This paper rethinks the traditional view that Italy represents a minor imperial power whose colonial ambitions mainly centered on Africa. Recent debates in European history have highlighted that discourses of empire persisted within nation-states well into the twentieth century, and indeed, were spurred on by the First World War and collapse of the Ottoman empire, the decline in whose authority had opened up vast new territories for the expansion of liberal markets. Yet Italian empire has remained marginal to such discussions and is still largely perceived as an idiosyncratic case of empire, one that strained to export surplus labor while aiming to resolve the unemployment crisis in the peninsula. Countering this tendency in the historiography, I introduce a new perspective of Italian colonialism by linking together its Balkan and African ambitions through a Mediterranean framework and showing how the rise of an ‘Eastern Question’ in Europe occasioned discourses in Italian culture of reclaiming emigrants and markets the Mediterranean. First, I analyze several works by Italian authors of the Italian liberal state showing that the fantasy of a new Roman empire well pre-dated the rise of Mussolini and a Fascist state. Second, I discuss how recent discussions of mobility in Italian studies that have documented the intimate connection between overseas emigration and Italian colonization point to new ways of thinking about empire that can move us beyond the binary between settler and administrative forms of imperialism.
Sponsored by The European Institute & The Department of Italian.