What I’m Reading: An Interview with Renaissance Historian Stefano Dall’Aglio

tags: interview, Stefano DallAglio

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Stefano Dall’Aglio is a Senior Research Fellow at the Medici Archive Project (Florence). He has held fellowships at Villa I Tatti-the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, the Institut d’Histoire de la Réformation of Geneva, the Newberry Library of Chicago, the University of Leeds, the USTC Project at the University of St Andrews, the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published several books and articles on political and religious dissent in Renaissance Florence and Italy, with a specific focus on Girolamo Savonarola and sixteenth-century Savonarolism and political opposition to the Medici. His latest monograph (The Duke’s Assassin. Exile and Death of Lorenzino de’ Medici, Yale University Press, 2015) won the Helen and Howard R. Marraro Prize awarded by the American Historical Association. 

What book are you reading now?

I am reading The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, whose revised version came out in 2015, thirty years after the first edition. This is a fascinating book on our complex relation with the past with a focus on many different topics like memory and manipulation, recollection and oblivion, bias and objectivity. It is not only about history and the historian’s craft, but it is essential reading for anyone whose work deals with understanding the past. 

What is your favorite history book?

I am not sure I have a favorite book. One of the most crucial works for my transition from student to scholar was certainly Savonarola in Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance by Donald Weinstein (1970). This book is not only important for those interested in the Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola (as I certainly was), or even for people studying Renaissance Florence. It helped me to understand how we can approach religious history from a non-confessional perspective and navigate between biased sources with opposing standpoints in order to deliver an impartial interpretation. It also taught me that it is impossible to gain a real understanding of a historical figure without placing them in their historical context, and that individual paths can look completely different when viewed in the light of social and institutional dynamics. The ideas I took away from this book are still with me after many years. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

When I was an undergraduate student at the university, I begun studying economics and then switched to political science. In the middle of this unconventional (and non-history related) path of studies I found myself taking two history exams because I had to, not because I chose to. To my surprise, as soon I as began preparing for them I became extraordinarily passionate about history, I started reading as many history books as I could both before and after the exams and I decided to completely redirect my path of studies. First, I specialized in history, then I opted for a graduation thesis in early modern history, and finally I started a PhD in history. For the first time I had the clear feeling I really knew what I wanted to do in my life. 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

I would say that the most important quality is intellectual curiosity. The more you ask yourself questions, the more you will be able to address the problems that lie hidden beneath the surface and look at things with a different eye. The more you read, listen, discuss and question, the more your mind and your sight will be open to a wider perspective. 

Perseverance is also important. The historian’s work can be frustrating both in and outside the archive, and the ability to overcome despair and hardship and persist against challenges can make a huge difference and prove very gratifying.

Finally, I think that, like in many other jobs, it is important to strike the right balance between self-criticism and overconfidence. An excess of either can have very deleterious effects. A very insecure historian is likely to underestimate his ability and end up being held back by the (unjustified) feeling of being less competent than his peers. An over-confident scholar, on the other hand, runs the risk of underestimating his faults and overlooking the weaknesses in his work, which, if not properly addressed, will probably appear glaringly obvious to everybody else. 

Which historical time period do you find the most fascinating?

My answer should be a foregone conclusion. Obviously, every period is fascinating in its own right because of its peculiar features but, as an Italian Renaissance historian, I could hardly be expected to mention a different one. Justifying my preference, however, is far less easy. My interest has little to do with the traditional Renaissance stereotypes: the revival of the classics, the flourishing of art, literature and science, secularization, the central importance of man rather than God, etc. I was interested in more problematic aspects and apparent contradictions, as my fascination with Savonarola and sixteenth-century Savonarolism demonstrates. How was it possible that in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, a friar with no institutional appointments became the city’s main political leader by claiming that he was a true prophet inspired by God? The intersections between religion and politics, faith and reason, freedom of expression and repression, have also inspired my works on religious dissent and the Inquisition. 

Another aspect of the Italian Renaissance I have been interested in is political dissent and political assassinations (not to mention other related topics, like espionage and diplomacy, or the use of violence and the role of historiography). And this brings me to another widely held stereotype, that of the dark Renaissance, one of plots and murders, daggers and poison which, however, clashes with the die-hard cliché of the “dark Middle Ages” that came before the Renaissance “awakening.” 

