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A Great Loss: Two Brilliant Italians, a Historian and a Politico, Pass Away

I lost two more friends in the past two weeks, and it’s not just me that’s mourning. They were among our closest Italian friends, members of a great generation that taught me how to understand the country, speak its language, embrace its food, and learn its culture. One man, one woman, both great intellectuals. Such a loss.

Both were southerners, with deep Neapolitan roots. He was a historian, Giuseppe Galasso, universally recognized as the greatest historian of Naples, where he lived and taught. He was 88 years old when he died, peacefully in his sleep, having apparently been overcome by this year’s nasty influenza.

He was generous with his time and his wisdom. When I wrote a book about Naples, he responded to every question, even when he was amused by them, and began his response with “Ha! Wrong question, but here is what I think you might consider … ”.

Peppino, as his friends called him, wrote hundreds of popular articles as well as his scholarly tomes, insisting throughout that we had to view specific historical questions -- Neapolitan history, for example -- in the broad context of European history, from ancient Jewish thought and action, through Greece and Rome, to today’s debates. One of his most important books, The Other Europe, examined southern history from Portugal and Spain, across Italy to Greece. I tried very hard (with no success) to convince some American publishers to translate it, since its conclusion -- that while these regions had unique characteristics, they were part of Europe and should be treated in that context -- is so important.

He didn’t waste his time on such non-questions as “what does history teach us?” He knew that history defines us, and a proper appreciation of our history might help us make better decisions today and tomorrow. Inevitably, he brought his rich understanding of our past to bear on contemporary politics. As so many thoughtful leaders of his generation, he was a member of the small but influential Republican party, and was a convinced Atlanticist.

A very rare man. And not only a great intellectual, but a great eater. He knew all the chefs and waiters in the best -- not necessarily the most elegant -- restaurants in town. And he knew the recipes, too.

He was a student of Benedetto Croce, arguably the leading Italian intellectual figure of the 20th century, and he was active at the Croce Institute, aka the Italian Institute for Historical Studies, where scores of leading historians, philosophers and political scientists honed their crafts after the war. Founded by Croce himself in 1947, the Institute attracted some of the finest minds in the country under the guidance of Federico Chabod -- a name today virtually unknown outside a tiny circle of scholars, but worthy of serious study by anyone concerned with European history.