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Paul Ginsborg obituary | history books


Paul Ginsborg’s book A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-88 begins: “The Italy of 1943 has changed little, outside of its major cities, since the days of Garibaldi and Cavour. It was still a largely peasant country, with great unspoiled natural beauty, sleepy provincial towns, persistent poverty, especially in the South, rural culture and local dialects. It was also a country in terrible crisis. Originally published in Italian in 1989, it drew on social history, political debates and anthropology to explore the contradictions and links between family, state and individual, using the words of ordinary people, and using irony and understatement.

Paul, who died at the age of 76 after a long period of ill health, had studied, lived and worked in Italy for 10 years, and the book reflected his passionate faith in democracy, social change and protest. It sold over 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 (née Gabe), a pharmacist until her children arrived, and Sam Ginsborg, a general practitioner. Every year the family went to Italy for a long vacation, driving to Tuscany or Lazio.

Paul won a scholarship to St Paul’s School, south-west London, and another to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he graduated in history in 1966 and became a scholar (1968-71) . His experiences as an activist, when in 1968 Cambridge students protested against Labor government support for the United States during the Vietnam War, and in 1970 when his brother Stephen demonstrated against the tourist event promoted by the Greek military junta at the Garden House hotel, made a big mark on him. Interviewed for Ronald Fraser’s oral history 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, Paul said the repression he witnessed “taught me a lesson – students alone weren’t going anywhere”.

In the early 1970s, Paul traveled 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 met a number of historians and social and political activists. He dove into state and city archives, taking notes on small index cards, with his little scribbled handwriting, which he dragged in shoeboxes from place to place.

The resulting book, Daniele Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848-49 (1979), heavily influenced by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, vividly described an extraordinary period in Italian history. For the rest of his life, Paul moved seamlessly between contemporary subjects and this period. Il Risorgimento (2007), a volume of new research edited with Alberto Mario Banti, became a standard text and repositioned the whole way of seeing this period of Italian history by integrating new methodologies related to the history of emotions, of subjectivity and gender with the writings and actions of the Risorgimento.

Paul’s immersion in left-wing politics in the 1960s and 1970s as a member of the International Socialists resulted in a pamphlet he would later call “a bit Leninist” called The Politics of Lenin (1974) . In 1972, he became a lecturer at York University. With Mary Beckinsale, an art history student he had met at Cambridge, he had two children, Ben and Lisa. In York, the couple lived in a sort of commune, notable for its chaotic and political atmosphere. They also lived in a series of apartments and houses in Cambridge, Rome, Milan and Venice.

An inspiring teacher of both Italian and English, Paul captured the attention of students with the crystal clear nature of his ideas, his informality, his willingness to debate and his muffled, almost whispering voice. His classes have always been very popular.

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In 1980 he was appointed University Professor of Social and Political Science at Cambridge and became a Fellow of Churchill College. I was one of many doctoral students who worked with him there and were “sent to Italy” by him in the 80s and 90s. His only training advice was to take notes, as he did , on small cards.

Paul loved libraries and spent much of his life there, especially the Cambridge University Library and the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. His network of contacts in Italy included an intense friendship with the antifascist, thinker, trade unionist and writer Vittorio Foa.

In the 80s, his relationship with Mary ended. She moved to Florence with their two young children after finding a job there. In 1986 Paul met Ayşe Saraçgil, a Turkish-Italian scholar, and four years later they were married in Rome. In 1992, their son David was born. Paul, wanting to be close to his children and Ayşe, who worked in Naples, rented an apartment in the hills above Florence, where he was appointed professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence. Ayşe’s work influenced Paul’s, particularly in expanding her family and gender studies to countries beyond Western Europe, and in her approach to her subject matter.

In Florence, Paul was adored by his students, who appreciated his participatory teaching style and his willingness to help them with their studies. He began work on a comparative study of the family – his magnum opus – which eventually appeared as Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 (2014).

After Silvio Berlusconi’s return to the post of Prime Minister in 2001, Paul became alarmed at the growing authoritarianism of his governments and the deep conflict of interests within them. The following year, he organized a demonstration against justice reforms in Florence with the 1968 activist Pancho Pardi. It became known as the ‘Professors’ March’ and Paul was amused by a newspaper description of him as a ‘militant in tweed’. Soon a mass anti-Berlusconi movement was forming, named girotondi thanks to the “ring-a-ring o’roses” dance performed during the demonstrations. Paul analyzed how the media mogul became one of the first modern populists to take power in a Western democracy in Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Heritage (2004).

In Florence, Paul created a left-wing movement critical of the top-down politics of the centre-left Democratic Party, and a local councilor was elected. He also campaigned on environmental issues and organized local groups where a rule was that no one should speak for more than five minutes. He turned down a secure Senate seat in Italy and, as a lifelong Republican, turned down the offer of an OBE in Britain.

He is survived by Ayşe, his children and his brothers, Stephen and Michael.

Paul Ginsborg, historian and Italianist, born July 18, 1945; died on May 11, 2022