Carlo Ginzburg

2010 Balzan Prize for European History (1400-1700)

For the exceptional combination of imagination, scholarly precision and literary skill with which he has recovered and illuminated the beliefs of ordinary people in early modern Europe.

Carlo Ginzburg, Professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, is one of the most original and influential historians of our time. He has ranged very widely in his scholarly work, and he has also written in a more abstract manner about questions of historical method, but his main and major contributions have all been made as an historian of early-modern Europe.

Professor Ginzburg’s oeuvre is impressively large, and includes six major works on early-modern European social, cultural and intellectual history. His scholarship displays at the same time an exceptional coherence of subject-matter and approach. One topic in which he has been interested throughout his career has been the explanation and appraisal of witchcraft beliefs and practices. This concern was first reflected in I benandanti (1966; The Night Battles, 1983), and it recurs in Storia notturna (1989; Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, 1991). More generally, he has always been interested in recovering the beliefs and attitudes of ordinary people whose lives and outlook would otherwise be unknown. It was this concern that gave rise to his most celebrated book, Il formaggio e i vermi (1976; The Cheese and the Worms, 1980), in which he succeeded in reconstructing, from Inquisitorial records, the entire world-view of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century miller. A pioneering work of micro-history, Il formaggio e i vermi remains one of the most successful and widely-imitated examples of the genre.

More recently Professor Ginzburg has turned his attention to the high culture of early-modern Europe. He has written in Indagini su Piero (1981; The Enigma of Piero, 1985) about the iconography of Piero della Francesca, and in No Island is an Island (2000) about four moments in English literature in which the interpretation of a classic text – one being Thomas More’s Utopia – is shown to turn on an understanding of its international context. At the same time, Professor Ginzburg has continued to contrast the elite culture of the early-modern period with the more everyday beliefs on which he initially concentrated. Another thread binding his books together is the urge to show how elite and popular cultures reciprocally relate to each other.

As well as being a highly imaginative and productive historian, Professor Ginzburg has been a methodological innovator of wide influence. He has written about the nature of historical evidence in Miti emblemi spie (1986; Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, 1989), and about the idea of historical proof in History, Rhetoric and Proof (1999). He has also reflected in his historical works on the nature of his own practice, highlighting in particular the importance of the connections between social anthropology and cultural history.

The impact of Professor Ginzburg’s scholarship has been immense. His book on Menocchio, everywhere recognised as a classic, is available in twenty-four languages, while his book on myths and clues has been translated almost as widely. Professor Ginzburg’s intellectual energies and intensity of commitment remain undimmed, and more books will no doubt follow, but his achievement to date is already sufficient to make him not merely a worthy but a highly distinguished recipient of the Balzan Prize.

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Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan