Obituary: Professor Cecil Grayson

CECIL GRAYSON's contribution to Italian culture was of a solidity which will survive the trends and vagaries of critical fashion. His work received wide acknowledgement not only in England, but also (and even more importantly) in Italy.

Having been educated at Batley Grammar School and served in the Army for six years, Grayson was already 26 when he graduated in Modern Languages at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1947. Appointed soon afterwards to a university lectureship in Italian, he met Carlo Dionisotti, another lecturer in Italian, who was nine years his senior and who followed the tradition of the Italian scuola storica, with its stress on the linguistic and historical dimension of the literary text.

The encounter between the two was not without influence on Grayson, whose intellectual interest and disposition made him a keen and efficient collaborator of Dionisotti, and his equal partner in their joint editorship of The Early Italian Texts (1949). This was the first book of its kind to appear in England (or Italy) with a comprehen- sive and particularly useful philological commentary.

Throughout the years of his university lectureship (1948-57), Grayson also held various college lectureships which brought him into full contact with the Oxford tutorial system. He survived its rigorous and sometimes impossible demands, managing to reconcile teaching and research and remaining in touch with all the authors and periods of Italian literature (both at the literary and linguistic level).

His earliest and major object of research was Leon Battista Alberti, an important figure of the Italian Renaissance. Grayson edited and published two minor texts in Italy in 1954. They brought him immediate recognition - membership of the Accademia Letteraria Italiana dell'Arcadia in 1958. It was a recognition of Grayson's exceptional editorial talent that he should be entrusted with the national edition of Alberti's works - an onerous and complex task to which he was able to apply himself with even greater vigour than before after his elevation to the Serena Chair of Italian at Oxford in 1958. The three volumes of Opere Volgari appeared in print between 1960 and 1973 and have since remained the definitive edition of Alberti.

The other line of research he pursued centred again on a Renaissance topic: the controversies and debates that attended the rise and adoption of a common literary language in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries. Here again he felt that the preliminary step towards a better understanding of the problems consisted in publishing new material and in re-examining critically some traditional attributions (one of the favourite precepts of the old scuola storica).

It is in this light and in this context that one should place his edition of the published and unpublished writings of Vincenzo Colli ("Il Calmeta"), Prose e Lettere edite e inedite (1959); that of Alberti's so-called Grammatichetta Vaticana (1964); lectures like "A Renaissance Controversy: Latin or Italian?"; the more controversial essay "Machiavelli e Dante", and so on.

An even more central interest was Dante, on whom Grayson lectured in Oxford and elsewhere, supervised postgraduate research, and published a number of essays. Although he was particularly fascinated by the complex problems posed by the manuscript tradition, there was no aspect of Dante's works about which he was less than fully au courant. For 24 years he was President and Secretary of the Oxford Dante Society, founded on an interdisciplinary basis in 1876 by the eminent Dantean scholar Edward Moore, Principal of St Edmund Hall. In 1980 Grayson edited a volume of essays, The World of Dante, to celebrate the society's 100th anniversary.

In manner, appearance and temperament Cecil Grayson was thoroughly English, but his ability to think, write and speak in Italian was practically indistinguishable from that of an educated Italian. Most of his publications appeared in Italy and were written in Italian, which no doubt contributed to the very early recognition of his merits and to his membership of various Italian academies (the Lincei and the Crusca, among others). The prestigious International Galileo Prize for the study of the Italian Language was awarded to him in 1974, in advance of the honours subsequently conferred upon him in England. It is difficult to think of another case in which a scholar has fitted so quickly and successfully into a foreign academic environment.

Although Grayson was well known in Bologna, Rome and Venice, the city with which he was most closely associated was Florence. This is not surprising considering that the period of Italian culture to which he devoted his attention was the Renaissance, and that the literary figures which he studied were basically Florentine. His translation into English of Roberto Ridolfi's lives of Savonarola (1959), Machiavelli (1963) and Guicciardini (1967) reinforced his ties with the academic and cultural circles of Florence, where he felt perfectly at home and where he and his ever-supportive wife were welcome visitors.

At the time of his death he was a consultant on the editorial board for the publication of Piero della Francesca's writings.

Cecil Grayson, Italian scholar: born 5 February 1920; Lecturer, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1948-57; Lecturer, New College, Oxford 1954-57; Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford 1958-87 (Emeritus); Serena Professor of Italian Studies, Oxford University 1958-87; CBE 1992; married 1947 Margaret Jordan (one son, three daughters); died Oxford 28 April 1998.