The Doge’s Secrets

Historians are already trying to assess the cultural consequences of the diaspora of the 1930s, and especially the effects on local traditions (of architecture, say, or economics) of the arrival in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere of so many artists and intellectuals from Central Europe. It is salutary to remember not only that the ripples have not ceased from spreading but also that some of the émigrés are still active.

The work of Felix Gilbert, who was born in Baden-Baden in 1905, has lived in the US since 1936, and has now retired from his chair at the Institute for Advanced Study, draws on two cultural traditions, German historicism and Anglo-American empiricism. He has just published another book. It is his fourth monograph in fifty-odd years as a professional historian; Gilbert is not an academic in a hurry, and he evidently likes to write essays. The Pope, His Banker, and Venice is in effect a long essay, and a fine piece of historical craftsmanship it is. It draws together a number of themes which have been life-long favorites of the author. Not the only ones; his historical interests are too diverse for that.

Gilbert’s first book, published in 1931, in German, was a study of the nineteenth-century Prussian historian J.G. Droysen. He is still very much concerned with the history of historical writing. He has published essays on such leading twentieth-century masters of the art as Friedrich Meinecke, Otto Hintze, Aby Warburg, and Federico Chabod, and also on the institutions, if that is the word, of the official historian and the professor of history, and on the historical writings of Machiavelli and Guicciardini.

These historiographical essays are not simply studies of the development of professional techniques; they are designed to place working historians—or rather, to re-place them—in their intellectual context, to relate their ideas to those of the groups to which they belonged. Gilbert’s chief criticism of the intellectual biography of Aby Warburg published ten years ago by Ernst Gombrich was precisely that it kept too close to Warburg’s notebooks and did not have enough to say about the scholar’s intellectual milieu in Hamburg and Berlin. He wrote his own essay on Warburg to redress the balance.

Warburg was apolitical. Gilbert, on the other hand, is deeply interested in politics, and in foreign policy in particular—whether he believes in its primacy or not. He has written an essay on the diplomacy of Count Ciano, the Fascist foreign minister; a study of eighteenth-century American ideas of foreign policy, To the Farewell Address; It might be said that Gilbert writes intellectual history like a political historian and political history like an intellectual historian, but this is much to the benefit of both fields. What particularly interests him is the influence of ideas on politics and the influence of politics on ideas. Whether he is studying historians or diplomats …

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