Naples in the time of cholera, 1884-1911.
Historians have seen the Giolittian period as representing a decisive change in the economic life of Italy. A Gershenkon (1962) called the years 1896-1908 Italy's "big push" towards industrialization and Paul Kennedy (1988) noted that during those years Italian industrial growth rose faster than anywhere else in Europe. But it was as uneven as it was rapid. Although the risorgimento had much southern support, the Piedmont benefitted most from it. Southern Italy, especially the Neopolitan south and Naples itself, were marginalized, left almost entirely in their agricultural backwater of small holdings, poor soil, niggardly investment, sharecropping and inadequate transport. No wonder the south became increasingly an irritant and a challenge in Italian politics, ultimately bringing into question no less the liberal, even moral, basis of the revolution. Crude and savage, southern politics had always been barely manageable and, notwithstanding the liberal revolution, they remained so.
In the generation or so before the Great War, two cholera epidemics (1884-5, and 1910-11) highlighted both the deadly complexity of southern politics and the chasm between North and South. The first epidemic challenged the political authority of the risorgimento when it became a metaphor for all the discontents of southerners under a political order dominated by the Piedmont. The second illustrated how precarious was the authority of the state itself.
Frank Snowden's Naples in the Time of Cholera, 1884-1911, is a particularly useful insight into the late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian politics, political culture and public policy issues. It is also a useful introduction to an interesting historiographical discussion. It's not just that few cholera studies had been made relating to Italy, but there seems to have been considerable disagreement on the importance of these frequent European visitations of Asian cholera. Some have suggested that the cholera epidemics, while tragic in their immediate effects, were essentially episodic or "one off" affairs which left little trace of their passing. Others, including Asa Briggs, suggested the epidemics were much more important, "revealing a shaft of light by means of which one can explore the structure and workings of modern European society." Naples, Snowden believes, is an ideal case study which would throw as much light on the scholarly debate as on post-risorgimento Italy.
His work succeeds wonderfully on many counts. Along with descriptions of the gruesome effects of cholera on the grotesquely overpopulated harbour sezioni, or lower Naples, an area particularly receptive (a "gracious host", as Snowden says) to all forms of infectious diseases, Snowden shows how inexorably the tragedy of 1884 led to the crisis of 1910-11. After 1885 the slums were to have been cleared away, a great avenue built to clear out the place, new aqueducts, new sewer systems, indeed a new lower town were to have been built on the insalubrious, stinking muck that had been the old Naples. It was not to be. Community, class, and crime were not as easily eliminated as were the fonaci or "pits of hell", the squatting places of, as Snowden calls them, the "urban troglodytes". Local politics, greed and corruption defied national expectations so much that when the next (and last) cholera epidemic struck in 1910-11, Naples was scarcely better able to contain the menace than it had been in 1885. Except that with so much money spent, so many reputations on the line, including that of the national government, once Rome realized the full horror of the cholera threat to Naples, its only response was to deny and then to hied it. Incredibly, not only did the Government embark on an enormous "cover-up", it got away with it. Snowden's account of this crime is perhaps the most engrossing part of the book.
If Briggs's suggestion was that the cholera epidemics be used to throw a "shaft of light" on the structure of European society, nowhere was it better or more fully realized than in Snowden's Naples. Not a stone is unturned. He examines everything with a fascination which might easily, but never does, become morbid. Especially interesting is his discussion of organized crime, of the history and the biology of the disease, and, of course, of the politics of financing urban renewal. Snowden's book is an indispensable guide to the 19th- and early 20th-century Italian history. It is also a model of historical analysis which deserves emulation.
Peter L. Brown
Department of History
University of Winnipeg