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.
LRB 26 April 2012 | PDF Download