History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion.
Historians no doubt have problems enough without setting before themselves that ‘memento mori’ from Eliot, who, though he was describing an old man seeking to understand his own past, leaves nevertheless an echo in the mind disturbing to those who practise the historian’s craft. We assume a confidence which in our heart of hearts we do not always, or should not always, possess. Eliot’s words not only demonstrate the difficulty of one man understanding his own past, but also the historian’s difficulty in understanding those whom they select for questioning from among the vast multitudes of the silent dead, whose deeds, artifacts, ideas, passions, hopes and memories have died with them. We dig into the past, obtain data from archives, brush off the objects found, collect statistics, annotate, arrange, describe, establish a chronology – but do we effectively understand the dead, especially since we are affected by our own beliefs, customs and ideologies? We are, of course, all aware of this: we silently scorn the lecturer who raises these diffident hesitations. For we know our duty: we examine all that we can, we describe our findings, we annotate them, we draw conclusions, or leave our demonstrations to speak for themselves. There are reasons, as I shall hope to show, that these considerations – Eliot’s ominous words and our determination not to be disquieted by them – bear upon the subject of this paper, the almost forgotten Alessandro Gavazzi.