Philology and Microhistory: A Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

Islam Dayeh in conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

In this Philological Conversation, Carlo Ginzburg reflects on the place of philology in his work and explores the connections between philology, microhistory, and casuistry. We talk about the people who inspired his early thinking, including his father Leone Ginzburg, his mother Natalia, and his grandfather, moving on to Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Sebastiano Timpanaro. We discuss the ethical and political implications of his research and reflect on the power of philology to give voice to the marginalized and suppressed. The conversation, which was edited for readability, took place during the Corona pandemic over three meetings via Zoom on July 13, September 10, and September 17, 2021. A preview of the conversation is below, and the full text can be read in the journal Philological Encountershere.

Carlo Ginzburg. Image courtesy of the author. Photo copyright: Danilo De Marco.

Islam Dayeh: Thank you so much, dear Carlo, for agreeing to take part in this conversation. It has been almost ten years since that memorable conversation about philology we had in Berlin. We had just launched our research program Zukunftsphilologie: Revisiting the Canons of Textual Scholarship, and Philological Encounters had not yet come into being. I remember how we spoke about Giambattista Vico’s concept of philology and Sebastiano Timpanaro’s The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method.[1] We talked about the connections between philology and microhistory, and about the role philology has played in your research. Our conversation has continued over the years and your insights remain a great inspiration for the work that my colleagues and I have been doing through Philological Encounters. It is such an honor to be able to have this conversation with you about philology and history, and to delve in deeper into your views on the place of philology today.

As a way of beginning our conversation, I would like to start with a biographical question about the development of your ideas and approaches. When did you know that you wanted to become a historian? And what was it that attracted you to history?

Carlo Ginzburg: When I started my university trajectory, I was not planning to become a historian and, even as I became a fellow at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, which is a twin institution of the École Normale Supérieure of Paris, I was not yet sure about the path I wanted to pursue. Unlike Paris, where there is a two-year preparatory program, there is no preliminary selection in Pisa. Students come from all over Italy, and they are selected regardless of their grades. In any case, I was selected, and I started my studies at the University of Pisa where I attended seminars as well as at the Scuola Normale. I was still uncertain about what path I would pursue. At the beginning, I was dreaming of becoming an art historian, but after a disappointing art history seminar, I turned towards literature. I was also very keen on linguistics, which retrospectively, must have had something to do with my father Leone, who was a philologist. When he was young, he taught Russian literature, but his academic career finished early on since he refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the fascist regime. He was in fact arrested for antifascist conspiracy in 1934 and spent two years in jail. Afterwards, he came back to Turin where he started working closely with a prominent Jewish philologist, Santorre Debenedetti, who made a critical edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, an imposing and original work on variants.[2] The introduction to the book was written in the first person and my father was never mentioned, but they were very close. My father used to refer to him as his teacher. My father was also very close to Benedetto Croce, who insisted that he should swear allegiance to the regime. Croce made a political point of not leaving the university to the fascists, but my father refused. He sent Croce a series of critical comments on the section on Russian history of his Storia d’Europa.[3] That was actually the first history book that I had ever read. I had a copy with Benedetto Croce’s handwritten dedication to my father: “to Leone Ginzburg, with gratitude.”

Islam Dayeh: Did your father’s work as an editor shape your attitude toward philology?

Carlo Ginzburg: I became aware of the relevance of Debenedettis’s work later. But what I want to highlight is my father’s drive towards philology. He regarded himself, I would say, as a philologist, and he actually edited Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti in a series called Scrittori d’Italia (“Authors of Italy”) under the editorship of Croce.[4] In the same year in which I frammenti autografi dell’Orlando Furioso came out, Gianfranco Contini published Come lavorava l’Ariosto (“On Ariosto’s Method”).[5] The title was a reference to an anecdote concerning the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827). Apparently, one day, while in exile in England, he was taking a walk near Dover with a friend and, looking at the waves, he exclaimed: ‘Così lavorava l’Ariosto!’ (“This is how Ariosto worked!”), meaning that he used ottave like a sequence of waves. Contini’s article was a review of Santorre Debenedetti’s critical edition of Ariosto’s Cinque canti. It marked the beginning of Contini’s obsession with variants: a work that has never become part of the international discussion. For instance, Bernard Cerquiglini’s work In Praise of the Variant completely ignored Contini. [6] It would actually be very interesting to compare the two works. As you can see, although I am not a philologist, I am really interested in philological work. As I have already mentioned, my attraction to linguistics and literature can certainly be ascribed to the invisible presence of my father. In 1940, Italy entered the war, and he lost Italian citizenship because he was a Jew. He was sent to internal exile to Pizzoli, a little village in the region of Abruzzo where I grew up. I was born in 1939 and I had never spoken a dialect except for Pizzoli’s local dialect when I was a child.[7] At the time, my father was correcting a translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which had been already published. He wrote the introduction to the new edition and again, being a Jew, he could not sign it. There was an asterisk instead of his name, but later I realized that my father was the one behind it. I could not understand much of War and Peace back then, I was very young, and I was reading it for the first time. However, Tolstoy’s book was essential to my approach to history. In between I had the idea of working on literature, but then I read Marc Bloch. From the very beginning, every year, every student of the Scuola Normale was supposed to do some research and discuss it. The medievalist Arsenio Frugoni suggested that I work on the journal Annales, which Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre had founded in 1929. At the time, I was completely unaware of the existence of the Annales but once I started working on the journal’s first ten years, I fell in love with Marc Bloch’s work. After reading his book The Royal Touch,[8] which was a turning point, I decided to become a historian—I have forgotten your question now.

