Two of Massimo Pavarini's major writings on Italian penal policies and practices provide bookends to scholarly developments concerning determinants of penal policies since the early 1990s. In a prescient 1994 article, anticipating the state of the art of knowledge that would emerge internationally in ensuing decades, he emphasized that punishment policies and imprisonment patterns in Italy in the quarter century after 1970 can be understood only by reference to distinctively Italian political developments and cultural characteristics. Between 1995 and 2010, a robust comparative literature proposed a series of general theories - an emerging "culture of control", "penal populism", the influence of neo-liberalism - to explain penal policies and practices in developed Western countries; all were refutable, as Karl Popper instructed that all theories must be if they are to count as theories. All were refuted. The current state of understanding is left where Pavarini began: countries' penal policies and practices are convincingly explicable only in terms of their distinctive national histories and cultures.