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Donald Weinstein, Historian of Civic Religion

Posted By Administration, Monday, December 21, 2015

Donald Weinstein, one of the pioneering postwar American historians who made the Italian Renaissance a premier area of study, died in Tucson, Arizona, on December 13 at age 89. At the time he wrote, historians generally viewed the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries as the birth of modern Europe through the re-birth of secular thinking. Under the influence of Jacob Burckhardt, they saw—in the art of Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo and in the writings of Machiavelli–a return of ancient cultural influences that were classical, humanistic, even pagan. In a groundbreaking 1970 study, Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance, Weinstein showed how the Dominican friar recast the commanding, expansionist identity of Florence as the New Jerusalem and the place for the Second Coming of Christ. Weinstein saw that Florentine civic culture made things sacred—the city and the state—that had not been understood as having a religious dimension before. In 1994, The Renaissance Society of America devoted a session to civic religion in Weinstein’s honor.

His skill at interrelating the religious and the secular emerged again in a co-authored book with his former Rutgers colleague Rudolph Bell that used quantitative data to explore the social factors at work (class, gender, geography) in how the Catholic Church canonized its saints from 1000 to 1700. Their research revealed a surprising increase in the declaration of new saints, including many women, during this very same “secular” fifteenth century. Saints and Society moved the study of saints’ lives away from the exclusive terrain of hagiographers and devotees into the mainstream of historical inquiry. Returning to Savonarola almost 20 years after his retirement, Weinstein examined the evolution of the religious thinker become political leader in a 2011 biography Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Savonarola believed, Weinstein says, “he was leading Florence to the New Jerusalem, but he was also traveling a path of increasing fanaticism that could only take him to desperation, delusion, and disaster. Still, it is unhelpful to dismiss Savonarola as a fanatic or a charlatan; this obscures his noble vision and slights his strenuous efforts on behalf of social justice and political liberty.” Thus, Savonarola alienated patricians by introducing a popular government and sacrificing their treasures in a bonfire of “vanities.” In 1498, he was arrested, and under torture confessed to heresy, recanted, and then was hanged and burned. By examining Savonarola’s mysticism, Weinstein showed the increasingly political prophet being finally undone by politics and his own millenarian visions. “The challenge is to integrate—as he himself never ceased trying to do—the irascible puritan at war with his world, the charismatic preacher who, as Machiavelli would have it, adapted ‘his lies’ to the times, the ascetic contemplative enraptured by divine love, and the militant herald of a new age.”

Weinstein almost necessarily concerned himself with the impact of religious faith on political realities as his Orthodox Jewish father Harris (Avram Zvi), immigrated from a shtetl near Minsk to the United States to escape the Tsar’s armies. Weinstein himself, born and raised in Rochester, NY, joined the army to oppose Nazism. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his combat with the 4th Division in the invasion of Germany that followed the Battle of the Bulge. After the war the far-sighted G.I. bill allowed him to attend the University of Chicago, where he took the famous Core designed by Robert Maynard Hutchins—two circumstances whose importance he stressed throughout his life. He earned his B.A. and M.A. at Chicago and his doctorate at Iowa.

A Fulbright grant allowed his initial exposure to the immense manuscript riches of the National Library and Archives and to study at the University of Florence in 1953–55. It was there that he married his first wife, Anne Kingsley, the mother of his two children, Jonathan and Elizabeth. After receiving the Ph.D. in 1957, he was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin in 1957–58, and was a lecturer in history at the University of Iowa in 1958–59. He taught for two years at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, an institution rooted in social justice principles, making that, he said later, some of his most important work as a teacher. He moved to Rutgers for the next eighteen years where he advanced from Assistant Professor to Distinguished Professor. In that period he earned fellowships at the Villa I Tatti in Florence (1962–63) and at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ (1964–65). At Rutgers, he met his wife, Beverly Parker. Thus began a partnership involving Weinstein’s writing and extensive political activism and community service. The couple moved to Tucson when Weinstein took on the headship of the History Department at the University of Arizona. He was Head from 1978–87 and retired in 1992.

As department Head, he brought Heiko A. Oberman, the prominent historian of the Protestant Reformation, to Tucson and thus helped form the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies, which still functions in active cooperation with the Department of History. He taught night school classes at Fort Huachuca where he commuted an hour each way from Tucson twice a week even as he ran the department. In partnership with the Arizona Historical Society, he brought Tucson’s high schools into the national “History Day,” in which students competed by writing research papers on historical subjects. He devised an interdisciplinary outreach series of round tables and lectures to involve the community in university-level discussions of current issues.

After retiring, he continued to teach. He devised a new course on Italian Renaissance great books. He attended oral exams and served on dissertation committees. He continued to publish. Building on a dossier of depositions he found in the archives of Pisa, he wrote a micro-history, The Captain’s Concubine, about the trial growing out of a 1578 street brawl. He edited Heiko Oberman’s The Two Reformations when the author’s death prevented the conclusion of that work. He translated L’Assassino del Duca: Esilio e Morte di Lorenzo de’ Medici by Stefano Dall’Aglio. Beyond all this, he completed his own magisterial biography of Savonarola.

After moving with Beverly to Sonoita, Arizona, in 1996, he joined the Crossroads Community Forum and worked on a Master Plan for development. He volunteered as a dispatcher with the local fire department. He opposed creating an open pit mine in the beautiful Santa Rita Mountains. He defended Southern Arizona’s natural environment by opposing roads through canyons and new power lines.

From the battlefield to the library, from Florence to Arizona, from prophecy to politics, from leadership to service, Don Weinstein lived a full life. He combined academic achievement and civic commitment to a very high degree of excellence and effectiveness.

Edward Muir

 

New York Times obituary

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