Professor J. H. Whitfield

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The Independent Online
John Humphreys Whitfield, Italianist: born Wednesbury 2 October 1906; University Lecturer in Italian, Oxford University 1936-46; Serena Professor of Italian Language and Literature, Birmingham University 1946- 74; Chairman, Society for Italian Studies 1962-74; Senior Editor, Italian Studies 1967-74; married 1936 Joan Herrin (died 1995; two sons); died Edgbaston 20 February 1995.

John Humphreys Whitfield was above all a memorable teacher. He was also one of a small band of scholars who strove (in circumstances that were very unfavourable in the Forties and Fifties, but somewhat easier in the expansionist Sixties and early Seventies) to win an honourable place for Italian studies in British higher education.

"Humphrey" Whitfield was born in Wednesbury in 1906 and educated at Handsworth Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1928 with a First Class honours degree in French, to which in 1929 he added a First in Italian. After teaching French for a few years at King Edward VII School, Sheffield, he was appointed University Lecturer in Italian at Oxford in 1936. Ten years later he was elected to the Serena Chair of Italian Language and Literature at Birmingham University, where he taught until retiring in 1974.

As a tutor and lecturer, Whitfield was stimulating and deliberately provocative. The adversarial stance which he assumed in tutorial argument was sometimes a shock to undergraduates who had been used to gentler treatment at school, but they grew to appreciate the careful attention he gave to their views. He seemed to be as determined to pounce on every inconsistency in their arguments as he was ready to denounce the lapses of famous scholars; there was in both activities the same concern for the truth as he saw it.

With time, too, his pupils learnt that, when they deserved it, he could be generous in his praise and support, though these were more likely to occur in reports on their work to college, university or scholarship authorities than during the confrontation of the tutorial itself. One thing the tutorial always proved was that Whitfield had read with care the texts on which he chose to argue (and that the grasp of his memory was strong); pupils were expected to read with equal attention. But he also possessed another quality invaluable in the teacher: there was so much life and wit in his use of language that it was difficult to forget what he said.

His influence was not confined to his own students. He loved dramatic delivery of a carefully prepared lecture (whether by others or himself), and colleagues in other institutions found him always ready to come and present his views on one of his favourite authors - Petrarch, Machiavelli, Tasso or Leopardi - without any thought of a fee, simply for the pleasure of the occasion. This was a valuable service in the days when Italianists were all too often isolated individuals struggling to give instruction over vast areas in Italian studies.

Whitfield was one of the small group of scholars who had supported the Society for Italian Studies from its foundation in the Thirties, and he had served on its committee and started to publish work in its Journal before war interrupted its activities. The post-war growth of the society gave him great pleasure, and he was clearly delighted to be its Chairman from 1962 until his retirement in 1974. He also served as one of the editors of Italian Studies for a quarter of century from 1949 and was Senior Editor from 1969.

In spite of his knowledge of Renaissance literature, painting and architecture, Whitfield always protested that he was no specialist, emphasising that he had been formed in the period when Italianists were expected to range over the whole of Italian literature.

His publications reflected the breadth of his interests. His first book, Petrarch and the Renascence (1943), was concerned with the development of humanism. He saw his next, Machiavelli (1947), as a logical extension of that interest into politics. That volume led to controversy, which stimulated him to produce further essays and lectures on the subject, which were later gathered together as Discourses on Machiavelli (1969). But in the meantime he had been happy to spend some years in the study of a 19th-century poet. His Giacomo Leopardi (1954) was followed by a verse translation of that poet's Canti (1962) and an edition of them for students (1967). He also published a slim volume on Dante and Virgil (1949) and his Barlow Lectures on Dante: Essays in the Like and Unlike (1960). And to many non-specialists he was known as the author of the Pelican A Short History of Italian Literature (1960). Moreover, his articles and reviews took him far beyond the subjects of his books; at the time of his death he had an article on Poussin in the press.

In retirement Humphrey Whitfield remained remarkably energetic and mentally agile, active in both garden and study. His wife, Joan, whom he married in 1936, and whose artistic skills and knowledge of painting had throughout their life together had a profound influence on him (as on their two sons), appeared to become an even closer companion in old age. She died on 9 February. Humphrey's heart attack 11 days later seemed merely to confirm that he lacked the will to survive for long without her.