Interview with 2015 Tanner Lecturer Carlo Ginzburg by Matthew Collins

Friday, March 6, 2015

Learn more about the 2015 Tanner Lectures by Carlo Ginzburg here.


One finds in the life and work of this year’s Tanner Lecturer, Carlo Ginzburg, intertwined layers of living history and historical study. The scholar principally regarded as an historian was born into a family of no small significance, especially (but not only) because it consisted of many noteworthy figures in the Italian antifascist resistance. Both of Carlo’s parents were of Jewish descent. His mother Natalia (Levi) Ginzburg would recall her experiences as a member of this antifascist family in Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings), a widely read book which has been translated into more than ten languages. Carlo’s father, Leone Ginzburg, was born in the city of Odessa (in present-day Ukraine) and moved with his family to Italy after they had remained for a time in Germany. He briefly taught Slavic Languages and Russian Literature at the University of Turin, but his academic career ended abruptly in 1934, because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Fascist regime which had been imposed upon University professors. In the same year he was arrested and condemned for antifascist conspiracy; he spent two years in prison. He was also the co-founder of Einaudi, a highly prominent Italian publishing house. Having lost his Italian citizenship due to the 1938 antisemitic laws, he was subjected to internal exile in a small village in the Abruzzi as soon as Fascist Italy entered the war as an ally of Nazi Germany. In 1943 Leone was arrested in Rome, where he was directing an antifascist newspaper at the time. His true identity was recognized and he was sent to the German-controlled section of the Roman prison and tortured; he died in jail shortly thereafter, in February 1944. Meanwhile, Natalia and her three children, the five-year-old Carlo among them, fled to the hills of Tuscany where they evaded the Nazi’s last attempt to slaughter as many Jews as possible while retreating from the Allied forces.

At the age of twenty, while he was a student at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Carlo Ginzburg decided that he would study history. His focus would be particularly on witchcraft trials under the inquisition, and even more particularly on the attitudes and beliefs held by the persecuted. His work on this topic has now spanned decades and has resulted in many essays and numerous books which have continued to stand the test of time. If one measures success by reception, The Cheese and the Worms, his fourth book, stands out significantly. It still makes frequent appearances nearly four decades after its initial publication in the Italian language on syllabi in universities around the world—from Italy to the US to Japan and beyond. It has been translated into twenty-four languages. Ginzburg’s historical approach is abundantly multifaceted, but it may be fair, even if simplified, to present it in this way: in his work one discovers a balance between philological rigor and imaginative thinking. He seems drawn to deploying carefully conducted, well-founded study in apparently impossible spheres of knowledge production, thus requiring ever-innovative methods and conceptual tools. For example: how amidst the recorded documents of inquisitional trials can one uncover the true attitudes of the fundamentally subaltern figure of a peasant subjected to psychological and physical torture? Not only do the circumstances themselves lead toward false information: the entirety of the dialogue is under the strict control of the inquisitors, from the questioning itself to the written record of the exchange. Yet Ginzburg was able to find moments of unintended transparency— “leaks,” as he has called them—especially in trials in which the inquisitor misunderstood the defendant’s narratives. Such creative manners of thinking as this transcend mere rigor without discarding it, and thus one finds a rare combination indeed that produces fascinating insights. Ginzburg has also embraced the link between chance in the development of history itself and a similarly inevitable element of chance in the reconstruction of that history. He has come to refer to his frequent starting point in historical inquiry as that of “the euphoria of ignorance,” which is to say, the joy of encountering a puzzling fragment of information or an unknown topic, which is then followed by an endeavor to make sense of it.

Ginzburg has even found the possibilities implicit in such initial states of ignorance so enjoyable that, as he has said, he deliberately chose—and with increasing frequency—to delve into areas with which he was personally less familiar. As an unsurprising result, topics covered in his work have expanded well beyond that of early modern witchcraft trials; they reach the fields of art history, literary history, theology, psychoanalysis, and more. One can find among his writings references to Ovid, Titian, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Morelli, Arthur Conan Doyle, Freud, and the list goes on, some receiving more attention than others, but all evincing studied familiarity. In 2000 he published No Island is an Island, a book which deals with the influences upon English Literature from beyond the British Isles; truly a long distance intellectually travelled from his earliest work in terms of theme, geography and discipline. Yet in everything he addresses one finds the same rigor and insight which result in a solid and lasting contribution to whatever the given subject is at hand—and indeed, he has continued his longstanding prolific production of weighty articles and books to the present day.

