On July 22, 1955, the Times Literary Supplement welcomed the appearance of a new scholarly book with an enthusiasm rarely matched in its gray, closely printed pages. Pride of place, in those days, went not to the cover but to the so-called “long-middle”—a substantial review, which normally faced the correspondence columns. On this summer Friday, Peter Green welcomed with pyrotechnic praise “a trilingual collection of essays remarkable alike for their classical and humanistic erudition, their historiographical judgment, and a style equally graceful in Italian, German, or English”: Arnaldo Momigliano’s Contributo alla storia degli studi classici. This work, Green made clear, set a new standard for the history of ancient history.
The fact that the TLS could feature a book printed in Italy, much of which was not in English, is revealing in itself. Momigliano inhabited a world lost, one in which British and American cultures were still distinct, and the British was in many ways the more vital of the two. Britain’s grimy, bomb-damaged cities harbored poets, novelists, and scholars whose work dominated the intellectual life of the English-speaking world. British radio, British movies, British theater, British literary criticism, British newspapers, British philosophy, even British natural science all put their American counterparts to shame, as no one confessed more eagerly than Anglophile Americans. British universities, as ramshackle and underfunded as British factories and cinemas, proved cosmopolitan enough to appoint dozens of European émigrés to prominent positions, where they not only formed English students but addressed the English public. Their presence made the English intellectual world at midcentury far livelier and more cosmopolitan than the international English-speaking intellectual world we live in, 50 years on.
This rich environment not only fostered but partly shaped Momigliano’s central historical work on the classical tradition. Yet placing Momigliano in his London milieu is not so simple, as my own experience with him shows.
In 1973, I arrived as a student at the Warburg Institute in London, sent by the Fulbright commission that had awarded me a scholarship for study in England. The commission also arranged for my work to be supervised by Momigliano, then nearing the end of his tenure as professor across the street at University College London. I planned to write a doctoral dissertation on Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609), a French Protestant classical scholar. Even now, it doesn’t seem an obviously exciting subject for a thesis. Scaliger’s editions of ancient texts and labyrinthine, erudite books on ancient calendars and timelines had won him a prominent place in histories of classical philology. But no one—not even Jacob Bernays or Mark Pattison, the prominent 19th-century scholars who had last written about him at length—seemed able to explain exactly what he had done, or why it mattered. My teachers at the University of Chicago, Eric Cochrane, Hanna Holborn Gray, and Noel Swerdlow, agreed that Momigliano could offer better guidance than anyone else in the world into this thorny and inaccessible part of the historical forest.
In a long letter to him, I described my project and listed the works I had read to date. This song of innocence, happily, has vanished from my personal archive, and with luck it has also disappeared from that of my teacher. But I remember it all too vividly. I made clear that I had read Momigliano’s 1950 essay “Ancient History and the Antiquarian”—the study that revealed how early modern scholars had pioneered the use of material evidence, the assessment of historical evidence, and the recreation of ancient customs and rituals. And I mentioned a number of other studies by him and others that seemed to me to have expanded usefully on points and areas that he had touched on. I noted that the Warburg Institute, which had published so many of these studies and served as a research base for most of those interested in the history of scholarship, seemed the obvious place to do my work. And I asked him for further advice.
A reply, in the form of a blue aerogramme, turned up some two weeks later in my mailbox in Hyde Park. It too has vanished—but its memory remains fresh. Momigliano paid me the compliment, as he always did, of treating my letter with absolute seriousness. But the compliments ended there. He pointed out that other scholars already working on Renaissance scholarship—above all, Sebastiano Timpanaro and Carlotta Dionisotti—had done work of the highest level on the history of the editing of texts: “You could hardly compete with” them, he noted, unkindly but accurately. As to antiquarianism, he commented with more acerbity that I seemed to have indiscriminately studied works of different level and value. Erna Mandowsky and Charles Mitchell’s Pirro Ligorio’s Roman Antiquities: The Drawings in MS XIII. B. 7 in the National Library in Naples, published by the Warburg Institute in 1963, had fascinated me with its efforts to separate Roman antiquarians of the 15th and 16th centuries into schools and generations. He dismissed it, citing his friend Carlo Dionisotti’s characteristically biting review in the Rivista storica italiana. Roberto Weiss’s Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity (Oxford, 1969) had offered me what looked like a plausible model for laying out the varied pursuits of early modern antiquaries, a model that I thought I might be able to emulate in my own work. It had also tickled my fancy by emphasizing the creativity and impact of the mad but brilliant Annius of Viterbo, a forger who wove a web of interconnected histories of the ancient world that outsold Herodotus in the 16th century. Scaliger had denounced these fakes with enough passion to show they mattered to him. Weiss’s work received an even more withering dismissal: It did not even deserve invective. Momigliano warned that this solid-seeming book represented “an outsider’s first look at an unknown thing.” The authors of what I had taken as standard works were, in short, described by Momigliano as no help for navigating the unpathed waters that I hoped to explore. I had imagined all of these writers as collaborators, based at the Warburg Institute and working together on a common enterprise. Evidently the scene I was entering was not simple.
When I finally arrived in Bloomsbury, I did indeed register and begin to work at the Warburg Institute—the mysterious library founded in Hamburg by Aby Warburg, rescued from the Nazis on two steamers, and refounded in London. Its open shelves were packed, in those days, with 16th-century books bound in vellum as well as modern monographs. These were organized by Warburg’s own idiosyncratic and revealing principles, which put magic and science together. All you had to do, once you found the book you wanted, was to take it from the shelf and replace it with a card like a shirt cardboard on which you entered its details and your name and workplace. Then you could take it and work on it for as long as you needed it.
