The Scholar of Scholars

I well remember the bracing impact of those words at that time and thinking to myself that the author, whose name I had never heard before, was destined to become one of the major historians of the next generation. His spectacular debut was followed six years later by the first volume of a study of the sixteenth-century scholar Joseph Scaliger, a voracious reader of ancient texts who combined mastery of the relevant languages with a taste for the intricacies of historical chronology. Grafton proved to have just the right combination of technical expertise and expository skill to bring Scaliger and his world to modern readers. The second volume of his study had to wait for ten years, because Grafton’s exceptionally broad interests in early modern historiography and science led him in many other directions. His study of the origins of the scholarly footnote, which Gibbon was already able to deploy with such brilliance, and his investigation into the curious link between scholarship and forgery showed that Grafton was no less expert in communicating with the literate public than with his academic peers.

On many occasions Grafton has written about his indebtedness to Arnaldo Momigliano, whose seminars he attended at the Warburg Institute in London in 1973–1974. Those seminars, in which their authoritative leader actively encouraged discussion and disagreement among students, also promoted debate with the illustrious dead whose works were being studied. Grafton was a formidable student, as I heard later from Momigliano himself, not only because he arrived as a fully trained classicist but because he was also well on his way to being an accomplished historian of early modern scholarship. His capacity for research had led his mentors at Chicago to send him to Momigliano to begin his work on Scaliger.

At the Warburg, as Grafton describes in a partly autobiographical essay about his teacher in Worlds Made by Words, he learned from Momigliano the importance of understanding the historiography of the past on its own terms, and then to place that understanding in its relation to the present. He says of Momigliano’s essays from the 1940s and 1950s that they “worked dialectically between the present—of classical studies—and their past.” Such an empathy for the past combined with a constant awareness of the present has become a hallmark of Grafton’s work, to an even greater extent than it was for Momigliano himself. His book, with its frequent invocation of computers and the Internet, as well as a final chapter on Google and virtual libraries, would have left Momigliano puzzled but undoubtedly appreciative.

Grafton is an honored citizen in the Republic of Letters, a scholarly community without borders that has its origins in the late Renaissance and anticipated the great academies of Europe. It is fitting that the first essay in his book is an account of that network of scholars and scientists who communicated and debated with each other from generation to generation across national boundaries. This fictive nation, the Respublica Literaria …

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