In addition to cultural historical topics, Ginzburg has likewise spent significant time meditating upon the methodologies underlying the study of cultural history. The Cheese and the Worms is regarded as a forerunner in the study of microhistory, which can be defined as an approach based on a sharply focused analysis of a specific moment, place, individual or human group, sometimes of lesser significance according to the grander histories that deal principally with the social elite. This sharply focused approach, which aims to unfold the implications of a specific case resulting in the construction of new generalizations, emerged in the late ‘70s from the intellectual exchanges among a group of Italian historians, Ginzburg included, who were connected to the journal Quaderni storici. The worldwide influence of microhistory (from France to the US, from Korea to Iceland, from Hungary to Brazil) has lasted to the present day. Besides The Cheese and the Worms, Ginzburg has repeatedly reflected on the implications of microhistory in essays including “Microhistory, Two or Three Things that I Know about it” and “Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible: An Experiment in Microhistory.” In recent decades Ginzburg has devoted most of his activity to an analysis, based on a series of cases studies, of the relationship between fictional narratives and historical narratives, arguing against the fashionable neo-skeptic attitudes towards history, notably in History, Rhetoric, and Proof and in Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive.

Throughout these years of historical inquiry, Carlo Ginzburg has not ceased to remain a part of living history, and his work has continued to be informed by it. One can find in his reflections on his own work—especially when he has looked back on his writings completed in the relatively distant past—realizations regarding how current political climates and the particular circumstances of his upbringing influenced his topical choices, from the victims of inquisitorial persecution and beyond. For example, he said of his classic essay “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm” that the tumultuous political climate of the 70s in Italy (during which he too made his voice heard) subconsciously informed his piece, even though it had no overt connection to the events of the moment. Likewise, his initial choice of studying those persecuted during witchcraft trials was influenced by a variety of personal factors, including—as he came to fully realize years afterward—the fact that he and his family were severely persecuted themselves. While it is all too easy to continue detailing this fascinating life and career, it is far better to turn now to hear Carlo Ginzburg’s own reflections as a way of further introduction, now in his own words.


Matthew Collins: Given the occasion of your coming to Harvard as the Tanner Lecturer, I would like to begin with a question related to the general scope of the lecture series: do you consider that there are one (or several) overriding ethical or moral charge(s) in your study of history?

Carlo Ginzburg: A distinction should be made between ethical issues as a topic of historical research and the ethical implications of the historian’s work. Concerning the former, the general topic of my Tanner Lectures – casuistry and the controversies generated by it – has been at the center of debates about ethics for centuries, in different cultures. Even if my lectures will not address the relevance of casuistry in our world today, that relevance (especially related to bioethics) will certainly provide the context in which my historical questions emerged. The ethical implications of the historian’s work are a different matter. I am fully aware of them, but I usually refrain from focusing explicitly on them, for a very simple reason: I dislike sermons, I detest preaching. The ethical side of the historian’s work must emerge from the work itself, since it is (in my view) synonymous with the search for truth which historians must pursue. I say truth without quotation marks: the truth we are looking for is a human endeavor– fallible, revocable. That’s the reason why I insist on proofs – and disprovals. In the title of the Menachem Stern Lectures I gave in Jerusalem in 1993 – History, Rhetoric, and Proof – the polemical word was the last one, Proof. But then I argued that despite the widespread perception of rhetoric and proof as mutually incompatible, proofs have been regarded as a central element of rhetoric from Aristotle, to Quintilian, to Valla – a tradition which had been ignored or tacitly dismissed by late twentieth century neo-skeptics. The ethical implications of my argument were obvious. If a contemporary neo-skeptic feels unable to refute the arguments (or pseudo-arguments) of so-called negationists, who claim that the extermination of the European Jews never took place – then there must be something rotten in the historical profession. This neo-skepticism is largely out of fashion, but the need to place the search for truth (an extremely demanding task) at the center of the historian’s work is still there, and it will remain there.

