December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy

By |2020-04-11T00:19:47+02:00January 1st, 2007|Books, Recent Reviews|

By Thomas Astarita

W.W. Norton, 2006. 352 pages.


t would be hard to imagine a better book on the subject than this one. The writing is orderly and correct, concise and colorful; rare enough for an Anglophone academic, miraculous for an Italian one. Astarita does both “traditional”— dates and battles — and “popular” history. He untangles dynasties and alliances (the Two Sicilies, Wars of the Spanish Succession anyone?) and illustrates popular music, theater, street and religious culture.

He follows threads and themes tenaciously and wittily; no political analysis is complete without consultation of San Gennaro’s blood. He avoids all the pitfalls that a book that provides material for so many axes to grind. Readers looking for a Marxist, secular, Catholic, elitist or populist spin on the current situation in Italy’s south (or the rest of the country for that matter) will be disappointed.

Despite its impartiality, this is not a soulless book. Astarita’s affection for his native Naples shines through in his humor and the occasional personal aside. His clear-eyed view of its foibles and his fondness for nutty saints, festivals and all the color that give the South its character is never mawkish or judgmental. Don’t do Naples or Sicily without him.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."