Croce on History

Aesthetic Defiguring

by Massimo Verdicchio (Author)
©2021 Monographs XXIV, 136 Pages


The book is the first critical reading of all the major writings on history by Benedetto Croce. The study is not a summary but a critical assessment based on the relevance of Croce’s aesthetics for his concept of history. This account differs from previous studies which are characterized by the excluding or by minimizing the aesthetic, a process the author calls “defiguring.” Within this framework Croce’s concept of history is not a total philosophy but only an allegory of history: a narrative of the impossibility of history. In other words, Croce’s history is not unlike his definition of Hegel’s Phenomenology or his system as fiction. It is also not unlike Vico’s New Science, the other major influence on Croce’s concept of history, as an imaginative science. This study realigns Croce’s concept of history with Hegel’s and Vico’s to redefine, thanks to Croce, how we understand history.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Front Matter
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: The Background: Vico, Kant, and Hegel
  • Chapter 1. Art and History in Croce’s Early Writings
  • Chapter 2. Theory and History of Historiography
  • Chapter 3. History as the Story of Liberty
  • Chapter 4. The Character of Modern Philosophy
  • Chapter 5. Universal History and Philosophy of History
  • Chapter 6. Philosophy and Historiography
  • Chapter 7. Revisiting Hegel
  • Conclusions
  • Index

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Even in the world of thought we survive in our sons who contradict us and replace and bury us (and not always with the required devotion.)

Croce, Logica (228–229)

Croce on History: Aesthetic Defiguring

This study of Croce’s concept of history is the third of a series of studies I have devoted to the philosophy of Benedetto Croce. The first, Naming Things: Aesthetics, Philosophy and History in Benedetto Croce, gave an in-depth analysis of his aesthetics (Estetica and La poesia) and its implications for a reading of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza nuova, an account of his history of the Baroque Age (Storia dell’età barocca in Italia), and a discussion of his reading of Dante, Ariosto, and Pirandello. The second, A Croce Reader: Aesthetics, Philosophy, History and Literary Criticism, provides a general account of Croce’s aesthetics, philosophy, and history, with relevant passages translated by myself.

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My approach to Croce’s philosophy in Naming Things takes its starting point from a close reading of the Estetica of 1902, in which Croce posits the identity of aesthetics and linguistics, as the title Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e Linguistica generale (Aesthetics as the Science of Expression and General Linguistics) indicates.1 By linguistics, Croce does not mean the science of linguistics as we know it, but “linguistics as philosophy,” namely, rhetorical or figural language and, more specifically, language conceived as symbol, a concept he derives from Hegel’s Aesthetics (Vorlesungen über die Äesthetik). In the last chapter of the Estetica, Croce sums up the absolute identity of aesthetics and linguistics: “At a certain level of scientific elaboration, linguistics as philosophy, must converge with aesthetics, and it does, in fact, without leaving a residue” (E 166).

If the title and the chapter make a claim for the identity of aesthetics and language, of art and language understood as symbol, the rest of the work does not. Croce concedes that words cannot be trusted and that they can be interpreted in many ways. The statement that “art is imitation of nature” (E 20) can be both right and wrong, or meaningless, according to the way we intend it and use it. A legitimate way is to think of it as “representation or intuition of nature, a form of knowledge” (E 20). Even so, the statement is ambiguous and does not indicate the spiritual character of the process or how art is the “idealization of nature” (E 20). By the statement that “art is imitation of nature,” Croce does not mean a mechanical reproduction of natural objects:

The painted wax statues, which simulate living beings and before which we step back shocked in this type of museum, do not give us aesthetic intuition. Illusion and allusion have nothing to do with the calm dominion of artistic intuition. If an artist portrays the spectacle of a museum of wax statues, if an actor on stage portrays satirically a man-statue, we have, once again, the spiritual work and artistic intuition. (E 20)

This example dismisses a naturalistic or symbolic representation, which gives the illusion that art is life-like and portrays nature as is, without residue. We have artistic intuition only when imitation is not a mechanical reproduction of an object but is a man-made artistic product. Croce believes that photography is not quite artistic because “the natural element cannot be eliminated entirely and remains insubordinate” (E 20). Imitation is artistic only when it does not deceive with the illusion of life or nature, as when we confuse painted wax statues with human beings, or actors for statues. To be art, the wax statues and the man-statue must make us aware that they are the products of artistic intuition, that they are other than what they appear to be.

