Rolf Petri
Contemporary History

What do you teach at Ca’ Foscari? What are your main research interests? 
My name is Rolf Petri and I teach Contemporary History. I come from a Westphalian farmhouse with no water at the time: not exactly a well-off background, an alienation that is dear to me. Growing up in the 60s and 70s in the middle of the Welfare State gave me access to studies. Degree in Germany, PhD in Florence, research in Venice, Rome and Bielefeld, teaching in Halle, return to Venice. In the first half of my career, economic history prevailed, especially but not exclusively Italian. In the second half, I worked on cultural history and concepts - Heimat, nation, identity, Europe - and on research into Western ideology, revisited along Löwith's line of interpretation. I am currently trying to understand who and why came up with the idea that the Mediterranean was not a sea but a "world".

What are your professional role models / references?
I have met brilliant intellectuals, but putting someone, even the most brilliant, on a pedestal is strange to me because, to paraphrase a German proverb, all anyone has to boil in the end is water. For me, there are virtues exemplified by people I have had the good fortune to meet, such as the curiosity to learn that never fades; the art of harsh criticism that honours the criticised; the ability to involve others; modesty. I could, on the other hand, list a number of anti-models that are unfortunately just as common, the first of which is arrogance, a crass form of stupidity. You can study to hone your logical and rhetorical skills and become a great scholar, but it is not studying that makes you smart.

Have you always known that this was going to be your path?
I have always wanted to do research and discuss it while teaching, but while I was striving to go down this path I did not take it for granted that I would succeed. The academic career is a path filled with trials and obstacles with many possibilities to slip even if it is not your fault and after having already gone quite far. Merit is a necessary but not sufficient condition; it also takes a combination of fortunate opportunities that does not depend on us alone. I was only able to remove this unknown variable from the formula on the day of the call.

What is the aspect of your research you are most passionate about?
I am passionate about the contemporary aspect of history and the historical aspect of the present. Benedetto Croce said that all history is contemporary. Past events and their infinite concatenations form our present, so there are infinite possibilities to recreate them. But past events are irreversibly past. We only find images of them relayed by documents created by equally past actors. Each successive present can only decode those images in its own way. And so each present, under the horizon of its own expectations, ends up constructing another past. There is no better reason to revisit the past than criticising the present and being interested in the future. I am fascinated by the inherent contemporary relevance of historical research.

What has given you the greatest satisfaction in your career?
Publishing a study on which years, sometimes decades, have been spent on is certainly one of the greatest professional satisfactions. Then a passionate discussion with others on in-depth topics in a seminar or conference, when accumulated notions hidden among writings and notes and brain synapses come out in the arena of scientific discussion to challenge, clash or ally with others, to come out enriched and recomposed. Last but not least, when you find in that arena some young but mature person who took his first steps, years ago, with you in a university classroom.

Last update: 28/02/2023