You have published a great deal on a wide range of topics. What, in general terms, are the questions that interest you?
What really interests me is how people do things. I see that as the question that unifies my apparently completely disparate investigations of topics in Antiquity, in the Renaissance, in the Baroque, and in the modern age. More specifically, I’ve always been interested in how scholars did things in the past: how scholars studied documents, how they edited them, how they turned them into historical narratives and other kinds of publication; and I have a strong interest in similar questions about ancient and early modern scientists. I’m always less interested in intellectuals’ grand theses --Is Providence ruling world history-- than I am in asking, What kind of methods did they use? How do we make sense of those methods historically? What sense did they make at the time? What work did those methods do that others wouldn’t have? It’s in pursuit of that kind of information that I’ve studied how people read books, how people wrote footnotes, how people built libraries. To answer these questions I’ve found myself doing lots of interdisciplinary work. Looking at archives, recreating institutions, reassembling networks of individuals who collaborated with one another. Doing the same kinds of things you would do to answer pretty much any historical question.
Your most recent book is Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation (2001). What is it about?
Bring Out Your Dead is a collection of articles --some very detailed, some written more for the general reader-- on scholars, scientists, printers, and others in early modern Europe. It is an effort to look at how people constructed the past in 15th, 16th, and 17th-century Europe. For instance, the way they studied ancient texts, or the way they studied the material remains of the city of Rome. I try a variety of approaches. My favorite is a study of a complete madman, the Jesuit Jean Hardouin, who decided around 1680 that, with one or two exceptions, all ancient texts were forged. At the time he was taken fairly seriously by some erudite readers and mercilessly ridiculed by others. I try to examine how on earth he came to this conclusion, how he made the argument, and what kind of reactions this wild thesis received.
The classical scholars of this period really believed that some or all of the core wisdom on all-important matters could be found in Greek and Roman texts. Accordingly they spent a great deal of time studying individual texts and also trying to recreate the institutions, rituals, and beliefs of the Greek and Roman world. One of the points I make in the book is that a number of modern academic disciplines, including historiography, political science, anthropology, and the comparative study of religion, in many ways grew out of this effort by Renaissance scholars to understand the classical world. The center of the book is what early modern scholars called the “Republic of Letters”: the networks through which these scholars communicated with one another, networks which crossed national, religious, and ethnic lines. These scholars, who communicated in Latin, saw themselves as citizens of a transnational community linked together in the common pursuit of truth about nature and about the past.
In 1997 you published a study of the footnote, The Footnote: A Curious History. When was the footnote first used?
That’s actually a hard question to answer. In the early 20th century, historians in America were trained to think that what made you a professional historian was that you used documents and you cited them in footnotes, and that this was something completely new that had taken shape in Germany in the 19th century, the great age of historical scholarship. This was a gross oversimplification of what German scholars were actually doing.
In the book I asked a somewhat different question: What is the technical history of the use of documents in history? I tried to use that question as a thread that would take me back and forward through the whole history of historiography. So I start in the 19th century and go all the way back to Antiquity and then forward again, looking for the different ways that different kinds of historians have used documents, integrated them into their work, cited them, and talked about them. Finally I argue that there is a kind of general crisis in the years around 1700 in which citation comes to be established in something like its modern form, and that this was not a matter of German discoveries, though German scholars played a role, but rather a consequence of the Enlightenment and a widely felt desire to provide a basis for critical writing independent of institutions.
In part the book was an effort to take the footnote, this quintessentially trivial and pedantic device that scholars use, and show that it has a rich history. You can find flesh and blood--"you can find really interesting people doing interesting things--through this kind of technical history. I also wanted to show that these issues have a long trajectory. You can’t just parachute in at one point and imagine that you understand a tradition which in some ways continues for almost three thousand years.
Among your major books are biographies of three Renaissance intellectuals: Leon Battista Alberti (2000), Girolamo Cardano (1999), and Joseph Scaliger (1983 and 1993). How did you choose these three?
My three subjects, Alberti, Cardano, and Scaliger, are very different figures, and the books are quite different as well. Alberti is a huge celebrity in Renaissance studies. He was the author of the first modern treatise on painting, the first modern treatise on architecture, the first serious treatment of linear perspective, and he was himself one of the first great architects of the Renaissance. Everybody who takes a course on Renaissance history meets Alberti. Cardano is well known among mathematicians, because he did innovative work in the field we now call probability, and he has a certain place in medical history, but he’s otherwise chiefly remembered as the author of a rather weird autobiography. Scaliger is the typical great scholar of the past. He was venerated because he did mysterious, learned things, but almost no one had the faintest idea what those were when I began to work on him.
Each one appealed to me for different reasons. When I was young Einstein was a synonym for genius; Scaliger was like that in the late 16th century, at a time when the quality most admired in scholars was not so much genius as vast learning. I wanted to find out what this guy did. In general, far more research has been done on scientists of the past and how they worked than on scholars of the past, even though for much of Western history scholars occupied a tremendously honored position. I approached Scaliger as one would study a great scientist of the period. How did he work? What equipment did he use?
