Giambattista Vico died in poverty in January 1744, having spent his last pennies on a new edition of the Principj di Scienza Nuova. Outside Naples, nobody cared. No notices appeared in the learned journals; no obituaries were read at royal or local academies. Eighty years later, his work was translated into German and French; in the 1860s, Michelet retrospectively called him “his sole guiding spirit”,[i] and a statue was raised in the Naples public gardens. Anthony Grafton’s foreword to the Penguin edition of the New Science compares it to Newton’s Principia.[ii] And so, posthumously, Vico became the founding father he wanted to be. It is a historical Cinderella story too good to be true.
In fact, Vico was never quite forgotten. Rather, his 18th-century readers didn’t know what to do with him. No one publicly acknowledged his claim to have founded a ‘new science’; no one elaborated or refuted his ‘historical proofs’. But he was read. Montesquieu and Goethe owned copies of the Scienza Nuova; Hamann and Jacobi discussed him in correspondence; Herder mentions him in the Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität.[iii] Jean Le Clerc, who had favourably reviewed two earlier works by Vico, was sent a review copy – to no effect.[iv] The Göttingen writers of compendia, who read everything, knew who he was: he is included, with compliments for his originality and caveats for his idiosyncrasy, in Eichhorn’s Geschichte der Litteratur (1805-11) and Wachler’s Geschichte der historischen Forschung und Kunst (1802-20). If that is what oblivion is like, then I’d love to be forgotten like that.