Publication Date

January 17, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the President

Thematic

Cultural, Public History

I have often been asked, “Why do you study Renaissance Italy?” My standard reply has been “Because it is not Utah, where I grew up,” but more recently I have just said, “Because it is beautiful.”

I am not Italian. I am not Italian American. I did not know any Italian Americans in my neighborhood or school. The only Italian I had ever heard growing up was on the Saturday-afternoon broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera, which my father put on the radio as we drove up to the ski slopes in the winter. When confronted with my university’s requirement that I study a foreign language, I, in a mischievous mood while chatting with friends, declared that I wanted to study Italian. Perhaps this was because of my fondness for music and my indifference to German (the language I took in high school), but the decision that determined a life course was hardly well considered. After a semester, I wondered what good mastery of Italian would do if I never went to Italy. So I decided to go.

In 1967, my big state university left us to sink or swim, had no study-abroad programs, and did not even have a study-abroad adviser. My Italian-language teacher, who happened to be a prominent Italian novelist, had no clue. Utterly naive but undeterred, I wrote a letter addressed simply

Cultural Attaché
Italian Embassy
United Nations
New York, New York

In the letter, I asked how an American student might study in Italy. To my surprise, I received a prompt reply. The response included a list of the few programs then administered by American universities, and I chose the Syracuse University one in Florence. It was the only option at the time in which students lived with an Italian family, and I was not so naive as to pass up that chance. I knew that learning a foreign language in a classroom was no match for struggling with it at the dinner table every night. So I went.

From Utah I flew to New York, where my fellow students and I boarded the SS Michelangelo for a nine-day voyage to Genoa, only a few years before the Italian Line gave up the Atlantic crossing. The university planned for us to take Italian lessons aboard the ship, but we soon discovered that we made more progress hanging out in the third-class bar with the migrant workers who were returning home with their hard-earned dollars. In vino veritas—in this case, the truth of how real people spoke the language, not just how the textbook taught us to speak it. The workers did not speak “correct” Italian, and only years later did I realize they were speaking in dialect, but the experience has left me with a lifelong love of puzzling out dialects. When visiting a new region in Italy, I still find a bar where the old men gather, sit in a corner, and try to understand what they are saying. As a foreign speaker of Italian, I have taken up the challenge to understand the “other” through the obscure dialects of daily life and, as a historian, to enter the always-strange world of half a millennium ago, fragments of which I can find in the documents written in dialect, obscure Latin, or antiquated Italian.

My history writing has been a history of them, and my distance from “them” can be measured in part by the language gap. But is that right? To say that my kind of history is a “history of them” may represent a delusion because I am the one asking questions largely derived from the concerns of my time and place. My own experience is always lurking in the anteroom of the other culture, no matter how hard I try to understand other peoples in their own terms. A soft anachronism seems inevitable. As my predecessor put it in his final presidential column, “Good historians are driven by curiosity and imagination, both of which emanate from our inner dialogues in the present.”

The opposite of the history of them, of course, would be a history of us—whoever the “us” are. The study of the identities, of them and us, has become a necessity in our time, especially in the United States, where a long tradition of ignoring, misrepresenting, or lying about underrepresented groups has recently led many historians to broaden our perspective and our students to ask, Where do I and people like me fit into the past? Don’t we count in history? Why should I care about people who are unlike me? as one of my students once complained. These are profound ethical questions for historians, questions that delve into the very foundations of the historical project. The historical curriculum has often responded with changing answers to these questions. After an unprepared United States stumbled into World War I, historians invented the Western Civilization course to educate Americans about their obligations to the Old World; now the AHA’s Teaching History with Integrity initiative advocates for honest history education in the face of racist divisive concepts legislation.

Integrity in history requires struggle. After the propaganda visit of the aeronaut and Fascist hierarch Italo Balbo to the Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933, the city of Chicago honored him by changing the name of a downtown street to Balbo Drive, which passes in front of a monument Mussolini gave to the city. The inscription under the ancient limestone column, which bedecks the still-standing monument, reads in part “Fascist Italy, by command of Benito Mussolini, presents to Chicago, exaltation, symbol, memorial of the Atlantic squadron led by Balbo that with Roman daring flew across the ocean in the 11th year of the Fascist era.” In 2017, embarrassed by this shameful reminder of the city’s flirtation with Fascist self-promotion, 68 historians and other academics from the Chicago area, including the Italian American president of Loyola University, signed a petition to the city council. It read: “Be it resolved that whereas Balbo Drive in Chicago was named after the most violent of the Fascist warlords, Italo Balbo, who was a founding member of the Fascist Grand Council, who was responsible for the killing of numerous Italian citizens including the parish priest Giuseppe Minzoni, and who was a key figure in a regime guilty of crimes against humanity in Libya and Ethiopia, where tens of thousands of civilians perished, the name of Balbo Drive should be changed.” The petition went on to suggest renaming it after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, a refugee from Fascism because his wife was Jewish, someone who had actually lived in Chicago, and a winner of the Nobel Prize.

After the circulation of the petition, a groundswell of opposition from elderly Italian Americans nostalgic for Fascism defeated us, and the street name remains. In one television appearance with a leader of the pro-Balbo group, I listened to him refer to me with poisonous sarcasm as “the professor.” As one of “them,” a historian with no ethnic affinity to Italy but a fluent command of the language and years of experience in the country, I had no hope of penetrating the defensive wall of the history of “us.” Pride in identity trumped the truth. Pride in the truth, in contrast, is the historian’s identity.

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Edward Muir
Edward Muir

Northwestern University