that the other extreme also exists: “There are always countervailing tendencies. You have Garibaldi but then you have the anti-Garibaldi figure, Cavour, who was equally important.”

“Nowadays you’ve got Berlusconi and Grillo [leader of the 5-Star Movement], but just as interesting is Bersani [leader of the Democratic Party] who really is the anti-Berlusconi figure. Berlusconi is a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, who represents a kind of hyper-masculinity. Then you have Nichi Vendola,” she says, referring to the gay leader of the Left Ecology Freedom party and president of Italy’s Puglia region.

Looking beyond the façade of these figures is vital, says Riall. “We have got to ask why and what’s actually going on behind the scenes; to ask what Berlusconi’s actually up to. With Garibaldi, what I was really interested in asking was why, where did this figure come from, and what was he doing.”

Riall describes Italian politics as a “strong, spectacular, sometimes violent sphere of activity,” which plays out in markedly different ways depending on the region. “Somewhere between Florence and Rome, Italy changes quite drastically,” she says. “Italy looks different from the perspective of Tuscany. Italy from the perspective of Palermo, rather sadly, looks fairly disastrous.”

The professor has spent substantial time in both Rome and Palermo, the capital of Sicily, to conduct research. In January she published ‘Under the volcano: empire and revolution in a Sicilian town’, a history of the revolt of Sicilian town of Bronte in 1860.

Presenting the book in recent weeks, Riall has been struck by the level of interest from across the social sciences and humanities. “The ideas of peasant revolt and social movements seem to be something that has come back; in the current crisis these protest movements have assumed significance. I’d particularly like to talk about it with researchers because they have a perspective on it which is different and new,” she says.

Writing ‘Under the volcano’ has also led Riall to turn her attention to Italy’s place in the Mediterranean, southern Europe and the wider world. While her work has always taken a broad and comparative perspective, she is keen to now concentrate on an area that she says is overlooked in northern Europe.

“We’ve all been obsessed, since 1989, with the relationship between western and eastern Europe. But now the relationship that I think we’ve all got to address is between the south and the north, and what’s going on in southern Europe.”

Given the Department of History and Civilisation’s comparative approach and international crop of academics, Riall intends to start this conversation at the EUI: “What people in Greece and Spain are saying is very worrying. There’s a sense in northern Europe that that doesn’t matter, and I find that very disturbing. This is something we can talk about at the Institute.”

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