For Carlo Ginzburg, It's Personal

Italian-Jewish Historian Learned From Heretics and Heroes

Man of Letters: Carlo Ginzburg says his Jewish identity emerged from persecution.
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Man of Letters: Carlo Ginzburg says his Jewish identity emerged from persecution.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published April 13, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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A collection of essays by the profoundly original, intellectually wide-ranging, Italian-Jewish historian Carlo Ginzburg underlines the influence of Yiddishkeit on his achievement. “Threads and Traces: True False Fictive,” published recently by University of California Press, is an illuminating collection of chapters, deftly translated from the original Italian by Anne C. and John Tedeschi.

An omnivorous analyst of artistic and human history, Ginzburg offers innovative ideas on a startling variety of texts and art forms, somewhat in the manner of Swiss-Jewish literary historian Jean Starobinski. Like Starobinski, who is of Polish-Jewish origin, Ginzburg can seem like a one-man team of readers and researchers, so profound is his erudition.

The wellspring of his inspiration is his Judaism. In the preface to his 1999 study, “History, Rhetoric, and Proof,” originally given as the Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures and hosted by the Historical Society of Israel, Ginzburg wrote: “I am a Jew who was born and grew up in a Catholic country; I never had a religious education; my Jewish identity is in large measure the result of persecution.”

Ginzburg’s father, Odessa-born philologist, historian and anti-fascist activist Leone Ginzburg, was arrested by Italian police and tortured to death in a Roman prison in 1944. At the time, his son Carlo, born in Turin, was 5 years old. Yet he retains clear memories of the central Italian town of Pizzoli, where his family had previously hid with his non-Jewish maternal grandmother, Lidia Tanzi. Ginzburg’s mother was noted author Natalia Ginzburg, born Levi. In 1941, Leone Ginzburg wrote a letter to historian Luigi Salvatorelli to describe how, despite imprisonments and persecution, domestic life temporarily continued; “evenings, when the children have been put to bed,” he and Natalia would sit opposite each other at a table, both busy with literary work: “These are our best times.”

These “best times” of humbly mundane details before catastrophe struck would illuminate his son’s future work as a historian. In the 1960s and ’70s, Ginzburg developed the now celebrated investigative approach of microhistory with Italian-Jewish scholar Giovanni Levi, a boyhood friend and exact contemporary, following in the footsteps of previous authors who also favored a microscopic style of examining seemingly insignificant or previously overlooked details. In what remains his most internationally celebrated book, “The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller,” from 1976, Ginzburg focuses on Domenico Scandella, an obscure miller who sacrificed his life to defy unjust authority, a man in some ways surprisingly like his own father. By researching myths, folklore and records of the Inquisition, Ginzburg recovered the sometimes strikingly eloquent voices of average people in the face of oppressive tyranny.

Only after writing a series of such books remembering people who were persecuted as witches or for other reasons did Ginzburg fully realize why this subject was of such intense interest to him. In a speech accepting Milan’s 2010 Balzan Prize for European History (1400–1700), Ginzburg described his “emotional identification with victims of persecution” through history as an “unconscious projection of my Jewish identity, which persecution had reinforced.” He told Haaretz in 2010 that as a boy in hiding, his biggest shock was that his identity “had to be blurred” when he temporarily adopted the non-Jewish sounding family name Tanzi.


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