Professor John Larner: Historian of Italy and Marco Polo

John Larner was one of a group of post-war British and American historians who changed our perceptions of Italy during the Renaissance. He then turned to the history of exploration and became an authority on Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

The adopted son of a schoolteacher mother and a father who worked as a park-keeper on Hampstead Heath, Larner was a grammar-school boy from suburban London who after National Service gained a place at New College, Oxford in 1951. His mother died in his first year there (he had lost his father at the age of nine) and it was a source of immense regret that he could never repay the sacrifices she had made for his education. Instead he threw himself into his work, received a first-class degree and was steered towards an interest in Italy by the seminars on the Renaissance of his tutor, Harry Bell. Considered gifted enough to pursue an academic career without a doctorate (commonly then considered an unnecessary inconvenience) Larner received a scholarship at the British School at Rome in 1954.

By his own admission, Larner did little work there in his first two years. Instead he bought a scooter, explored Italy and enjoyed the constant round of parties which were a feature of the British School in those days. At the end of two years, just as he was allegedly considering a career as a fruit-and-wine importer, he was offered a third year's scholarship. The considerable amount of charm which must have been deployed to obtain that offer suggest that the Larner persona was now firmly in place. To the end of his life he exuded a warmth and vitality that disguised his immense capacity for hard work. He did not waste the chance he had been given.

The result was The Lords of Romagna, published in English in 1965 and translated into Italian in 1972. The regional study had become integral to research into Italian history: but Larner was original in moving away from fashionable Tuscany and Rome, to study the politics of a comparative rural backwater.

Many earlier historians saw the seizure of power by aristocratic families in the late 13th century as the antithesis of the allegedly "democratic" communes; Larner saw it as an inevitable part of state building in the late Middle Ages. As unsentimental about the signorie as he was about the commune, Larner nevertheless portrayed them as the result of a professionalisation of government rather than mere lawlessness. They also fulfilled an important aspiration for local independence, both from the ambitions of universal rulers such as Pope and Emperor, and also greedy neighbours. The work struck a chord in Italy and Larner became a minor celebrity, especially in Romagna.

By this time he had taken a post at Glasgow University. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the home of talented young medievalists, including Michael Clanchy, Patrick Wormald and J.A.F. Thomson. Larner was stimulated to produce Culture and Society in Italy, 1290-1420 (1971).

The centrepiece of the book was a profound examination of "The artist and society". Here Larner displayed his full strength as a historian, combining a facility with archive material and administrative records with an extraordinarily deep knowledge of the arts, above all Italian literature. Through this he was able to appreciate not just the development of the individual genius and technique, but also the economic and political sinews which made it possible. For Larner the emergence of the state was crucial for the elevation of the artist through the transformation of the market for art and literature.

This was followed in 1980 by Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch, 1216-1380, a more conventional textbook as part of a Longman series. Even here Larner took on the difficult task of writing a general history of the whole peninsula, mainly from primary sources, and paying due attention to the lives of women, children and the poor. It was an intellectual tour de force and again Larner was paid the compliment of having his book translated into Italian.

This work proved to be Larner's last on mainstream Italian history. In Glasgow he had met and married Christina "Kirsty" Ross, herself a distinguished historian of Scottish witchcraft with whom he had two sons, Gavin and Patrick (the latter was to die of meningitis aged only 30). The couple's hospitality and parties in the West End of Glasgow were legendary. But in 1983 Kirsty died of cancer, leaving Larner bereft. His subsequent relationship with Jane McCusker was a fresh start which culminated in a happy marriage.

Perhaps because of this as much as for any professional reason he decided on a drastic change of direction in his research. He visited archives in Spain and published a series of articles on Columbus, one of which, "North American Hero? Christopher Columbus, 1702-2002", was to win the American Philosophical Society's prestigious Henry Allen Moe Prize in 1993. Larner was interested as much in the reception and use made of Columbus and his works as in the man himself, and this laid the foundation for the reconciliation of his old and new research interests.

His acclaimed Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World (1999) combined a study of the man and his journey overland to China at the end of the 13th century, with the history of the production of a text and an examination of its impact on the later world. Marco Polo's work has always puzzled historians; the Venetian traveller went east during the period of the Yuan dynasty, originally Mongols from the Steppes. During a stay of 17 years he claimed to have made a detailed study of the country and risen high in the Imperial government. Yet during all that time he learnt little of the language and landmarks such as the Great Wall go unmentioned in his reminiscences.

Larner showed that crude theories of an elaborate hoax were simply wrong and that we have good reason to believe Marco Polo. During his stay the Great Wall was in ruins (most of what we see today is later rebuilding). A man from Italy surrounded by vast ancient classical debris probably thought nothing of it. Knowledge of Chinese was less important than that of Mongol, the language of the ruling class which Polo did learn. Larner also closely examined textual evidence of Columbus's knowledge of his forebear and concluded that while Columbus read Polo, it was not as a bookish would-be explorer making a scientific case for funding before his trip westward, but afterwards as a simple sailor trying to identify what it was he had discovered.

John Larner spent almost his entire career in Glasgow, a city he grew to love. The university benefited from the cosmopolitan perspective of a sometimes mischievous outsider. Only those familiar with the west of Scotland can appreciate just how audacious Larner was in finishing a lecture on Calvin half an hour early on the grounds that Calvin was neither interesting nor important.

He was a genial colleague and capable teacher and, although he could be critical, was unfailingly polite. His own loud snore made him very concerned not to fall asleep during research papers. During his colleagues' more tedious offerings he would therefore sometimes challenge his neighbour to a game of noughts and crosses. Deafness and an often stated opinion that increasing administration made the job too much like hard work led to his taking early retirement in 1994.

For all his modesty and self-deprecatory humour, Larner was an important scholar who knew his own worth. As an epitaph for himself he suggested updating the conclusion of Petrarch's last letter: "You will find me to the end with my pen in my hand (or in my case my fingers at the computer)." It was very nearly so.

Andrew P. Roach

John Patrick Larner, historian: born Southsea, Hampshire 24 March 1930; Rome Medieval Scholar, British School at Rome 1954-57; Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, then Reader in History, Glasgow University 1957-78, Professor of History 1978-94 (Emeritus); married 1960 Kirsty Ross (died 1983; one son, and one son deceased), 1991 Jane McCusker; died Stirling 24 February 2008.