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Ronald G. Witt

Posted By RSA, Monday, March 20, 2017

Ronald G. Witt lived a rich, generous life, one that profoundly touched family, friends, and fellow scholars. Born into a farming family in rural Michigan in 1932, he wound up traveling the world, influencing generations of students, and leaving behind a body of scholarly work that both transformed a field and will remain an integral part of it in the decades to come.

Witt studied first at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (BA, 1954). After graduating, he spent a brief time in the business world, concluding that it was not for him. He thence moved to Harvard University and its storied history department with the intention of pursuing a PhD in medieval history. While there, he encountered the scholar Myron Gilmore, who mentored a number of doctoral students in a field that, for a time, was destined to grow and be vigorous in US history departments: the intellectual history of the Italian Renaissance. He earned his PhD at Harvard in 1965. A decisive set of experiences were his scholarly sojourns in Europe with the support of the Fulbright Foundation: first in France (1954–56), and then, more consequentially, in Italy (1962–63).

Witt’s first major works concerned the intellectual Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), a respected but at the time little-studied Florentine intellectual. Witt’s research demonstrated just how central this active statesman and reflective scholar was. It was not just that Salutati, in his own creative work, distilled many of the tensions of his own era (predominantly that between the need to live a Christian life and the siren call of the pre- and non-Christian ancient classics). Witt’s work also showed Salutati’s place as cultural convener, serving as the central figure around which a pivotal generation of Italian intellectuals cohered, between the era of Petrarch and Boccaccio and that of Leonardo Bruni. In these studies and related articles, Witt combined painstaking archival research with his reading of Renaissance philosophy and allegory, as he gauged the impact of voluntarism in humanist ethics and the influence of the “poet-theologian.”

Witt’s interests in generations shaped his field-defining book In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Italian Humanism from Lovato to Bruni, 1250–1420, which received the RSA’s Gordan Book Prize, along with awards from the American Philosophical Society and the American Historical Association. In this work, he showed that one powerful way to conceive of Italian Renaissance “humanism” (a disputed term if ever there was one) was by focusing on the use and imitation of classical Latin. With that parameter in mind, Witt demonstrated that the Italian humanist movement reached back farther than tradition would admit: to the thirteenth century and, importantly, to the north Italian city of Padua. There a passion for classicism, fueled by contact with French troubadours (themselves vectors for high medieval French classicism), emerged among a set of remarkable individuals. If names like Albertino Mussato and Lovato dei Lovati had not hitherto been part of the standard narratives of Italian Renaissance intellectual life, after In the Footsteps they became permanent parts of that historiographic landscape, which, the book made clear, rooted humanism in the realm of poetry and the personal letter rather than in the field of rhetoric, as had been commonly assumed. Witt traced his story, generation by generation, from those early days, through the tumultuous fourteenth century (where the figure of Petrarch, together with his strong religious orientation, loomed large), all the way up to the generation of Leonardo Bruni, whose death in 1444 signaled the end of an era, of sorts, and the beginning of another. Bruni and his cohort, largely secular in orientation, had inherited, transformed, and regularized the approaches to classical Latin that had evolved in the life, work, and thought of the previous generations of Italian humanists. Humanist education would become the norm for elite Italians and eventually Renaissance Europeans at large.

Witt’s final major book, The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy, was nothing less than groundbreaking (and was recognized as such, winning the Haskins Gold Medal from the Medieval Academy of America in 2014). As it were, a prequel to his earlier In the Footsteps, the book asks, why was there, relatively speaking, a large lay intelligentsia in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy? To answer this question, Witt charted over four centuries of early and high medieval developments peculiar to Italy, with a focus on interactions among the Italian clerisy, the Italian notariate (the members of the latter group were exclusively lay), and extra-Italian intellectual influences, especially those from France. His source base was tremendously varied, with literary manuscripts, archival sources, and economic and political historiographies all playing a role. A monumental classic in the field, it is a book that will be studied for generations to come, for it both decisively links, and distinguishes, the worlds of medieval and Renaissance culture. Its arguments are original, sophisticated, and expansive, the result of a lifetime of study. It is equally noteworthy for displaying the attributes of its author: clarity of thought, self-criticism, and a wide and charitable reading of other scholars’ research.

There were many other articles and edited books in the course of Witt’s career, including a fine humanities textbook coauthored with, among others, his wife, the prominent comparatist Mary Ann Frese Witt (The Humanities, now in its seventh edition). The Earthly Republic, an anthology of sources he coedited with Benjamin Kohl, became a standard work in college courses. Though a prolific scholar, Witt shone in the classroom, where his endless curiosity, generous nature, and finely honed pedagogy garnered recognition both in the form of teaching awards and, as importantly, in the hearts and minds of generations of students. He extended his teaching outside the university, leading a series of successful NEH seminars for high-school teachers on Petrarch’s life and works. Witt taught at Harvard University before moving to Duke in 1971, where he retired in 2002 as the William B. Hamilton Professor of History.

Throughout his career, Witt’s work was recognized with many grants and awards, including from the Fulbright Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, Villa I Tatti, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others.

Witt served as President of the Renaissance Society of America from 2002 to 2004. A longtime member and supporter of the Society, he served on its Executive Board and as chair of a successful capital campaign. In 2013 he was the recipient of the RSA’s Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award.

During his long career at Duke University, Witt touched the lives of undergraduate and graduate students through inspirational teaching and his leadership. As director of the Angier B. Duke Memorial Scholarship Program, he transformed this academic award into a prestigious national merit award, attracting to Duke talented students from across the country while mentoring them through their undergraduate years. From staging historical reenactments to inventing raucous games at retreats, elaborate practical jokes, and teaching Renaissance dance with his wife, Mary Ann, Witt showed students that homo ludens remained vital for the full, rich experience of life in all its dimensions. From the moment he arrived at Duke, he also became one of the faculty leaders of Duke’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, modeling interdisciplinary collaboration and scholarship for faculty long before it became one of the university’s signature features. His teaching was recognized by the award of a coveted Duke Alumni Association Teaching Award.

Lists of works (no matter how impactful), dates of degrees and awards (no matter how prominent), and curricula vitae of all sorts (no matter how full): none of these things can summarize a life lived in full, as was Witt’s. Those who knew him personally knew a person of unparalleled generosity, humor, and personal humility, who was always ready to help a fellow scholar, always inclusive in the highest degree, always willing to lend a hand. He will be sorely missed by family, friends, and fellow scholars.

Christopher S. Celenza
Timothy Kircher

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Comments on this post...

Elizabeth M. McCahill says...
Posted Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Thank you so much, Chris and Tim, for this moving memorial to a great scholar and person, who will be sorely missed by many.
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Anthony Grafton says...
Posted Thursday, March 23, 2017
What a fine account of a great scholar and a grand human being.
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Christopher Carlsmith says...
Posted Thursday, March 23, 2017
A poignant and erudite account of Ron Witt's multiple contributions to late medieval and Renaissance studies. Clearly we will continue to march "in the footsteps" of Ron Witt for years to come, even if he is no longer with us.
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