This essay draws attention to the originality and coherence of Pasquale Villani’s interpretation of the history of the Italian south and the reasons why he insisted on the formative importance of the century before Unification. One of the generation of young post-war ‘meridionalisti’, Villani’s ideas and his historiographical agenda took shape against the background of the Second World War, the fall of fascism and the rural protest movements in the south. His historiographical agenda was defined more specifically through debates in which Rosario Romeo, Antonio Gramsci, Rosario Villari, Emilio Sereni and Ruggiero Romano were leading protagonists. Closer to Sereni, Villari and Romano, Villani nonetheless followed a distinctive line of interpretation that gained influence and weight thanks to the author’s capacity for recruiting and mobilising teams of talented young researchers to undertake the unprecedentedly ambitious but clearly defined task of researching and charting the transition of the agrarian Ancien Regime in the south. A tribute to Villani’s intellectual leadership, these studies remain an essential starting point for understanding of the history of southern Italy before and after Unification.
Keywords: Mezzogiorno;; feudalism;; rural society;; peasants;; missed revolution.