Details of History. A Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

On June 24 in Lignano Sabbiadoro he received the Hemingway Award, 39th Edition, for The Adventure of Thought.
ADRIANO FAVARO
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On June 24 in Lignano Sabbiadoro he received the Hemingway Award, 39th Edition (top photo), for The Adventure of Thought. Other award recipients were Marco Zanta (photography); Shirin Ebadi (Witness of our time); Antonio Fantin (Lignano 120 years of future), Amélie Nothomb (Literature).

The books by historian Carlo Ginzburg (Turin 1939) have been translated into more than twenty languages, including Japanese. Known especially for having recovered the records of the Inquisition from the Friulian archives about the benendanti (hence the book, I Benandanti) and about the miller Menocchio, about whom he wrote the formidable work Il formaggio e i vermi, both recently republished by Adelphi, the author has been awarded “Above all for having reconstructed the imagination and the daily life of entire historical periods, starting from well-defined microcosms, which in some cases also regard Friuli Venezia Giulia, and finding the voices of those who usually have no voice”.

Carlo Ginzburg has taught, among other things, at University of Bologna, UCLA, and the Scuola Normale di Pisa. In addition to his new books (the most recent is La lettera uccide), Adelphi is republishing some of his books that were written many years ago accompanied by new afterwords, such as Miti emblem spie (1986), which is about to be released.

The author has received the Aby-Warburg-Preis (1992), the Feltrinelli prize for historical sciences (2005), l’Humboldt-Forschungspreis (2008), and the Balzan prize for European history (1400-1700) (2010).

What will work become for historians until now accustomed to archives of paper and parchment? If you were Carlo Ginzburg a hundred years from now, where would you go to search among the endless mass of documents? Two thousand years between stones and paper and now billions of bits.
Even if all of the archives were online, the problem would be reading them. The mass of documentation has been hanging over us for a long time, even though most of our questions remain unanswered. I have repeatedly emphasized the usefulness of producing “the case” to put us in front of unexpected documentation. Finding what you are looking for is not sufficient. We have to work with what we didn’t expect.

You are saying long live serendipity, long live the power of luck and chance…
Precisely in this regard, many years ago I hit upon something unexpected while I was working on the Spie piece. It was the roots of circumstantial paradigm which I included in the book Miti emblem spie that Adelphi is about to reprint. I found the source of “serendipity” – which at that time was not a widely used word – in a book published in Venice in the sixteenth century: a collection of short stories, presented as a translation from Persian to Italian, edited by a perhaps non-existent Armenian, Cristopher, entitled Peregrinaggio di tre giovan figluoli del re di Serendippo. The book was reprinted and translated several times in this form – first into German, then, during the eighteenth century, on the wave of the contemporary fashion for orientalism, into the main European languages. It would be Horace Walpole, in a letter from 1754, who coined the neologism ‘serendipity’ to describe “unforeseen discoveries, made thanks to chance and intelligence”. Several years earlier Voltaire had reworked, in the third chapter of Zadig, the first short story from the Peregrinaggio, which he had read in the French translation. In his reworking the camel in the original was transformed into a dog and a horse, which Zadig was able to describe in detail by deciphering their tracks on the ground. 

Where does this come from?
It’s an Eastern idea, Asian: reconstructing an animal from the tracks it has left.

Listen, professor, now we, Western humanity, are the ones who describe a camel without having ever seen one, like blind people in a room with an elephant, each one touching and describing a piece of it: in the end are we reading about a fantasy animal?
With history we can make huge mistakes by following a trail inserted in a non-existent context. But the opportunity to make mistakes, and to correct your own errors, is part of research.

Insisting on the correction of errors seems to me to also be important pedagogically. Research is a serious affair which involves the possibility for errors: it is therefore necessary to take note of them and correct them.

Will artificial intelligence also be part of history, maybe reading what humans cannot read?
Tools and techniques for confronting the excess of material that we are still unable to master were invented a long time ago. The idea of preparing the indexes for a book today seems trivial to us. But indexes of the Bible or the concordances (the list of words used in the Bible) were precious tools for preachers: it’s an ancient story.

The fact remains that electronic machines will be able to prepare fakes even faster and faster.
It’s a tool that can be used in all directions. Despite my incompetence in the subject, I believe that the production of artificial intelligence is unstoppable. Fake news was not born yesterday. I’m thinking of the so-called “Donation of Constantine”, according to which Emperor Constantine left part of the empire’s territory to the Church of Rome. In the mid-fifteenth century Lorenzo Valla demonstrated, in a fundamental text, that the donation was a forgery. Someone said ten years ago: we must free ourselves from Lorenzo Valla! So, what are we supposed to do? Take Hitler’s diaries for granted? Forgery lies in wait everywhere; the tools for identifying counterfeits are precious and indispensable. The work of the historian deals with the true, the false and the fake: but these are distinctions that concern everyone.

