Gian-Paolo Biasin (1933-1998)

Professor of Italian Studies

Gian-Paolo Biasin, Professor of Italian Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1981, died Monday, August 24, 1998, after two years of courageous struggle against cancer. He is survived by his devoted wife, Rita, and son, Giovanni of Berkeley, and in Italy by his loving mother, two brothers, and a sister.

He was a native of Italy, born in Reggio Emilia on November 7, 1933, and raised in Sassuolo near Modena, to which city his family had moved when he was a boy. After obtaining in 1952 the Diploma di Maturit√† from the Liceo Classico “L.A. Muratori” in Modena, he attended the University of Modena, where he completed in 1956 the doctoral program in law (Laurea in Giurisprudenza). Granted a Fulbright Fellowship in 1957-58 for study in the United States, he worked for and received in 1958 an M.A. in political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He had always been a keen reader of literature, and it was during this period, which included an extensive tour of the United States, that he decided to devote himself to a career in letters. With the assiduity and thoroughness that marked all his endeavors, he went about the business of acquiring a doctorate in romance literature at the Johns Hopkins University. He achieved it in 1964. Before joining the faculty at Berkeley, he taught at Cornell University as Assistant Professor of Italian Literature from 1964 to 1967 and Associate Professor from 1967 to 1973, and as Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Austin, from 1973 to 1981. In 1981 he was appointed Professor of Italian at Berkeley, where he remained until his untimely death.

A splendid teacher and lecturer, much admired and beloved by his students, Biasin was also an internationally recognized authority on Italian literature of the late 19th and 20th century. The Berkeley campus and the rich cultural activity of the San Francisco Bay Area further fostered his creative and scholarly work, and here his reputation was repeatedly confirmed and expanded. He was the author of many essays and six wide-ranging books, four of which appeared in both English and Italian and were published by prestigious presses: The Smile of the Gods. A Thematic Study of Cesare Pavese’s Work (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968); Literary Diseases: Theme and Metaphor in the Italian Novel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975), in Italian as Malattie letterarie (Milano: Bompiani, 1976); Icone italiane (Roma: Bulzoni, 1983), in English as Italian Literary Icons (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); Il vento di Debussy: la poesia di Montale nella cultura del Novecento (Bologna: II Mulino, 1985), in English as Montale, Debussy, and Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); I sapori della modernit√†: cibo e romanzo (Bologna: II Mulino, 1991), in English as The Flavors of Modernity: Food and the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Le periferie della letteratura: Da Verga a Tabucchi (Ravenna: Longo, 1997).

Biasin received signal honors on both sides of the Atlantic. He was honorary president of the American Association for Italian Studies for 1997; fellow in the Humanities Council at Princeton University (Fall 1992); recipient of the “Presidential Book Award” of the AAIS (1993-95) for The Flavors of Modernity and of the Orio Vergani Prize for Sapori della modernit√†. In June 1987 he was made Knight in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Italianists need hardly be reminded of the frequency with which Biasin participated as lecturer, organizer, and panelist at various professional conventions and meetings here and abroad. At Berkeley, he gave distinguished service to the Italian Department as chair and graduate advisor and served on important Senate and other UCB committees. His time as chair of the department was especially noteworthy for his organization here of two highly esteemed international symposia: on Pirandello in March 1986 and Ungaretti in November 1988. Equally successful was his organization of the international symposium “Deconstructing Italy?” in March 1993.

Biasin was also energetic in maintaining and strengthening the link between our department and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Italian-American community at large. The Italian Consulate, the Italian Cultural Institute, and socio-cultural clubs such as the “Cenacolo” and the “Leonardo Da Vinci Society” knew him as a frequent speaker and lecturer, as an elegant, accessible, and informative man.

Among Biasin’s leisure-time activities we would recall his love of nature, his backpacking in the Dolomite mountains every summer, his Sunday trail walks with friends in the Bay Area’s great regional parks, where, as in the Dolomites, he would also hunt for mushrooms–porcini and chanterelles–with enviable success, and his zeal in joining his wife in preparing true Italian (Emilian) meals. Food, in fact, was for him a matter of, and a key to, culture. In much of his later critical writings it became a dominant theme, a metaphor that he used to unlock the secret ways (stylistically and narratively) of several authors. Quite appropriately, he served as the delegate of the San Francisco chapter of Italy’s prestigious Accademia della Cucina. That he will be missed is a grievous understatement.