The Institute turned out to be an Ali Baba’s cave of mysteries and wonders. The library continually surprised me. As Warburg had planned, every book I looked for had “good neighbors”—more interesting books that I had never heard of, nestled next to it by his unique web of categories. The staff and readers were even more impressive. Eminences brushed shoulders in the dim corridors and mumbled over Jaffa Cakes in the tearoom. The director, E. H.Gombrich, bestrode the lively and quarrelsome world of art-historical scholarship like an amiable Viennese colossus. Every lecture he offered became a public event. His fellow emigres A. A. Barb and Otto Kurz, though less celebrated outside the Institute, were revered—and feared—within it for their mastery of forgotten lore of every kind. Frances Yates and D. P. Walker, both British but as staggeringly learned as their continental colleagues, were still hard at work, opening new paths into the study of Renaissance magic. So were the Institute’s junior lecturers—Michael Baxandall and Charles Schmitt, both of whom were revolutionizing their fields.
As students, my contemporaries and I looked up in awe and bafflement at these great figures—and we were not wrong to find them scary. The critic Marjorie Perloff, who left Vienna as a child, recalls what Ilde and Ernst Gombrich, Hilde and Otto Kurz used to say about the Anglo-Saxons around them in the ’50s, when she spent time in London: “One made fun of almost all British art historians—especially Kenneth Clark and Anthony Blunt—who were said to know nothing. One despised Bernard Berenson. ... But the greatest contempt in this almost exclusively émigré circle was for American graduate students, who obviously lacked the languages and historical knowledge to do the work required at the Warburg Institute or at Oxford.”
This was a culture of erudition—really a world of its own. Erudition, we all know, is rare nowadays. But it has always been rare. Momigliano liked a passage in Mark Pattison’s life of Isaac Casaubon: “Rare as genius is,” Pattison reflected, in what now seems the heyday of Victorian polymathy, “it may be doubted if consummate learning be not rarer.” Erudition means something specific: vast learning, exactly mastered and carefully stored, ready for use whenever a text needs to be interpreted, or a historical event to be studied, or a modern book to be judged. Like genius, it can be savage—and the Warburg’s habitués could be savage. Like genius, erudition tells the truth about scholarship that does not meet its standards—without regard for the sunk costs and lost efforts that the inferior scholar has expended. Like genius, erudition can be frightening.
Materializing on cue to play our role as innocents abroad, we Anglophones wondered how they had ever learned to write so effectively in a foreign language and culture. When Momigliano emigrated from Italy to England, for example, he was already in his early 30s and had almost no active command of English. Yet within a few years, his written English became superb—a Tacitean, powerful, clipped idiom, vastly different from the more wordy and Ciceronian academic prose he had written as a young man in Italy. According to a witty saying that infuriated him, Momigliano wrote the second-best prose in Britain—after Sir Ernst Gombrich, of course. In the later 1970s and 1980s, when he taught at Chicago, his elegant, wide-ranging essays regularly appeared in The American Scholar and the New York Review of Books.
One point at least we grasped. Since the ’30s, the Warburg had co-published a scholarly periodical—the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, which George Steiner once described as “fiercely mandarin.” Many of the great Warburg scholars began their careers as writers in its pages. And most of them adopted something like a house style. Their articles varied widely in subject and method, but all of them were terse and precise in style and largely devoid of sweeping theoretical statements. They rested on immense footnotes hewn from the original sources, dark and solid as Piranesi dungeons. All of them, finally, hummed with many voices—recondite texts in multiple languages, often quoted at length; forgotten storytellers weaving narratives; obscure scholars savaging one another. Exposure to this style often proved contagious—though none of us, not surprisingly, has ever fully mastered it. We realized that the Journal had served as a kind of incubator for the new styles of scholarship that the Warburg’s members created. But we still did not know what explained this collective, institutional success, and I at least left for the United States still wondering.
If the Warburg presented puzzles, Momigliano inspired awe. The man I had admired as a reader in Chicago, and now hoped to work with, was the product of a long and complex series of experiences. There were all but unfathomable to a young American of a time when the lives that Jews had lived and the larger intellectual history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century were known only to specialists. The authority behind his offhand remarks, and the ease with which he could take a reader into the labyrinths of forgotten debates about the Hebrew tense system and Roman ballads about the past, I learned, had not been won quickly, but over the course of his life, through a passion for reading that never waned. True, he was a prodigy in the special Italian sense. (“In comparison with the majority of Italian intellectuals,” he wrote, “Croce grew up slowly. He published his first general considerations on La storia ridotta sotto il concetto generale dell’arte when he was twenty-seven.”). Momigliano mastered Greek, Latin, and Hebrew at home in the Piedmontese town of Caraglio, where he was born in 1908, and scored a dazzling success, except in mathematics, on the matriculation exams. He became one of the star students of the University of Turin at a time when the northern city nurtured many brilliant intellectuals, including Norberto Bobbio, Cesare Pavese, Carlo Dionisotti, Leone and Natalia Ginzburg, and, a few years later, Primo Levi.
Momigliano established himself as a scholar with breathtaking speed. He read omnivorously in the many languages he had mastered, and he forgot nothing. Late in the 1970s, I asked him a question of ghoulish obscurity: Where could I learn how my Renaissance scholars had read and used the Comparison of the Laws of the Romans and of Moses, a curious legal text? He referred me immediately to a footnote in an Italian article. “Of course,” he then told me, “I read it when it appeared, in 1928: but I think I’m right.” He was. More important, he put everything to use. Three books, each on a different aspect of ancient history, and more than a hundred articles appeared while he was still in his early 20s. Momigliano followed his teacher of ancient history, Gaetano De Sanctis, to Rome. He wrote many articles for the Enciclopedia Italiana, a Fascist enterprise—but one for which Federico Chabod, an anti-Fascist and a skillful judge of academic talent, coordinated the historical entries. In 1936 he became professor of ancient history at Turin. By now his work was internationally known. His book on Claudius, exceptionally, was translated into English in 1934, only two years after its first appearance.
Momigliano’s interests ranged widely in his early years, from the history of the Roman Empire and that of the Jews in the Hellenistic period to the development of ancient political theory. But the development of historical thought and method already played a central part in his thinking and research. Ancient historiography, from Thucydides to Josephus, had fascinated him from the beginning of his studies, and he had read widely in the polyglot secondary literature of classical scholarship. To work effectively on the Hellenistic world, he had to return to the work of those who had created the concept of Hellenism, above all the 19th-century historian Johann Gustav Droysen. And to rethink the history of the later Roman Empire, he had to retrace the long process by which the history of the state and that of the Christian church had become separate scholarly enterprises. His articles on these topics became classics, which both opened up the history of historical scholarship and used it to offer new way forward to his colleagues.
