Of what is one writing when one writes a history of Italy? What, if any, is the thread of continuity that allows us to mean the same thing when we refer to Italy at the fall of the Roman Empire, the death of Dante, the French invasions of 1494 or 1796, the Congress of Vienna, unification, the end of the First World War, the fall of Fascism, or the 1994 election? The first aim of this essay is to argue that there is no single thread of continuity, no common plane of analysis of Italian history. When we examine two of the elements that might serve as that thread or plane, geographical space and culture, what we find is that the historiographical utility of the concept of Italy has to be demonstrated rather than assumed. Italy has to be constructed; it is not given to us directly by the historical sources. My second aim is to show that the notion of Italy is an important dimension of Italian history itself. Using examples from the postunification era, I will suggest some of the ways in which varying notions of Italy have informed and been influenced by the key problem of nation- and state-formation.
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