At the 'Roots' of Italian Identity: 'Race' and 'Nation' in the Italian Risorgimento, 1796-1870

Edoardo Marcello Barsotti, Fordham University


In the histories of Italian nationalism, race has been traditionally examined in the context of colonialism, Fascism, and the Holocaust. In contrast, the role played by ideas of race in the Risorgimento—the struggle for the Italian unification (1796-1870)—in defining national identity has not been sufficiently investigated. Recent works have pointed out the role played by concepts like “blood” and “descent,” and, therefore, the ethnic dimension of the idea of nation in nineteenth-century Italian nationalism. Yet, scant attention has been paid to the development of a proper and full-fledged racial and racialist thinking in relation to the construction of the “Italian-ness” during the Risorgimento. Such a lacuna is even more unexplainable in the light of recent works pointing out the nexus between the rise of nationalism and raciology in early nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas. This dissertation contends that race was a pivotal element in defining Italian identity, and that nationalism sparked the diffusion of new theories concerning the “ethno-history” of the Italians, although with theories, modalities, and goals that could radically differ from the later development of fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century “scientific racism.” In particular, the blossoming of theories and ideas about an Italian race (or races) contributed to the naturalization and actual racialization of “national” traits, producing an idea of the Italian people that had a very material “essence,” and guaranteeing that “physical continuity” of the nation that neither a common history nor a shared memory could assure. Drawing on the methods of cultural and intellectual history and on discourse analysis, this work examines the presence of these different ideas about the transmission of cultural, moral, and physical traits in the writings of influential figures of late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Italian intelligentsia such as Vincenzo Cuoco, Giuseppe Micali, Adriano Balbi, Alessandro Manzoni, Giandomenico Romagnosi, Carlo Cattaneo, Vincenzo Gioberti, Cesare Balbo, and Giustiniano Nicolucci. It examines how between the early 1830 and the 1850s traditional ideas of an Italian race (or races) fostered by antiquarianism, historiography, philology, and fiction became increasingly associated to a given language, and, most of all, to specific physical features. The main catalyzers of this semantic and disciplinary transition were the works of archaeologists, polymaths, linguists, geographers, and, of course, “ethnologists” fully conversant with the broader European debate. Therefore, if 1869 marked the official institutionalization of physical anthropology in the Peninsula, the diffusion of the “modern” naturalistic understanding of race should be antedated by at least of twenty years, not to mention a widespread interest in race and “national” ancestors, lineages, or bloodlines dating back at least to the dawn of Italian nationalism in the Napoleonic age.

Subject Area

European history

Recommended Citation

Barsotti, Edoardo Marcello, "At the 'Roots' of Italian Identity: 'Race' and 'Nation' in the Italian Risorgimento, 1796-1870" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13879675.