Ruggero Stefanini (1932-2005)

Emeritus Professor of Italian Studies and Near Eastern Studies

Ruggero Stefanini was Porfesor Emeritus of Italian Studies and Near Eastern Studies.

Professor Ruggero Stefanini was born in Borgo San Lorenzo, Italy, a town not too far from Florence. In addition to Italian, its inhabitants speak, or spoke until recently, a Tuscan dialect similar to that spoken in Florence, where, as in Borgo San Lorenzo, the citizens are, or once were, bilingual. This is worth mentioning because language was so prominently of the essence in Ruggero. When he spoke in Italian, strictly Italian, you would hear a cultivated, fluidly elegant native speaker. When speaking with his friends, however, he would sometimes suddenly change the pitch of his voice in a word or two, or an idiomatic phrase, from his dialect. It added something picturesque, something, one might say, vaguely picaresque or even racy to his speech and his character. It never mattered that we might not be sure just what the phrase meant: he made it sound intriguing.

After his early years as a student undergoing the rigorous intellectual training of the Liceo Classico “Galileo Galilei” in Florence, he studied at the city’s university (in the Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia), where his major fields were classical philology and Indo-European historical linguistics. He graduated with highest honors, receiving the doctoral degree with a dissertation on the ancient language of the Hittites. Meanwhile he continued to read deeply in the history and literature of medieval Italy. From the time he joined the University of California, Berkeley faculty in 1961, Ruggero held a split appointment: two-thirds in the (then) Department of Italian (and in Italian Studies after 1994), one-third in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. He also immediately became a faculty member of the Group in Romance Philology, the Graduate Program in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, and the Program in Medieval Studies. He was also very much at home in Biblical studies and ecclesiastical history.

Ruggero was, indeed, a man of wide interests and vast erudition, a seemingly inexhaustible source of knowledge on many matters. His erudition was, however, always worn lightly. Neither colleagues nor students were ever made to feel uncomfortable in conversation with him or when being taught something by him. One came away knowing that one had learned something of significance, that one had been enriched, without the feeling of having been lectured to or interrogated. He had the knack—the art, if you like—of introducing a new fact to you nonchalantly or even apologetically; unless he was overtly, but always playfully, acting out the role of teacher. This was done with unfailing good nature, and not without self-irony. If he was inveterately theatrical, he was uncalculatingly and sympathetically so.

A few years ago a website for new students at Berkeley featured course recommendations resulting from a survey of some 2,000 undergraduates. It offered rave reviews for Ruggero’s course on Dante, exhorting students to take it in these words: “You must not leave Berkeley without having Stefanini teach you the Divine Comedy. His lectures are so animated and exciting; it’s more like going to a theater than a class.”  This sort of enthusiasm was expressed by students throughout his career at Berkeley. It was not a matter of having to “entertain” students in order to keep their attention or assure himself of being popular in their eyes; it was a matter of the spontaneous and contagious exuberance of Ruggero the classroom teacher. He was scrupulous and tireless in preparing his classes. He would often mutter discontent with his own performance, but once he began to speak in class everything would flow; he was happy then. He truly enjoyed teaching, from head to toe, in every fiber of his body; and that joy found spontaneous expression in his voice and in what is sometimes referred to as “body language.”  He was never more vitally alive than in the classroom.

Ruggero often agreed to teach more courses than was considered appropriate for professors. His office door was always open to students, at all levels of learning. He was often visited by faculty from other departments (history, classics, history of art) in search of information and opinions on subjects in their own areas of specialization. In this respect he was generous far beyond what might rightly have been expected of him. (Ruggero, who could discourse in detail on the finer points of ancient Greek and Latin, gladly volunteered his time to teach the rudiments of Latin to students in need of acquiring enough proficiency to pass the department’s doctoral exams in that language). In the minds of those who knew him, Ruggero has always stood out as the exemplary teacher. And he was also a great learner: indeed, he never stopped learning — which is, after all, the mark of a true teacher. In terms of his contribution to the University and to academia at large, teaching was his greatest strength.

Nor is it only teaching in the classroom or the serendipitous learning one acquired from conversation with him that we speak of here. Ruggero was a consummate lecturer. He frequently lectured, in this country and abroad, at scholarly conferences and to general audiences. His annual end-of-academic-year lecture for students and faculty in the Italian department, initiated in the early years of his Berkeley career, was always eagerly anticipated. He also gave many lectures for the public at large on both sides of San Francisco Bay. He gave frequent talks to various community groups, especially one that was particularly dear to him, the UC Berkeley Italian Section for women faculty and faculty spouses. And with this we are again reminded of Ruggero’s affinity for the theatrical, or, better, the theater itself. For this group he put on readings and recitals of Italian plays, for which he enlisted the participation not only of group members but of students and faculty from the Department of Italian, himself included. And of course in this enterprise he was primus inter pares, first among equals, and nobody would have dreamed of disputing the matter. One of the plays he wrote himself; and when teaching, as he did for many years, in the Italian summer school at Middlebury College, Vermont, he always directed a play.

His lectures, like his numerous publications, dealt with subjects that ranged from Indo-European cuneiform and hieroglyphics to Saint Francis of Assisi’s Cantico delle creature, from ancient Hittite legal texts to Dante’s conception of the afterlife in the Divine Comedy, from the use of rhetorical figures and tropes in poetry to Aleksandr Pushkin’s verse novella The Golden Rooster (of which, by the way, Ruggero did a translation directly from the Russian into Italian verse, published in a prestigious Italian periodical), from the eighteenth century Italian poet Giambattista Casti’s satirical treatment of the Empress Catherine the Great to observations on the Italian language and Florentine vernacular. It is a long list; one that includes many topics of a highly specialized nature, of interest chiefly to scholars of Anatolian studies and medieval Italian literature — which is, of course, only to be expected. But one might not expect to find on it an article, dating from 1966, on some lyrics of a nineteenth century American poet — perhaps indeed America’s greatest poet — to whose birthplace in Amherst, Massachusetts, Ruggero once made a pilgrimage: “Su alcune liriche di Emily Dickinson,” Rivista di letterature moderne e comparate, 19 (1966): 46-51.

Somehow Ruggero also found time to go often to the opera and the symphony, and to visit, wherever he went, museums, art galleries, and restaurants. He had a special affection for the southern part of Marin County, California, its towns and their unusual churches — works of art in themselves. On Sunday mornings he walked the streets of Berkeley. He was an omnivorous reader. Along with his scholarly reading, he enjoyed books of animal lore and biographies of illustrious personages of past and present. True to his affinity for the theater, he was passionately fond of reading the lives of opera singers and movie stars — he was a devoted and unabashed fan of Joan Crawford.

Ruggero was also a poet, a lyric poet. He was shy about sharing his poetry with others, and, except for a few poems that appeared in estimable periodicals in America and Italy, it was only in the last few years of his life that he published some of it, in three small but precious volumes. In fact, despite his expertise in, and passion for, a large variety of learned matters, he was a poet most of all. He was able, two weeks before his death, to present his third volume to a select group of academics and aficionados of poetry in a library in Florence.

Ruggero seldom let a year go by without spending an extended period of time in his native land. He loved Italy, of course; but he loved America too. Late in his life, when it became possible to hold dual citizenship in Italy and the United States, he lost no time in becoming a U.S. citizen. He succumbed to cancer in the town of his birth, on May 5, 2005, succored by his three devoted surviving sisters. His will specified his wish to have his ashes strewn over Marin County. They were brought back from Italy by a devoted friend who years earlier had been his student, and his wish was fulfilled in May 2005.