Those who try to explain history – even the history of Italy of recent decades – often find themselves faced with people who don’t know anything or with others who know details, filled above all with obstacles and enormous contradictions.
But this is the norm. The historian’s relationship with the past is not transparent; we have to reckon with contradictory and conflicting testimonies, and with fake or ambiguous documents.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but I have also observed a lot of “want to believe” anyway; the very popular example of the mythical foundation of Venice 1600 years ago is enough of an example: it’s false, yet it was liked. Does this mean that we need myths, even false ones?
It’s nothing new. I’m an atheist, but I look at religions with great interest. The roots of religion are ambiguous, ambivalent, deep. According to the ancient saying, it was fear that created the gods. Plato was already talking about the political use of myth and falsehood: a theme that has been taken up, in many ways, to this day. Of course, new technology has multiplied the production of news, true and false. We find ourselves faced with a historic break: a turning point that is comparable, on a different scale, to that of the invention of printing. History does not repeat itself, but knowing it helps us to understand the present. To suppose that the world in which we live is completely new is a form of provincialism.

Is God really in the details?
The phrase “God is in the detail”, which I put as an epigraph to my Spie essay, is from Aby Warburg. It’s the reversal of a German proverb: “the devil is in the details”. Warburg meant to say that the historian must work on the details: at this point the relationship between the detail and the context of which the detail is part comes into play. I have always worked on cases: but the cases refer, by definition, to generalization.

We accept the idea of the sublime slowness of history, while reality is made of reversals and crashes: does this tell us how things are in the cycle of history?
Today we are inundated with tools that allow us to enter into contact with people who are very far away in space and time, multiplying an effect that Galileo had underlined with regard to the alphabet. All of this has changed our experience: the speed of the present did not begin today, but in many societies time had (and has today) an infinitely slower pace. To understand the present, we must learn to look at it from a distance, slowly, taking a step back.

“I asked myself what makes a story with clearly local characteristics translatable to different contexts. Two things: the challenge of independence, typical of all unequal societies, and the encounter between oral culture and printed culture” #microhistory Carlo Ginzburg #HemingwayPrize2023 #HemingwayLignano #HemingwayPrize

Slowness to understand an increasingly fast life.
Friedrich Nietzsche, first a philologist then a philosopher, gave this definition to philology: the art of slow reading. Teaching that art is not only possible, but also an obligation. We need to learn to grasp what is implicit in a text – in any text. We need to learn to read between the lines. However, the speed of the Internet and slow reading are compatible: this point seems very important to me.

And the medieval miller, the Friulian Menocchio? Does he still speak to us? Is he a being that Ginzburg recognizes in his existence? There are many writers who say this about their creations. 
I found myself reflecting on Menocchio and his extraordinary speeches when I wrote the afterword for the reprint of Formaggio e i vermi. Afterwords, as a literary genre, have become part of my work since I began republishing my books with Adelphi. Rereading myself after so long is a challenge. Very often it’s an occasion for criticizing myself.

“Looking at the past through rose-colored glasses is a huge mistake – it means falling victim to a lie” #CarloGinzburg, “Hemingway Prize Avventura del pensiero”

I insist: is your Menocchio still alive?
I would have to say yes, and not only for me. The countless translations also testify to this (just a few days ago I learned that a translation into Armenian will be published). Sometimes I wonder how this figure will be interpreted by readers from a different culture. It won’t be the Menocchio that I read, but it will start from the traces that he left.

How big is the problem of translation regarding history?
Translation is interpretation. The joke “traduttuore/traditore” (translator/traitor), which has migrated from Italian to other languages, signals, beyond the joke, a real difficulty. Translation can betray the text. The meaning of the text exists, and not all translations respect it. This is why philology sets out to ascertain it. However, there are no definitive interpretations. The world changes and the questions that Menocchio will be asked in the future will also change. I myself wondered, writing the afterword to Il formaggio e i vermi: how can a figure like Menocchio be interpreted in a globalized world? In my opinion, reading the Inquisition trials obliquely, as I tried to do with the benandanti and with Menocchio, can similarly help with reading the mass of documentation produced by European colonizers in Asia, Africa and America. I think that this documentation, read against the grain, as Walter Benjamin wrote, can bring to light unforeseen elements of the life of the people who were colonized. This seems to me to be a very promising perspective for research.

How does the future look to you?
I lack many, too many, tools in the face of what is happening. I am between the old and the new, trying to orient myself. Undoubtedly my training dates back to a different world, but I don’t exclude the possibility that I can learn something. I am curious about what is happening, and I have mixed feelings: fear, and also anguish. It doesn’t seem to me that the world is doing well.

What do you read?
I’m overwhelmed with my research projects. Now I am finishing writing a speech called “Freedom is fragile”. We’ll end with a truth…

Translation by Paul Rosenberg

Details of History. A Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg ultima modifica: 2023-06-26T19:28:54+02:00 da ADRIANO FAVARO
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