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.
(Oblivion is rather what happened to Louis de Beaufort, the insightful critic of ancient Roman sources, and Lambert ten Kate, whose Aenleiding tot de kennisse van het verhevene deel der Nederduitsche sprake (1723) was regarded by some later linguists as a precursor to Grimm’s epoch-making Deutsche Grammatik. Both, unlike Vico, are now only known to specialists.)
Vico is best described as a 17th century figure who lived in the 18th century and flourished in the 19th. In his way of reducing history to principles, de more geometrico, he is the contemporary of Hobbes and Spinoza rather than Voltaire and Montesquieu. Introducing your work through a 35-page explanation of the frontispiece was old-fashioned in 1725 and outdated in 1744. For someone who reputedly founded the modern humanities, Vico is quite a bit too credulous: he believed that Hercules had chopped down the woods of Europe and that giants roamed the Earth before the Flood, who grew so big because they ate their own shit. (That comes from Tacitus.) The two people outside Italy who seriously referred to Vico as a secondary source in the 18th century do so in support of a conjectured or invented mythical past: Michael Denis in his translation of Ossian, and Antoine Court de Gébelin, the pasigraphic reconstructor of the Wisdom of the Ancients.
Vico’s current fame largely relies on Michelet’s 1824 translation, which doubled as one of the great programmatic texts of his generation of historians. But of course, Michelet did not discover Vico like others discovered the Manessische Codex or the Beowulf. He worked upon a suggestion from Victor Cousin, then on his way to become the great French academic mogul of the 1830s and -40s. Cousin, who is not generally remembered for his originality, probably heard about Vico while making his 1817 grand tour of German thinkers. By that time, the name of Vico had begun to buzz round louder.
Joep Leerssen, in a 2012 article, draws a ‘paper trail’ from Vico via Herder to 19th-century historicism.[v] Such a paper trail indeed exists, but the suggestion of an intellectual genealogy begs the question. In its crudest form, historicism means ‘seeing things in their own time’. Couldn’t the ‘founders of historicism’ have come up with the idea regardless of that? Indeed they probably did. The remarkable fact is that Vico came to be discussed in much more detail after the publication of Friedrich August Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) and Barthold Niebuhr’s Römische Geschichte (1811-2) – moreover, in immediate response to these works. Lovers of intrigue will say that he was finally revealed as the hidden source behind so much purportedly revolutionary insight; the more likely interpretation is that Vico was re-invented together with his insights.
The shift occurs in two very similar texts from 1807 and 1816, the first by Wolf in the first issue of Museum der Altertumswissenschaft, the second a review of Niebuhr’s Römische Geschichte by the Swiss philologist Johann Caspar von Orelli. Wolf, under the title “Giambattista Vico über den Homer”,[vi] summarizes the third book of the Scienza Nuova, on the “discovery of the true Homer”. In a blurry mix of paraphrase and comment, Wolf draws up a long list of points on which Vico had new ideas, made mistakes, or overlapped with his own Prolegomena. Wolf claims to have been first alerted on Vico by a letter from Cesarotti, the Italian translator of Ossian and the Iliad, who saw strong analogies between the Prolegomena and the Scienza Nuova, and subsequently sent him a copy.[vii] Wolf’s judgement on Vico is not without hesitations: “Historische Strenge ist zwar nirgends in diesem Räsonnement; kaum scheint Vico davon eine Idee gehabt zu haben. Alles hat eher das Ansehen von Visionen“.[viii] Also, Vico is not mentioned in Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft, which appeared in the same volume. Still he concludes that if Vico had written in English, he would have been famous.
Orelli finds Wolf’s judgement still a bit too grudging. Reviewing Niebuhr in the Ergänzungsblätter zur Jenaischen allgemeinen Literatur-Zeitung (1816 Bd. II, No. 91-2, pp. 337-46), he does the same with regard to Roman history: pointing out parallels between Vico and Niebuhr, in a neat list of 16 points, with long Italian quotes. According to Orelli, Vico’s ideas on Roman history are even more worthwhile than those on Homer; enough so, Orelli concludes, to warrant a German translation of Vico’s autobiography and at least part of the Scienza Nuova. This hint, too, was taken up: Orelli is thanked abundantly in the preface to Wilhelm Ernst Weber’s 1822 Grundzüge einer neuen Wissenschaft, and presumably he is also the ‘friend’ mentioned at the beginning of the preface who admonished Weber to translate it.
