IT was the Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich who famously observed: "Italy is a geographical expression". That was in a letter written in 1849, 12 years before Italy emerged as a unified state.

That dismissive view of the country of has been echoed a century and a half later by Umberto Bossi, the founder of the federalist and xenophobic Northern League, who is today one of the most influential ministers in the government of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Bossi's lack of enthusiasm for a united Italy is proving an embarrassment as the government prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the unification of the country, to be officially marked on March 17, 2011.

The government's lackadaisical approach to the occasion has sparked a tussle over the tortured cultural soul of a people accustomed to division by a history of feuding city states and warring political factions that continues from the Guelfs and the Ghibelines to the Bossis and Berlusconis of today.

President Giorgio Napolitano has written to the government to inquire politely what its plans are for the anniversary and former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi has threatened to resign as chairman of the anni-versary oversight committee if the government shows no sign of believing in the event.

"Certain members of the present government are imposing a tendency not to decide anything," Ciampi complained in an interview published by the Turin daily La Stampa on Friday.

The government has identified some 11 construction projects, ranging from a new cinema complex in Venice to the refurbishment of theatres and museums in Naples and Reggio Calabria, and to the enlargement of Perugia's international airport, as part of an anniversary facelift for the nation.

But money is tight and the Northern League distinctly unkeen.

Bossi declared recently that the appropriate expenditure for the celebrations was "zero".

The League's newspaper, La Padania, explained why in an article titled: "Unity of Italy, what is there to celebrate?"

The birth of the Italian state was "an act against nature and against history", the paper said, and the only solution was federalism, a political order corresponding to "the true, deep soul of the country".

The unification of the country, achieved by national heroes such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, was actually the fruit of "violence, abuse of power and theft", according to Northern League MP Marco Rondini.

Italians felt greater identification with their city council than with the nation, so it was no surprise they wouldn't be waving the tricolour flag for the anniversary, Rondini said. With other politicians off on their summer holidays, League representatives have kept up a barrage of provocative proposals, from changing the national anthem to promoting regional dialects and traditions in schools.

One League MP has proposed a law allowing the celebration of marriages in local dialect, while the mayor of Capriate, in the northern state of Lombardy, has issued a ban on "alien" kebab stalls in his town centre.

From the pages of the Corriere della Sera newspaper political commentator Ernesto Galli della Loggia warned that the construction projects marking the anniversary were an illustration of how the country's leaders had lost touch with the real cultural background of the country. "How can someone celebrate the birth of Italy who has no idea at all of what the country really is?" Galli della Loggia asked polemically.

The article elicited a response from a Northern League-supporting student, who explained in a letter to the paper why some young people like him felt so little identification with the history of their own country.

Unification had been an act of conquest rather than liberation, had been followed by fascism and then post-war cronyism and corruption, wrote Matteo Lazzaro in his open letter to the Corriere.

"If I draw up a balance sheet from national unity to today, there seem to be more things to be ashamed of than of which to be proud," he wrote.

And disaffection for the unified state is not confined to the industrial north. A blog by the writer Mimmo Marseglia laments the demise of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, sacrificed to the interests of northern industrialists under "a form of colonialism known as the unity of Italy".

As Bossi calls for the replacement of the national anthem with Va Pensiero, a popular aria from Verdi's opera Nabucco, it is not surprising to learn that the tomb of Goffredo Mameli, the composer of the official anthem, lies in a state of unkempt neglect in Rome's Verano cemetery.

No other major European country seems so ill-at-ease and divided over its own recent history. No surprise then that it should be riven over where it wants to go in the future and how to honour its first 150 years of life.