Paul Ginsbourg: London-Born, Florence-Based Historian of Modern EuropeHistorians in the News
tags: obituaries, Italian history
Paul Ginsborg’s book A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-88 begins: “Italy in 1943 was little changed, outside of its major cities, since the time of Garibaldi and Cavour. It was still predominantly a peasant country, of great and unspoiled natural beauty, of sleepy provincial cities, of enduring poverty, especially in the South, of rural culture and local dialects. It was also a country in terrible crisis.” Published initially in Italian in 1989, it drew on social history, political debates and anthropology to explore the contradictions and connections between family, state and the individual, using the words of ordinary people, and employing irony and understatement.
Paul, who has died aged 76 after a long period of ill health, had studied, lived and worked in Italy for 10 years, and the book reflected his passionate belief in democracy, social change and protest. It went on to sell more than 100,000 copies, was influential as an educational text and popular with general readers, and is still in print.
Born in London, Paul was the second of three sons of Jewish parents, Rose (nee Gabe), a pharmacist until the arrival of her children, and Sam Ginsborg, a GP. Every year the family went to Italy on a long holiday, driving down to Tuscany or Lazio.
Paul won a scholarship to St Paul’s school, south-west London, and another to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he gained a history degree in 1966 and became a research fellow (1968-71). His experiences as an activist, when in 1968 Cambridge students protested against the Labour government’s support for the US in the Vietnam war, and in 1970 when his brother Stephen demonstrated against the tourism event promoted by the Greek military junta at the Garden House hotel, made a great mark on him. Interviewed for Ronald Fraser’s oral history 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, Paul said that the repression he had witnessed “taught me a lesson – students by themselves would never get anywhere”.
In the early 1970s Paul travelled to Venice to work on the history of the 1848 revolutions in that city and the role of their Jewish leader, Daniele Manin. There he encountered a number of social and political historians and activists. He immersed himself in the state and city archives, taking notes on small index cards, with his tiny, scrawled handwriting, which he would cart around in shoe boxes from place to place.
The resulting book, Daniele Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848-49 (1979), heavily influenced by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, vividly described an extraordinary period in Italian history. For the rest of his life, Paul moved seamlessly between contemporary topics and that period. Il Risorgimento (2007), a volume of new research edited with Alberto Mario Banti, became a standard text and repositioned the entire way of seeing that Italian period of history by integrating new methodologies linked to the history of the emotions, subjectivity and gender with the writings and actions of the Risorgimento.
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