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Biography of the man who helped unify Italy

Cavour: A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith. New York: Knopf. 294 pp. $18.95. This excellent biography reveals the peculiar genius who was the guiding spirit behind the unification of Italy. Count Camille de Cavour, born in 1810 of French, Swiss, and Italian ancestry, died in 1860, but by then he had seen the realization of the dream which had animated his political life: the proclamation of the United Kingdom of Italy.

Denis Mack Smith, who is senior research fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has written several histories of Italy. As in his biography of Mussolini, Mr. Smith avoids being an apologist for his subject here, presenting Cavour's less attractive qualities -- his cynicism and deviousness, for example -- with unflinching honesty. This makes his assessment of Cavour's accomplishments all the more credible and authoritative, so that we see the true achievement of a unified Italy as well as the lengths to which Cavour was prepared to go to achieve it.

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The biography is particularly strong in its illumination of the various factions and regions, not merely in Italy as a whole, but also within the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, of which Cavour was prime minister. Piedmont-Sardinia formed the political nucleus of the modern nation-state of Italy.

As befits an English historian, Smith is very good at tracing the influence upon Cavour of such British thinkers as Edward Gibbon and David Hume, and at showing Cavour's strong attachment to the political principles of 19th-century English liberalism.

Smith's scholarship is impeccable, his methods judicious. His book will fascinate all those who are interested in politics, history, Italy, or merely in men who are able to transform an idea into reality.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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