The judicial model

pinelliOn the 15th of December of 1969 “an anarchist and railway employee named Pino Pinelli dies by falling from the window of the office of Police Superintendent Luigi Calabresi, on the fifth floor of the Milan police headquarters, where he had been detained for three days.” The story is vividly dramatized in Dario Fo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (part 1, part 2).

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the great masters of history writing. In 1991, the medievalist scholar of witchcraft trials wrote a book about a ongoing court case – The Judge and the Historian. His friend Adriano Sofri, a former leader of the autonomist group Lotta Continua, was on trial as mastermind of the murder in May 1972 of Superintendent Luigi Calabresi. Ginzburg’s book is a lesson on the use of evidence. Reading the transcripts of the trial, and the record of testimonies, Ginzburg reveals contradictions, the interpretative shortcuts of the judge, the lapses of the carabinieri that express their interference, and finally how evidence was weighted and distorted to justify a heavy sentence. One would think that the historian should reconstruct events, urgently tying actions to individual motives. Ginzburg calls it a “judicial model” and rejects it. Unlike the judge, the historian aims at a larger interpretative frame, studying the courtroom drama as “historical experimentation” where evidence, the document, is being actively produced by the interactions of officials, lawyers, witnesses.

The historian shows the judge gets it wrong. The accused were falsely condemned in a new witch hunt. Reading the book more than fifteen years after its publication, I can’t shake a feeling of powerlessness at the indignation of the intellectual. Sofri and his comrades languish in jail, the former is gravely ill. Ginzburg in all his brilliance cannot save the world.


3 thoughts on “The judicial model

  1. I wondered how Ginzburg’s book was received at the time. Was he treated as a historian or as a public intellectual?
    The interesting thing here, in my opinion, is that there are some relations between the job of a historian and the job of the detective. In both cases, there is something puzzling and one has to gather the pieces to establish the big picture. One looks at criminal files and the other looks at old editions of books and archives.
    Interestingly, a few years ago, when the Italian government asked French authorities that former leftist activist and mystery novels writer Cesare Battisti be sent back to Italy to be judged for alleged assassinations committed in the 1970s, a book was written by fellow writer Fed Vargas to take his defense. The funny thing is that, though she is well known to the French public for her mystery novels, Vargas began her career as an archeologist and historian, working on Bubonic plague for the French CNRS.
    I remembered that the book was not received as that of a historian, though, but as the work of a (leftist) public intellectual, or merely as that of a writer helping a colleague.

  2. I leave it for italian friends to reply on the historian/public intellectual stuff.

    It is an excellent point the one about detectives. One of Ginzburg’s most influential papers is exactly about historical sources as “clues” and the historian as a sort of detective. As any good scholar he historicizes his analysis and locates his approach to history as an “evidential paradigm” making some neat references to medicine, and Sherlock Holmes!

    Isn’t that what we all want? To write a paper and get away making these kind of connections?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s