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Faculty of Humanities


'I Gulped down Ginzburg’s Article with Greedy, Insatiable Pleasure'

On 1st to 3rd June, the remarkable Italian historian and one of the founders of microhistory, Carlo Ginzburg will give a series of open lectures at the HSE. Professor Ginzburg has been invited to Moscow by the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI). His translator, Professor at the School of Philosophy, Sergey Kozlov spoke to the HSE News Service about how he was inspired to translate Ginzburg’s work into Russian which led to them becoming firm friends.

Carlo Ginzburg is a great star of contemporary historical studies, one of the creators of microhistory — an approach which examines unique individual stories rather than large scale social processes.

His research encompasses questions of history, philology and art history. In the 1960s he was a key figure in the campaign to gain access for historians to the Vatican archives. He developed fundamentally new methods of working with archives including documents pertaining to the trials of non-conformists between the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. An example of this is Ginzburg’s bestseller The Cheese and The Worms, the Cosmos of a 16th century Miller, based on interrogation records of the miller Menocchio who was burned at the stake for heresy by the Inquisition. The book has been translated into 26 languages.

‘It’s a great honour for us to host an academic of Professor Ginzburg’s calibre at HSE. It’s thanks largely to the efforts of our colleagues, Professor Sergei Kozlov at the School of Philology and Mikhail Andreev, Leading Research Fellow at IGITI, that Carlo Ginzburg’s works are accessible to readers in Russian translation,’ says IGITI Director and HSE Professor Irina Savelieva.

Sergey Kozlov explains how his fruitful cooperation with Ginzburg came about.


My acquaintance with the writings of Carlo Ginzburg began in 1993 when I came across a collection of his essays, published in Italian under the title, ‘Miti, emblemi, spie’. I subsequently translated them for publication in Russian. I knew that Ginzburg was famous for his work on witchcraft trials and that he was recognised in the US as one of the most original European researchers in Early Modern popular culture.

I opened the contents page of the collection and an article called Clues: Roots of a Scientific Paradigm attracted my attention instantly. I gulped down the article with greedy, insatiable pleasure - as hundreds of other readers had done before me and hundreds would after. The most precise way of describing it would be to say that it was exactly the article that I had always longed to read. As soon as I finished reading it I immediately sat down to translate it into Russian, although no one had commissioned it. Fortunately, I had somewhere to publish it. I offered it to Irina Prokhorova, the editor of Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye (New Literary Review). The next day she telephoned me in the same state of delight Clueshad put me in.The translation was published with my introduction in the 8th volume of of NLO. 

That was in 1994. Ginzburg was a professor at UCLA at the time and one of the participants of his seminar in Los Angeles was Mikhail Gronas, now Professor at Dartmouth University, author of Cognitives, Poetics and Cultural Memory and a visiting professor at the School of Linguistics at HSE. Gronas told Ginzburg about my translation. Ginzburg asked him to tell me to get in touch. That is how we began our correspondence which grew into a long term collaboration and genuine friendship.

I wrote two articles about Ginzburg for Russian readers. The first, Metolodicheskii manifest Carlo Ginzburga v tryokh kontekstakh (Carlo Ginzburg’s Methodological Manifesto in Three Contexts), set the stage for my translation of Clues.The second, Opredelyenny sposob zanimatsa naukoi: Carlo Ginzburg i traditsiya (A particular way of doing research; Carlo Ginzburg and tradition) was published as an afterword to the Russian edition of the collection Myths - Emblems - Clues. (The collection came out in Novoye Izdatelstvo in 2004. Mikhail Velizhev, the publishing editor, is now one of the leading teachers in the HSE School of Philology).

These articles examine Ginzburg’s work from two different perspectives. In the first article I wrote about Ginzburg as a philologist; I tried to explain why Clues is such an invaluable work for Russian philology.

