Paul Ginsborg’s book A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-88 begins: “Italy in 1943 was little changed, outside of its major cities, since the time of Garibaldi and Cavour. It was still predominantly a peasant country, of great and unspoiled natural beauty, of sleepy provincial cities, of enduring poverty, especially in the South, of rural culture and local dialects. It was also a country in terrible crisis.” Published initially in Italian in 1989, it drew on social history, political debates and anthropology to explore the contradictions and connections between family, state and the individual, using the words of ordinary people, and employing irony and understatement.
Paul, who has died aged 76 after a long period of ill health, had studied, lived and worked in Italy for 10 years, and the book reflected his passionate belief in democracy, social change and protest. It went on to sell more than 100,000 copies, was influential as an educational text and popular with general readers, and is still in print.
Born in London, Paul was the second of three sons of Jewish parents, Rose (nee Gabe), a pharmacist until the arrival of her children, and Sam Ginsborg, a GP. Every year the family went to Italy on a long holiday, driving down to Tuscany or Lazio.
Paul won a scholarship to St Paul’s school, south-west London, and another to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he gained a history degree in 1966 and became a research fellow (1968-71). His experiences as an activist, when in 1968 Cambridge students protested against the Labour government’s support for the US in the Vietnam war, and in 1970 when his brother Stephen demonstrated against the tourism event promoted by the Greek military junta at the Garden House hotel, made a great mark on him. Interviewed for Ronald Fraser’s oral history 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, Paul said that the repression he had witnessed “taught me a lesson – students by themselves would never get anywhere”.
In the early 1970s Paul travelled to Venice to work on the history of the 1848 revolutions in that city and the role of their Jewish leader, Daniele Manin. There he encountered a number of social and political historians and activists. He immersed himself in the state and city archives, taking notes on small index cards, with his tiny, scrawled handwriting, which he would cart around in shoe boxes from place to place.
The resulting book, Daniele Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848-49 (1979), heavily influenced by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, vividly described an extraordinary period in Italian history. For the rest of his life, Paul moved seamlessly between contemporary topics and that period. Il Risorgimento (2007), a volume of new research edited with Alberto Mario Banti, became a standard text and repositioned the entire way of seeing that Italian period of history by integrating new methodologies linked to the history of the emotions, subjectivity and gender with the writings and actions of the Risorgimento.
Paul’s immersion in leftwing politics in the 60s and 70s as a member of the International Socialists gave rise to a pamphlet he would later say was “a bit Leninist” called The Politics of Lenin (1974). In 1972 he became a lecturer at York University. With Mary Beckinsale, a history of art student he had met in Cambridge, he had two children, Ben and Lisa. In York, the couple lived in a kind of commune, notable for its chaotic and political atmosphere. They also lived in a series of flats and houses in Cambridge, Rome, Milan and Venice.
An inspiring teacher, in both Italian and English, Paul captured students’ attention with the crystal clear nature of his ideas, his informality, his willingness to debate and his hushed, almost whispering, voice. His courses were always wildly popular.
In 1980 he was appointed a university lecturer in social and political sciences at Cambridge, and became a fellow of Churchill College. I was one of a number of PhD students who worked with him there and were “sent to Italy” by him in the 80s and 90s. His only training advice was to keep notes, as he did, on small index cards.
Paul loved libraries and spent a lot of his life inside them – especially the University Library in Cambridge and the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. His network of contacts in Italy included an intense friendship with the anti-fascist, thinker, trade unionist and writer Vittorio Foa.
In the 80s, his relationship with Mary came to an end. She moved to Florence with their two young children after finding a job there. In 1986 Paul met Ayşe Saraçgil, a Turkish-Italian academic, and four years later they got married in Rome. In 1992 their son David was born. Paul, wanting to be close to his children and Ayşe, who was working in Naples, rented a flat in the hills above Florence, where he was appointed professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence. Ayşe’s work influenced Paul’s, especially in expanding his studies of the family and gender to nations beyond western Europe, and in his approach to his subject.
In Florence, Paul was adored by his students, who appreciated his participatory teaching style, and his willingness to help them with their studies. He began work on a comparative study of the family – his magnum opus – which eventually appeared as Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 (2014).
After Silvio Berlusconi’s return to office as prime minister in 2001, Paul became alarmed by the increasing authoritarianism of his governments and the deep conflict of interests at their heart. The following year he organised a protest against justice reforms in Florence with the 1968 activist Pancho Pardi. It became known as the “march of the professors” and Paul was amused by the description in a newspaper of him as a “militant in tweed”. Soon, a mass anti-Berlusconi movement was formed, named the girotondi thanks to the “ring-a-ring o’roses” dance performed during demonstrations. Paul analysed how the media tycoon became one of the first modern populists to take power in a western democracy in Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony (2004).
In Florence Paul set up a leftwing movement critical of the top-down politics of the centre-left Democratic party, and a local councillor was elected. He also campaigned on environmental issues and organised local groups where one rule was that nobody should speak for more than five minutes. He declined a safe Senate seat in Italy, and, as a lifelong republican, turned down the offer of an OBE in Britain.
He is survived by Ayşe, his children and his brothers, Stephen and Michael.
• Paul Ginsborg, historian and Italianist, born 18 July 1945; died 11 May 2022