Fernand Braudel’s wife, Paule, remembered sitting with him on a wintry day at a café in Dubrovnik in the 1930s, watching a boat laden with firewood slowly coming into the port. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are in the 16th century.’ It was this sense of historical time that gave Braudel’s masterpiece, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), its strikingly original structure. Braudel told the history of the Mediterranean in three acts. First came an inquiry into the imperceptibly slow history of geography and climate, which ‘exists almost out of time’. The second took up the slightly faster tempo of changing social and economic structures, the rhythms of what Braudel called civilisations. Finally came the ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’: individual human lives.
It was in the Dubrovnik archives, Braudel later wrote, that he first visualised the web of ships and cargo that stretched between the Adriatic and the North Sea, Gibraltar, London, Antwerp. ‘It was [then] that I started understanding the Mediterranean.’ He had bought an old movie camera in Algiers, and used it to photograph documents – sometimes thousands a day – in numerous state archives. Transfixed by his vision of an unchanging Mediterranean, he was deeply suspicious of the human stories in those records. As he wrote in the preface to The Mediterranean:
We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions … The historian who takes a seat in Philip II’s chair and reads his papers finds himself transported into a strange one-dimensional world … blind like any other living world, our own included, and unconscious of the deeper realities of history, of the running waters on which our frail barks are tossed like cockleshells.
Braudel was born in northeastern France in 1902 and his own life was thrown off course by war. Called into active service in 1939, he was captured by the Germans in the spring of 1940, and spent the next five years in prisoner of war camps, first at Mainz and then at Lübeck, where he wrote much of the first draft of The Mediterranean ‘essentially from memory’. (His memory was ‘extravagant’, according to Paule.) The experience of the camps shaped Braudel’s desire to find historical meaning in the continuity that existed at a deeper level, beneath the turmoil of political history and its ‘short-sighted’ protagonists. He wrote later of his time as a prisoner: ‘All these occurrences which poured in on us from the radio and the newspapers of our enemies … I had to outdistance, reject, deny them. Down with occurrences, especially vexing ones!’
Braudel sent notebooks containing drafts of The Mediterranean from the camps to his friend and former teacher Lucien Febvre, who with Marc Bloch had founded the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale in Strasbourg in 1929. During the Occupation, Febvre stayed in Paris editing the journal, while Bloch (at the age of 56) joined the Resistance, and was shot and killed by the Gestapo in 1944. The journal represented a radical break with mainstream history writing. Bloch and Febvre argued for a conversation between history, geography, demography, economics, sociology and psychology, rejecting narrative political history and its ‘history of events’. They demanded instead ‘histoire totale’, capturing every aspect of human and material life. Doing this required a different temporality, a concentration on the longue durée, the processes that unfolded over centuries or even millennia. Braudel inherited the editorship and intellectual programme of Annales in 1956, and helped shape the work of a generation of Annalistes, including Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
Perhaps more than any other Annaliste, Braudel found meaning in a ‘history which almost stands still’. But can continuity ever be as involving as individual human stories? Braudel’s books are monumental attempts to prove that it can. He knew that to write a history of continuity, of timelessness, with as much verve and imagination as could be contained in the stories of reckless and romantic humans, would require a new form of expression. ‘I consciously set forth in search of a historical language – the most profound I could grasp or invent – in order to present unchanging (or at least very slowly changing) conditions which stubbornly assert themselves over and over again.’
Metaphor is central to Braudel’s historical language. In The Mediterranean, the metaphors are concerned with time as depth: the immobile time of geography as bedrock, the time of structures as deepest ocean, human time as sea froth. Organised on these different temporal registers, the book shows that a historical method can have connections with one’s own lived experience. Braudel wrote about viewing the Mediterranean ‘upside down’ during his time as a teacher in Algiers; about watching the sea unfurl beneath him as he flew across it in a hydroplane; and, of course, about the ‘tragic times’ of the camps. Temporal metaphors allowed him to capture both the living ‘spectacle’ of the Mediterranean as he witnessed it, and to access a history so deep as to be untouched by the brutalities of the camps.
