Star Turn

May 14, 1999

Paul Bompard listens to the historical anecdotes and theories of a media-friendly Englishman in Florence.

Paul Ginsborg, 53, came to the University of Florence from Cambridge in 1992. He has since become one of Italy's most respected authorities on recent Italian history, a sought-after guest on talk shows and a commentator for the Italian press.

His first history of postwar Italy, published in 1989 and available in Penguin, was adopted by many schools as a textbook and made his name in both academic and political circles.

A new book covering recent history and including an updated version of the old that was published a few months ago has sold 30,000 copies. An English edition by Penguin is expected next year.

In the 17th-century palace that houses the university's contemporary history department, Ginsborg is giving the final lecture of a course on the Spanish civil war. It comes amid the Kosovo conflict and Ginsborg tries to draw historic parallels between the civil wars that ravaged Spain, Italy and Greece early this century and the strife in the Balkans.

More than 100 students listen in rapt attention as Ginsborg, in clear and almost accentless Italian, begins suggesting that the evolution of Europe should not necessarily, or only, be seen as a gradual convergence of all nations towards a northern European model.

The nations of southern Europe have their own history and culture, which influenced political events, he says.

Not only have Greece, Italy and Spain communicated with each other across the Mediterranean for centuries, but they also interacted with the southern shore, with north Africa.

He talks of how all three countries passed through dictatorship and civil war, each in its own way and with its own peculiarities, before finally achieving genuine democracy at different points after the second world war.

"But why," he asks, as 100 pens were expectantly poised over notebooks, "was the Spanish experience the most cruel and savage of the three, with 500,000 people killed during the civil war, 200,000 of them after the formal end of the war?" According to Ginsborg, it was because of the following: the army was tightly involved in Spain's political life and its leaders were ruthless in their actions; the economic system was too heavily based on the exploitation of the workers in both agriculture and industry; the left-wing political and union movements were particularly extremist and uncompromising; and the Spanish church was antiquated, reactionary and isolated from the common people.

In addition, Spain had a past history of mass expulsions, of both Jews and Moors, creating a rigid monolithic and intolerant perception of "Spanishness".

Before the lecture a group of students, Francesca Corona, Maurizio Lindi, Ennio Passaria, and Fabrizio Carmagnini and Guido Zini, fire off some enthusiastic comments on Ginsborg.

"He speaks simply and clearly, logically. You can tell he has a different background to many of the Italian professors, who tend to reason in more abstract and complex terms," says one.

Others add: "When he lectures you can tell that he has a real and passionate enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which spreads through the lecture hall to the students" and "he is punctual, polite, and treats his students as equals, he doesn't talk down to them. He is always available, friendly, has time for everyone."

Ginsborg evidently enjoys teaching in Florence.

"Many of my students have a real intellectual passion for what they study. I think this is because the employment prospects are not that great, so learning is an end in itself," he says.

"I remember at Cambridge there was a much more pragmatic, career-oriented attitude. The students were generally better prepared, although here those who come from the liceo classico are often quite as good," he adds.

"I firmly believe in the Italian principle of an open-access university, although it should be better funded, organised and any school-leaver should have the right to enrol on any degree course. It is wonderful to work the miracle of helping a young person from a technical institute to get a degree in history."

Being a foreigner and having achieved some renown in Italy, one might expect some jealousy on the part of colleagues. "Not really, we get along very well," he says. "Florence has a tradition in stabbings in the back with a stiletto. Stilettos are not absent here, by any means, but no more common than at Cambridge."

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