Fear, Reverence, Terror: An Interview with Carlo Ginzburg

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Carlo Ginzburg is professor emeritus at Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy, and the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of many books, including The Cheese and the Worms and most recently a book with the University of Chicago Press, entitled Fear, Reverence, TerrorIn his latest, Ginzburg explores images like Jacques-Louis David’s Marat Assassiné and invites us to look at art slowly. What follows is our interview with Carlo Ginzburg.

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AoR: How did you come to write Fear, Reverence, Terror

CG: Only after some years I realized that I was writing a book (not simply a series of essays). The earliest essay, on Picasso’s Guernica, began by chance. In 1992, I was attending a conference in Marseille –  a splendid city I was unfamiliar with. During a pause of the conference I visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts. As I entered a room, I was suddenly confronted with a huge painting, completely unknown to me (it was, as I learned later, a work painted in 1798 by Jean-Baptiste Topino-Lebrun, a pupil of David, representing The Death of Gaius Graccus). I shouted: “Guernica!” Apparently, Topino-Lebrun’s and Picasso’s mural were completely unrelated. The resemblance between them was purely morphological: in both cases, a frieze-like composition, strongly oriented from right to left.

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Left: François Topino-Lebrun, The Death of Gaius Gracchus, 1798. Right: Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

But this chance encounter triggered my research on Picasso’s Guernica – an essay that came out first in German in 1999, then in other languages. Other essays, today included in Fear Reverence Terror, followed; the one dealing with David’s Marat was the last one (it came out in 2009). But at that time I had become aware that they shared a theme, as well as a methodological approach. The theme was embodied in the essay dealing with the front page of Hobbes’s Leviathan (2008), whose title – Fear Reverence Terror – later became the title of the whole book. The methodological approach implied a recurrent reference to Aby Warburg’s notion of Pathosformeln (formulas of pathos). In my introduction, I put forward an argument – not easily disprovable, I guess – about the origins of that notion. 

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Abraham Bosse, Frontispiece for Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1650.

AoR: How does Fear, Reverence, Terror build off of your microhistorical work? 

CG: Microhistory emerged from a series of exchanges which involved in the late ‘70s a group of Italian historians, all of them connected to the journal Quaderni storici: Edoardo Grendi, Giovanni Levi, Carlo Poni, and myself. It must be said, however, that my book The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which is often regarded as a typical example of microhistory, was published in 1976, when the exchanges which led to the emergence of microhistory had not started yet. Since then, microhistory has had a large international reception. Although the very notion of a microhistorical orthodoxy is distasteful to me, I still believe in the intellectual potential of microhistory in a broad sense, as I argued in a recent essay: Microhistory and World History, included in The Cambridge World History, vol. VI, The Construction of a Global World, 1400-1800 CE, part 2, Patterns of Change, ed. by J. H. Bentley, S. Subrahmanyam, M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, Cambridge 2015).

CG: The title of my essay may help to dispel a current misunderstanding about the word “microhistory”: “micro” is not related to the dimensions, either real or symbolic, of the object of the inquiry; “micro” is related to the microscope, to the analytic approach that is at the center of microhisory as a project. A case explored in depth – a sixteenth-century Friulian miller, for instance – may lead to unexpected questions about peasant culture or the history of reading in early modern Europe. Microhistory and world history are not incompatible – on the contrary, they can fuel each other. But if microhistory is taken as a synonym of analytic history, the relationship between my book Fear Reverence Terror and my previous work would be self-evident. A close reading of a single work – either world famous like David’s Marat or Picasso’s Guernica, or known only to specialists like the early sixteenth-century vase made in Antwerp I analyzed in the opening essay – can shed light on large issues like secularization, the emotional roots of images and so forth. In his Basel inaugural lecture, Friedrich Nietzsche (at that time still a philologist, not yet a philosopher) said: “Philology is the art of slow reading”. If you take philology in a broad sense (the sense advocated by Giambattista Vico, the Neapolitan philosopher) its extension to images, not only to texts, is obvious. We walk, we drive through a forest of images. I invite the reader of my book to take a slow look at them; to read some of them slowly.   

AoR: Why did you choose David’s Marat as one of your examples?

CG: Once again, my research started by chance. Between 1988 and 2006 I taught at UCLA. For my undergraduate class, I often used slides (we were still in a pre-Power Point era) from the vast slide collection preserved at the UCLA Art Library. In preparing one of my classes, I suddenly, came across an image previously unknown to me – the polychrome marble statue of the Jesuit Polish saint Stanislas Kostka, made by the eighteenth French sculptor Perre Legros. Since I was in a public library I could not shout “Marat”. I had felt that I had found an answer; then I spent some years trying to find out the question.

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(Left: Pierre Legros, Stanislas Kostka, 1705. Right: Jacques-Louis David, Marat Assassiné, 1793.)

This seemingly paradoxical inversion of the sequence questions/answers occurs to me more and more often. It is certainly related to the ever growing role played by chance in my research. I wouldn’t like to be misunderstood on this point. Chance does not work by itself: it always implies an interaction with the researcher (for instance, myself). I certainly missed potentially fruitful chance encounters that would have immediately looked promising to other researchers, having a different background, different curiosities, different biases. But I stress the role of chance because it implies an intellectual openness to an unexpected event: a passage in a text, a detail in an image, and so forth. We can compare this attitude to Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur (stroller), that Walter Benjamin reworked so effectively: strolling in a library’s catalogue, in a slide collection, in the web. But the chance encounter is only a beginning: then the time of slow reading, of long painstaking research, begins. I spent years working on David’s Marat.   I went back to see it again  at the Musée Royax de Beaux Arts in Brussels. I saw at last Pierre Legros’s extraordinary statue on display in Sant’Andrea in Quirinale, in Rome, in the very room where Stanislas Kostka died. I tried to reconstruct the context in which David’s Marat emerged: a political and a pictorial act, that responded to a widespread cult of Marat by relying upon a hybrid tradition, involving images from classical antiquity and Christianity – the dead Christ, but also the dead Stanislas Kostka. In its ambiguity, David’s painting can be regarded, I argued, as a turning point in the history of secularization.

AoR: What role does “Terror” and the Reign of Terror play in your book? 

CG: In introducing my lecture on the front page of Hobbes’s Leviathan I said: “I will speak about terror, not about terrorism (…). Like terrorism, terror is part of our present; but I will not speak about the present (…). In order to understand the present, we must learn to look at it obliquely”. I first pronounced those words in 2006. More than ten years later, they still look sadly appropriate. The experiences evoked in the title of my book – Fear Reverence Terror – are still very much part of our present. 

AoR: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

CG: Many – too many. None of them, for the time being, involve images. But images will hopefully come back, either by chance or by choice, or both.

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