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Vincenzo Cuoco



"I am beginning to see that agriculture will not be perfect in a people until those who farm the land are the same ones who own the land."

When I read that, I immediately think of revolutionaries and reformers from the middle of the 19th century. Yet, the words were written a bit earlier than that, and they come from a source that, perhaps, many non–Italians have not heard of: Vincenzo Cuoco, a Neapolitan historian who lived from 1770 to 1823. 

Cuoco was caught up in the spirit and times of late 18th–century Europe: Enlightenment and Revolution. He was part of the Neapolitan Enlightenment and part of the revolution that gave birth to the Neapolitan Republic of 1799. The Bourbons overthrew the Republic after a few short months and punished Cuoco by confiscating his property and sentencing him to 20 years of exile. Then, when the French took over the Kingdom of Naples in 1806, he returned home and took an active part in the 10-year French rule in Naples. At the second return of the Bourbons in 1815, he was permitted to stay in Naples, where he died in 1823, clouded by mental illness. At least, the Bourbons had spared Cuoco's life in 1799, and he lived to write the works he is remembered for. 

The best known one is Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799 (History of the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799). He published it anonymously in 1801 and under his own name in 1806; it is the seminal work for those interested in that episode of history and, though his view is not the only one on why the revolution failed, Cuoco is the first to deal with that question:

Since our revolution was a passive one, the only way for it to be successful would have been to gain the opinion of the people. But the view of the patriots was not the same as that of the people; they had different ideas, different customs, and even two different languages. The very same admiration for things foreign, which held back our culture as a kingdom, formed the basis for our republic and was the greatest obstacle to the establishment of liberty. The Neapolitan nation was split in two, separated over two centuries into two very different kinds of people. The educated classes were formed on foreign models and possessed a culture quite different from one that the nation needed, one that could come about only through the development of our own faculties. Some had become French, and some English; and those that stayed Neapolitan—most of the people—stayed uneducated.

[From Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. The translation is mine.]

A lesser–known work—and the one I quote at the beginning of this entry—is Platone in Italia (Plato in Italy), a bit of historical fiction in which Cuoco claims to be merely translating a manuscript written by Plato, himself. Of course, no one believed that, and Cuoco knew that no one believed that, but it gave him a vehicle for his ideas on just what was wrong with society and how it could be remedied. 

Platone in Italia is a series of dialogues between Plato and his disciples set in Italy during Plato's lifetime—that is, approximately 400 b.c. Cuoco—speaking as Plato—reveals his fascination with the ancient pre-Roman peoples of Italy, especially the Etruscans and the Samnites, two cultures older than Greece and which—much more so than Greece—should serve as a model for modern Italy. Italy really had nothing to thank the Greeks for, since the Italic cultures were older than that of Classical Greece. Modern Italians (meaning in the early 19th century, when Cuoco was writing) had nothing to fear from the ideas of confederation (like the Etruscans) or a non-feudal system of land management—small farms owned and worked by the citizenry (like the Samnites). After all, none of this, says Plato/Cuoco, is new and revolutionary; it goes way back to our own Italic roots. 

The book is actually amusing in that it has Plato sounding off on various occasions about how backwards "we Greeks" really are compared to the older and wiser peoples of Italy. Cuoco, of course, is throwing this in the face of the cliché that Italy (meaning the Romans) became educated only after they had conquered Greece and absorbed some wisdom. Platone in Italia did very well for a number of years—perhaps in the afterglow of the French Revolution—but it then drifted into obscurity. I was reminded of all this when I passed the Vincenzo Cuoco Liceo the other day. He might be happy to know that two centuries later, there is a high school in Naples named for him. 

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