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Which one is Piedmont again, Sir?
Getting started with Italian Unification at A level

I ‘did’ Italian Unification for O level but somehow in the 44 years between then (1968) and starting to edit an A level book on the topic a couple of years ago I’d forgotten which bit is Piedmont and where Lombardy and Tuscany are and as for Modena …  no idea.

Not being on top of the geography can rapidly lead to lack of confidence in an A level student and just telling some students to get a grip on the map isn’t enough. Maps help but I reckon that some students will benefit from something more active than just looking at a map which can be an uninvolving experience.

So here goes – the story of Italian Unification – with tabards!

Resources for Italian Unification at A level

Ed Podesta, lead author of the forthcoming SHP A level book on Italian Unification, has added a wide-ranging set of podcasts on the topic to his website www.onedamnthing.org.uk/italy/

The book, in the Enquiring History series, will be published in Spring 2015.

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And if you're unfamiliar with tabards [click here ].

The Activity

1. The basic idea is to use your students as the states of pre-unification Italy and to get them standing as if they are a map. So your first map is ‘Italy’ in 1815:

• create a tabard for each student/state – the name of the state writ large so it’s easily seen.

• get a volunteer to be Piedmont (starting in the north-west). Ideally someone whose name begins with P – Pete or Penny or Polly.

• then bring in the other states one by one so you build up a physical, visual map – they could sit down on chairs or stand up – whichever is better for visibility.

• you could add in any cities by giving the relevant state a placename card to hold – Rome, Milan, Venice etc – don’t just give them out, see if anyone knows where the cities go first.

Experience shows that students’ recall is helped by this kind of activity – months, even years, later they’ll be able to remember who ‘played’ Tuscany and who stood next to ‘Lombardy’.

The idea of linking states to students’ names can be helpful – it makes links in their minds and is good for recall along the lines of ‘I’ve forgotten where Piedmont is again, who was Piedmont in that daft map we did – it was Pete and he was standing in the top corner over there so it must be in the north-west.’ Honest – it works! Some students can see who was where in their minds, Tania was standing next to Polly so that means that Tuscany was next to the Papal States.’ [Too many places beginning with P].

2. Next stage is to get students to start again, creating the map themselves – who had this tabard, where did he/she stand – until the map is built up.

Then get them to fill in a blank map of the states with the names.

3. A possible additional element is to use tabards of a common colour to show which states were under Austrian control – e.g. blue tabards equal Austrian domination.

4. When you reach the key unification period you can use the map to tell the story in outline by making physical links at different key points in time e.g. July 1859, March 1860, October 1860 etc.

Do this by telling the story in outline and getting states that have been ‘unified’ to hold a piece of rope or string or even Christmas tinsel – whatever shows they are linked together. Or change their tabards so the ‘unified’ states all have the same colour or give the ‘unified’ states Italian flags to wave. Get students to ask questions while you’re going through this narrative and create a question list for the next stage of study.

Again the next step for revision is to hand that task over to students so they have the responsibility of recalling the sequence of events and making the physical links.

One extra benefit I’ve found from similar activities is that it increases interest in particular events amongst the students who’ve ‘been’ Tuscany, Naples or wherever. When you reach an event involving ‘their’ state it sharpens concentration and interest.

That’s it – very simple and deceptively undemanding.

It doesn’t look like an A level activity so you’ll need to explain why you’re doing it – which is important in itself because it will reassure some students that their struggle to remember ‘where’s where’ isn’t their struggle alone – and that you as teacher are taking active steps to help them. But it is a legitimate A level activity as it helps students develop confidence and knowledge and so they’re better able to deal with the necessary complexities of A level study.

And more …

Since writing the above I’ve had this set of additional ideas from Ed Podesta who, along with Pam Canning, is writing SHPs A level book on Italian Unification to be published by Hodder Education in 2015. Here are Ed’s additional suggestions:

If you choose colours carefully it should be possible to show which states were parts of Austria's empire, which were ruled by relatives of the Austrian Emperor, and which were ruled by the others.

Then during unification, each of the countries taken over could take on Piedmont's colours.  You could even make Sicily and Naples wear red during the campaign of the thousand in 1860, to illustrate that Garibaldi was a loose cannon, and that it was feared that he might try to rule the south himself, and use it as a base from which to create a republican Italy.

Another thing might be to have symbols of each state - some of which could be important, like the Cross Keys of the Papacy (which they'll need to be able to recognise if they're studying cartoons of the period) and some could be daft, such as Bourbon biscuits for Naples, Lemons for Sicily, Parma ham, Balsamic from Modena, Tuscan olive oil, (Sardines for piedmont Sardinia?!)

And an even more final thought …

While editing Ed and Pam’s book I’ve also been reading Donna Leon’s excellent novels/mysteries set in Venice featuring Commissario Brunetti, that unusual creature amongst fictional policemen – a  man with a happy family life and splendidly liberal outlook. What I’ve found fascinating is how the historical divisions of Italy – regional suspicions, stereotypes etc – continue to play a part in the thoughts and actions of Donna Leon’s modern-day characters. Well-worth reading for pleasure and historical echoes.

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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