Out of Italy was Braudel’s attempt to rework his method to explain a historical flash in the pan: the Italian Renaissance. First published by Einaudi in 1974 as ‘Italia fuori d’Italia’, it reapppeared in French in 1989, four years after his death, as Le Modèle italien. Siân Reynolds translated it into English in 1991 as Out of Italy, a version that has now been reissued. In it, Braudel applies his method to a period which might otherwise be understood as a mere two hundred years of ‘surface disturbances’. The Italian Renaissance was characterised by fabulous wealth, volatile politics, enthralling personalities: all the things Braudel distrusted. In Out of Italy, he reasons that cultural greatness ‘implies extra space’, that the transformations of the Renaissance and the Baroque can only be properly seen in their trans-European and even global dimensions. This, too, is a kind of timelessness. When we see the Italian Renaissance in its European framework, we can appreciate its unique ‘personality’, its ‘deep-seated tastes explicable only in terms of a slow-moving, long-standing history, a history which is barely conscious’. Out of Italy tries to find an explanation for this distinctiveness.
‘There are sparrows and Florentines all over the world,’ according to a Renaissance proverb. Braudel’s book describes the cultural transformations wrought by these Florentines and Neapolitans, Venetians and Genoese, as they scattered across Europe and the Mediterranean world. It has people in it. Hungry, ambitious Italian scholars grubbed for work, teaching German princes Greek and Latin in the morning, and rubbing down their horses in the afternoon. Italian merchants – Braudel’s favourites – traversed the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and Europe, buying and selling pepper, drugs, silk, rice, gold dust and ostrich feathers. The Genoese trader Antonio Malfante set off on a quixotic journey to find the source of Sudan’s gold, and got as far as the Saharan oasis of Touat. The Venetian patrician Marin Sanudo recorded in his diary that the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had finally arrived in the Indies – only to find that Venetian merchants had got there first.
We picture Petrarch in exile in Avignon, writing letters to his long-dead correspondents Cicero and Virgil, conjuring antiquity in ways that would transform French intellectual life, and the elderly Leonardo da Vinci strolling through the grounds of the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, where he was staying at the invitation of Francis I. (Da Vinci had brought three masterpieces with him, including the Mona Lisa.) Braudel also describes the tumultuous life of the Baroque poet Giambattista Marino, compelled to leave his native city of Naples in dramatic circumstances (he had helped his lover Antonella to procure an abortion, and was thrown into prison). Marino eventually travelled to Paris, where he wore spurs on his boots, scarlet breeches, foxtail plumes and a wig, in an effort to fit in with French fashions. ‘On my return,’ he wrote to a friend back home, ‘prepare a handsome great cage to put me in, for if you do not want me to be your beffana at the festival of San Giovanni, I can at least be a parrot to be shown in the window, or displayed on the piazza on Mardi Gras to amuse the children.’
For Braudel, these stories capture Italy’s brilliance, but they are unreliable witnesses to its history: ‘How is one to set down a coherent account of all these thousands of details, of all these soundwaves bouncing back and forth, jostling and interfering with each other?’ What can anecdotes explain? To capture the fragmented light that Italy cast on Paris and Vilnius, Cairo and Damascus, we need ‘a dictionary, a grammar and an atlas of such cultural transfers’: a new language to explain Italy’s singularity and its wider influence. In Out of Italy, Braudel uses metaphors of transformation: attempts to describe the ways one culture alters another. Italy is radiant, luminous, dazzling; its culture glows, sparks, illuminates Europe. It is a broken mirror, a glinting mosaic. This is a visual language that seems to spring naturally from the gleam and shadow of Roman chiaroscuro and Sevillian tenebrismo.
Braudel is better known for his accounts of geography, trade, sea power, banking – what he would call the material and social foundations of history – than of culture, and it is here that his historical language reaches its limits. The most exasperating but still compelling section of Out of Italy is about Baroque art, where Braudel deliberately matches his prose to the paintings’ excesses. The Baroque, he says, was ‘life viewed through [a] magic lantern’, swirling with illusion, exaggeration, theatre. Writing on Rubens, he defers to Baudelaire: ‘Rubens, river of oblivion, garden of idleness’ (‘Rubens, fleuve d’oubli, jardin de la paresse’). This might evoke the languid eroticism of the paintings, but what does it explain? For Braudel, ‘such words do not define, they shoot like arrows across the whole field of study.’ The Baroque evades the historian’s attempt to fix it in words.