The proud Italian Jewish family to which Momigliano belonged had looked with gratitude to the national state. The state had broken the walls of the old ghettos and offered Jews—including many of his relatives—full rights to serve it. Momigliano took the Fascist oath, as employees of the state were required to do, though his teacher De Sanctis, his friend Leone Ginzburg, and a rival Piero Treves, refused to do so. But his position became more and more difficult, and in 1938 the racial laws deprived him of his professorship. He left Italy in 1939 and found refuge in England, where the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning soon provided a small fellowship.
Briefly interned as an enemy alien but soon freed, Momigliano spent the war years in Oxford. Unlike many of the German émigré scholars, he had not mastered English as a child. In fact, he had never left his native country. He learned with great difficulty to speak English—he never lost his heavy accent. More remarkably, he learned to write it with elegance and concision. New friends—notably Isobel Henderson and Beryl Smalley—helped him. So did Fritz Saxl and other members of the Warburg.
Expulsion from Italy, and the loss of his parents, who died in a Nazi extermination camp, transformed Momigliano’s approach to the historical tradition. He continued to study the ancient historians, though he had lost the confidence with which he had, as a young scholar, traced the development of their work, stage by stage, by piling one conjecture on another. In one case he explicitly confessed, and in many more he found, that songs of experience had replaced songs of innocence, as he abandoned the theories of his own youth without adopting those of more recent writers. But he continued to approach the texts, both those preserved in full and those represented only by fragments, with open eyes and an open mind.
The history of the historical tradition that Momigliano articulated in the 1940s and 1950s arrived not in battalions but single spies. It took the form of a series of articles, most of which began as lectures. Many, but not all, of them, were published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. They appeared together in 1955 in Momigliano’s Contributo and then re-appeared in his 1966 Studies in Historiography, the bold red paperback edition of which made Momigliano’s work accessible to my generation of scholars in the United States. The central texts include, roughly in order of original composition:
“Friedrich Creuzer and Greek Historiography” (1944)
“The First Political Commentary on Tacitus” (circa 1947)
“Ancient History and the Antiquarian” (1949)
“George Grote and the Study of Greek History” (1952)
“Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method” (1954)
“Perizonius, Niebuhr, and the Character of Early Roman Tradition” (circa 1957)
“The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography” (1957)
“Mabillon’s Italian Disciples” (1958)
“Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Third Century AD” (1958-59)
The Warburg has a large and meticulously organized archive, which contains a number of letters to and from Momigliano—the letters that accompanied the reading, acceptance, and production of his first articles in the Journal. These documents reveal fascinating details: the everyday life of scholarly practice in a time that now seems very distant. Momigliano, it turns out, wrote his pieces by hand. Until he found a full-time post at Bristol and gained the assistance of a departmental secretary, the Warburg editors read his work in manuscript. Then, after accepting it, they had it typed for editing and printing. But the substance of the negotiations that he and the editors carried out is even more revealing than these details about a sunken continent of working habits.
In the 1940s, when Momigliano went through his involuntary apprenticeship as an English writer, Rudolf Wittkower—himself a great émigré historian of architecture who later taught for many years at Columbia University—served as the Journal’s official editor. Erudite and wide-ranging though Wittkower was, he did not work in isolation. One of his projects was an all-Italian issue of the Journal, which he hoped could help to restore intellectual relations between England and Italy. When Wittkower failed to persuade Momigliano to contribute an article, he turned for help to a greater authority: Fritz Saxl, the Viennese scholar who had brought the Institute from Hamburg to London in the ’30s and directed it thereafter. Saxl’s modest, pleading letter evidently represented a command that Momigliano could not refuse.
The documents that record these discussions also make clear how early he decided not to follow certain paths as a scholar—a decision vital to understanding the nature of his enterprise as a whole. Saxl, as Oswyn Murray has shown, first brought Momigliano into contact with the Warburg Institute in the 1930s, and Momigliano submitted an article on the Ara Pacis to the Journal in 1942. Wittkower, after taking some time to read the manuscript, accepted it with enthusiasm, and it appeared in the same year. But it was the Institute’s subsequent decision to produce “a volume of the Journal which will consist entirely of contributions from our Italian friends,” in the hope of rebuilding intellectual relations between the two countries, that set Momigliano on what became his definitive way.
As early as July 1945, Wittkower asked him to contribute to this project. Momigliano agreed with alacrity, offering either a paper “on the study of Roman history during the Risorgimento” in Italy or on a classical topic. Wittkower, expecting the volume to “have a strong Renaissance bias,” preferred the piece on the Risorgimento, which he thought might serve as a good coda. Again and again, through 1945, 1946, and early 1947, Wittkower and Frances Yates pressed Momigliano to deliver his article. Answer came there none. Finally, on March 20, 1947, a higher authority intervened. Saxl made a direct appeal to his laggard author. The Italian manuscripts had now “come in,” he wrote, “and they made quite a good number, but there is very little of outstanding merit.” A piece by Momigliano would raise the quality of the whole enterprise. Without one, Saxl feared, “it will not serve the purpose, which so many people have tried to achieve.”
Momigliano could not resist this entreaty, but he professed his doubts about what exactly he should contribute to the Journal. For some time he had been badly overworked, since he was both “lecturing and tutoring like an ordinary don (though not paid like an ordinary don!)” and trying to complete two books. These primary occupations had left him little time for articles. At this point, moreover, he simply did not know enough about Vico and the 18th century to produce a solid piece on the Risorgimento. His work on Tacitism in Spain, France, Italy, and England, though more advanced, had stalled temporarily until he could study manuscripts in England and Spain and clear up a number of bibliographical and textual puzzles. But he did have one old paper on a somewhat unexpected theme that he thought might serve Saxl’s purposes, when revised: “I have looked also among my mss to see whether there is anything there which I could bring together for the Journal. Two or three years ago, I wrote a paper on the pre-symbolistic phase of Creuzer—when he founded the modern study of Greek historiography. What I wrote is perhaps not unimportant, but must be re-written, because style and disposition are faulty.” Saxl invited him to submit the manuscript, and Momigliano duly did so, in a fair copy that he wrote himself, since he had failed to find a typist.
