Obituary: Paul Ginsborg

Historian who analysed changes in contemporary Italian society


Italy: A country of great natural beauty, with a fascinating history, a wealth of artistic treasures, food second to none. But also a country seemingly intent on wasting all its natural advantages, continually lurching from crisis to crisis.

Italy has always had an uncanny ability to fascinate and frustrate the many foreigners who over the centuries have tried to understand how it works (or not).

Historian Paul Ginsborg, who has died aged 76, went much further than most. In his books he tried to unravel Italy’s complexity by using a combination of political and social history, something which had not been tried in Italy before. He succeeded brilliantly.

His History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-88 became an instant classic and a must-read for anybody who wants to understand the country.

Although the book was meant to terminate with the 1970s, it ended up also covering a decade that was particularly turbulent in Italy, the 1980s. In what marked a departure from conventional Italian historiography, Ginsborg made common people the protagonists, placing them up front.

He started by painting a picture of Italy as it was at the end of the Second World War, a country that had hardly changed since its inception a century earlier; still largely rural, still divided into dirt-poor south and more affluent north.

Ginsborg populated this canvas with the people and events that would be instrumental in transforming Italy in the decades that followed: the southern farmers struggling to find work, the factory workers in the industrialised north.

He chronicled the massive exodus from the impoverished, rural south to the more developed north in search of work, the beginning of the students’ protests.

And against this whirlwind of change he painted the picture of a State too weak and ineffective to make the necessary innovations and implement the reforms the country so badly needed.

Ginsborg showed the abyss that existed between Italians and their political classes.
Paul Ginsborg was one of the three sons of a Jewish couple from London, Rose Gabe, a pharmacist, and Sam Ginsbor, a GP.

The Ginsborgs loved Italy and every year the family would spend their holidays there. Paul’s love for what would become his adoptive country was nurtured by those summer trips.

After winning a scholarship to St Paul’s School, he followed it with one to Queen’s College, Cambridge where he obtained a history degree in 1966 and became a research fellow in 1968. He also took part in the students’ protest of the late 1960s and was left with the conviction that students alone would “never get anywhere”.

The early 1970s saw him return to Italy, Venice this time, on a scholarship funded by Unilever to study the failed 1848 revolution and specifically the role of the city’s Jewish leader, Daniele Manin.

Years later Ginsborg would enjoy recounting the multinational’s president’s reaction on hearing that the company’s grant would go towards studying Venice’s 1948 revolution: “We must be crazy to subsidise this type of research!”

Published in 1979, the resulting book, Daniele Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848-1849, was hailed for its thorough research but also for its empathy with the young Italian patriots who starred in it.

Appointed a lecturer at York University in 1972, Ginsborg lived with art historian Mary Beckinsale and their two children Ben and Lisa in various homes in York, Cambridge, Rome, Milan and Venice.

In 1980 he was appointed a lecturer in social and political sciences at Cambridge University, becoming a Fellow of Churchill College.

He was, by all accounts, an extremely popular teacher not just at Cambridge where he nurtured a generation of “Italianists” but also at the University of Siena, where he lectured in the 1980s.

After his relationship with Beckinsale ended, he married Ayşe Saraçgil a Turkish-Italian academic, in 1990, and he permanently moved to Florence. In 1992 he was appointed professor of contemporary European history at Florence University.

The permanent move to Italy saw him become even more involved in Italian life. His books had continued to explore the Italian dilemma — how could one of the world’s largest industrial powers be so socially and politically weak?

The key, he concluded, lay in the country’s ruling class’s inability to gain the lasting support of the masses.

Years later he would go on to identify the glue that kept the country together: the family — which he saw as one of the most important factors in Italian society and the intermediary between individual and state. He explained his theory in what is considered his masterpiece, Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 (2014).

Although he kept writing books, that was not enough for him and he became actively involved in the country’s public debate. Instrumental in his fight against authoritarianism was his collaboration with Florentine professor Francesco ‘Pancho’ Pardi.

The two — both student activists in their youth — had been friends since 1990 but alarmed by former president Silvio Berlusconi’s return to power in 2001, they decided to do something to revitalise democracy.

What they came up with was the alternative left-wing movement called girotondi (from the ‘ring-a-ring o’roses’ dance performed by the demonstrators). Their first protest, which was dubbed by the press “the march of the professors”, took place in Florence on 24 January, 2002.

The demonstration was a great success, spanning more — and far larger — demonstrations throughout the country but within a year the movement was a spent force.

But Ginsborg didn’t give up and continued to analyse the changing Italian society. He became president of the association, Libertà e Giustizia (Freedom and Justice) and never stopped organising seminars and conventions.

He remained an important figure of the ceto medio riflessivo (thinking middle class), an expression he himself had coined and which comprised teachers, journalists and intellectuals, people concerned about society’s destiny. The idea was to build bridges towards others and to the end Ginsborg continued doing that.

Ginsborg is survived by his wife Ayşe Saraçgil and their son David, also by Ben and Lisa and his brothers Stephen and Michael.

Paul Ginsborg, born 18 July, 1945. Died 11 May , 2022

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