* staff

* student

* search

School of Languages and European Studies

Department of Italian Studies

departmental image
University Home > Department of Italian Home > Luigi Meneghello > Obituary

Luigi Meneghello (1922-2007)

Luigi Meneghello, former professor of Italian Studies at the University of Reading and one of the most original writers of contemporary Italy, died suddenly in Thiene, near Vicenza, on June 26. He was 85. Only a few months before, he had seen his major writings collected in a handsome 1800-page Meridiano Mondadori, a series dedicated to the past and present classics of world literature. 
Meneghello (Gigi, as he was known to his friends) was born on 16 February 1922 in Malo, a village near Vicenza, in the northeast of Italy. Born in the year of the march on Rome and the fascist takeover of Italy, his schooling took place entirely during the period of the regime’s greatest influence, first in Vicenza and later at the University of Padua. An inquisitive and brilliant student, he easily absorbed the traditional Italian humanistic subjects as well as a smattering of official fascist culture, and in both he excelled. When fascism fell in 1943, his fascist education collapsed too, and, like many young men of his generation, he joined the Italian Resistance as a member of the newly reborn republican, liberal-socialist Partito d’Azione (originally founded by Giuseppe Mazzini but dissolved in 1867). Of his experiences as a partisan Meneghello was to publish in 1964 a memorable and original account in I piccoli maestri (English translation The Outlaws, 1967), in which with great elegance he debunked not only fascism and its folly, but also the rhetoric of the Resistance that in the previous twenty years had become de rigueur in Italy.
          With its belief in reason and democracy, the Partito d’Azione was bound to become irrelevant in the context of postwar Italy, where Catholics and Communists were fiercely fighting for the triumph of their opposing faiths, and indeed in the spring of 1947 it dissolved again. In the autumn of the same year Meneghello won a one-year British Council scholarship and left Italy – at the time a very unusual move for a young Italian intellectual – for England, where he was to study the influence of Croce and Gentile on the idealist Oxford philosopher Robin G. Collingwood, who had died in 1943. His supervisor was to be Professor H. A. Hodges of the University of Reading, where by coincidence Collingwood’s father had been Professor of Fine Arts. In the event the young Italian found a more congenial environment in the English rather than in the Philosophy Department. It was in fact thanks to a young lecturer in English, Donald Gordon, that in 1948 Meneghello was offered the opportunity to stay on for two extra years, and teach some courses on the Renaissance and the Risorgimento in the Department of English. He accepted, and what originally began as an experiment, turned out to be so successful that, in 1955, a separate Italian Section was created, still within the English Department, followed in 1961 by an independent Department of Italian Studies that soon became internationally known as one of the most innovative, dynamic and productive in the English-speaking world. Three years later Meneghello was made Professor, still a rare title in the Sixties.
          The Department of Italian Studies was not just Meneghello’s creation: it was a mirror of his interests and his personality. Nothing quite like it existed anywhere else. Along with scholars of Italian literature, as was the norm everywhere else, the department included young specialists in Italian linguistics, history, history of art, cinema, politics, and all aspects of Italian thought. The idea was to create an environment, much like an Italian mini-faculty of letters, capable of inspiring and satisfying at the highest level the curiosity of English students for any aspect of Italian civilization and culture.  But the department was also an expression of Meneghello’s deep delight in all things English, in that it embraced English culture in a way that was unusual for a group of foreign language specialists. Indeed, Meneghello gave the impression that both temperamentally and ideologically he identified more with such English colleagues and friends as Donald Gordon, Frank Stenton, John Wain and Frank Kermode, than with any of Italy’s current literary critics or university pundits. From the very beginning Meneghello fully embraced the ethos of British university life and culture, finding in it the concreteness, the common sense, the transparency, the irony, and the distaste for solemnity and empty rhetoric that he so sorely missed in Italy.  The result of this marriage of cultures was a Department of Italian that was and felt different from any other: a community of friends who worked – to quote Meneghello himself – “in all seriousness, yet with the impression that their work was at its best when it was most like playing.”