Saxl accepted the article on May 1, with enthusiasm. But he also asked Momigliano to provide it with a different kind of lead-in. Evidently, the first section of the paper, as Momigliano submitted it, was the second section of the paper as printed. This begins “Friedrich Creuzer’s Historische Kunst der Griechen in ihrer Entstehung und Fortbildung is now read in the second edition of 1845…” Saxl found this plunge in medias res a bit forbidding and mysterious, at least for the Journal’s local readership, and he urged a change:
There is one thing which I feel about it. The number of English people who know the name of Creuzer is, I suppose, very small, and if they know him they know him with regard to theories of mythology. You will remember that you begin the article by saying “We are used to reading Creuzer in the second edition,” and I wonder how this sounds to English ears because hardly anybody reads Creuzer either in the first or second edition. So what I would suggest is that we type the manuscript out as it stands and have it printed. But there ought to be an introduction giving some indication of Creuzer’s work to those who are quite unfamiliar with this part of German philology. I do not expect that this would give you much trouble, but I think it will help readers towards a better appreciation of the article.
Momigliano saw Saxl’s point. On May 11 he replied, enclosing a new introduction—section 1 of the paper, as it finally appeared. He declined to say anything about Creuzer’s most famous work, his study of ancient mythology: “I should not like to have to say much more on his Symbolik at the present, because I have been collecting materials for the history of mythological studies for many years. When I come to it, I must do it in full.” But he began the paper with a story that would grab any reader’s attention—that of Karoline von Günderrode, who committed suicide out of unrequited love for Creuzer, despite his notorious ugliness. He briefly described some of Creuzer’s accomplishments as a scholar. And in a second lapidary paragraph, he made clear that he now saw the study of the history of scholarship as a way to renew the study of antiquity itself. It was in this indirect and partly collaborative way that Momigliano created what would become the distinctive intellectual style of his middle period.
Episodic in substance, his history would also be episodic in form. From the start of his time in Britain—at the tortuous point, in 1940 and after, when he was largely unknown and his English still fragmentary and he was treated with patronizing superiority by some of those who meant most to him in the English academic world, such as Hugh Last and Eduard Fraenkel—Momigliano chose the lecture as his characteristic genre and the seminar as his favorite venue. He would begin either with a story (“The name of Professor Friedrich Creuzer of Heidelberg University is associated with one of the most typical episodes of the Romantic period”; “It was about twenty-five years ago that the name of Gower Street first impressed itself on my mind”) or with a broad claim (“We shall not ask of Gibbon new methods in the criticism of sources”; “When I want to understand Italian history I catch a train and go to Ravenna”). Then he would move, anecdote by anecdote and text by text, through a winding chain of narrative. He envisioned a public of listeners and readers who could recognize a vast range of names and milieux, possessed a broad familiarity with Western intellectual history from antiquity forward, and would not be not put off by long quotations in Latin.
More important, Momigliano devised a highly distinctive analytical method. At a time when Watson, Crick, Franklin, and other scientists in Cambridge and London arranged the basic material of life on what turned out to be double helices, Momigliano laid out the history of scholarship along similar sets of double axes. These looked like sets of genetic possibilities that determined what forms of history could be written. (He himself later joked about David Margoliouth, the Oxford Arabist who was thought to believe “in the existence of thirty Indo-European Ur-jokes from which all the others derived.”) He organized the possible modes of historical writing at a given time into two sets of possibilities and practices, and he saw revolution as what took place when individuals or groups combined these. Thus he distinguished, in his most famous essays, between:
The study of epic poetry and that of history
Famous German historians and forgotten antiquaries
Philosophic and erudite historians
Narrators and collectors of documents
Political and intellectual historians.
The Schlegels, Heyne, and Creuzer wed the first two, Mommsen and other 19th-century scholars melded the second, Gibbon managed to merge the third, Eusebius—of all people—connected the fourth set, and Grote brought together the fifth. By contrast, the oppositions between certain other possibilities—like history based on oral and history based on written tradition—proved so durable that they persisted in modern scholarship.
One pair of categories proved especially vital. From the start—and long before Hayden White and others had begun the revival of rhetorical analysis that bemused and exasperated Momigliano in the 1970s and 1980s—he saw style as central to the history of scholarship. The antiquaries’ style of collection and argument, Gibbon’s prose, Eusebius’s willingness to interrupt his narratives of the early Church to quote extensive documents, Muret’s Tacitism—all these choices mattered, to Momigliano, as much as their choices of subject matter, and he paid direct and constant attention to them throughout the early part of his career as historian of scholarship. (It seems that the appearance of White and others drove him to take less interest in such questions in later years, when he insisted that the critical use of evidence, rather than the construction of narratives, formed the core of history.) The antiquaries’ passion for classification led them to create systematic treatises and museums; Gibbon’s drive to combine reflection on causes with reflection on sources enabled him to devise the unique narrative architecture of the Decline and Fall—a textual Covent Garden, in which screaming Cockney vendors of macaroons and lemonade scurried about in the shadow of splendid, ornate arches and arcades.
In both form and content, Momigliano’s work stood out sharply from those of his contemporaries. First of all, there was his commitment to the lecture—and, in consequence, to the biography and the episode, as the central genre of history of scholarship. Here the Warburg Institute certainly played a role, and not only in the sense, obvious from “Ancient History and the Antiquarian,” that it provided him with a magnificent body of primary and secondary literature, available in the open stacks—an accessible source base that had no parallel on the Continent. Since the 1920s, when Saxl and Warburg made the original Hamburg Library into a new kind of intellectual institution, lectures had played a central role in its life. They served as the occasions for polyglot international meetings and discussions; they yielded articles and monographs for the library’s publication series; and they gave its programs of research publication a unique form, one that united the concrete with the conceptual. Warburg scholars analyzed specific texts and images in order to reveal the intellectual and emotional orders that underlay them, and visitors rapidly absorbed their method.
