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Facing the music: Silvio Berlusconi addresses supporters in front of the Colosseum (Gregorio Borgia/PA)

"If you finally think you've understood Italy," a senior Italian Treasury official warned a group of journalists the other day, "then they've probably explained it wrong."

This year, official celebrations are to be held to mark the 150th anniversary of a crucial episode in Italian unification, the declaration of the United Kingdom of Italy, with its temporary capital in Florence. Only ten years later did the capital move to Rome, and the Papacy, to the Vatican.

For most of history, Italy has been a notion as much as a nation, a language and culture as much as a state. Dante and Machiavelli both wrote of Italy — but for them it was an aspiration and little more than a political fantasy. Since unification, the path of statecraft, let alone good governance, has been far from smooth. The first years brought the failure of the liberal monarchy,  followed by the terrible upheaval and slaughter of two world wars, interspersed with Fascist hegemony, and then the frozen years of "blocked democracy" of the Cold War.

More recently, this has been followed by the Berlusconi years, in which Italy has been the first modern state to be ruled by, with, and through television.

Berlusconi's Italy is the backdrop to David Gilmour's book, the major offering from Penguin for this year's anniversary of the Risorgimento. He tackles the assignment of a personal explanation of Italy with thoroughness and aplomb — but even so it is worth bearing in mind my Treasury official's warning.

Today, despite the official celebrations, the signs of disunity and dysfunction are ominous. Some statistics claim that Italy is the second industrial power in Europe, behind Germany but now ahead of France and the UK. Yet for ten years the economy has been growing at a plodding one per cent per annum. 

In the north, which boasts a huge number of new small enterprises and businesses, growth has been around three per cent. The south correspondingly has shrunk by around two per cent a year. For the first time in my 45 years' experience of reporting on Italy, officials and government politicians will state that organised Mafia crime is the key ingredient in the crisis of the Mezzogiorno, and if anything it is getting worse.

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