MC: In your early intellectual development, what are some your most vivid memories and/or important moments of formation?

CG: My intellectual trajectory has many roots, like anyone else’s. But working on Inquisition archival evidence has been fundamental – something I have sometimes compared to the field experience of an anthropologist. It shaped my later research in many ways, although after a few decades I started to work in different directions. I vividly remember the long days spent completely alone in the Udine Ecclesiastical Archive in the early ‘60s (half a century ago, I can’t believe it) transcribing Inquisition trials nobody had seen before me – except for the inquisitors themselves. I was thrilled by what I read, thrilled by my solitude, thrilled by the encounter with a phenomenon (the benandanti) which no scholar had been aware of. Names of completely unknown peasants, men and women, emerged from those sixteenth century trials – along with their dreams, their emotional reactions, and so forth. I have never since experienced something comparable in my life as a researcher.

MC: Were you aware of the ethical dimension of your work from the start?

CG: I certainly was – after all, Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks had been one of the books which had pushed me towards the study of witchcraft, as a case study in the cultural history of subaltern classes. But ethical and political awareness was mingled with different feelings: first of all, the intellectual joy which I always experienced in doing research, whether I was discovering something new or realizing that I had been wrong.

MC: Do you consider that chapter of your life, so to speak—referring to your early archival experiences—one that is still open?

CG: Yes and no. That particular archival experience came to an end in 1989, with the publication of Storia notturna (translated into English as Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath): a book which sought to unfold, on a completely different spatial and chronological scale, ¬the implications of my first one, I benandanti (translated into English as The Night Battles). But some of the issues I dealt with in Ecstasies—for instance the relationship between morphology and history—fueled much of my later work.

MC: How might you regard the subsequent chapter (of sorts) in your life as a researcher? One notices an increasing presence of apparently disparate nodes in cultural history in your work, such as Dante, Thomas More, and Blaise Pascal, to name some among many. Is there some intentionality here? Does this relate to what you have referred to as a sort of euphoria of ignorance?

CG: What I have done since 1989 is difficult to describe: my research path may seem erratic, although I can detect a certain logic in it. Indeed, I have tried to repeat over and over the thrill of ignorance, addressing subjects I was completely unfamiliar with. First of all, I would say, it is pleasure: I love teaching but I love learning much more. But there is probably another, more hidden, reason. I encountered my research topic, along with the books which deeply shaped my mind as a scholar, when I was in my twenties. Being precocious is not necessarily a bliss. Later I tried, more or less unconsciously, to disentangle myself from what I had become, testing what I had learned so far on new, unfamiliar topics. Casuistry was one of them. I first came across it in an essay on Machiavelli entitled Machiavelli, the Exception and the Rule: Notes from a Research in Progress. Then Pascal came, and his opponents: the Jesuits. I will talk about both of them in my Tanner Lectures. But casuistry also required a reflection upon case studies and their implications. Once again, writing history and reflecting on the historian’s craft were inextricably connected, as they have always been since my early experiences in the Friulian archives.

MC: You wrote in the 80s, while reflecting upon your own work, that you were often your own greatest antagonist and that you held objections which typically differed from those of your critics. Is this still the case today? If so, what are your greatest objections to your own work as of now?

CG: For a long time I have been fascinated by the devil’s advocate: a figure that has played a crucial role in Catholic canonization trials since the early seventeenth century. The topic of the Martin Buber lecture I gave in Jerusalem a few years ago was “Inner Dialogues. The Jew as Devil’s Advocate.” I feel involved in an endless, contentious conversation with the devil’s advocate. What does he say to me in these days? He says: “You are trying to tame me. You are not listening to me as you did in the past.” Maybe he is right. But self-satisfaction would be the end – a ludicrous end. I will try to do my best to avoid it.