Momigliano joined eagerly in the library’s yearly lecture series, organizing one of them and participating in others. And he regularly highlighted the role that discussion with an international circle had played in his work, in footnotes that confessed his intellectual debts. The contemplative, systematic, and argumentative thinker for the 1930s transformed himself, in these new circumstances, into an eager and intensive conversationalist as well as a more concrete and powerful writer. The Momigliano who loved to learn from others’ lectures—even as he read books during them—seems to have been born in the Imperial Institute, then the Warburg’s London home.
In concentrating on lectures that explored dualities and contrasts, moreover, Momigliano adopted one of the Warburg Institute’s house styles. From the 1930s onward, Panofsky and Saxl began to formulate some of the Warburg scholars’ major findings about the classical tradition for an English-speaking public. They found themselves at once impoverished and stimulated. Bereft of the precise but abstract German vocabulary in which they had learned to write, they had to address a public far less knowledgeable and specialized than the German one—sometimes, indeed, one that included what Panofsky called “Chinchilla-Damen,” who found his lectures as painful to listen to as the Wagner they squirmed through in his presence at the Metropolitan Opera House. Yet they continued to pose and answer complex historical questions and to insist even in their new environment on the close connections between scholarship on the one hand, art, politics, and letters on the other. They too used dualisms as narrative armatures, following Warburg—and simplifying him—as they devised sharp dilemmatic ways to present the possibilities of expression within the classical tradition.
Panofsky and Saxl, for example, found a dazzlingly simple way to describe how the classical tradition had survived in the Middle Ages and then been transformed in the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, they argued, a “principal of disjunction” had operated. Both the form and content of ancient histories and myths circulated freely in medieval art and literature: but classical forms were applied to medieval knights and kings, while ancient gods and warriors were represented as if they had lived in the 12th or 13th century. In the Renaissance, scholars and artists reunited ancient form with ancient content—and came to see the ancient world not as part of their own, but as separated from it by distance in time. Panofsky would eventually call this transformation the discovery of historical perspective—a parallel to the Renaissance’s discovery of spatial perspective.
Ever since the 1930s, when Panofsky and Saxl made this theory public, other scholars have been frenetically at work, pointing out exceptions and denouncing oversimplifications. Most recently, Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood have devoted a long and brilliant book, Anachronic Renaissance, to carrying on this fight. Yet the original formula served to make the Warburg tradition of research on the classical tradition accessible and attractive to audiences in New York, Princeton, Philadelphia, and London. Panofsky, in fact, generalized the principle, treating it as the core of Renaissance culture. Here was a double helix, not unlike Momigliano’s. Like Momigliano, too, Panofsky and Saxl told stories—often ones familiar to a German or European public but virtually unknown in English—and drew implicit morals from them.
No wonder, then, that Saxl reacted with such delight to Momigliano’s essay on Creuzer. He liked it precisely because he knew the traditional accounts, and he saw its value at once: “It is a very unexpected contribution. I had no idea of Creuzer’s importance in this respect.” Yates, in the same way, immediately recognized the greatness of “Ancient History and the Antiquarian”: “The article is magnificent—a most deep and rich and at the same time polished and elegant piece of scholarship.” The Warburg circle was one of the few groups of scholars—if not the only one—in a position to appreciate and welcome the novelty of Momigliano’s approach to the history of scholarship, and the revisionist character of many of his findings—especially once he mastered the preferred form.
Momigliano’s contacts with the Warburg became more and more direct with time—and led to conversations that he found immensely rewarding. He first presented his work on “Ancient History and the Antiquarian” there at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, January 10, 1949. The ensuing discussions with the members of the Warburg delighted him, and he submitted a revised and enlarged text of the lecture to the Journal at the end of 1949, to Frances Yates’s great pleasure. The correspondence that ensued, which lasted through 1950, shows two scholars in their prime. Only a reader with a heart of stone could fail to enjoy the lesson on copy preparation that Yates offered her brilliant author, in the hope that he would write often for the Journal, or to be amused by Momigliano’s description of his heroic efforts to verify his references, or to savor his assessment, in a letter to Yates, of the 1950 Paris Congress on Historical Studies: “The atmosphere was very pleasant, and the hosts were charming. But the present decline in historical research was made only too obvious. I felt like writing a ballade des historiens du temps jadis.”
The correspondence went well beyond editorial details and witty travel notes. Yates recognized that Momigliano’s story posed a challenge to traditional versions of the origins of art history and urged him to follow it through into the 18th and 19th centuries: “I very much hope you will find time one day to continue this fascinating story right into the 19th century when, If I understand it rightly, the Hegelians come into it in Germany and begin to claim that the Spirit of the Age can be deduced most sagely from visual documents. Does not this development start already with Winckelmann?” Momigliano, who always insisted on his amateur status as a student of monuments, did not take up this challenge, leaving it to Francis Haskell, Thomas Kaufmann, and others to do so two generations later. This seems a pity—especially as Momigliano, in the years to come, would read and think intensively about the intellectual flirtation between Jacob Burckhardt’s form of cultural history and Aby Warburg’s version of art history. Yates’s query revealed an acute sense of one of the ways in which Momigliano’s story needed—and needs—to be filled in.
Once settled in London, I thought it might be wise to ask for more detailed advice, dusty though Momigliano’s first answer had seemed. Being an American, I turned up without an appointment, only to become quite lost in the dark labyrinth of alleys, corridors, dank huts, and grand old buildings that makes up University College London. After wandering for some time, I found Momigliano at work, somewhere above his beloved “auto-icon” of Jeremy Bentham—the skeleton of Bentham, topped with a wax effigy of his head, that greets visitors to the college’s main hall. He was about to leave for his customary summer in Italy when I came knocking at his door, but he found time for an hour’s impromptu conversation in which he gave me many more surprises than his letter had.
