History is a source of fascination for many, and local historian David de Giustino has devoted his life to studying, writing and teaching about the past events that have shaped our world. David has visited the Glasshouse to present a series of lectures, with his final presentation due to take place on April 5.
When did your interest in history develop, David?
When I was a child, there were some things that happened that I feel pushed me towards history – to write about it, teach it and do radio and television programs about it.
When I was about 9 years old, I went with my family to visit Italy. We looked up some distant relatives, and one of them had a very large farm outside Rome. Every time this man ploughed the earth, he’d come across artefacts from the Roman period.
He had a beautiful white marble sarcophagus as big as a table that he placed in his courtyard and filled with red geraniums. He had jewellery, pieces of architecture, and on his desk he had a big bag of Roman coins.
One day he asked me to take out a couple of these coins and let me keep them. One of them very clearly had the face and inscription of Emperor Nero, and the other silver one was even more rare.
I took them back with me to North America, and thought that 2,000 years ago someone had once used these coins … they had a history, and people had once held them as I was now holding them. If these coins could speak, they’d tell all kinds of stories!
History for me is everything. Everything has a history … a story. In fact, in a lot of languages, the word for story and history is the same.
Where were you born?
I was born in the state of Michigan, in North America – right at the Canadian border. I go back every year to visit and spend time with my brother and sister and give some lectures in Canadian universities.
What actually brought you to Australia in the first place?
Well … I think it was the Australians! When I was finishing a combined Doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in America and the University of London, I met a lot of Australians. I really admired them, because they were intelligent, organised, they made the most of their time overseas, they were loyal, good friends and sensible.
It was suggested that when I’d finished my degree, I should go to Australia for a visit.
I then read everything about Australia I could find … I read newspapers, books, atlases, and I put in for jobs.
In the end, I had 5 offers, so I took a three year fixed term job at a university in Melbourne. I then spent one year in Auckland, New Zealand, followed by another year in Brisbane.
How long have you lived in Port Macquarie?
Five years. I retired here for several reasons. One: because the coastline is extremely beautiful, and two: unlike a lot of other towns, Port Macquarie has some historical buildings, which are very interesting. I also didn’t want to retire in Brisbane, as the summers were too hot.
You mentioned you’ve retired now, but how much travelling and lecturing do you still do?
I’m still lecturing in Canada every year. I have to give a conference paper in Singapore next month, and there are always offers of other conferences and lectures.
I’ve joined the U3A here [University of the Third Age], and I’m very interested in this. And of course, I have a series of three lectures at the Glasshouse this year, but there may be more in future.
What works have you had published?
I’ve published several books. My first book was on pseudo-sciences in the 19th century, including mesmerism, clairvoyancy and phenology. It was a very popular book, and it was reviewed by the London Times Literary Supplement – which was a career highlight for me.
I did a book on the history of a tremendous resort hotel in the Great Lakes area, and my third book was on European integration. In that third book, which was published 15 years ago, I made some very caustic remarks about how Greece could not be a good working member of the European community – and it’s turned out that this was perfectly true.
And in part, this is why people want me to give lectures now, I think. They comment that I could see what was coming and knew all the milestones, and they couldn’t understand why Greece would be let in when it was so close to bankruptcy. They wonder why didn’t people act on this and why it was hushed up.
So in essence, a good historian can look at the past and possibly project their findings forward into the future?
In a way, there’s a projection forward. History doesn’t repeat itself – that would be too much of a mechanism. But someone has said that people who don’t understand the past make the same mistakes in the future. It would be rather like a child who doesn’t learn that touching the top of a stove will burn him.
What’s been something about your career you’ve really enjoyed?
I’ve been very happy to meet a lot of people who have a natural curiosity about the past, their own town, their community and other distant countries.
It’s very obvious you have deep love of history and enjoy your work, but is there a particular time period that interests you more than most?
My training was originally in modern history, with much of this the last two or three hundred years of British history.
But when I came to Australia, there wasn’t much of a market for this any more – particularly after the 1970s, as we became much more interested in Australian and South East Asian history.
So I moved onto Asia and Europe, and I also became much more interested in ancient history and in the way they engineered and built things.
You’ve already presented two lectures at the Glasshouse – both of which were extremely popular. What will your lecture in April be about?
My third lecture is called Monsters in Art. I take the long view – which basically means I start back with the Ancient Egyptians.
Monsters for them were sometimes not scary or frightening things – they often showed their Pharaohs, queens, gods and high officials as part animal and part human. I want to explore why this was so, and why there was this strange ambiguity between human and animal.
But for the Egyptians, monsters were also demons and spirits – and this carries right through into the more modern periods.
For example, in the Middle Ages there were maps that showed monsters/dragons in the sea; this suggested sailors were terrified of travelling very far away from the familiar. Then a bit further on, there were monsters appearing in the form of bats and people who were demented, and then still further on in the 20th century, there were monsters in wartime.
We tend to demonise our enemies – this was particularly true of the Japanese; although, we also demonised the Germans in the First World War and showed them as half man and half ape.
Today, we have monsters and demons aplenty, because in the States, Halloween is the second most commercial festival on the calendar after Christmas. Even in Pop Culture we have monsters – and I tend to think we’ll probably always have them.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
The Glasshouse after hours art lecture series is a new initiative that has proven to be very popular, and the first two events were booked out.
This story was published in issue 77 of Port Macquarie Focus