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In the Estetica, Croce denounces any type of symbolic representation that deceives by concealing its artistic nature. His definition of artistic imitation, as a form of knowledge, is not art as symbol, as the title of the work would lead us to believe, but art as allegory. However, in the Estetica, allegory is defined as non-artistic and as error. Despite what he has just stated and in line with what Hegel claims in the Aesthetik, Croce upholds the notion of art as symbol and condemns allegory, here and elsewhere:

Since the essence of art is said to be the symbol, if the symbol is conceived inseparable from artistic intuition it is synonymous with intuition, which has always an ideal character. There is no double level in art but only one, and everything in it is symbolic because everything is ideal. But when the symbol is conceived separate, if on one side we express the symbol and on the other what is symbolized, we fall in the intellectual error: the presumed symbol is the exposition of an abstract concept, an allegory, it is science, or art that makes fun of science. (E 39–40)

Allegory is “innocuous” when it is applied post festum to help us understand what the poet was trying to do, as in the case of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata or Marino’s L’Adone, or in cases when one applies a sign to a statue to identify the abstract idea it represents, such as “Clemency” or “Goodness.” Allegory is destructive when the symbol turns out to be the representation of an abstract concept, which makes fun of the scientific claims of science or philosophy.

Croce’s work after the Estetica can be summarized as an attempt at distinguishing and separating symbol from allegory, the artistic from the non-artistic, poetry from non-poetry. In his account of the Baroque in Italy in Storia dell’età barocca in Italia, Croce attempts to separate true or symbolic poetry from baroque or allegorical poetry; in the essay on Dante’s Commedia, he distinguishes between poetry and structure or allegory; in reading Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, he distinguishes between the concept of “wonder” and irony; in the essay on Pirandello’s plays, Maschere Nude, he distinguishes between art and philosophy, to counter Pirandello’s tendency to universalize or philosophize. In the analysis of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza nuova, he resolves the error of Vico’s philosophy by separating the “gold” of philosophy from the “dross” of the empirical sciences.

These distinctions are only nominal. They only name, arbitrarily, the difference between poetry and literature, art and philosophy, symbol and allegory. The reason, as Croce explains, is the impossibility to tell the difference between what is symbol and what is not. Names mean different things to different people and what is a natural or symbolical representation for one person is abstract and allegorical for another:

←xi | xii→

For example, there are those who before two paintings, one lacking inspiration where the author has copied natural objects without much thought, and another well inspired but has no obvious equivalent in existing objects, will call the first realistic and the other symbolic. On the contrary, before a painting strongly felt, depicting a scene of ordinary life, others will utter the word realistic and before another painting which coldly allegorizes, the word symbolic. It is clear that in the first case “symbolic” means artistic and “realistic” antiartistic; whereas in the second case “realistic” is synonymous of artistic and “symbolic” of antiartistic. Is there any wonder that some claim passionately that the true artistic form is symbolic and the realistic is antiartistic; and others that the realistic is artistic, and the symbolic antiartistic? Why not say that they are both right since they employ those words with different meanings? (E 78–79)

In La poesia (1936), his last major work on aesthetics, Croce claims to have finally resolved the problem of allegory by finding its proper place in the category of literature, distinct from poetry, which is the truly symbolic form. However, the places that Croce designates as poetic, such as Dante’s final vision at the end of Paradiso, turn out to be prosaic or allegorical.2 Poetry as symbol exists only by virtue of an act of naming, which is the critic’s duty to bestow: “So great and so varied is the labor, the awareness, the askesis, which a man must endure in order ‘to give names to things,’ to the things of poetry and literature” (P 121). In La poesia, “poetry” exists only in Croce’s act of naming it in the title; the rest is literature. Allegory, on the other hand, is relegated to a footnote in which it is denounced in absentia as a form of writing, a cryptography, that has nothing to do with the warm feeling of art: “Allegory. We have not mentioned allegory among the forms of expression we discussed because it is not a direct manner of spiritual manifestation, but a sort of cryptography” (P 40).

