History: Choice and Commitment
by Felix Gilbert
Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 549 pp., $18.50
Sometimes, when the human race has gone through one of its colossal chapters of experience, men in the afterperiod have been so appalled by the catastrophe, so obsessed by the memory of it, that they have gone back to the story again and again, finding new angles of research, new aspects of the matter to reflect upon, as one generation succeeds another—a process of thinking and rethinking, which in special cases is capable of continuing for a thousand years and more. As a result of this, there piles up (with the passage of the generations) a tremendous accumulation of commentary on any single great historical theme.
One of the most remarkable examples of this in the history of the Western world has been the downfall of imperial Rome and the ancient “classical” culture from about the fifth century AD—a catastrophe which provoked endless discussion among historians, theologians, and philosophers through the subsequent centuries. But another significant example is provided by the Italian Renaissance which, from the end of the fifteenth century, did so much to change the play of forces among the European states, and even the character of the prevailing culture. It was to this general historical field—and, for the most part, to those larger human issues which are here in question—that Felix Gilbert gave his principal attention during a few decades from about the middle of the 1930s.
Two of the most interesting men that ever (in modern times) gave themselves to the narration or analysis of contemporary history—that is to say, the events of their own lifetimes—were Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who lived through the sorest troubles of Renaissance Italy. It took them a few years to recognize that the French invasion of Italy in 1494 was not just an ephemeral affair or something in the nature of a raid. And it needed two or three decades to convince them not only that this was to be a turning point in Italian history but also that the disaster for the freedom of city-states was going to be irretrievable. Felix Gilbert’s Italian studies have been centered chiefly on these two men. He sees Machiavelli as using history in order to find remedies for the condition of his city—Florence—and for Italy as a whole; while Guicciardini moves forward from this to a kind of direct narrative history which expounds events by simply showing how they came to happen. In other words, Gilbert is interested in the transition from the pragmatic kind of history (which looks for political teaching) to the rather different kind of study which seeks just to explain the past by putting the whole network of events into proper order.
One has been tempted to believe at times that the close study of historiography, and of men’s developing thought about the past, is not the best thing for the doctoral student to handle, and that the young researcher will place himself on firmer ground if he takes up …