Anthony Grafton

Balzan Prize 2002 for the History of the Humanities

For his outstanding work on the history of scholarship, especially of the classical tradition in European intellectual history since the Renaissance, including the history of the evolution of scholarly practices, techniques, and attitudes, and the links between humanist learning and the development of modern science.

Anthony Grafton is a brilliant intellectual historian of early modern Europe. He took the history of the classical tradition in the late Renaissance as a starting point for his studies, producing two magnificent volumes on one of the greatest scholars of that age, Joseph Scaliger (Joseph Scaliger. A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship I. Textual Criticism and Exegesis, Oxford 1983; Joseph Scaliger. A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship II. Historical Chronology, Oxford 1993). In order to evaluate Scaliger’s merit as an erudite, innovative editor and exegete of Latin texts, Grafton immersed himself in the world of late Humanism. He gained a rare encyclopaedic familiarity with the output of countless humanists as well as with the ancient texts they so admired. In this way he was able to write his pioneering biography on Scaliger, which deals not only with its main subject, but also conjures up a network of contemporary scholars and their manifold activities. As for Scaliger himself, Grafton had to study not only how and why the great scholar set out to recover the original form of classical texts, and who and what inspired him, but also his work in historical chronology, or the study of dates and calendars in ancient and recent history. This is a discipline in the history of the humanities that is shunned by many scholars because of its technical complexity. Moreover, the Renaissance debate about chronological questions – the date and nature of the various biblical texts for instance – was enlivened by controversies which are more often than not rather perplexing to us. Grafton successfully undertook the daunting task of piercing the armour of mystery enveloping the subject in general and Scaliger’s efforts in particular. Grafton never judges the manifestations of historical change he studies with an anachronistic or teleological eye. On the contrary, considering the transmission of culture as a creative process in which change is always charged with meaning, he sets out to describe and analyse the coherent and complete intellectual background to the scholars on whom his attention is focussed. This attitude has led him to study various other aspects of Renaissance culture, in particular the history of science and the history of books and readers, integrating these into an overall view of the times in which humanism and science were still conjoined.

Grafton’s biographies of Girolamo Cardano and Leon Battista Alberti are a case in point (Cardano’s Cosmos. The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer, 1999; Leon Battista Alberti. Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance, 2000). His continuing interest in the history of textual transmission was responsible for Defenders of the Text. The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450-1800 (1991), a witty account of an intellectual scene in which learned opinions handed down since classical times could still be at odds with the budding empiricism of science. The lighter side of his profound scholarship is evident from such works as Forgers and Critics. Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (1990) and The Footnote. A curious history (1997). In the former Grafton examines the link between forgery and scholarship, defending the bold thesis that forgery is the “criminal sibling” of scholarly criticism. In the latter Grafton presents a critical history of that pillar of historical writing, the footnote, which is at the same time a defence. The development of certain scholarly practices and techniques through the ages – whether it is textual transmission and exegesis or forgery, criticism, footnotes, and their considerable impact on scholarly traditions – figure prominently in Grafton’s work.

Many of Grafton’s publications are based on previously unpublished or undigested material, which he handles with great skill. His inquisitive mind and his engaging sense of humour, which helped him to uncover many a case of human folly committed by serious scholars, are mirrored in his lucid and accessible style of writing. Although he is, in a sense, a scholars’ scholar, Grafton is also committed to serve a wider public. Evidence of this is his important contribution to the organization of two major exhibitions, resulting in New Worlds, Ancient Texts. The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Recovery (1992) and in Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture (1993). Considered from the point of view of the history of the humanities at large, his many-sided contributions to the history of scholarship from the Renaissance onwards are truly outstanding.

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