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.