John Freccero (1931–2021)
John Freccero, Professor Emeritus of Italian and Comparative Literature at New York University, died on November 22, 2021 in Santa Cruz, California in the company of his family. He was ninety years old. He was predeceased by his wife Diane; he is survived by his first wife Yvonne, his children Carla, Stephen, Francesca, and Paola, and his grandchildren Isabella, Daniela, and Elijah. He is remembered as one of the greatest Dante scholars of his or any generation and a brilliant, inspiring teacher. His many publications and accolades hardly manage to capture the sweeping influence he had on the academic world and especially on his students, many of whom went on to become beloved teachers and prominent scholars themselves.
Freccero was born on July 25, 1931 in New York City. His upbringing in an Italian-American family in Manhattan shaped him deeply even as he followed a trajectory very different from that of his immigrant parents, eventually receiving an academic scholarship to attend Johns Hopkins University, where he completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After pausing to serve in the military, he went on to pursue a Ph.D. from the same institution supported by the G.I. bill, and completed his dissertation in 1958 guided by the renowned Dantista Charles Singleton. His graduate and postdoctoral studies in Florence put him into contact with the important schools of philological and literary thought in the Italian and especially Florentine context, establishing his relationship with that city and the poet it had exiled. He recalled escaping to the hills of Florence during the flood of 1966 with his family in tow, and became a recognizable feature of Piazza Santo Spirito when he later regularly led the graduate program at New York University’s seat in Florence. [End Page 217]
His first major essay, “Dante's Firm Foot and the Journey without a Guide” (The Harvard Theological Review, 1959), unraveled a long-contested crux in Dante studies and anchored Freccero as a dominant new voice in the field. It was later incorporated with his other contributions on Dante into a monograph edited by his student Rachel Jacoff, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, published by Harvard in 1986. Emphasizing the Augustinian framework that undergirds the Commedia and introducing theoretical constructs that had rarely if ever been applied to the poet, The Poetics of Conversion became essential reading not only for all students of Dante but also for any student of critical literary studies. Freccero had an uncanny ability to comment on large-scale phenomena through close reading, a talent that also came through in his work on subjects other than Dante. That his essays on John Donne, Italo Svevo, and Michelangelo Antonioni remain points of reference for students of those authors marks him as a rare example of a scholar whose work might be better defined as a practice unto itself rather than an exercise of a given methodology.
In addition to his critically acclaimed Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, his published works include the edited anthology Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1965), and a second collection of essays, In Dante’s Wake: Reading from Medieval to Modern in the Augustinian Tradition (Fordham University Press, 2015), co-edited by Danielle Callegari and Melissa Swain. He composed the introductions for a number of notable American translations of Dante’s work, among them John Ciardi’s 1970 translation of Dante’s Paradiso and US poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s 1994 popular translation of Inferno.
These publications are a reflection of how active he was in the field, as are the numerous awards and honors he received, beginning with two Fulbright fellowships for postdoctoral work, followed by a Guggenheim fellowship. The Dante Society of America bestowed him with a lifetime achievement award, and in 2015 he was among the elite group of scholars elected into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in the category of Humanities and the Arts. Importantly, his awards reflect his far-reaching influence, not only in the US but also in Italy, where he was honored with the Fiorino d’Oro from the city of Florence and the Premio Presidente della Repubblica for Italian Studies. In 2004, he was awarded one of Italy’s most prestigious titles, Ufficiale Ordine al Merito [End Page 218] della Repubblica Italiana (Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic), for his scholarship on Italy’s most eminent poet.
Over the course of his distinguished career Freccero taught at his alma mater Johns Hopkins University (1959–1963), Cornell University (1963–1969), Yale University (1969–1979), Stanford University (1979– 1992), and finally New York University (1992–2015). During his tenure at these storied institutions, Freccero became known as a captivating lecturer. His classes were overenrolled up to the moment of his retirement, and even at an advanced age he was celebrated for his energy and ability to motivate students to the study of Dante. When he took students under his wing to guide them through their graduate studies, he gave them his fullest attention and worked tirelessly to ensure their success, glowing with pride upon seeing them reach their potential.
The incandescence he brought to the classroom surrounded him also in his private interactions; he is perhaps best described first and foremost as a storyteller, and like the poet around whom he built his career, Freccero’s conviviality provided him with the means to foster community through thought—a platform of which he took full advantage. While his scholarship was always evident in his conversation, he was a jovial lover of eating and drinking well, which made him very fine company. This convivial spirit was infectious, and earned him friends in all walks of life, from Julia Child to Roberto Benigni.
The variety of friends and confidants with whom he kept company is a reminder of how, though his academic research and teaching were always firmly focused on Dante, his desire for knowledge mirrored the Aristotelian archetype: his curiosity was seemingly boundless and he relished lively intellectual exchange. Even as he is rightly celebrated for his dedication as a teacher and mentor, he was also a lifelong and insatiable learner. That he died as the world celebrated the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death seems especially appropriate, as he took great satisfaction in a fitting end. His absence will be felt keenly, but his scholarship will continue to act as a cornerstone for future contributions to the field. [End Page 219]