On Sebastiano Timpanaro

Perry Anderson

Philology has a bad name as a discipline encouraging sterile pedantry. Today, few could cite a contemporary practitioner. But the discipline had at least one remarkable after-life, contradicting every preconception, in the strange career of Sebastiano Timpanaro, the Italian scholar and thinker who died in November last year, one of the purest and most original minds of the second half of the century.

He was born in Parma in 1923. His father, a Sicilian intellectual of the same name, who taught science in a Florentine high school before becoming director of the Domus Galileana in Pisa; joined the Italian Socialist Party after the war, collected drawings and championed a humanistic science in the tradition of Leonardo and Galileo. His mother edited Proclus and Pythagoras. When his father died after a long illness in 1949, the young Timpanaro brought together a posthumous collection of his essays on the history of science. The physical resemblance between the two men must have been striking. In the darkened hall of the family flat in Florence in the 1980s, there hung a gaunt, arresting portrait which at first glance looked – notwithstanding period features – as if it must be his: a mistake his wife, who works on 18th-century history, often had to correct.

Sebastiano Timpanaro Jr, as he signed his first preface, studied classical philology during the war at the University of Florence under the acknowledged master of the discipline in Italy, Giorgio Pasquali. Later, he was a youthful interlocutor of the famous German exile Eduard Fraenkel, who often taught seminars in Italy as a relief from duties in Oxford. By his mid-twenties, he was publishing reconstructions of the early Latin poet Ennius, and Fraenkel looked to him to produce a new critical edition of Virgil. But Timpanaro lacked the patience, as he freely said, for this immense task. His outstanding gifts of textual criticism took the form of adversaria, punctual annotations, that eventually yielded well over a thousand pages of meticulous dissection of passages from Lucretius, Martial, Virgil, Fronto, Ovid, Seneca, Lucan, Servius, Sallust, the Historia Augusta – ‘the minor writings of a philologist with no major writings to his credit’, as he put it. His first book, written when he had turned thirty, was a rediscovery of the textual findings of Leopardi, whose fame as a poet had long obscured the seriousness of his classical philology. His second was a study of the emergence during the Restoration of the textual procedures associated with the German scholar Karl Lachmann, usually regarded as the main originator of modern techniques of recension – as opposed to emendation – of ancient texts, which he applied to Lucretius, the Nibelungenlied and St Luke alike. La genesi del metodo del Lachmann assured Timpanaro an international reputation, amplified by the steady stream of corrections and conjectures that followed it. In due course he was elected to the Accademia dei Lincei and the British Academy.

But there was always an anomaly. This distinguished expert in a province par excellence of academic scholarship never held a chair in a university, or indeed in any other institution of higher learning. Nor did he have independent means. For a living, Timpanaro worked as a proof-reader – a job never much regarded, let alone well-paid, that often left him in financial difficulties – for a small publisher in Florence, La nuova Italia, marginal in the Italian book trade.

Like his father, he joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1945, and was active on its left for nearly twenty years. At the elections of 1948 – the turning-point in the postwar history of the country – the PSI opted for a common Socialist-Communist list with the PCI, against the Christian-Democratic Party backed by the Vatican and the CIA. Timpanaro was among the socialist youth who opposed this decision, regarding the PCI leadership as little better than a lay version of the Holy Office, and in despair wrote a parody of the PSI Congress that was pushed into the policy, mimicking the forms of a Greek tragedy. But hostility to Stalinism never inclined him to indulgence towards social democracy, in any of its guises. So long as the PSI maintained its opposition to Christian Democracy, he remained within it. But when in an eventual volte-face the Party formed a coalition with the DC in 1964 – the first Centre-Left Government of the postwar period – its more radical wing, rightly predicting that the experience would transform the PSI more than it would reform Italian society, abandoned the Party to create its own formation (the PSIUP). Timpanaro remained a militant in this organisation and its sequel until the middle 1970s. His commitment to revolutionary socialism was not just a sentimental attachment. Later, rejecting descriptions of himself as an isolated intellectual, he wrote: ‘I have spent more hours taking part in political discussions and demonstrations, in undertaking the tasks of a so-called “intermediate cadre” (rather closer to the base than the summit) than in studying: by this I mean a literal computation of time, without any populist exhibitionism, if anything with a certain retrospective self-irony.’ His politics were Marxist and anti-Stalinist; critical too – this was much rarer on the Far Left in Italy – of Maoism.

