Obituary: Professor Carlo Dionisotti

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The Independent Online
CARLO DIONISOTTI, Professor of Italian at Bedford College, London, from 1949 to 1970, was one of the greatest Italian literary historians of his time, indeed, of this century.

He preferred writing articles to writing books. He concentrated first on Renaissance literature, choosing his subjects often with striking originality from areas no one else had previously considered worthy of study. In addition he devoted particular attention to a few individuals - Bembo, Machiavelli and the great printer Aldus Manutius. After his retirement he ranged wider, with a book on 19th-century authors, and several contributions on the historiography of Italian literature.

Dionisotti was born in Turin in 1908 and educated at Turin University; among his fellow students were the novelist Cesare Pavese and the historian Arnaldo Momigliano, a lifelong friend, who was Professor of Ancient History at University College London during most of the time that Dionisotti was at Bedford.

Before and during the Second World War, Dionisotti held minor teaching posts in Italian schools and universities; his lack of advancement was doubtless due to his antagonism to Fascism and his refusal to pay lip- service to any ideology or person.

In 1947, at the suggestion of another Piedmontese, A. Passerin d'Entreves, who was Professor of Italian at Oxford, he obtained a post there as Lecturer in Italian; two years later he moved to Bedford as Professor. Over the next two decades his scholarly reputation grew rapidly, but he remained at Bedford for the rest of his career.

One of his reasons for staying in Britain was that he had become used to working in the Italian collections of the British Library, one of the richest, and one of the best catalogued, in the world. Dionisotti once described the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce as "to my knowledge, the most formidable reader and interpreter of Italian texts since the 18th century". These words could well be applied to Dionisotti himself.

The roots of his fundamental contribution to the historiography of Italian literature lay in his profound knowledge, particularly of Renaissance texts, in the vast reading on which his opinions had been formed. In a famous article on clergy and laity in Italian literature in the first half of the 16th century, he based his arguments on an analysis of 100 authors, remarking, without a trace of irony, that this number was probably sufficient to represent the conditions of the period. No other modern Italianist could match that sort of knowledge.

The main conclusion to which his omnivorous and close reading of Italian literature led him was summed up in the title of his inaugural lecture at Bedford, "Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana" ("Geography and History of Italian literature"). This later became the title of his most important collection of essays, published in 1967. His thesis, obvious, like all major theoretical advances, once it had been expressed, was that before (and even to some extent after) the unification of Italy, the history of Italian literature, without dissolving into a series of local histories, was indissolubly linked to its geography - Tuscan, Venetian, Milanese, Roman, Neapolitan. The regional or local interests which moulded writers from Dante to Manzoni were not shortcomings to be excused or explained away; they were part of the reality of Italian literature.

This had not proceeded single-mindedly through the centuries towards the goal of national unity, as literary historians of the preceding generation, in the enthusiasm of the Risorgimento, had tried to show. Instead, it followed a much more complex path, subject to regional and extra-regional influences which it was the job of the literary historian to elucidate.

This concept is now firmly established in Italian literary historiography. It is interesting that Dionisotti's position has seemed equally acceptable to historians of every colour - clerical, anti-clerical, Marxist, New Historicist. To some extent, this is due to fear: it is dangerous publicly to disagree with someone whom you suspect knows more about your subject than you do. But his contributions were based on such rock-solid evidence they transcend ideology.

Another reason for Dionisotti's hold on his fellow scholars was the quality of his writing. Most academics are happy to achieve clarity, but his articles have a sinewy vigour which matches the forcefulness of his thought, full of felicities of concept and expression. It is no surprise that his academic writings won him the rare accolade of a literary award, the Premio Viareggio (1989).

After his retirement Dionisotti visited Italy regularly and frequently, extending the impact of his writings by the brio and vigour of his seminars and lectures. These were particularly appreciated by the younger generation of scholars, and will ensure the continuation of his influence for years to come.

Towards scholars in whom he thought he detected sloppiness or pretentiousness Dionisotti could be savage. But for students and colleagues he was a delightful teacher and companion, vivacious, witty, well- informed about current affairs, full of interest in their concerns.

For me, and for many others, he was a career-long source of inspiration. While we could not match his erudition, nor the incisiveness of his thought, we could at least learn from his integrity, and from the humility with which he approached the writers of the past.

Carlo Dionisotti-Casalone, Italian scholar: born Turin 9 June 1908; Lecturer in Italian, Oxford University 1947-49; Professor of Italian, Bedford College 1949-70 (Emeritus); FBA 1972; married 1942 Maria Pinna- Pintor (three daughters, and one daughter deceased); died London 22 February 1998.