bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The colourful life of Roberto Weiss

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 10 October, 2010

My ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century has recently been made available on-line. In that, I try to place Weiss’s first monograph into its intellectual milieu and to provide some suggestions of how the tale of English engagement with the studia humanitatis — and vice versa — could be revised by a new approach building on the work of Weiss and those who followed him, in particular A. C. de la Mare. What I could not do is to bring to life Weiss’s character — and I can only wish I had more opportunity to delve into his biography, for it is intriguing.

This self-proclaimed ‘count’ had certain exotic allure in his early life because he had made the decision to emigrate from Italy: he appears, for instance, in Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. It is said that he arrived to go to university in Cambridge, did not like it, so rushed over to Oxford and persuaded them to take him. Quite why he wanted to adopt Britain is the subject of rumour rather than hard fact but it is said that he settled here out of dislike for the Fascist regime in the land of his birth. There is, though, one piece of plausible information that might help to corroborate this rare insight into his politics.

In Oxford, he was fortunate enough to fall into the ambit of John Buchan, whose son was at Oxford with Weiss, and who lived at Elsfield, only a few miles outside the city. Weiss’s connexion with Buchan continued after his undergraduate days, with him acting as an informal research assistant when Buchan, then Governor-General in Canada, was completing his biography of Augustus. That work itself was partisan in its politics, drawing unfavourable comparisons between the first Roman Emperor and his soi-disant successor, Mussolini. Soon after its publication, it was translated into Italian but was revised or censored so as to remove those comments.  Long after the War, in 1961, it was reprinted in Italian — and it is said that it was Weiss who revised the translation to reinsert Buchan’s original criticisms of Fascism. No reference is made in the volume itself to the identity of the reviser.

Away from politics, those I know who remember Weiss describe him as a ‘gentleman’ — and as a gifted cartoonist. He used to etch Christmas cards for his friends and apparently sat through the inaugural meeting of the Society for Renaissance Studies drawing impressions of those around him. They do not, I think, survive, though some of his papers did reach the Warburg where, looking through his notebooks written in his neat small handwriting and which record both his intellectual pursuits and practical, mundane necessities, you feel you are in his presence. He died a year before I was born. Having spent some time with not just his works but also with tales of him, I can only wish it had been otherwise.



5 Responses

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  1. Yvonne Cocking said, on 4 January, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    The Professor of Italian when I was at University College London in 1949-50 was called Roberto Weiss, I am fairly sure. As a devotee of Barbara Pym, I have often wondered whether her “Count Bianco” in “Some Tame Gazelle” was my professor. Can anyone confirm or deny?

  2. bonaelitterae said, on 5 January, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Yes, I can confirm that. Roberto Weiss was on the edge of Barbara Pym’s circle when they were both in Oxford (or vice versa), through Weiss’s friendship with John Buchan’s son. You were at UCL soon after Weiss became Professor (in 1947): any recollections you have of him would be of interest.

  3. Julien Foster said, on 18 March, 2011 at 12:38 am

    I enjoyed reading this piece about my grandfather! I, too, wish I had met him as I was born in 1971. Shortly before my mother died, she wrote a family history which included a chapter all about him and with some of the correspondence between him and John Buchan. You would be very welcome to see it if it would be of interest.

  4. Richard Weiss said, on 3 August, 2013 at 2:08 am

    Unlike Julien and bonaelitterae I have some memories of the man who was also my grandfather, marking essays standing in front of a gas heater, and wet shaving (which was a great ritual which used to take him ages daily, I have been reliably informed) Nice article, I recommend the book my cousin refers to as well, both for info about him and his own family (parents, grandparents)

  5. […] Roberto Weiss, apart from being an émigré Italian count, a professor at UCL and a leading historian of humanism, was skilful with a pen. Among his papers now held in the Warburg, there are several examples of the Christmas cards he drew for friends. The portfolio also includes a depiction of the then-new building of the Bodleian, erected on the north side of Broad Street, with a caption describing it as Oxford’s Kremlin. When compared with the charm of the ramshackle cluster of shops and pubs that were demolished to make space for the library’s austere facade, the sense of loss might be understandable. […]

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