          Meneghello’s personal success was made much easier by the presence at his side of his wife and constant companion, Katia Bleier, a survivor from Auschwitz, who joined him in England in December 1948 after marrying him in Milan in September of that year. For many years their house in Reading, on the perimeter of Whiteknights Park, was a meeting place for scholars, writers, poets and students, colleagues and friends, both English and Italian, young and old, who found shelter there from the complications of their lives, as well as a lively and sophisticated appreciation of all good things, from literature to philosophy, from sport (especially soccer and tennis) to biology, quantum physics and astronomy.  Gigi and Katia were extraordinary hosts: friendly, generous, witty, and always interested in people and their stories as much as in books and ideas. 
          As a writer, Meneghello started late in life and, in some ways, reluctantly. He was intellectually too demanding with himself and too ironic by nature to be satisfied with either the self-important argumentation of the essay or the fanciful imagination of the novel. His first book, Libera nos a malo (1963), was neither fiction nor memoir, neither philology nor linguistics, neither anthropology nor folklore; at the same time it was all of these and more. Its focus is Malo (whose name is interpreted as related to the Latin word for ‘evil’, hence the title’s pun on the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Deliver us from Malo/evil’), the village near Vicenza (and Thiene) where Meneghello grew up. He now revisits his childhood haunts as an adult, a writer, an academic, and, as it were, an honorary Englishman. As the child protagonist happily and unselfconsciously discovers little by little his dialect-speaking environment, the writer savours and explains in Italian the child’s culture, the academic explores with gentle irony the religious, social, political and anthropological dimensions of village life, while the Englishman makes sure that the proceedings never turn too solemn, sentimental or nostalgic. Between the Veneto dialect – empirical, matter-of-fact, unsentimental – and English culture, a deep understanding develops, almost a complicity at the expense of the hyperliterary nature of Italian. Meneghello’s genius consists in his ability to use English as a vehicle of critical awareness that keeps constant watch on the writer as he recalls in Italian a childhood that he lived in dialect. His is an Italian that has been rinsed, not in the proverbial Arno, but paradoxically in the Thames, and it has a freshness, a lightness, a crispness, seldom found in Italian prose.  This is why, Libera nos a malo remains, over forty years after its publication, one of the few outstanding Italian literary achievements of the second half of the twentieth century.  
          After publishing I piccoli maestri in 1964, Meneghello went back to explore further the world of Malo’s culture and dialect with Pomo pero (1974) and Maredè maredè (1991). With Fiori italiani (1976) he delved with masterful irony into the history of education under fascism. In Jura (1987) he focused on the relationship between spoken and written discourse in some of his earlier Malo works.  In Bau-sète (1988) he reflected on the exhilarating, chaotic and disappointing years immediately following the war. And finally, with Il dispatrio (1993) and La materia di Reading  (1997), he turned his attention to his first experiences in England and the determining effect English and the English mentality had on his intellectual life. Especially memorable are the pages devoted to his early friends and the development of Italian Studies at Reading. In 1998, I piccoli maestri, his book on the Resistance, was made into a film by director Daniele Luchetti. Between 1999 and 2001 Meneghello edited and published three miscellaneous volumes, entitled Le carte, a rich collection of notes accumulated during three decades of writing, teaching, reflecting, and reacting to everyday encounters, dreams,  ideas, books, and events. 
Gigi retired from teaching in 1980 and moved with Katia to an apartment in London, behind the old British Library, where the couple soon became a familiar sight among the North Library readers. After Katia died in 2004, he settled permanently in Thiene.  In the last few years, he remained very active and engaged, and his reputation as a writer grew by leaps and bounds. He was a brilliant and unconventional conversationalist, always in great demand as a reader and presenter of his own writings. His ever youthful, irreverent, elegant irony made him particularly popular with young audiences. This summer he was due to receive from the President of the Italian Republic the much coveted Feltrinelli/ Lincei prize.
Lino Pertile
28 July 2007
This obituary appeared in a slightly different version in The Times on 1 August 2007.

Luigi Meneghello
Page last updated February 07, 2008
Tel: + 44 (0)118 378 8400 * Find Us
Email: italian@reading.ac.uk * Contact Us © The University of Reading 2002