Momigliano asked if I had read much of the scholarly work on Angelo Poliziano. I knew the name—a small point in my favor. Poliziano was familiar to me as a brilliant Latin and Italian poet, a client of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and a friend of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. But it had never occurred to me that a study of such a modern figure as Scaliger, a 16th-century Frenchman who wound up his career at the innovative University of Leiden in republican, Calvinist, mercantile Holland, should begin from or stop at the equivocal Florence of the Medici and the Platonic Academy—a world of courtly elegance and ritual magic that inspired more discomfort than interest in most American historians.
Fortunately, ignorance never surprised Momigliano, and he had a partial remedy at hand. He advised me to start with Poliziano. He also told me that I could do so most conveniently in the library of the Warburg Institute. There, as he told me, I found shelves burdened with Poliziano’s Latin works and modern Italian studies of them. Within a few days it became clear to me—as Momigliano had intended—that Poliziano’s work had marked a watershed in the history of classical scholarship: a break between an older, rhetorical style of humanism and a newer, technical philology.
The summer passed in a blur of 16th- and 20th-century typefaces. It soon emerged that, if Scaliger’s wide historical interests were shaped by his original French milieu, in the technical details of his work he responded not only to the historians and philologists of his own time and place but even more to the precedents Poliziano had offered and to later French and Italian adaptations of these. The larger point of Momigliano’s first suggestion was also clear. One must study not a single individual who had been identified as important by the modern academic culture that one came from, or a single supposedly “revolutionary” generation of scholars, but the whole scholarly tradition that Scaliger himself had belonged to. This tradition began in the 15th century, though its roots ran all the way back to antiquity, and it survived in the European scholarship of the late 20th century, or at least in that of the very few scholars Momigliano seemed to take seriously. This tiny set included such celebrities as his London colleague Carlo Dionisotti, his Florentine friend Sebastiano Timpanaro, and his Oxford friend and former student Peter Brown, and excluded many scholarly household names. Only an approach that set Scaliger firmly into this long-term context could possibly do him justice.
The College of the University of Chicago had given me as broad an education as any American university could do in the 1960s. It had required me to study the history of Western civilization in one breathtaking three-quarter-long survey course that resembled nothing quite so much as being drowned. Everything that had ever happened in the West—to white males—passed before my eyes (taking the entire course in one summer, in an accelerated version, as I did, accentuated the side effects). It had forced me to learn New Critical techniques of close reading in the humanities and to understand the ideal types of classical German social thought. It had even required me to read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America three times—never, of course, in a course about America. At the same time, however, the university had permitted and even encouraged specialization. It had allowed me to continue studying Latin and Greek, and other languages as well, while becoming a historian. And my teachers had happily encouraged me to begin primary research in the Latin sources of Renaissance high culture. Graduate school had come not as a radical shock but as a natural continuation of undergraduate work.
For all that, meeting Momigliano was like nothing I had ever expected or imagined. As a teacher, to be sure, he shared many qualities with members of the Chicago faculty—whichno doubt helps to explain his great influence at Chicago in the decade after his retirement from London. Most Fulbright supervisors welcomed their pupils cordially, gave them a cup of tea, and then dropped them for what remained of their time in London, Oxford, or Cambridge into that black hole that all graduate students in England inhabited in those almost seminar-less days.
By contrast, Momigliano, very much like an American teacher, assumed that his students would keep regularly in touch, informing him about the problems of their research and even the vagaries of their lives. He invited me to meet him every week or two, usually for lunch or tea in one of the spectacularly squalid cafeterias maintained by University College or in the University of London’s towering gray Senate House (by legend the origin of Orwell’s Ministry of Fear). “Take what you like,” he would say with a sweeping gesture, as I arrived—late for an American appetite—at a lunch counter offering nothing edible but bananas and yogurt. Then he would ask—as eagerly as any American supervisor—how my research was going, whether anything interesting had turned up in the bookshops, whether I had seen some particularly foolish article or review by X or Y. Only after a year of comparing notes with other American and English graduate students in London did I realize how unusual this close interest in a student’s progress really was.
The apparent familiarity of this close and meticulous tutorial supervision concealed—as soon as became apparent—a set of intellectual and pedagogical assumptions far outside an American’s ken and hardly likely to make an American student feel competent or comfortable. Even the best American teachers saw themselves as masters of a specific craft. They treated their apprentices well, honing their skills and introducing them to masters from other universities who could offer special insights or further information on a given topic.
Momigliano, by contrast, resembled those artists of the early Italian Renaissance who refused to pay guild dues in order to show that they were men of learning and culture rather than practitioners of one trade. In the course of a single year, as I attended his seminar, came to tea at his invitation with visitors, or simply ran into him in the halls of University College, between the fresco of Bentham founding the College and the “auto-icon,” I met scholars old and young, ancient, medieval, and modern, Eastern and Western. Momigliano always seemed to know these people, and their teachers, intimately. He had always followed the development of their work and set it against a rich background of earlier scholarship; and he had always fashioned an evaluation of their efforts as sharp and permanent as on ancient epitaphs.
In the course of a year’s attendance at his Warburg Institute seminary, I heard a distinguished Sinologist discuss the historiography of his field, comparing Jacques Gernet with Marcel Granet and Granet with Max Weber; an even more distinguished French historian of the ancient world dissecting the world of myth into the raw and the cooked; Jonathan Miller eloquently analyzing Mesmerism; and Momigliano himself lavishing his erudition on a rich account of how the great Greek historian of Rome Polybius had returned to the West in the Renaissance. Seminar after seminar, Momigliano arrived with a vast pile of letters and book mailers bearing a collector’s envy of stamps from around the world. These he would open and examine, often shaking his head and murmuring, while the speaker read. During the latter part of most talks he appeared to sleep. Yet in the discussion that followed, usually low-keyed, hostile, and desultory by the custom of the country, Momigliano’s questions always showed mastery of the field discussed, and he gave the speaker firm instructions about the directions his research and analysis should have followed.
