Facts, Fiction and Families: Reading Javier Cercas’ Lord of all the Dead

9780857058324Having loved both Javier Cercas’ fiction and The Imposter, his recent non-fiction investigation of an historical fraud, I was excited to read his latest book, The Lord of all the Dead. Written somewhat in the style of The Imposter, is a book of two, factual stories; that of Cercas’ great uncle who died in the civil war fighting with Franco, and that of the author’s own investigative journey in piecing together the fragments of his family’s uncomfortable fascist past. Continue reading


Conference report: ‘Criminal Law and Emotions in European Legal Cultures: From the 16th Century to the Present’

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 14.55.27I’m just back from Berlin after an excellent few days attending the ‘Criminal Law and Emotions’ conference at the Max Planck Centre for the History of Emotions. I presented a paper on the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who was kidnapped by her ex-fiancé in 1966 with the intention of forcing her into marriage, and became the first woman to refuse the so-called reparatory marriage offered to her, forcing her kidnapper and rapist Filippo Melodia to be tried and sentenced for his crimes. I’ve written more about her case here. Continue reading

Visiting the ghosts of research past

The grave of Piero Gobetti, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris

The grave of Piero Gobetti, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris

I was in Paris for a few days at the end of last month and took the opportunity to visit the grave of Piero Gobetti in Pere Lachaise cemetery. I wrote my PhD thesis largely on the figure of Gobetti and published my first book on the subject in 2011. The research for the PhD thesis and book involved spending much time in Turin where the young intellectual had lived most of his life, and I was even lucky enough to be able to study and research in his home and offices, where a research library and archive is now based. However I had never had the chance to visit his grave in Paris and had always been intrigued by the idea of his final resting place. read more

The importance of being curious…

Pulsar within the remnants of a supernova

Pulsar within the remnants of a supernova

Last Saturday I went to Curious Stories, an event hosted by Dara O’Briain at the Smock Alley Theatre as part of the Dublin Festival of Curiosity. The panel of five speakers, all either researchers in different fields of science or science writers/ communicators, opened the event by telling their own ‘curious story’ about science before taking part in a general discussion about science, scientific research and curiosity in general. Stories both gruesome and fascinating about headless chickens, the discovery of LSD and human guinea pigs in early research on the digestive system thus blended into a wide-ranging discussion of how science research works, the human dimensions of innovation and the need to maintain simple curiosity about the world. read more

Does historical fiction make better history?


Recently I finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a book I’d been meaning to read for ages and finally got around to. I’d expected it to be good, but it was even better than I’d heard. I loved the writing, really clear and straightforward but which drew you into the story completely. But more than that, I finished it thinking that this was the one of the best books I’d read about twentieth century European history, despite never claiming to be a history book. Free from the imperative to appear detached and analytical, the book drew me completely into the worlds it was describing, from belle époque Paris to inter-war Vienna and finally post-war Japan. Since the author is an artist, his concentration on the material is crucial; the Japanese netsuke from which the ceramic figure of the hare is drawn are central to the narrative, but it extends beyond these. His focus on how the places and spaces and objects he describes are lived in and experienced gives the cities and homes he describes a materiality they might otherwise lack. Vienna in particular, was a place and a history I didn’t know in too much detail, but de Waal’s attention to the way that the streets outside the Ephrussi family’s palatial residence sounded and looked like – from the rowdy crowds of students singing bellicose songs after the outbreak of war in 1914 to the pomp of the emperor Franz Joseph I’s funeral cortege passing by in 1916 – gave a sense of what it was actually like to live through these times. I felt I understood the history of twentieth century Vienna and of European Jewish culture much better than I had before. read more

Carlo Ginzburg and the ‘euphoria of ignorance’: Thinking about how to do history


‘What do you imagine God to be?… God is    nothing but a breath’. The sixteenth century Italian miller Menocchio’s words seem astonishing to the twenty-first century reader in their strength, coherence and imagination in conceptualising an idea of the world radically different to that of the strict Counter-Reformation Catholicism of his small Italian village. Menocchio came before the Inquisition because someone had finally reported him after long years of preaching his dangerous ideas to anyone in the village who would listen. He believed that God was in nature and the world rather than a sentient celestial being, rejected the immortality of the soul and thought the Church was deeply corrupt. It is his description of the creation of the universe using a metaphor drawn from everyday life – cheese-making and maggots – that gives the book its title and illustrates the deep thought and peasant-like earthiness that his words combined: ‘I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels’.

The long transcript of his initial interrogations and trial as a heretic means that the workings of his astonishing mind have been preserved thanks – ironically – to the meticulous record-keeping of the Inquisition. However it is of course Carlo Ginzburg who uncovered his story, recognised its power and painstakingly reconstructed Menocchio’s mental and social universe, revealing the currents of thought and writing he encountered in his life in an effort to understand might have prompted him to form such radical opinions.

Books like Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘The Cheese and the Worms’ make me wish I was an early modern historian. Sometimes contemporary history feels just that bit too familiar and I am envious of the potential in a story like Menocchio’s to illuminate the social, cultural and intellectual workings of a world as distant as that of sixteenth-century rural Italy. It is of course to Ginzburg’s credit that he managed to do this with such skill and imagination, creating a new type of history writing – the micro-history – in the process. When Carlo Ginzburg spoke in conversation with Filippo De Vivo at the Italian Cultural Institute, London last week, he spoke at length about his long career as a historian from his research on witchcraft in the 1960s to his more recent time at UCLA. Hearing him talk about his own approach to research as well as the future potential of micro-history, I also began to think about the ways that I approach research and history writing in my own work. read more

Confessions of a wannabe early modernist…

Watching television at the bar in 1950s Italy

Watching television at the bar in 1950s Italy

I’ve been thinking lately about why certain historical periods seem to get all the attention. For the topics I’m most interested in – emotions, fashion, the city and gendered spaces, consumption – much of the recent scholarly attention focuses on the early modern period. Some of the most exciting work – the studies that try to reconceptualise history and look for new ways of examining how people’s minds, lives, living spaces and communities worked – seems to be happening there. While I love reading great books and articles that are outside my period – the more different and apparently random the better sometimes – I do wonder, as a contemporary historian, why so much of the innovation seems to be happening in much earlier centuries. read more

Historians, technology and images – is it just window dressing?

This Tuesday I went to the launch of Archivi della moda del novecento (Archives of 20th century fashion), a web portal that aims to gather Italy’s rich contribution to modern fashion together in one place.  Information about designers and famous dress-makers, the clothes themselves as well as printed sources like magazines and catalogues are all there to browse through. So far the website is only in Italian, unfortunately, but it should still prove an excellent resource and hopefully an English version might follow at some stage

Listening to the talks by the various people involved in the project, I found the points it raises about public and private archives and what constitutes a national or shared cultural heritage, particularly interesting. read more