In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Armed Forces in the Modern Age

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Pre-Unification Italy
  • Colonial Warfare
  • Post–World War Two and Early NATO
  • Military Thinking and Doctrine
  • Intelligence
  • Effectiveness of the Italian Armed Forces

Military History Italian Armed Forces in the Modern Age
Pier Paolo Battistelli, Piero Crociani
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0121


Italian military history presents certain special features, particularly for non-Italian scholars. Once a subject that was almost the exclusive prerogative of the military, which followed the traditional guidelines of the histoire bataille, the influence of Fascism in the 1920 and 1930s and Italy’s defeat in World War II delayed the development of the nation’s military history along modern and wider approaches, as happened in other countries. However, facing a growing academic interest in the postwar years, the first national conference on military history was held in 1969, which gathered together the military and the academics, although in the decades to follow divergences grew to the point of leading to two different approaches. On the one side, the military, mostly related to the historical branches, kept following the traditional guidelines with only a few deviations, while, on the other side, the academics developed the study of military history in stressing social, political, and economic aspects. Consequently, a certain degree of uncertainty still exists in Italy about what military history actually is, or should be. As a result, two main sources for Italian military history are found today: publications of the historical branches, which remain predominant and focus mainly on operational and technical matters, and academic or academic-related publications, which, a few exceptions apart, focus mainly on social, political, and economic matters. In this context, non-Italian scholars find the subject to be challenging, beyond those barriers posed by the need to possess a knowledge of the language and the difficulty in gaining access to the sources (documents in particular). Others have been deterred by the rather poor Italian reputation on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, only a few individuals have ventured into the study of Italian military history. Yet, it would be a mistake to blame Anglo-Saxon historians entirely for such little attention, as some have done. Italians have themselves proved quite reluctant to delve into foreign histories and examine the work of foreign historians, as evidenced by the scarce number of Italian works either translated or written in a foreign language or by the almost nonexistent attention paid by Italians to non-Italian armed forces and events not related to Italy (apart from Raimondo Luraghi’s studies on the American Civil War). More recent exceptions, mostly focusing on World War I, suggest that putting those different views together can be hard to do, but it is not impossible. This bibliography is arranged generally by time periods; whenever necessary it is broken down into General Overviews, Reference Works, and specific issues subsections. Cross-references are sometimes necessary, although they have been avoided as much as possible. For example, the Italian colonial wars, apart from the specific section, are also dealt with in the Italian-Ethiopian War subsection under Fascism and Armed Forces (mostly because the latter was a fascist war more than a colonial one). Specific sections for Military Thinking and Doctrine, Intelligence, and Effectiveness of the Italian Armed Forces are also included. Readers will notice the relatively large number of official histories that have been cited here. In many cases, these are the most relevant works available on the history of the Italian armed forces, and they are also little known abroad so an awareness of them is called for.

General Overviews

Few general overviews are available, and only one covers all three branches of service. This reflects the traditional separation and, indeed, rivalry among the Italian armed forces, which remains an enduring characteristic. Although dated by today’s standards, Ceva 1981 still represents the only attempt to give a comprehensive coverage of the history of the Italian armed forces, and it is the ideal starting point for anyone with an interest in the subject. Of the three services, the army is the one dealt with best, first with the overview provided in Rochat and Massobrio 1978, which needs both updating and a supplement, and more recently with Bovio 1996. Much less developed and analytical are the works on the navy (Fioravanzo 1961 provides a good overall survey), and the air force (Abate 1974 and Pelliccia 1996 are the best available). The navy is also well summarized in Sullivan 1988. Noticeable is the almost complete lack of any English-language (or other language) comprehensive work on either the Italian armed forces or any of their services, apart from a few, very unreliable works. Therefore, scholars can approach the subject from two possible ways, either horizontally by selecting from different periods all the available works on the armed forces, or a chosen individual service, or vertically by selecting a given time frame and restricting themselves to studying the Italian armed forces (or individual services) in that period. Apart from Isnenghi 2008–2009, included because it provides good, comprehensive coverage from military, social, political, and economic points of view, in spite of the fact that it is not a work on military history (despite the title), other works dealing with those subjects have not been included, mostly because they deal only partially with the subject of military history.

  • Abate, Rosario. Storia della aeronautica italiana. Milan: Bietti, 1974.

    A popular history published for the fiftieth anniversary of the Italian air force, comprehensive and partly well documented but uneven in its coverage and lacking any attempt at a critical approach.

  • Bovio, Oreste. Storia dell’esercito italiano, 1861–1990. Rome: Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito, 1996.

    A solid, well-documented work on the history of the Italian army from the unification to the end of the 20th century, which, in spite of its being an official history, is adequately objective and provides full coverage.

  • Ceva, Lucio. Le forze armate. Turin, Italy: Unione Tipografica Editrice Torinese, 1981.

    The only available work covering the history of the Italian armed forces as a whole and not as single services. The volume starts from the pre-unification period and covers the post–World War II years up to the 1970s. An update, particularly in the field of military production and economy, is needed.

  • Fioravanzo, Giuseppe. La marina militare nel suo primo secolo di vita, 1861–1961. Rome: Ufficio Storico Marina Militare, 1961.

    This is the only overall work covering in depth the history of the Italian navy from the unification to the one hundredth anniversary; as an official history it lacks analysis and criticism and offers mostly a starting point to the subject.

  • Isnenghi, Mario, ed. Italiani in guerra: Conflitti, identità, memorie dal Risorgimento ai giorni nostri. 5 vols. Turin, Italy: Unione Tipografica Editrice Torinese, 2008–2009.

    Volume 1 deals with the Risorgimento, Volume 2 covers the period from unification to World War I, Volume 3 World War I (two books), Volume 4 Fascism and World War II (two books), Volume 5 the postwar period. Each book includes an overall view and a discussion of key figures, social groups, historical places, and the media.

  • Pelliccia, Antonio. La Regia Aeronautica: Dalle origini alla seconda guerra mondiale, 1923–1943. Rome: Ufficio Storico Aeronautica Militare, 1996.

    A classic official history providing a brief overview of the development of the Italian air force in the twenty years leading up to Italy’s surrender in 1943. Along with Abate 1974 a good starting point.

  • Rochat, Giorgio, and Giulio Massobrio. Breve storia dell’esercito italiano dal 1861 al 1943. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1978.

    A short history of the Italian army from the unification to Italy’s surrender in September 1943; still valid, but it needs to be updated and supplemented with other titles on the subject.

  • Sullivan, Brian R. “A Fleet in Being: The Rise and Fall of Italian Sea Power, 1861–1943.” International History Review 10.1 (1988): 106–124.

    DOI: 10.1080/07075332.1988.9640470

    A short overview that describes the politics and strategy of the Italian navy from its birth to the Italian surrender on 8 September 1943, highlighting the predominating “fleet in being” concept. Recommended.

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