A detail from Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga by Antonio Gisbert Pérez 1888, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Sparkling sweep of the turbulent south

A new history beautifully distils revolutionary cultures in post-Napoleonic Europe


This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The reading list I give my first-year students of 19th century European history is headed by a reproduction of a painting. Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga was painted in 1888 by the Spaniard Antonio Gisbert Pérez, many of whose canvases celebrated liberal causes. It depicts the 1831 shooting of a group of insurgents who had voyaged from Gibraltar to Malaga to raise a standard against the absolutism of Ferdinand VII.

The history of 19th century Europe is not the history of France and Germany

It is a supremely atmospheric composition, echoing classics like Goya’s The Third of May 1808 and Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, but with a sensibility distinctly its own.

None of my students has yet asked why I chose this image. Certainly, it evokes many of the larger problems of the period: constitutionalism and despotism, romanticism and realism, religion (in the friars blindfolding the condemned and the church in the background) and international connections between political causes (one of the doomed figures in the foreground is an Irishman, Robert Boyd).

An 1888 painting of an 1831 uprising raises questions about cultures of memory and memorialisation, not to mention about the relations between art, politics and aesthetic influence. The reason I chose it is much simpler, though. It is Spanish, and it is meant to signal to undergraduates that the history of 19th century Europe is not the history of France and Germany, but that of diverse regional and (invented) “national” cultures which interacted in impossibly complex ways — of which the Iberian and Mediterranean and Southern European worlds are perhaps the most fascinating.

The beach at Malaga on which Torrijos and his allies met their ends was closer to North Africa than to any other European state. The intending revolutionaries had more in common culturally and linguistically with the new republics just erected in Latin America than with the familiar northern European powerhouses.

My strategy has been a total failure. Students continue to be drawn to France and Germany like 19th century painters were to military executions. It is a particular problem that revolutions continue to define our understanding of the period, that the chief revolutions usually appear to owe more to France than to anywhere else, and that people keep writing excellent books about them — most recently Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World, 1848-1849.

Southern Europe in the Age of Revolutions, Maurizio Isabella (Princeton University Press, £35)

I am optimistic that things will be different now I can set students Southern Europe in the Age of Revolutions. This beautifully-packaged distillation of the case that Southern Europe mattered, that it was a distinctive unit, and that it was connected in specific, formative ways to other parts of the world (particularly the Ottoman and the “Ibero-American” realms) means I ought to save meaningful sums on red ink — an unexpected boon in the current cost-of-living crisis.

Isabella’s book is about a series of (mostly) failed revolutions in the 1820s, stretching from Portugal, via Spain, Piedmont, Naples and Sicily, to Greece (where revolutionaries won). The core of its argument is that these revolutionary transactions fostered a new kind of popular political awareness in the polities concerned, mobilised primarily either in support of, or in opposition to, proposed constitutions.

Its great innovation is to make this case panoptically. Instead of going state by state, each chapter sweeps across the whole field, zooming in to pick out biographies and microhistories, then panning out to capture trends and patterns.

There is a vast range of dynamics considered as part of this scheme. Starting with the military pronunciamentos that typically kicked off attempts at revolution (also widely employed in Spanish America) and army ideologies, it moves through the mobilities of migrants, petitions, patriotic societies, religious dissensions and a cornucopia of other concerns.

Isabella’s book resists sub-disciplinary pigeonholing. At a push, it might be described as a peculiarly richly-textured combination of social, political, intellectual, institutional and cultural history. It adds up to a genuinely new history of revolutionary cultures in post-Napoleonic Europe, and it is, in a word, brilliant.

There is no shortage of grist for readers of this magazine who are primarily interested in British history, since British models, ideas, agents and interventions figure prominently throughout. There is, for instance, the arresting case of the Irish general Richard Church, who fought the French in Egypt at the age of 17, developing a lifelong sympathy for those other enemies of the Ottomans, the Greeks.

He ended up as chief of the Neapolitan army in Sicily before being run out of the island after a (probably) confected story about his personal conduct massively intensified a gathering local revolt. In presenting stories such as this, Isabella makes tangible the enormously complicated relations between imperial power, transnational careers and local causes that the book is dedicated to unfurling.

Maurizio Isabella

I have stressed the student audience because this is unapologetically an academic book. Although Isabella’s tome is not as long as Clark’s — clocking in at a comparatively puny 700 pages, in comparison to Revolutionary Spring’s girthy 900 — it does assume a more specialised sensibility, not least in being organised thematically rather than narratively.

It is still worth sticking with, since its power comes from the layering of concerns gradually introduced in the course of its chapters. It is only by staying to the end that readers will fully enjoy the exceptionally powerful conclusion, which traces the careers of four revolutionaries (one each from Greece, Spain, Portugal and Naples) down to the 1860s.

Beyond paring back my pen budget, my other personal debt to Isabella for writing this book will be to refresh tutorials more specifically. Across many years of university teaching, my favourite question has always been the same: in undergraduate essays on the 19th century, “liberal” parties and movements and ideologies inevitably raise their heads. The parameters of the adjective are rarely defined precisely. The cherished red ink is deployed. The students arrive. I steeple my fingers. “And what is liberalism?”

Every student has a rough feeling about what “liberal” means, but few have thought critically about it in advance. It is always a highlight of the term to hear them work through their answers and respond to the insertion of alternative considerations.

I thought I had heard most possible permutations, but any ambitious undergraduate who reads Isabella’s book will now have a new version to offer: a specifically Southern European liberalism, distinct from the supposedly dominant British and French variants. It was more socially wide-ranging, more popular, and more indebted to specific constitutional assumptions and traditions.

We can dare to dream even more wildly: once they have digested the book, perhaps one of them will finally ask me about that painting.

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