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Paolo Simoncelli, a professor of early modern history at Sapienza University in Rome, had a decisive influence on my choices and my work in two important ways. First, his stimulating lectures were crucial in turning myself into a historian, making me want to prepare a graduation thesis in early modern history and then making me opt for a PhD in the same field, both of which I worked on under his guidance. 

Secondly, I inherited from him a passion for the two topics which my own research has long been focused on: Political Savonarolism and Anti-Medici Florentine dissent (with a special attention to republican exiles), both of which in the context of sixteenth-century Italy and Europe. He taught me a historical approach firmly grounded in the primacy of archival research, sources criticism and methodological rigor, combined with a political perspective focused more on counter-culture than on dominant culture, while remaining aware of the problems related to memory control and the manipulative use of history.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

Not really. If your interest lies in the Italian Renaissance, it is hard to collect contemporary books or artifacts unless you are filthy rich. All I own are two original prints – one from the seventeenth and the other from the eighteenth century – which depict two historical events closely related to my research: an Inquisition abjuration in Rome and the assassination of the first duke of Florence Alessandro de’ Medici.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

It goes without saying that it is very rewarding whenever your work is appreciated at any level, from the comments of an undergraduate student to winning an international book award.

Archival research can be very frustrating and also extremely rewarding. It is hard to describe the excitement you feel when you come across a fundamental archival document. The other side of the coin is the frustration of not finding anything, which is even more acute if you have invested a good deal of time and money in trips to a distant archive. Not to mention the frustration stemming from problems outside the realm of the archival research strictly speaking: missing documents, closed archives, non-accessible collections, etc. But we should never forget that there can never be a meaningful reward if there is no potential for frustration: it would hardly be very exciting, would it, if we found fundamental documents every day. 

At an altogether different level, I am terribly frustrated by the waning importance of research in the work of academic historians and by the declining importance of early modern history in the study of history, or of any type of history in the wider context of the academic disciplines. 

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

I am old enough to remember a time when scholars with an academic job did not have to seek external funding to do their research and they were not asked to guarantee in advance the results they would obtain and the outcomes they would produce. Today, historians have far less time for research and far less freedom in what they do, especially in certain academic contexts. They have to produce research outcomes in a very short span of time and promise specific results beforehand. The experience of past scholars shows that the best works are produced without any time constraints and that often the arrival point of your research is very different from what you expected at the beginning. 

Unlike what used to happen in the past, cuts in public funding to universities and research institutes mean that contemporary research tends to be increasingly reliant on grants given by funding bodies, especially in some countries. This means that huge (often unnecessarily huge) sums of money are concentrated in the hands of a few lucky scholars, creating a wide gap between them and their colleagues. In addition, in a system like this research topics are often chosen based on whether they are likely to attract external funding, and so researchers often end up studying what funding institutions consider worth subsidizing, rather than what they themselves think is important. Another problem inherent to this model is that it encourages low-risk research (you cannot afford the risk of not finding anything significant after you get your grant), and in any case the research tends to end abruptly as soon as the funds or the grant’s time frame end. 

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I have not come up with my own saying. At least, not yet. I like to think that “history is a guide to navigation in perilous times,” as the American historian David McCullough once put it. I would even extend the scope of the statement to non-perilous times. This saying helps to understand, and to explain, why the historian’s work is relevant not only to satisfy our idle curiosity about old events that have nothing to do with us. In times like these, when the Humanities are constantly under attack and historians are sometimes required to justify their very existence, it is important to bear in mind that it is nearly impossible to understand the present without knowing the past. I like the idea of history as a guide and precious navigation tool, because it implies that past, present and future events are not completely unconnected, and it is based on the assumption, too often forgotten, that human dynamics are similar regardless of their geographical and chronological context. 

What are you doing next?

It is not easy to look at the future when your head is plunged into the past! Joking aside, this is a hard question to answer. I have a few ideas for my future research, but I am not quite sure of what I will be doing after I complete my current project. I must confess that I am increasingly attracted by the idea of trying new challenges and treading new paths. Not only a different research topic, but also different methodological approaches, different disciplinary and geographical and chronological boundaries, different audiences, maybe different media. I am fascinated by the intersections between history and Digital Humanities, and this is the sector in which I am currently working, but I am intrigued by the possibility of finding different ways to disseminate my research through new technologies, not necessarily alternative but complementary to more traditional research outcomes. Only time will tell.

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