I began reading this book expecting not much more than a decent, informative summer read. What I found was an always passionate, but not always on-target study of the Italian people by one of their own. While not all books on national character on worth reading, this one has merit.
Instead of looking at THE ITALIANS as a cohesive book, which it is not, I suggest you take it as a series of chapters -- some brilliant and right on the mark, others overstating a simple truism. In the former category, we have the two brilliant chapters at the end on Italian history after the defeat at Fornovo in 1495, and how foreign intervention led to the development of the Baroque in art, music, and life. Less effective are the chapters on Italian family life and how to succeed in Italy without half trying.
Barzini was dumbfounded at how the world was (and apparently still is) beating a path to Italy without understanding what every Italian knows. He asks, "Why did Italy, a land notoriously teeming with vigorous, wide-awake and intelligent people always behave so feebly? Why was she invaded, ravaged, sacked, humiliated in every century, and yet failed to do the simple things necessary to defend herself?"
THE ITALIANS does not answer these questions; but the fact that it posits them and comes close to answering them makes it a remarkable failure. I believe this book has been more or less continuously in print for 36 years, and with good reason.
Italy may seem at times like the animated, gaily-bedizened clown from the commedia dell'arte; but in reality, she is more like the tragic clown Pagliacci from Leoncavallo's opera, who, cruelly traduced, forces himself to laugh through his tears.