This spectacle was at first discouraging. Momigliano himself quoted, in his spectacular lecture on Polybius, the poem by which an 18th-century scholar had expressed his disappointment when he learned that what he took to be new books of Polybius in Latin translation were really the work of the humanist Leonardo Bruni. He thanked the scholar who told him this “for making me melancholy for a whole year.” The lecture covered a millennium and a half of textual history in an hour. It showed an intimate knowledge of more humanists than I had ever hoped to know a little about. And it dispatched in minutes a problem on which I and others had labored for hours in a graduate seminar in Chicago—namely, the mystery of how Machiavelli had read Polybius, not yet available in Latin in his time, while composing his Discourses on Livy.
Over the course of my year’s work, moreover, Momigliano’s standards became starkly—even frighteningly—clear. He did not expect anyone to share his technical command of what seemed to be all works of history ever written, from the official histories of Confucian China to the Metahistory of Hayden White (on the whole, he preferred the former). He did not expect anyone to match the depth of his command of the Western classical tradition, text by text (though I and others have profited by his wise instruction—as usual, drawn from some early great figure in classical scholarship—to read Plutarch on trains). And he saw most current work in his own special field, the history of historical writing, rather as his beloved Gibbon saw history itself: as a record of the crimes and follies of mankind. His usual response to new books in the field was to discourage others from making such attempts before they had done at least a lifetime of research. In some respects, then, his universal curiosity seemed almost masochistic: a constant search for more evidence that his colleagues were inept and his pupils were dunces (stating the latter point, as he characteristically observed apropos of the great Renaissance historian Justus Lipsius, was “a minor pleasure no teacher will ever deny himself”).
At tea in the Warburg before his seminar, the words of condemnation fell far more often than the words of praise, especially the dread “Poor man”—a simple phrase solemnly pronounced in Momigliano’s unique Anglo-Piedmontese accent. Even the papers of those he invited sometimes provoked him to his most savage word of condemnation, pronounced with a heavy emphasis on the first syllable: “Interesting”—which seemed to refer as much to the general stupidity that produced and tolerated such word as to the case in point. A graduate student working on a problem in the history of scholarship could hardly feel at ease in the presence of a man who repeatedly warned “the ordinary run of graduate students” to stay away from the subject entirely.
Momigliano’s passion for learning new things was as impressive—and as scary—as his mastery of texts and traditions. At the end of his career, he still came to the Warburg, pulled piles of books off the shelves, scanned them and made notes on them, using a unique system of little slips of paper that had carbons and copy sheets attached to them. He loved the open-stack libraries of the United States—especially Chicago’s Regenstein—and exploited them ferociously. I once asked him if he had ever been locked in a library overnight. “Of course,” he answered, “many times.” When I went on to ask what he did, he looked at me like a Talmudic rabbi looking at a particularly slow pupil. “I read. And ate my bar of chocolate.”
For all his erudition, though, Momigliano was unfailingly humane to the young. In my case, he became warmer and warmer as the year went on. Perhaps this was partly the result of chance. 1973 was the fall of the Yom Kippur War. As that season’s term began at University College, the news from the Middle East seemed worse and worse. The English newspapers and the BBC, in the tone and often in the substance of their coverage, clearly sided with the Arabs against Israel. These attitudes shocked a 20-something Jew who had grown up in the pro-Israeli climate of America, where the Six-Day War of 1967 had seemed a triumph for the West. Momigliano, of course, they did not surprise. But he had lost his parents in the Holocaust and had himself become an exile; he had many friends in Israel and cherished a deep, if complex, relation to the secular tradition of Jewish scholarship. He suffered visibly as the days drew on and the Israelis underwent their first, temporary defeats. We would meet in college and whisper about the war, conscious for all the distance between us of a common Jewish state of alienation from the ambient society. In those first heartfelt conversations a warmth sprang up that never failed thereafter.
But Momigliano’s humanity had wider roots than these contingent ones. He stood for a tradition of learning so deep as to be almost unfathomable. At the same time, he also stood for something very different: a world of conversation, that could take place anywhere, and that could deal with any topic any friend or acquaintance wished to bring up. In his seminars, in London and Chicago and, though I never attended one, in Pisa, he brought old and young, expert and amateur into fruitful conversation. He did the same, as I would learn, in many other contexts. Momigliano condemned the shoddy and the fashionable without hesitation. But he was just as eager to welcome new members into his circle, into a conversation that could be taken up again, after six months or a year, as if it had never been broken off. My idea of the Enlightenment, I have realized in recent years, was formed by this model of conversation—one as open and speculative as his learning could be mercilessly closed.
As I watched Momigliano at work in the seminar, as I munched and listened, it became clear that his ferocious manner imperfectly concealed a deep kindness and willingness to help. He expected me to work, that went without saying; to explore great libraries in England and the Continent and find things he did not know about. He also expected me to think, to devise something resembling a fresh idea rather than to fit another text to ideas already bandied about in the “secondary literature.” And he hoped I might develop some openness to fields and methods outside my own. When I turned up to the more out-of-the-way of his seminars, those on non-Western subjects, for example, he greeted me with a sunny warmth that quite dispelled the dank shadows of the London winter. No one who talked—as some of the English young exhaustingly did—of the superiority of good hard evidence like Athenian tribute lists carved on stone to the narratives of mere historians like Thucydides would ever win his interest. (He described one work written in this style as the most charming book about Oxford since Zuleika Dobson.) Sometimes he reminded me of General Gallieni smiling as he saw the taxis lined up to take soldiers to the Marne. He could find charm in anything as long as it was not completely banal.
