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Journal of Modern Italian Studies

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Pietro Verri between Enlightenment and


John Robertson

To cite this article: John Robertson (2012) Pietro Verri between Enlightenment and Risorgimento,
Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 17:5, 527-531, DOI: 10.1080/1354571X.2012.718550

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Published online: 19 Nov 2012.

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Journal of Modern Italian Studies 17(5) 2012: 527531

Pietro Verri between Enlightenment and


John Robertson
University of Cambridge, Clare College

This comment approaches Capras paper in the perspective afforded by Franco
Venturis famous 1954 re-assessment of the relation between Risorgimento and
Enlightenment. It raises three issues for further discussion: the intellectual resources
which sustained Pietro Verris political engagement over four decades from the 1760s
to the 1790s; Verris understanding of the Italian nation; and what his economic
writings suggested about Italys economic prospects.
Constitutionalism, Enlightenment, nation, political economy, Risorgimento.

Carlo Capras paper on Pietro Verri gives us a wonderfully elegant, thoughtful

starting-point for a discussion of the political thought of the Risorgimento. It
immediately calls to mind the paper in which, almost sixty years ago, Franco
Venturi set himself to reconstitute the question of the intellectual origins of the
Risorgimento. Entitled simply La circolazione delle idee, the paper was
delivered to the 32nd Historical Congress of the Risorgimento in 1953, and
published in the Rassegna Storica del Risorgimento the following year (Venturi
1954).1 In it Venturi sought to get behind the myth of Mazzini, by setting the
Risorgimento in the framework of Illuminismo. So doing, he argued, it becomes
impossible not to recognise the importance of the wider European context in
which Italians thought about their country and its component states. In the
immediate aftermath of the fall of Fascism, this plea to go beyond the
introspective study of nationalism to explore the cosmopolitan aspirations of
Enlightenment may have served an obvious political agenda; but it would also
very quickly generate an intellectual momentum of its own, as Venturi became
ever more committed to the study of Italian Illuminismo and Illuministi, at the
expense of pursuing his earlier work on the French philosophes and the
Encyclopedie, and on Russian Populism. By the time of his death, after over 30
more years of intensive research and publication devoted to Enlightenment in
Italy, Venturi had effectively broken the connection between Illuminismo and
Risorgimento which it had been the purpose of the original paper to explore.

Journal of Modern Italian Studies

ISSN 1354-571X print/ISSN 1469-9583 online 2012 Taylor & Francis
John Robertson

In opening this new collection of papers with an account of Verris political

thinking in the 1780s and 1790s, therefore, Capra invites us to revisit
Venturis original argument, and to consider anew whether the roots of the
political thought of the Risorgimento can indeed be traced back to the
In this short comment, I will simply raise three questions which Capras rich
paper seems to me to provoke. The first concerns the intellectual resources
which sustained Verri for more than 30 years of political engagement,
culminating in participation in the revolutionary politics of the 1790s. As the
most durable as well as the most intellectually responsive of all the Italian
Illuministi, Verri is the ideal figure on whom to test the hypothesis of
Enlightenment roots of the Risorgimento. Born in 1728, he participated in every
phase of Enlightenment in his own state of Milan, leading from the front,
initially with Cesare Beccaria, latterly on his own. And when faced with the
unexpected fact of revolution, first in France, then, on the back of Napoleons
victories in 1796, in Lombardy itself, he did not quail, or withdraw from public
life, as so many illuministi preferred to do. As Capra emphasizes, Verris
admiration for the Revolution in France was never unqualified, and his support
for the regime installed by Napoleon in 1796 was constitutionalist rather than
Jacobin. Yet his willingness to embrace and justify such dramatic change
bespeaks unusual intellectual energy and confidence, and fully justifies taking
him as the starting-point of renewed enquiry into the relation between
Enlightenment and Risorgimento. What then were the sources of the con-
stitutionalism which Verri advocated in the 1790s?
Explaining how and why an Enlightenment philosopher became a
revolutionary in the 1790s is not a problem unique to the case of Pietro
Verri. One with whom he might be compared is the Neapolitan Francesco
Mario Pagano, whose involvement in the leadership of the 1799 Revolution in
Naples ended with his execution by the restored monarchy. But Pagano was
younger, born in 1748, and formed in the later, more radical phase of the
Neapolitan Enlightenment. Moreover Pagano, unlike Verri, enjoyed the
advantage (for a revolutionary) of having suffered a period of exile, being
forced to flee Naples for Rome in the mid 1790s, there to witness its
occupation and transformation into a republic at the hands of Napoleon. Yet
even in Paganos case, it is not easy to establish clear intellectual foundations for
his decision to support the revolutionaries. His great work, the Saggi politici
(17835), was a study in the philosophy of history, re-working the insights of
Vico in the new perspective afforded by the French natural historians; when a
second, revised edition of this work was published in 17912, it was without
even the reformist conclusion which he had included on its initial publication
(Pagano 1993). Historians have traced Paganos insistence on adding a tribunal
of Ephors to the constitution of 1799 back to the discussion of the conditions
of modern liberty in the Saggi politici; but this hardly makes that work a
manual of revolutionary constitutionalism.2

