Carlo Ginzburg has many claims to be considered the outstanding European historian of the generation which came of age in the late Sixties. Certainly few have equalled him in originality, variety and audacity. He made his debut with a spectacular discovery: the first, and still only, documented case of a magical fertility and funerary cult in the countryside of Early Modern Europe, the trances of the Benandanti in Friuli, stumbled upon unawares by the Roman Inquisition. Next, he transformed the genealogy of religious dissimulation in the age of the Reformation, by tracing the origins of Nicodemism - theological doctrines sanctioning public concealment of private faith - to the defeat of the Peasants' War in Germany and milieux close to Anabaptism, well before the rise of Calvin, whose attacks on Nicodemism coined the term. There followed his vivid portrait of the autodidact Italian miller Menocchio, whose cosmology of spontaneous generation - the world born as cheese and worms - he referred to a subterranean peasant materialism. Changing terrain again, Ginzburg then suggested a new iconographic explanation of Piero della Francesca's greatest paintings, linking them through an unnoticed Aretine Humanist to the abortive union of the Greek and Roman Churches, and the crusades projected around the fall of Constantinople. The intellectual unity, and novelty, of these different enquiries can best be grasped in the essays that make up the recent collection Myths Emblems Clues. Its centrepieces are two long methodological reflections, the first on the Warburg tradition of art history, and the second on the heuristics of attribution, from ancient divination to modern connoisseurship.
LRB 8 November 1990 | PDF Download