Momigliano’s positive teaching was generous, thoughtful, and creative. Like many European scholars, he took a Darwinian, rather than Lamarckian, approach to his task. He did not, as an American professor would, try to improve my prose: “That,” he once rightly told me, “is an area in which you cannot rival John Clive.” Nor did he offer detailed instructions for research after his first suggestion about Poliziano. But he found me other advisers for specific matters, suiting pupil to tutor with a dexterity and insight that revealed how closely he observed people as well as books. He identified the novel elements in what I had found; and he also detected the weak points in my arguments and gave short, sharp directions, unmitigated by any notion that one might feel some tenderness for a wrong idea of one’s own, for their emendation. He was always ready—and almost always able—to help solve any particular technical problem that might have come up.
Above all, once he had decided that I did sometimes find out new things about important issues, he treated me not as a student but as a junior colleague. He would ask my opinion about his own work. (I once read two offprints on the Dan Ryan expressway, while traveling into Chicago with him from O’Hare Airport, where he had given them to me, and praised one. “What was wrong with the other?” he asked without skipping a beat, in a classic vein of Jewish humor more usually applied to cooking.) He persuaded journals and editors to publish my work long before I finished my dissertation. Above all, he told me stories—the principal medium by which great scholars, and great teachers, survive. If in nothing else, in telling stories about him, as I love to do, I can claim to follow his example.
My time as Momigliano’s pupil ended early—much sooner than I had wished. In the midst of my first year of dissertation research, I was offered a teaching post in history at Cornell University. This was 1974, the middle of the academic Great Depression of the ’70s that did in my generation of scholars to the humanities. Seeing friends at least as able as myself driving cabs, programming computers, or—at best—surviving marginally on fellowship after fellowship, I took the job with enthusiasm, even though I knew my formation was incomplete and my Chicago fellowship had a much-needed year to run. Only then did I learn that Momigliano had to retire, much against his will, from his professorship at London. He had at once rejected the thought of giving up teaching and had accepted a chair at, of all places, Chicago. He would occupy it, in different guises, for the rest of his life. I could have learned far more from him had I returned, as we both expected, to Hyde Park. Instead—as he told me in an apt Greek quotation—I must bravely set out for Ithaca, bearing with me too little learning (but also a prized and now worn copy of the Quarto contributo, inscribed “Souvenir of an English year. AM. Aug. 1974.”)
I remained Momigliano’s pupil at a distance. I returned as often as I could to Hyde Park and continued, when on leave in London, to attend his seminars at the Warburg Institute and at All Souls in Oxford. A stream of offprints and books by him regularly flooded my mailbox. And he continued to offer advice, to discuss historians ancient and modern, and to give inspiring—and depressing—displays of his learning. Our meetings took place in many venues, from the Quadrangle Club at the University of Chicago to the London Underground. But most of them seemed to be in cafeterias and at lunch counters from New York to Oxford, as chance brought us together in the academic small world that the returning prosperity of the late ’70s and ’80s created—a small world in which Momigliano, invited to deliver every series of named lectures in the Western World, sometimes seemed as omnipresent as he did omniscient.
It was a particular pleasure, in later years, to watch Momigliano teach in Chicago. His lectures, now freed from the constraints imposed by a professorship of ancient history, could deal with all the topics of his research, ancient, early modern, and modern. His audience, no longer limited to somewhat baffled London undergraduates, included graduate students and professors in many fields—listeners who could follow his allusive style, benefit from his vast learning, and raise questions or provide parallels that he found stimulating. Even his manner at the podium became a little less formal, as his rapport with his Chicago audiences strengthened.
Yet even in Chicago Momigliano taught most and best in informal situations: in the Regenstein Library, which he loved; over coffee, in a hideous cafeteria with its wallpaper pictures of parading drum majorettes; above all, perhaps, amid the endless treasures of Hyde Park’s bookshops, where Momigliano chastened and encouraged generations of the young. They came to him almost by instinct, or so it seemed, oblivious of his European fame but somehow aware of his vast stores of knowledge and the generous openness to the ideas of the young that his fleeting smile so often revealed.
They sat with him at cafeteria tables and stood with him in front of new-book shelves. They took advantage of the free time that he possessed in far larger measure in Chicago than he did in London or Oxford, where old friends and new editors, interviewers and correspondents besieged him. And they talked and listened, endlessly. He guided their reading as he had once guided mine, pulling his famous slips of paper and carbon paper from his pockets or relying on what remained an extraordinary memory.
Some of the debts I owe to Momigliano are shared, of course, with scholars across the world: for the intrepid example of his scholarship, which crossed the bounds of time and space with such ease and power; for the lasting results of his work, which reshaped our understanding of the Western tradition in historiography; for the spectacular students of ancient history whom he trained. But I owe him one debt more, a highly individual one: one that I felt as strongly when I visited him for the last time, in the sunny hospital room in Chicago where he held court early in the summer when he died, as I had done years before in his dark office in London. It is a debt to the example that he gave me.
Momigliano taught me what I could and could not do, both what I am and what I am not. Like him, I am now a professor at a major university, a small presence on the same conference and lecture circuits that he once dominated. Like him, I study a wide range of subjects, at least by my modest American standards. People sometimes describe me as a scholar of importance and originality, a defender, or at least a representative, of that European tradition that Momigliano exemplified. Once in a while I’m tempted, for a moment, to believe them. But the error never persists. For Momigliano bequeathed me not only the inimitable corpus of his work and the previous assistance of his criticism, but also the experience of a scholarship so deep, as well as so generous, that I could never hope to imitate it. His legacy takes a surprisingly vivid form. Momigliano himself seems to remain near me, to warn me on the dangerous occasions I have described. Then I hear the stern voice say: “You could not compete with her”; “an outsider’s first look at an unknown thing”; “Poor man”; “Interesting.” I realize again how poorly I grasp—and how little I can ever hope to contribute to—the tradition from which Momigliano came and for which he stood. And I value that renewed memory, that continued confrontation with standards I cannot meet, more than I can say.
Portions of this essay adapted with permission from Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, by Arnaldo Momigliano, published by the University of Chicago Press, © 2012 by The University of Chicago; Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences by Peter N. Miller, published by the University of Toronto Press, © 2007 by University of Toronto; and The American Scholar. All rights reserved.
Anthony Grafton, the author of Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance among other books, is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton. He is Tablet Magazine’s music critic.