The Force of the Anomaly

GinzburgPerry Anderson on Carlo Ginzburg's Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, in the LRB:

Carlo Ginzburg became famous as a historian for extraordinary discoveries about popular belief, and what was taken by its persecutors to be witchcraft, in the early modern period. The Night Battles and The Cheese and the Worms, each a case-study from the north-east corner of Italy, were followed by a synthesis of Eurasian sweep in Ecstasies. The work that has appeared since is no less challenging, but there has been a significant alteration of its forms, and many of its themes. The books of the first twenty years of his career have been succeeded by essays; by now well over fifty of them, covering a staggering range of figures and topics: Thucydides, Aristotle, Lucian, Quintilian, Origen, St Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Bayle, Voltaire, Sterne, Diderot, David, Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Warburg, Proust, Kracauer, Picasso and many more, each an extraordinary display of learning. No other living historian approaches the range of this erudition. Every page of Threads and Traces, his latest work to appear in English, offers an illustration of it. Ginzburg, who has a nominalist resistance to epochal labels of any kind, would like to override Fredric Jameson’s dictum that ‘we cannot not periodise,’ but it is impossible to grasp his achievement without recalling that the centre of his work lies in what, protestations notwithstanding, we still call the Renaissance. It is that pivot, on which his writing swings back and forth with complete ease and naturalness from classical antiquity and the church fathers across to the Enlightenment and the long 19th century, that is such a striking feature of this collection, as of its predecessors: Clues, Myths and the Historical Method; Wooden Eyes; History, Rhetoric and Proof; No Island Is an Island.

By definition Renaissance scholarship requires transhumance between ancient and early modern sources, passing across what lies between them. At its highest, the kind of philological mastery it requires can also be seen in the work of the historian with whom Ginzburg can perhaps best be compared, Anthony Grafton, another astonishing comet of learning. The two, each from Jewish families with a political background, one in Turin, the other Manhattan, share a common starting-point in seasons in London at the Warburg Institute, with the influence of Arnaldo Momigliano nearby. There is also an occasional overlap in interests – Panofsky, Jesuits, Bayle, Judaica – and perhaps some similarity in civic sensibility. The most obvious difference is the anthropological cast of Ginzburg’s best-known work, exploring popular rather than elite culture. In the past two decades, however, there has been a convergence of terrain, as Ginzburg has shifted the focus of his writing to intellectual history, where Grafton has always worked.