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Denis Mack Smith, Chronicler of Modern Italy, Dies at 97

Mr. Smith, the historian David Gilmour wrote in the British newspaper The Independent in 1997, “upset a well-defended orthodoxy that had been entrenched for almost a century.”


University of Michigan Press

In “Italy: A Modern History,” published in 1959, Mr. Smith caused further outrage by refusing to regard Italian fascism and the rise of Benito Mussolini as an aberration. The causes, he insisted, could be traced to longstanding political tendencies and to structural weaknesses in the Italian system, a legacy of the Risorgimento.

“There are not many historians who matter,” the historian Jonathan Steinberg wrote in The London Review of Books in 1985. “Not many whose works have changed the way people see themselves. Of that little list, there is an even smaller number whose works have mattered to those in another society.” Mr. Smith was one of them, he asserted, a writer whose early work “told many Italians what they did not want to hear, but told them at a special point in their history when they had no choice but to listen.”

David Mack Smith was born on March 3, 1920, in London to Wilfrid Smith, a tax collector, and the former Altiora Gauntlett.

He attended St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School and Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, where he won a scholarship to study history at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Along the way, he taught himself Italian.

After teaching at Clifton College in Bristol and serving in the war cabinet, he immersed himself in historical archives in Sicily, an experience that later bore fruit in his two-volume work “A History of Sicily” (1968), written with Moses Finley.

In 1947 he became a fellow at Peterhouse, where he taught until he was elected a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1962. He retired in 1987.

His first marriage, to Ruth Hellmann (later Viscountess Runciman) ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Catharine Stevenson; two daughters, Sophie and Jacintha; and four grandchildren.

If Mr. Smith offended professional historians, he found a receptive audience with Italian readers, who made “Italy: A Modern History” a runaway best seller, one of the most popular academic works ever published in Italy. His ideas were greeted warmly by Italian leftists, who regarded the Risorgimento as a failed revolution, but his sheer readability also contributed to sales.

The book aged well. An expanded version was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1997 as “Modern Italy: A Political History.”

Mr. Smith wrote several biographies of the leading figures of the Risorgimento, notably “Garibaldi: A Great Life in Brief” (1956), “Cavour” (1985) and “Mazzini” (1994), as well as the studies “Victor Emanuel, Cavour and the Risorgimento” (1971) and “Italy and Its Monarchy” (1989).

He also wrote two works on Mussolini and the fascist period, “Mussolini’s Roman Empire” (1971) and “Mussolini: A Biography” (1981). He was the editor of “The Making of Italy, 1796-1870” (1968) and “Great Lives Observed: Garibaldi” (1969).

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