There was certainly a memory of Rome which animated many noble spirits in Italy; but these -- Dante first among them -- dreamed not of conquests but of that universal idea of the Empire with Rome and Italy as the centres of a universal societas with equal rights for all.
Leibniz has written in the Preface to the Codex Diplomaticus, that in the Middle Age the Emperor and the Pope were the two heads of the Christian Republic. The Italians were the first from the twelfth to the fourteenth century to feel themselves united in this idea. It was their first political idea, national and supra-national at the same time. They will never give it up, but ancient Rome itself and its cruel glory contributed little to the formation of the Italian spirit.
In the Middle Age, the most living of all the Romans, for the Italians, was Virgil; but they transformed the poet half into a magician and half into a Christian. The only name of an Emperor which remained popular was that of Trajan, but because he was "the just", and with him was Justinian because he gave the world universal laws.
In the epoch, more formalist than earnest, which in Italy followed the Counter-Reformation, all Italian schools were modelled to the same form in the hands of the Jesuits, and Rome became the inspirer of current literature, but, it must be understood, a "mannerist" Rome, like the ruins in the pictures of Pannini. The fact that the heroes of the literature and schools of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were looked for among the ancient Romans rather than in the Middle Age, proves that those in control considered ancient Rome less dangerous; the exception was Tacitus, whose love of liberty was suspect; and the pompous Roman mise en scène that the schools of the seventeenth century inaugurated shows their suspicion of the natural; it was at this time that the head of the class in many schools was given a crown and the title of Emperor.
The last and the most eloquent of the Italians to be blinded by that Rome of mannerists was Carlo Botta, whose ponderous Storia d'Italia, famous at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is to be found even today in all our old country-houses, where it sleeps between the Primato of Gioberti and Le Consulat et l'Empire of Thiers.
For Botta, the golden age of Italy and of the world is the Roman Empire: the Middle Age seems to him "a desolate age, especially in Italy", an age in which only ignorance, force and barbarism dominated.
Botta was the last of the sincere worshippers of Imperial Rome. The Risorgimento began to make itself felt, first in the political struggle with an array of notable scholars from all parts of Italy, from Piedmont to Sicily; many among them were excellent historians; all these had cast off the Roman vanity which belonged to the generations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; they were too proud to dress up in old costumes of the theatre. One of these writers, Micali, went so far as to maintain in his best work, L'Italia avanti il dominio dei Romani, that Rome had been nothing but brute force, suffocating the spontaneous impulses of the Italian spirit, which would have come from the happy union of the diverse peoples of the peninsula, from the Etruscans to the Siciliots.
The supervening romanticism contributed to turn the mind of the time to the Middle Age, as the sacred and dolorous epoch whence sprang the authentic life of the Italian people.
The citizen class and the best among the Italian working classes that the preaching of Mazzini had moved, recognized themselves in the Communes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and in their struggles against the German Emperors.
It is also true that at the same time another current -- corresponding to the ancient Italian anti-clerical tradition -- drew its epos from the Ghibellines, from the epoch in which the court of Frederick II, the heretic, more Sicilian than German, had produced the earliest Italian poets. But precisely because it was Ghibelline this tradition too was medieval.
The nineteenth century was, in Italy as in the rest of Europe, the age of Liberalism and then of democracy, and it appeared, more or less clearly, that the Roman Empire had only been, at least from the artistic point of view, a triumph of anonymous and uneducated masses. In Imperial Rome one was occupied with the kolossal, as in the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II. One noted that the immense edifices of Rome -- so heavy when one confronted them with the supreme grace of the tiny Acropolis of Athens -- were the symbol and the fruit of the impoverishment and depopulation that was already appearing in Italy: impoverishment and depopulation whose ruinous effects opened the way later on for the barbarian invasions.
Eloquent parallel with that stupid satisfaction which appears always in Italy in epochs of decadence, with the glories of Imperial Rome, the first rumour of which can be traced back to Rome itself, for example under Hadrian, whose coins bear the inscription: Italia felix or Temporum felicitas, and the like.
Such complacency only manifests itself when corruption is upon one; thus it befell in Venice, in China, in Persia and in Spain; wherever the corruption becomes gloriosus.
At bottom, the history of Italy offers to the world this disconcerting message: that it is during the struggle between rich and poor, during the periods troubled by bitter factions that the poets, the painters, the sculptors and the architects most filled with genius have expressed themselves among us; and that it is during these same periods that the great achievements of our navigators, our bankers and our merchants have dominated the world.
Of all Machiavelli has written, these words remain the truest for all time: "The multitude is more constant and more wise than any monarch." And "It appears to me that they who condemn the tumults between the nobles and the plebs are condemning just those things which were the first cause of Rome winning any freedom; and that they give more weight to the rumours and noise which sprang from such tumults than to the good effects they brought to pass".
The last Italian author who felt our romanità, but did not make of it an instrument of rhetoric, was Carducci, the poet of the generation of 1870-90.
Like Machiavelli in his histories, Carducci found his deepest lyrical inspiration in love of country; and he drew the symbols of his ideal from Republican Rome.
Leopardi, too, was not insensible to the same ideal; but he soon dropped his "vedo le mura e gli archi" ; universal poet as he was, his love for his country was fused ever more profoundly into a sentiment that did not deny but rather amplified his love for Italy.
This explains why Carducci, notwithstanding the force and beauty of his poetry, is not better known outside Italy. There is a kind of justice in the radius of the fame of poets.