Cardano was in some ways an even more fascinating character. He was a very articulate and renowned astrologer, and I had always been interested in astrology. I wanted to try to see the practice of astrology in the past through his eyes--"I wanted to let him tell me what it was like to be an astrologer. And finally, with Alberti, I thought it would be fun to get out of the world of straight scholarship, though he was very much a scholar, and ask, How did this guy use these scholarly tools to reshape the lived and visual environment of lots of people who weren’t scholars? In Alberti’s case I wanted to look at the impact of one of my scholars on the wider world of culture, patronage, and the arts.
It has been remarked that you share some of the qualities of the people you study.
I think historians are often attracted to people in the past who have their qualities. My friend Paula Findlen at Stanford, who is a very elegant person, likes the elegant museum-keepers of the 17th century. I’m a very inelegant person with very disparate interests. I tend to be attracted to eccentrics, polymaths, people who cut across fields.
How is it different to be a historian of ideas as opposed to a historian of Italy or France?
Most European historians identify themselves with one European country and steep themselves in its language, its culture, its politics, its way of life, its cuisine, its television shows. I have never had that connection to a country -- apart from that imaginary country, the Republic of Letters, which ceased to exist in the 18th century. Most of the people I study wrote in Latin or ancient Greek, although they might also write particular things in French or Italian or German or Spanish. In terms of technique, I do the same things other historians do -- I do archival work, I reconstruct correspondence, I trace networks--"but I also do a lot of textual interpretation and even interpretation of images, and for this I use techniques from literary scholarship and art history.
You have focused on the 16th and early 17th centuries in your work. What is it about this period that attracts you?
I think it’s the last moment when intellectuals genuinely imagined the world as animated; they imagined they could talk to superior and inferior beings that lived in the air and the water and the heavens. Yet at the same time, these same people could have a highly sophisticated, mechanistic understanding of the world. Many of them believed, for instance, that engineering could change the face of the world. There’s a lot of contradiction involved in living in a magical, animated universe and a mechanistic universe at the same time, but there’s also a lot of richness and interest, and that’s what has always fascinated me about this period.
In 2003 you received the Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award for your work in the humanities. It provides up to $1.5 million for work over three years. What are you planning to do?
Joseph Scaliger, one of my main subjects, did chronology as his central work; that is, he was interested in reconstructing the dates and events of ancient, Medieval, Western, and Asian history, and also in reconstructing ancient calendars. This was the hot topic in 1600. This field, chronology, has never really been mapped. What I plan to do with the Mellon money is to look at time in the 17th century: the many ways in which people studied time -- biblical time, calendar time, historical time. It’s a hugely important topic. By the middle of the 17th century the Bible is ceasing to offer an authoritative account of the past. You can see this in the writings of people like Hobbes and Spinoza. Chronology set out originally to give an absolute history of the world that would be valid both for the Bible and for the classics. Between 1600 and 1650 it becomes clear that it won’t succeed.
You are the chair of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton. What does the job involve?
I am in charge of three things. First, I get to run the Humanities Center, where we foster all kinds of interdisciplinary activities on campus and support Princeton’s interdisciplinary programs -- European Cultural Studies, Hellenic Studies, Judaic Studies, Renaissance Studies, Medieval Studies, and so forth. Second, I’m in charge of the journalism program, the Ferris/McGraw Program, in which the great John McPhee teaches literature of fact and visiting professionals offer courses on print and broadcast journalism. Finally, by historical accident, I’m also in charge of the School of the Arts at 185 Nassau Street. So I am, formally speaking, the department chair for great creative artists like Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon, and Joyce Carol Oates. We plan campus visits by artists such as Chuck Close; we stage readings by great writers. It’s truly the best job on campus.
Suppose the parent of a freshman said to you, I don’t want my kid to spend her time at Princeton studying Latin.
Well, first I’d say that it’s up to the kid to decide what she wants to do. But the point of Princeton and places like it has never been to teach practical things that one can go out and use directly. Even our undergraduate architecture degree is a liberal arts degree; it doesn’t train you to become a practicing architect. Most of our engineering majors don’t become engineers. We’re a liberal arts institution. I think our common faith is that if you study one liberal art in a deep and serious way, learning something about others as you do, you will have an awfully good training that will stand you in good stead in any profession. Our belief is that this approach gives a deeper education and a deeper kind of human formation than a more practical training. I think that what’s important is that a kid does something deep and rich and serious. The History Department at Princeton really offers that. We’re serious about languages; we’re serious about small discussion groups; we’re serious about faculty working one-on-one with students. I like to think that what we do in the humanities is like the “slow food” movement in cooking. There are certain things you can only do slowly and individually. There’s no way to speed up the process and do it right.