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UC Berkeley Press Release

Dante scholar Ruggiero Stefanini dies at 72

– Ruggiero Stefanini, an emeritus professor of Italian and Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who taught courses on Dante, classical philology and the ancient Indo-European language of Hittite for more than 40 years, died May 6 at the age of 72.

A native of Borgo San Lorenzo, Italy, Stefanini died at his family home in Italy, where he had returned about two years ago following treatment of stomach cancer.

Ruggiero Stefanini
Ruggiero Stefanini (Photo by Craig Davidson)

"Everybody loved him," recalled Steven Botterill, acting chair of UC Berkeley's Italian Studies Department. "His students adored him and, in return, he dedicated his life to them. He was the beating heart of this department for 40 years."

Stefanini earned his degree - the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the United States - with an emphasis on Hittite from the University of Florence in 1957, and served as an assistant to the chair of Germanic philosophy at the university from 1957-1958. He served in the Italian Army from 1958-1960 before coming to UC Berkeley in 1961 as an assistant professor.

Nicolas Perella, an emeritus professor of Italian studies, said Stefanini was trained in classical philology and literature - the study of ancient languages and texts - and Italian dialects, Italian and romance philology, and ancient literature. In 1992, Perella and Stefanini together translated "Man of Smoke," an avant-garde novel written in 1911 by Aldo Palazzeschi.

Stefanini regularly taught classes and wrote about Italian poet and writer Dante Alighieri.

An online Web site for new students at UC Berkeley once featured course recommendations resulting from a survey of 2,000 undergraduates. It offered rave reviews for Stefanini's class on Dante, urging Italian majors, "You cannot leave Berkeley without having Stefanini teach you the 'Divine Comedy.' His lectures are so animated and exciting; it is more like going to a theater than a class."

"He was theatrical in the best sense of the word," said Perella, "because he enjoyed people, he enjoyed life, and he enjoyed nature."

Irene Zinini Cordi, a lecturer in Italian Studies and a former student of Stefanini's, said his vivacious personality, powerful voice and often flamboyant dress made him stand out in a crowd.

But, she said, it was his encyclopedic knowledge, precision in teaching and research, and cheerful availability to students and colleagues that endeared him to those who knew him.

Stefanini was a member of the American Association of Teachers of Italian, the American Oriental Society, British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, Philological Association of the Pacific Coast, and the Medieval Academy of America.

Perella said Stefanini enjoyed the opera and the symphony, as well as fine restaurants, the contours of southern Marin County, and the charm of its small towns. Stefanini and friends sampled Italian restaurants around the Bay Area and often wrote reviews of them for magazines in Italy, said Zinini Cordi.

Stefanini often returned to Italy during the summer, and frequently taught in a special foreign language and literature program offered during the summer at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt. While at Middlebury, he always put on a play, said Perella and sometimes one of his own.

"He was a deep well of knowledge about many things," Perella said.

Botterill said that Stefanini published numerous articles, plays and poetry. He noted that Stefanini rebuilt his home after it was destroyed in the Oakland hills fire of 1991.

Stefanini retired in June 1994. He continued to teach one course a semester through the Graduate Division, said Perella.

The Italian Studies Department will host a memorial for Stefanini in the fall.

Stefanini is survived by three sisters, all living in Italy.