Prof Michael Mallett: Scholar of Renaissance Italy and a key historian at Warwick University

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The Independent Online

Michael Mallett was one of the most original and productive scholars in the study of italian Renaissance history. His doctoral research at Oxford and formative periods at the British School at Rome and the Scuola Normale, Pisa, led to the publication of The Florentine Galleys in the Fifteenth Century (1967), a study of Florence's attempt to use the recently conquered city of Pisa to gain direct access to the trade of the Mediterranean. This early work reveals much of the character of Mallett's scholarship: respect for the sources, care in composition and a wariness of preconceptions.

He was born in 1932, educated at St Edward's School, Oxford and took his first degree in Modern History at Worcester College, Oxford. After completing his postgraduate studies he taught for a brief period at Eton, before taking up a post at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. From 1962 to 1966 Mallett served as assistant director and librarian of the British School at Rome, helping to broaden that institution as a centre for the study of the history and art of medieval and Renaissance Italy. His time in Rome also led to the publication of The Borgias (1969), a successful and accessible attempt to achieve a more balanced view of this often misrepresented dynasty.

Thereafter, his personal research focused largely on the military history of Renaissance Italy, and on the composition and role of élites in the government of italian city states. As a military historian, he published Mercenaries and their Masters (1974) and – with Sir John Hale, founding Professor of History at Warwick and Mallett's doctoral supervisor at Oxford – The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State: Venice c1400 to 1617 (1984), both of which were immediately recognised as authoritative.

As his work with Hale demonstrated, Mallett was a good collaborator, a quality borne out in his long association with Nicolai Rubinstein over the publication of the correspondence of Lorenzo de' Medici. Mallett himself edited three volumes, and the insights this project gave into italian politics and diplomacy supported his work on élites – in particular the role of ambassadors – as well as his on-going research into military history. Greatly assisting his work on Lorenzo was Mallett's close association with the Harvard Centre for italian Renaissance Studies (at the Villa I Tatti, Florence) where he held a visiting fellowship (1974-75).

At the same time, Mallett was committed to Warwick University, which he had joined in 1967 soon after it opened, and where he became professor (1978), and served as chair of the Faculty of Arts (1985-88). He was crucial in building up the History Department in scope and academic reputation, though he also supported developments elsewhere, particularly in italian and the History of Art. He played a key role in the establishment and work of the Centre for Renaissance Studies, which did much to further the careers of younger scholars, as well as running a number of benchmarking international conferences, for example on Savonarola and the italian Wars.

Earlier, he followed John Hale's lead in organising a "Venice term" for students of the Renaissance at the university. With this ambitious project he often had to struggle against the scepticism of colleagues and a perennial shortage of resources, but his persistence, diplomatic skills, and the supportive contacts he made and sustained in the city, insured that the project survived. indeed, it now flourishes, to the benefit of generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as of Venice itself.

Mallett's involvement in the cultural and academic life of Venice led to him becoming a "corresponding member" of the Deputazione Veneta di Storia Patria, and to contributions to the multi-volumed Storia di Venezia. He also succeeded Hale as chair of the British and Commonwealth committee of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports the study of Venice past and present. He served for many years as an active committee member of the British organisation Venice in Peril where – among much else – he championed the view that concern for that city was felt, and should be encouraged, "north of Watford".

These activities, all conscientiously pursued, brought him well deserved recognition in the UK and abroad. He was granted fellowships of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He received the British Academy's Serena medal for italian studies (1998). He was made a Commendatore dell'Ordine al Merito of the italian Republic and held a visiting professorship at Yale. He was appointed OBE in 1998. Most recently, in November 2007, he received – along with his close colleague and friend Lady Frances Clarke – an honorary DLitt from Warwick University at a special ceremony, done with great style, in Venice itself.

Mallett himself was modest about such achievements. in many ways he was an undemonstrative man, but those who got to know him quickly came to appreciate his love of Italy, his enthusiasm for Mozart and Italian opera and his enjoyment of good food, fine wine and congenial company. He was extremely loyal and supportive to colleagues, students and friends.

Above all, he loved his family and his home, and was devoted to his wife Patricia. They met when she too was a student at the British School at Rome and they married in 1961. Latterly, he helped sustain her through a distressing and terminal illness. in this difficult time, he was closely supported by his two sons. They have clearly inherited his love of home and Italy, and with the help of colleagues and friends they are determined to see their father's unfinished work through to publication.

John E. Law

Michael Edward Mallett, historian: born Southend-on-Sea, Essex 14 July 1932; Assistant Director and Librarian, British School at Rome 1962-66; Lecturer in History, Warwick University1967-70, Senior Lecturer 1970-74, Reader 1974-78, Professor 1978-99 (Emeritus), Head of Department of History 1980-83, Chair, Faculty of Arts 1985-88; OBE 1998; married 1961 Patricia Sullivan (died 2004; two sons); died Abersoch, Gwynedd 2 September 2008.