Carlo Bo

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The Independent Online

Carlo Bo, literary critic and university administrator: born Sestri Levante, Italy 25 January 1911; married; died Genoa, Italy 21 July 2001.

Aloof, almost haughty and apparently majestically self-assured in his decades-long role as éminence grise of Italian literary critics, Carlo Bo caught his admirers and his (very few) detractors on the wrong foot last January in an interview with the Corriere della Sera to mark his 90th birthday. "Everything I had to say as a student of literature I had said by 1945," he told the paper. "Everything since then has been exhaustion, disappointment and erosion of my faith in literature."

If these were the words of a tired old man, little else in his life showed that the years were weighing on him. The Rector of Urbino University since 1947, he continued to play an active role in the life of that institution which he had transformed from a tiny private academic backwater into one of Italy's leading centres of learning. He continued to contribute his literary thoughts to Corriere della Sera's culture pages. And he continued to bend to pressure to chair literary prize-awarding committees, all of which knew that, without Bo's essential presence, their accolades would have a hollow ring.

From a family of lawyers in Sestri Levante near Genoa, Bo attributed his love of literature to the poet Camillo Sbarbaro who was meant to teach Greek – though in fact spent much of his lessons discussing poetry – at the Jesuit college in Genoa where Bo was educated. After studying French at Florence University, Bo published a book on Jacques Rivière in 1935 and one on Sainte-Beuve in 1938. The latter, he recalled recently, was "a huge tome, which no one ever read. I gave a copy to Montale. Then I found out his brother had taken it to use as a trouser press."

But it was his essay "Letteratura come vita" ("Literature as Life"), published in the Catholic publication Frontispizio in 1938, that was to earn him a hallowed place in literary criticism: in it he called for a literature above the ties of time and custom.

His publications earned him the chair of French at Urbino University in 1939. He was to remain there until his death. His critical interests, and his published essays, ranged from French literature to contemporary Italian writers, Surrealism and the works of the Spanish poet Juan Ramo Jimenez. Made a life senator for his contribution to Italian culture in 1984, Bo exerted a charismatic influence over Italian political circles

Yet, as he celebrated his 90th birthday, this most respected of critics voiced disappointment: "I'm bitter about the time I wasted, the research I never got around to doing," he told Corriere della Sera in a rare glimpse of the more vulnerable human side of a man who had become an intellectual monument.

Anne Hanley