If Braudel struggled to find a language to explain cultural change, it is partly because he couldn’t escape the shadow of another book: Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). While Braudel devoted his life to a ‘science of history’, Burckhardt practised history as portraiture, taking an era as his subject. Often regarded as a founding text of cultural history, The Civilisation of the Renaissance ranged across poetry, sculpture and painting, conceiving of the Renaissance state as itself a work of art. In Burckhardt’s telling, a petty despot quakes in fear at a beautiful woman’s curse. An artist is reduced to tears by the loveliness of a cornfield. Fathers hand down savage vendettas to their sons. These Renaissance men (and a few women) strut across Burckhardt’s stage, as fully realised as the best fictional characters. ‘Is this right?’ Braudel wondered in 1959: ‘I mean, is it right for historians a century later to be content with this image of the whole which nobody since has ever really replaced?’ Burckhardt’s account is sometimes fanciful, but always imaginative – for Braudel it was ‘aerial’, ‘suspended’ above the material history of Italy’s economic relations with the rest of the world. He was convinced that ‘a culture cannot live on pure ideas alone.’
Out of Italy is Braudel’s answer, though its narrative leaps between shipping and painting, prices and popular music, insurance and theatre, rather than integrating them into a coherent histoire totale. For Braudel, history was a struggle to see connections across the high walls of academic disciplines. This kind of approach to the past, showing that all ‘civilisations have their feet on the ground’, is Braudel and the Annales school’s most important legacy: the value of interdisciplinary research, as exemplified by their radical programme, is now so tacitly accepted as to be hardly worth mentioning.
If Italy’s rise must be explained, so, Braudel thought, must its decline. Today, historians are not so concerned with questions of cultural supremacy and decay; they don’t view culture as a vital force that can be ‘concentrated and exhausted’ in a couple of centuries. But the explanation for the fizzling out of this creative energy in the mid-17th century vexed Braudel. He saw the seeds of Italy’s decline within its greatness, borrowing Léon Brunschvicg’s image for ancient Greece’s influence (which Brunschvicg in turn had taken from Hegel): the owl of Athena takes flight only at nightfall. ‘Rightly or wrongly,’ Braudel wrote, ‘it seems to me that there must be a kind of nightfall preceding, and determining, almost every case of cultural greatness. It is the darkness that provokes a multitude of lights.’ The catastrophes of the Italian Wars (1494-1559) and a declining economy were the shadows that prompted the brilliance of Renaissance art and culture; it was peace and economic tranquillity that ‘spread like treacle through Italian life’ after the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Greatness (and influence) was born in darkness.
To make his point Braudel asks us to imagine conversations with three Baroque architects: with Agostino Barelli (from Bologna), standing outside his Theatine Church in Munich in 1660; with Carlo Antonio Carlone (from Como), as he began work on his Church of the Nine Angelic Choirs in Vienna in 1663; and with Andrea Pozzo (from Trento), while he oversaw the construction of his Jesuit Church in Vienna in 1701. Three Italians, three major building projects outside Italy. They would have been surprised to learn that Italy was on the path to decline, just as Braudel says he would have been if, when he was teaching at the University of São Paulo in Brazil in 1935 alongside the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, he had been told of the decline of Europe. ‘We should no doubt have smiled disbelievingly.’
How could cultures as vibrant as Baroque Italy or interwar Europe have been so radically diminished? Italy’s economic dominance would be supplanted first by the capitalist burghers of the Netherlands and then by English industrialists. Braudel, busy shaping a new university in São Paulo, was a few summers away from a prison camp. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1950, he remembered a night in Bahia, ‘when I was enveloped in a firework display of phosphorescent fireflies; their pale lights glowed, went out, shone again, all without piercing the night with any true illumination. So it is with events; beyond their glow, darkness prevails.’ The dramatic glow and sombre depths in the paintings of Caravaggio or Zurbarán figure in his readings as premonitions.
Braudel’s writing also sought to confront the inability of even the greatest historians to predict what would happen next. In this light, his pessimism about human time and human stories can be hard to face. When I teach the Annales school to undergraduates, I read them the most famous line from The Mediterranean: ‘When I think of the individual I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand.’ Students always want to argue with this – and I’d be concerned if they didn’t. This reminds me how difficult it is to accept Braudel’s profound disbelief in human agency. His philosophy of history is one we would rather leave behind in the past, even as the evidence for it continues to pile up.
And yet Braudel is optimistic about human civilisations:
Mortal perhaps are their ephemeral blooms, the intricate and short-lived creations of an age, their economic triumphs and their social trials, in the short term. But their foundations remain. They are not indestructible, but they are many times more solid than one might imagine. They have withstood a thousand supposed deaths, their massive bulk unmoved by the monotonous pounding of the centuries.
Nothing changes, and individual lives barely leave an imprint. But this is not tragic determinism. It is an unshakeable belief in the persistence of human history through time. ‘A Renaissance,’ Braudel writes, ‘is always possible.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.