Islam Dayeh: This is fascinating. Can you recall the works that inspired you to become a historian?

Carlo Ginzburg: Yes, I have a vivid recollection of the moment I realized that I wanted to become a historian. I was looking at the library building of the Scuola Normale and I made a triple decision: to try to become a historian, to work on witchcraft trials, and to try and rescue the voices of the victims of that persecution. The works that pushed me in that direction were Bloch’s writings, Ernesto De Martino’s Il mondo magico,[9] and Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which I had read before entering the Scuola Normale.[10] His reflections on the culture of subaltern classes were absolutely crucial for me. I had also read Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi,[11] who was my father’s friend; he is part of my childhood memories. Levi and my father were members of the anti-fascist resistance group Giustizia e Libertà (“Justice and Freedom”). He was sent to internal exile in Basilicata (called Lucania back then). His deep interest in peasant culture (including magic beliefs) implied a critical distance devoid of any patronizing attitude: a mixture which deeply impressed me. All this was part of the political atmosphere of the time. My mother, Natalia Ginzburg, had been a member of the Communist party from 1946 until 1952. She was part of a Catholic-Communist group and the philosopher Felice Balbo, one of the group leaders, was a close friend of hers. She wrote about him in her book Family Lexicon.[12] Balbo was the person who encouraged me to enter the Scuola Normale. He was also acquainted with my maternal grandfather Giuseppe Levi, who was a famous histologist (three of his pupils received a Nobel prize). He had been asked by the Party to run as an independent candidate for the 1948 elections. My grandfather was particularly important for me. In retrospect, I think that my reaction to the idea of microhistory, which alludes to the metaphorical use of the microscope, was in some way connected to him. He once invited me to have a look at the microscope in his laboratory, but I was deeply disappointed, which I did not dare to tell him. My grandfather and I had intense conversations. In one of his letters he told a friend that I had suggested that he read Gramsci.

You can continue reading this conversation in Philological Encounters, where it was originally published.


[1] Sebastiano Timpanaro, The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method, ed. and trans. Glenn W. Most (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006).

[2] See Santorre Debenedetti, I frammenti autografi dell’Orlando furioso [The Autograph Fragments of the Orlando Furioso] (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2011).

[3] Benedetto Croce, Storia d’Europa nel secolo decimonono [History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century] (Bari: Laterza, 1932).

[4] Giacomo Leopardi, Canti [Cantos], ed. Leone Ginzburg (Bari: Giuseppe Laterza & Figli, 1938).

[5] Gianfranco Contini, “Come lavorava l’Ariosto” [On Ariosto’s Method], in Esercizi di lettura sopra autori contemporanei con un’appendice su testi non contemporanei (Turin: Parenti, 1938).

[6] Bernard Cerquiglini, In Praise of the Variant: A Critical History of Philology [original title: Éloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie], trans. Betsy Wing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

[7] See Carlo Ginzburg, “Streghe e sciamani,” in Il filo e le tracce: Vero falso finto (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2006), 280–93, particularly 282–85. For the English translation, see Carlo Ginzburg, “Witches and shamans,” in Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Berkley: University of California Press, 2012), 215–27, particularly 216–19.

[8] Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England [original title: Les Rois Thaumaturges: Étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale particulièrement en France et en Angleterre], trans. J.E. Anderson (New York: Dorset Press, 1990).

[9] Ernesto De Martino, Il mondo magico: Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo [The Magical World: Prolegomena to a History of Magianism] (Turin: Einaudi, 1948).

[10] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Joseph Anthony Buttigieg, 3 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

[11] Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

[12] Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon, trans. Jenny McPhee (New York: New York Review Books, 2017).

Islam Dayeh is assistant professor of Arabic philology and Islamic intellectual history at Freie Universität Berlin. He is the director of the research programme Zukunftsphilologie: Revisiting the Canons of Textual Scholarship (2010–present), and the founding editor of the journal and monograph series Philological Encounters (2016–present). Recently, he was awarded a grant from the European Research Council for his project “Polymathy and Interdisciplinarity in Premodern Islamic Epistemic Cultures” (2022).

Further articles in the Philological Conversations series on TRAFO:

Michael Allan, Heterodox Philology: A Conversation with Gauri Viswanathan, 01 December 2021

Citation: Dayeh, Islam, “Philology and Microhistory: A Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg”, Philological Encounters 7, 1–2 (2022): 197–232, doi:

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