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

By Benjamin Ivry

Published April 13, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.