Pietro Verri between Enlightenment and Risorgimento

A possible source of inspiration for both Pagano and Verri has of course
been identified by Vincenzo Ferrone in Gaetano Filangieris Scienza della
legislazione (178085) (Ferrone 2003). But Paganos work was of a very
different character to that of his contemporary Filangieri, while Capra cautions
against exaggerating Filangieris impact upon Verri, and in particular, against
giving Filangieri all the credit for formulating a new, revolutionary
constitutionalism. If Filangieri was not the primary inspiration which Ferrone
supposes him to have been, the problem of Verris sources nonetheless remains.
Capra draws a parallel between Verris writings in 17912 and two projects of
the Abbe Sieyes in 1789. Was Verri aware of these? What was the common
intellectual ground? A fuller characterization and explanation of his
constitutionalism would make it easier to understand why Verri responded
so positively to the dramatic changes imposed on his native Milan, and on Italy,
by the French Revolution and Napoleons Italian campaign of 1796.
If Verris constitutionalism is to offer a route towards the political thought of
the Risorgimento, other questions should perhaps be addressed at the same time.
One concerns Verris understanding of the Italian nation. What did he mean
when he observed in a work written in 17912 that the nation is everything?
As glossed by Capra, Verri seems to have had in mind a political conception of
the nation, construed in Sieyes-ian terms as the sovereign people, represented
in a permanent assembly of the Nation.3 But how was such a national
assembly to be constituted? Where would it meet, and what would be its
powers? Verris usual (though not consistent) contempt for the common people
implies that he would envisage a system of representation which would fall
short of democratic. In any case, Italys history of political fragmentation
suggests that to construe the nation in such political terms was likely to be
much less intuitively plausible for Italians than it was for the French, for whom
the monarchy had hitherto represented (or usurped) the nation. Instead,
Italians might be expected to find the alternative, ethno-geographic idea of the
nation easier to comprehend. As Istvan Hont has pointed out, this concept of
nation was less stable: lacking a political form, it corresponded rather to a pre-
political state of nature (Hont 2005). It was this idea to which the Jacobins
turned when Sieyes-ian constitutionalism failed them in France; for their part,
Italian Jacobins were among the first to voice the idea of an Italian nation.
But it seems unlikely that Verri, whose hostility to the local Milanese Jacobins
is underlined by Capra, would have been sympathetic to such a radical, non-
constitutional concept of the nation. It would seem therefore that Verris
thinking stopped some distance short of a viable political conception of the
Italian nation. Even if his constitutionalism can be projected towards the
Risorgimento, it will not on its own bridge the gap between Risorgimento and
A more plausible candidate to provide that bridge would seem to be political
economy. Of all Verris interests this was perhaps the strongest, the field in
which he gained international as well as national recognition. As scholars have

John Robertson

noticed, Verri was exceptionally well-read in French, Spanish and (in French
translation) English as well as Italian economic writing (Groenewegen 1994).
Unlike Sieyes, he may not have been a student of Adam Smith; but he had read
the economic essays of David Hume. He was well aware therefore of the
preoccupation of all eighteenth-century political economy with what Hume
called jealousy of trade, the unavoidable fact of national economic rivalry.
Like his Neapolitan counterparts Galiani and Genovesi, Verri was all too
conscious of the vulnerability of the economies of the Italian states, ill-
protected against the superior financial, diplomatic, naval and military resources
deployed by the major European states in support of their own merchants.
Neither the Neapolitans nor Verri abandoned all hope of ameliorating their
predicament: by according their producers and merchants an appropriate
balance of liberty and protection, the larger of the Italian states, at least, might
put themselves in a position to take advantage of the rivalry of the great powers,
and achieve a measure of development. But did Verris economic thinking ever
transcend the boundaries of the individual states, and extend to the national
economy of Italy?
This is my final question, and in the absence of a clear answer, it may serve
further to enlarge the distance separating Verri from the political thought of the
Risorgimento. But perhaps it is not necessary for Verri to have thought explicitly
in terms of an Italian national economy to demonstrate that political economy
must be central to any attempt to think politically about an Italian nation.
Given the disparities between different parts of the peninsula, and the
entrenched character of many of its social structures, a single political economy
for the whole of Italy was almost inconceivable. But any project of political
unification would have to confront those disparities, and adapt to, if it could
not dismantle, those social structures. A modern politics must recognize its
economic limits. Through its engagement with political economy, the Italian
Enlightenment can thus be seen to have made a crucial contribution to the
political thought of the Risorgimento. If Verris constitutionalism was one legacy
from Illuminismo to Risorgimento, his political economy was surely another.

1 The context in which Venturi wrote this paper is indicated in his correspondence
with Delio Cantimori, printed in Imbruglia 2003, Appendix, pp. 43542: Venturi to
Cantimori, 22 February, 28 May, 28 July and 31 August 1953; comment by
Imbruglia 2003: 2838.
2 Compare Saggi politici (17912), Saggio V, ch. xxii, with the address drafted by
Pagano to accompany the Progetto di costituzione della Repubblica Napolitana
presentato al Governo Provvisorio dal Comitato di Legislazione, in Venturi 1962:
90819. On the continuities between the Saggi and the draft constitution, Calaresu
3 Quoted by Capra in translation from Verris unpublished dialogues, Primi elementi
per somministrare al popolo delle nozioni tendenti alla pubblica felicita (17912,
edited for publication by Gennaro Barbarisi in 1994).

Pietro Verri between Enlightenment and Risorgimento

Calaresu, Melissa (2009) Searching for a middle class? Francesco Mario Pagano and
the public for reform in late eighteenth-century Naples, in Gabriel Paquette (ed.)
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Ferrone, Vincenzo (2003) La societa giusta ed equa. Repubblicanesimo e diritti delluomo in
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Groenewegen, Peter (1994) Pietro Verris mature political economy of the Meditazioni:
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