Even Orelli complains about Vico’s “wissenschaftliche Mystik”.[ix] (Nobody ever doubted that Vico was eccentric; not even Michelet.) What is new about Wolf’s and Orelli’s reception is that they distill a set of theses from the Scienza Nuova which can be true or false; that is, they treat them as candidates for truth or falsehood rather than something generally ‘inspiring’. They were, to my best knowledge, the only ones to do so; even Cesarotti never gets quite specific. Moreover, they could do so only after these had become points of analogy with Niebuhr and the Prolegomena.
Now both Wolf and Niebuhr very self-consciously styled their works as foundational texts, with only slightly less chutzpah than Vico; both purport to do away with the old rubbish and start philology and Roman history anew. And they got away with it. While the learned world of the early 18th century largely shrugged about Vico’s bombastic declaration of a New Science, Wolf and Niebuhr indeed got canonized as the founders of historicism, although the term was not invented until half a century later. In all probability, neither of them consulted the long-dead, eccentric Neapolitan professor of rhetoric until after publication.[x] To be reminded of some obscure predecessor must have been a nuisance; but for those who constructed a canon around Wolf and Niebuhr, it did not do great damage to their revolutionary rhetoric. After all, if some visionary from an academic backwater darkly adumbrates your great revolutionary insight, all the better – it has been foretold! This is no longer a Cinderella story; this almost gets messianic, with Giambattista Vico as John the Baptist.
End irony. Wolf’s and Orelli’s articles serve to show that Vico was not a mere eccentric, and that he was, in his eccentric way, probably brilliant. But it doesn’t really matter whether Vico was brilliant. Lots of unsung heroes probably were. Pointing out parallels doesn’t add significant new information, and it certainly does not make the publication of the Scienza Nuova, in retrospect, a turning point in the history of ideas. After the parallels had been pointed out, all that remained to do with Vico was to praise him, translate him, re-read him, write history about him, and put him on a pedestal. All that became a candidate for truth-or-falsehood were those parallels. For those that held different opinions about the origins of the Roman constitution and the historical Homer, they could better pick their fight with Niebuhr or Wolf, who had access to up-to-date methods and sources and who could talk back.
There is indeed a paper trail, but there is nothing mysterious about it. It is not a trail that goes underground because ‘the time isn’t ripe’ and that gloriously resurfaces in another century. It is rather a trail that remains on the surface and that suddenly goes up because the terrain rises, where some of the main roads run dead. And does this make the Scienza Nuova the Principia of the modern humanities? No way, Tony.
[i] “Je n’eus de maître que Vico”. Michelet, “Préface de 1869” to Vol. I of Histoire de France: Le Moyen Âge (ed. Gabriel Monod)(Paris 1893); in my 1981 Laffont Bouquins edition, it is on p. 19.
[ii] New Science (tr. David Marsh)(London 1999), xi.
[iii] For an overview, see Max Harold Fisch’ introduction to The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico (tr. M.H. Fisch & T.G. Bergin)(New York 1944), esp. pp. 67-80.
[iv] John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760 (Cambridge 2005), 200-8.
[v] Leerssen, “The Rise of Philology: The Comparative Method, the Historicist Turn and the Surreptitious Influence of Giambattista Vico” in R. Bod, J. Maat & T. Weststeijn (eds.), The Making of the Humanities. Volume II: From early modern to modern disciplines (Amsterdam 2012), 23-35.
[vi] Reprinted in Kleine Schriften Bd II (ed. G. Bernhardi)(Halle 1869), 1157-66.
[vii] Cesarotti refers favourably to Vico in both translations; the endnotes of Michael Denis, mentioned above, were also borrowed from Cesarotti’s Ossian.
[viii] Kleine Schriften, 1166.
[ix] Ergänzungsblätter (1816: 91), 343.
[x] Niebuhr explicitly points out, in the preface to Römische Geschichte (Bd. I, Berlin 1811, p. xii) that he wished to steer clear of the work of his predecessors and rather go directly to the primary sources: "Neuere Bearbeitungen der römischen Geschichte habe ich weder bey früherem Studium noch während des Fortgangs der Vorlesungen benutzt: dieses hat der historischen Ausarbeitung die Versuchung zu Controversen erspart, welche die Beschaffenheit des Werks nicht duldete, und die an sich der Wissenschaft wenig fruchten, besser durch möglichst vollständige Untersuchung ersetzt werden: ist die aufgestellte Meinung als wahr oder als die wahrscheinlichste erwiesen, so bedarf es keiner namentlichen Widerlegung des Gegentheils." In the second edition, he is considerably milder, but Vico is still absent.