If you are going to Italy this summer – even for the tenth time – you need a copy of Luigi Barzini’s 1964 book The Italians. That Barzini should have written his masterpiece in English is a clue to his unique perspective: Italian to his fingertips, the great man was also a US-trained foreign correspondent. The resulting combination of gentle self-mockery and vivid historical colouring has never been equalled. Central to his concern is revealing the paradoxical nature of the Italian peninsular to the foreign reader. It is a country obsessed by beauty yet riven with violence; fiercely proud of its culture yet deeply ashamed of its incapacity; whose collection of dazzling regions never adds up to the sum of its parts.

Indeed, like many Italians, Barzini treats anything beyond a purely geographical definition of ‘Italy’ with some degree of scepticism. This is a country ruled not by national sentiment but by the age-old principle of capalinismo. Meaning loyalty to your local campanile – bell tower – it emerges as the defining factor of Italy’s achievements and woes (it is still common to see rooms advertised in Italy only open to locals). The dividends of the Renaissance were driven not by cooperation but by the fierce internal loyalty and external mistrust of the city states. Their competitiveness invited cataclysms from which the country never recovered. First among these was when the warlord of Milan invited the French Army into Italy in 1494; a guileful act by which he hoped to do down his rivals, which instead shattered the peninsula with six decades of abasement at the hands of foreign armies. And these were real armies, which scorched the earth; nothing like the prancing condottiere who had once harmlessly sated the city states’ desire for glory. Within twenty years, Rome itself was subject to a six-month ordeal of rape and destruction; within thirty, the peninsula’s bitter internal jealousies had turned on its richest jewel: Venice.

Barzini accordingly offers a thrillingly detailed account of the events of 1494 – and, in the surrounding chapters, draws out from them some central lessons of Italian life. Foremost among these is a comparison between the two great writers on statecraft who emerged from the period of the Italian Wars: Niccolo Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini. In spite of his eponymous adjective, it is the republican Machiavelli who is presented as the hopeless idealist; forever dreaming of a unified Italy which could resist assault, and ending his life in exile. The aristocratic Guicciardini, by contrast, consolidates his position at the top of society by never allowing his private ideals – and religion – to inform his public choices. As such, the Guiccardini-Strozzi landholdings survived not just the treacherous Medician period but are still producing wine to this day.

It is no surprise that Guicciardini reappears in the chapter “How to Succeed”  and that this represents a masterpiece of cynicism. Never trust anyone outside your family; never speak plainly; use powerful friends and flattery at all times. Align yourself to the quality of the furbo – cunning man – not the credulous fesso (fool), who alone among Italians pays his taxes, keeps his word, and believes what he reads in the papers. Barzini acknowledges that any country – even Italy – needs a minimum number of such people in order not to fall apart, and foresees this moment approaching as their number diminishes.

Yet – although this furbizia may be the underlying principle of Italian life – its enaction requires mastering the most Olympian virtue of all: garbo. This untranslatable quality indicates a combination appearance, bearing and worldliness, which sweeps all before it. It is “the careful circumspection with which one slowly changes political allegiance when things are on the verge of becoming dangerous; the tact with which unpleasant news must be announced; the grace with which the tailor cuts a coat to flatter the lines of the body; the sympathetic caution with which agonising love affairs are finished off; the ability to restore order to a rebellious province without provoking resentments.”

Foreigners should tread carefully. Barzini lovingly records the typical arc of experience of a foreigner moving to the country; initially delighting in how beautiful everything is and how easily the tradesmen greet him (what a contrast with France!). Only gradually does the realisation dawn that he is being cosseted by a carefully-drawn artifice. At best disillusionment sets in; at worse, the collision of underlying values leads to disaster. He proffers the example of a high-minded English family who decide to provide for the welfare of their distraught maid when she falls pregnant. But, within weeks, furious writs and lawsuits start arriving from her family. They have arrived at the only logical conclusion known to them: the Englishman himself was the father. Having smelt money, they were not going to miss out. And so, the English family departs Tuscany, leaving an irreparable hole in the social fabric.

Illusion and reality entwine most closely in his chapter on the Sicilian Mafia. The belated realisation of Machiavelli’s dream of unification in 1871 forced underground the local armed bands which had which protected the large estates. Resistant to the new authority being imposed from the north, these became the “primordial and Arcadian form of the mafia, with its mixture of ruthless brutality and noble sentiments”. Barzini dissects these self-delusions with a pitiless irony, as he maps the thoughts of an ageing mafioso of the old school: “The good ones are unfortunately getting scarcer. Things are no longer what they were. More and more men seem bent on violating the old rules merely to make money for themselves. It is not so much the Mafia’s fault as that of the times. Similar trends are visible everywhere in the modern world. All men are inclined to serve their private interests and forget moral duties. Nevertheless, good Mafia men still exists: those who want, above all, to be helpful to others. This they consider their mission in life.” And so it is here – in the pit of Italy’s dark heart and among its most famous export – that the suspension of disbelief finally becomes complete.

Barzini’s message to the visitor is to recognise that Italy is so full of small comforts because this is all its people can trust. Its culture has been worn down like a sea pebble, leaving ephemeral beauty and pleasure as not only the highest but the only available virtue. The same themes appear in later books – notably John Hooper’s, also called The Italians (likely in homage to Barzini and shared scepticism of the idea of ‘Italy’). Written almost exactly 50 years later, it provides a perfect companion volume; showing the wounded splendour of Italy still echoing forwards through the centuries.