Timpanaro’s political commitments informed and transformed his work. Technically speaking, what happened was that he widened his field of operations from textual criticism to intellectual history. Substantively, what drove the amplification of focus was his political engagement. Leopardi was the bridge between the two: the classical philologist who was also the most implacable adversary of Restoration culture, the poet who was a visionary materialist. Each of the two central works of Timpanaro’s mid-career was built round Leopardi’s heritage. Classicismo e illuminismo nell’ Ottocento italiano (1965) and Sul materialismo (1970) offer intellectual landscapes of the 19th and 20th centuries – the former on an Italian, the latter on a Western scale – seen through the prism of selected figures and movements, whose trajectories could be said to define the time.

The first book revolves around the peculiar position occupied by Leopardi in Italian culture of the post-Napoleonic period, and ends with a consideration of the line from the liberal patriot Carlo Cattaneo – hero of the rising against Austrian rule in Milan in 1848 – to the comparative linguist Graziadio Ascoli after the Risorgimento. The second develops a critique of Western Marxism for relinquishing the materialist legacy of Engels, and at the same time of structuralism for distorting the linguistic heritage of Saussure. Timpanaro could intervene on each terrain with particular authority. Few scholars had mastered the corpus of Leopardi or Ascoli so thoroughly; and in the vast literature on (or of) structuralism, none rivalled his grasp of the comparative history of Western linguistics. The briskness with which he could handle the edifying intentions of Manzoni, or despatch the dicta of such notables as Lévi-Strauss or Chomsky, came from professional knowledge.

Three themes governed Timpanaro’s output in this period. The first was specifically cultural. If European Romanticism swept the board as ideology and aesthetic under the Restoration, he argued, its success was due to a distinctive combination of traits. On the one hand, as a post-revolutionary outlook, it benefited from the break-up of the aristocratic side of the Enlightenment, displacing its etiquette of surface gallantry with a new sense of seriousness and inward passion. It was able to draw on elements in the Continental struggle against Napoleonic expansionism such as the right of peoples to independence, the longing for peace, rejection of the cult of military glory. Finally, it could claim to have liberated art from the tyranny of classical imitation – conventional Aristotelian unities, marmoreal diction. On the other hand, Romanticism fulfilled the need of new bourgeois classes to assert themselves without running the risk of a plebeian radicalisation of the battle against absolutism, of the kind that had marked Jacobinism. To this end, the most serviceable ideology was a flexible Christianity, melding apposite doses of tradition and progress. Politically, the Romanticism of this period was by no means always conservative – for every Chateaubriand or Novalis there was to be a Hugo or Mazzini. Nonetheless, a diffuse religiosity exhaled in any number of idiosyncratic forms, and a lachrymose populism of nativist more than democratic bent, were characteristic of virtually all its varieties.

It was against this dominant pattern, Timpanaro maintained, that a counter-culture ranged itself: the classicist tradition whose greatest voice was Leopardi. Within this classicism there were purely or largely nostalgic currents, fixated on dead forms. But its most intransigent and coherent expression defied the sentimental verities of the age. Rejecting the Romantic cult of the Middle Ages, it looked back to the republican virtues of Athens and Rome, and scorning every brand of spiritualism, it reclaimed the most unflinchingly materialist thinkers of the Enlightenment: La Mettrie, Helvétius, Holbach. This was a classicism, isolated from popular feeling in a season of counter-revolutionary stagnation, whose aesthetic forms were often deliberately archaising, vehicles of a polemical disdain for the pandering rhythms around them, as those of Lucretius had been in antiquity. But its intellectual and political outlook – its refusal of any compromise with the broken-backed world of the restored monarchies – was far in advance of typical Romantic postures.

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