Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) was the leading Italian intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century and one of Europe’s best known public figures by the 1940s. The pioneering review he launched in 1903, La critica, is to be found in virtually every American research library, as are many of his more than eighty books. First in aesthetics and literary criticism, beginning in about 1910, and then in historiography, beginning in about 1920, Croce’s ideas were prominent in American discussion—and remained so into the 1960s. For much of that time, his status as one of the notable European thinkers of the century was taken for granted. Moreover, he was long respected as a champion of “the religion of liberty” in opposition to fascism. An influential Italian-American scholar, writing in 1937, found him “the most famed Italian abroad, at least in the scholarly world, since the days perhaps of Galileo.” But Croce did not attract major disciples in the United States or become involved in sustained exchange with American thinkers. Indeed, his ideas were frequently misrepresented, and since the early 1970s he has been virtually forgotten.
The prestige of historical figures rises and falls, and the tendency for the biggest to fall hardest may be especially prevalent in intellectual history. But there seems something anomalous about Croce’s case, as René Wellek, the distinguished historian of criticism, recently emphasized. He noted that in movements influential at various points since Croce’s death—from Russian formalism and structuralism to hermeneutics and deconstruction—Croce “is not referred to or quoted, even when he discusses the same problems and gives similar solutions.” Yet Croce, for Wellek, was arguably the most erudite and wide-ranging figure in the history of criticism.
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