A conversation about how we handle the past
What is history? What does a historian do? What is their role in society? Can we discover what really happened in the past? These are the topics that Alessandro Barbero, historian and novelist, discusses with his fellow historian and writer Alessandro Vanoli at Palazzo Ducale, during an interview which felt more like an informal chat between two friends.The duo agree on the fact that history is not just a bunch of dates; it's actually based on methodological doubt. By constantly doubting the value of the sources that you are using, you can find what you're looking for more easily.
What about historical truth, asks Vanoli? His own stand is that asking yourself whether you can get to the truth of what happened is not the most important thing. It’s the approach that makes the difference, the “historical method” or “historical doubt” which needs to be extended to everything, fake news included, he adds. The historian must fight against untruths, instead of focusing on the truth in itself.
According to Barbero, on the other hand, the truth exists even though it is hard to reach; historians need to verify what can be verified and must accept that not everything can be verified. Every piece of written testimony is original; a document can tell the truth or even cover it up; all in all, they agree, history is like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with a scientific approach in mind. He compares history to languages; everybody accepts languages as they are, so people accept history as it is and live their lives without questioning the present until it becomes “the past”.
History has an important social role that can change within a society. In Italian schools, it used to have what Barbero calls a “public” role, in the sense that it was a tool used to bring Italians together and create an “Italian spirit” after WWII, following the formation of the Italian Republic. Nowadays, there is definitely less public historical awareness in Italian society, but technology can help: people tend to watch videos and read books about history more often than in the past. Historians have an important role in society, too: they can motivate students and make them fall in love with history and also make history popular among the masses, which is unprecedented. That doesn’t mean that the subject will be ridiculed or degraded: as Barbero says, making history available to all would never be possible without the effort historians and professors all over the world put into their research.