In the second, I approached Ginzburg more as a historian, trying to understand the originality of his stance as a researcher in the context of historiography in general, and particularly in the Italian school. What turned out to be the main thing here were Ginzburg’s deep primary connections with the Italian tradition of the history of historiography. Ginzburg occupied a special place in Italian microhistory: Ginzburg is simultaneously one of the founders of this movement and a black sheep - standing out alone against the background of the general group tendencies of micro-historians .  Ginzburg wrote me a letter in which he supported my conclusions and formulated some limits for them. I quote this letter in my afterword.

And as to why I see Ginzburg’s work as being particularly relevant for the humanities as they are today, that’s something I will talk about briefly in my introduction to the first of Carlo Ginzburg’s series of lectures at HSE on Monday 1st June….

Tolstoy, War and Peace and Microhistory

On hearing about the impending lecture series in Moscow, News Editor of HSE English Language News Anna Chernyakhovskaya also wrote to Professor Ginzburg asking him about his connections with Russia and Russian literature which go back a generation to his father Leone Ginzburg. Here is their exchange:

— Professor Ginzburg, we are delighted that you are coming to Moscow for the lecture series. Your father, Leone Ginzburg was teaching Russian literature at the University of Turin before he lost his position in 1934 having refused to swear an oath of allegiance imposed by the Fascist regime. Have you inherited his interest in Russian? Have you been to Russia before? Were you inspired by any Russian novels or stories?

— You may find a biography of father in Wikipedia (the entry exists  both in Italian and French). As soon as he was compelled to leave the University he was arrested for antifascist conspiracy; he spent two years in jail.  In 1940, when  Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, my father was sent into internal exile to a village in the Abruzzi, where he spent three years with my mother and three children (including myself). During the German occupation my father went to Rome and became the director of an underground newspaper, L'Italia libera. He was arrested in November 1943, with false papers; having been identified, he was sent to the German controlled section of Regina Coeli, the Roman prison. He died in prison in February  1944.

Russian literature (especially Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, read in translation) has been a crucial  experience in my intellectual and emotional development.

My father translated Pushkin (The Queen of Spades) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina and The Kreutzer Sonata); he also provided a new, revised translation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace". He wrote several essays on Russian literature which were republished after his death. He was the co-founder of the Einaudi publishing house.

Russian literature  (especially Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, read in translation) has been a crucial  experience in my intellectual and emotional development. I commented on the impact of War and Peace on my historical writing in an essay entitled Microhistory: Two or Three Things I know about it:

I have been in Russia several times.

— You are known as a 'hunter' or 'detective' in historical studies. The term 'microhistory' was introduced by you and it gives a personal and a subjective touch to the historical science. What's now on your research plate? Have you ever looked into Italian-Russian relationship?

— In recent years I have been working on many (possibly too many) projects. The most recent one deals with Pascal's Provinciales (I recently gave the Tanner Lectures at Harvard University on this topic). Regretfully, having no Russian, I never worked on the Italian-Russian relationship. But I wrote an essay on "ostranienie" (estrangement), in which I tried to reconstruct the prehistory of Viktor Shklovsky’s notion.

Regretfully, having no Russian, I never worked on the Italian-Russian relationship. But I wrote an essay on 'ostranienie' (estrangement), in which I tried to reconstruct the prehistory of Viktor Shklovsky’s notion. 

— Your classical book The Cheese and the Worms talks about the forgotten individuals of history. It brings your hero back into the light after four centuries in obscurity. Can you comment on the social influence of your book?

— You are right, The Cheese and the Worms has been widely read (it has been translated into 26 languages). In my view, it was a success because of the extraordinary personality of its hero, Menocchio on the one hand and on the other, the cross-cultural appeal of the topics which are at the center of the book: challenging authority, both political and religious; approaching written culture from a perspective rooted in oral culture.

— How did your partnership with HSE come about?

— My connection with HSE has been provided by my dear friend, Sergei Kozlov (we have been involved in a close  intellectual conversation for many years). 

You can see the timetable for the Carlo Ginzburg lectures at the webpage.

Entry to the lectures is free but registration is essential. Email natalia.petrova@gmail.com. For additional information about the lectures write to Alexei Pleshkov sheginoid@gmail.com or Sergei Matveev SMatveev@hse.ru.