In condemning allegory, Croce follows a tradition that culminates with Hegel, who identified art with the symbol and regarded allegory as non-artistic. In discussing the history of the term, Croce quotes Hegel’s dismissal of allegory: “Hegel called it cold and bleak (frostig und kahl), a product of the intellect and not of concrete intuition and of the deep feeling of the imagination (fantasia), devoid of intrinsic seriousness, prosaic, distant from art” (“Sulla Natura” 331–338).

←xii | xiii→

Even for Hegel, allegory cannot be entirely dismissed or marginalized. As Paul de Man has shown, in Hegel’s Aesthetik art is symbolic only in appearance, but the actual motor that makes art possible is allegory.3 As I explain in the Introduction, Vico and Hegel share the same predicament when constructing their “symbolic” systems. Although they have their own strategy of overcoming the deleterious effects of rhetorical language, or allegory, in the discourse of philosophy, these effects persist in their system, as they do in Croce’s.

My focus in this book is Croce’s writings on history which characterize his philosophy of absolute historicism. The bibliography on this topic is extensive, including works published both in Italy and in North America, and too many to be discussed here. In Italy, the most important studies are those of Alfredo Parente, Raffaello Franchini, Paolo D’Angelo, Giuseppe Galasso, Renata Viti Cavaliere, and Ernesto Paolozzi. In North America, special mention goes to the studies of David Roberts and Hayden White, as well as to M. E. Moss and Fabio Rizi.

However, a brief account should be made of those studies that are more relevant to my study, especially those of Giovanni Gentile, who was Croce’s friend and fellow Hegelian before their falling-out when Gentile became the Minister of Education in the Fascist regime of Mussolini.4 Gentile’s earliest writings on Croce’s concept of history date from 1897, “I primi scritti di Benedetto Croce sul concetto di storia” (The First Writings of Benedetto Croce on the Concept of History). In discussing Croce’s La storia ridotta sotto il concetto generale dell’arte (History Reduced under the General Concept of Art) (1893), Gentile shares a similar view with Croce that history belongs to the category of art since it is “a kind of artistic production which has as the object of its representation the really occurred” (122). Although Gentile generally agreed with Croce, they were not of the same view on the philosophy of history. As Gentile points out in “Introduzione a una nuova filosofia della storia” (Introduction to a New Philosophy of History), the philosophy of history is “the critique of the principles of historicism” (49) and the conquest of something much higher that has ever been acquired by any other philosophy before. The philosophy of history, which liberates history from the errors of historicism, is Philosophy, which is not to be thought of as a duplicate of Logic, but as Philosophy itself. Implied in this notion is an indirect criticism of Croce, who, as

some idealists believe to have caught the essence of the real from a spiritual point of view speaking of historicism; who have no inkling of its narrow positivistic and materialistic character when they concede that spiritual reality is historical, in the empirical sense of history, that is, understood as a process which unfolds in time, and where, therefore, all that is will not be; and all that was is not: everything is transitory, everything is mortal, pulvis et umbra. (49)

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For Gentile, in contrast to Croce, the aim of a philosophy of history is to remove history from a naturalizing historicism to arrive at the concept of history as authentic spiritual reality (50).


XXIV, 136
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XXIV, 136 pp.

Biographical notes

Massimo Verdicchio (Author)

Massimo Verdicchio graduated from Yale University and is Emeritus Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. Beside Croce, his major publications are on Dante and European literature.


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