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Obituary

The Independant on Sunday, Tuesday 14 October 2008.

 
Prof Michael Mallett: Scholar of Renaissance Italy and a key historian at Warwick University

Michael Mallett was one of the most original and productive scholars in the study of italian Renaissance history. His doctoral research at Oxford and formative periods at the British School at Rome and the Scuola Normale, Pisa, led to the publication of The Florentine Galleys in the Fifteenth Century (1967), a study of Florence's attempt to use the recently conquered city of Pisa to gain direct access to the trade of the Mediterranean. This early work reveals much of the character of Mallett's scholarship: respect for the sources, care in composition and a wariness of preconceptions.

He was born in 1932, educated at St Edward's School, Oxford and took his first degree in Modern History at Worcester College, Oxford. After completing his postgraduate studies he taught for a brief period at Eton, before taking up a post at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. From 1962 to 1966 Mallett served as assistant director and librarian of the British School at Rome, helping to broaden that institution as a centre for the study of the history and art of medieval and Renaissance Italy. His time in Rome also led to the publication of The Borgias (1969), a successful and accessible attempt to achieve a more balanced view of this often misrepresented dynasty.

Thereafter, his personal research focused largely on the military history of Renaissance Italy, and on the composition and role of élites in the government of italian city states. As a military historian, he published Mercenaries and their Masters (1974) and – with Sir John Hale, founding Professor of History at Warwick and Mallett's doctoral supervisor at Oxford – The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State: Venice c1400 to 1617 (1984), both of which were immediately recognised as authoritative.

As his work with Hale demonstrated, Mallett was a good collaborator, a quality borne out in his long association with Nicolai Rubinstein over the publication of the correspondence of Lorenzo de' Medici. Mallett himself edited three volumes, and the insights this project gave into italian politics and diplomacy supported his work on élites – in particular the role of ambassadors – as well as his on-going research into military history. Greatly assisting his work on Lorenzo was Mallett's close association with the Harvard Centre for italian Renaissance Studies (at the Villa I Tatti, Florence) where he held a visiting fellowship (1974-75).

At the same time, Mallett was committed to Warwick University, which he had joined in 1967 soon after it opened, and where he became professor (1978), and served as chair of the Faculty of Arts (1985-88). He was crucial in building up the History Department in scope and academic reputation, though he also supported developments elsewhere, particularly in italian and the History of Art. He played a key role in the establishment and work of the Centre for Renaissance Studies, which did much to further the careers of younger scholars, as well as running a number of benchmarking international conferences, for example on Savonarola and the italian Wars.

Earlier, he followed John Hale's lead in organising a "Venice term" for students of the Renaissance at the university. With this ambitious project he often had to struggle against the scepticism of colleagues and a perennial shortage of resources, but his persistence, diplomatic skills, and the supportive contacts he made and sustained in the city, insured that the project survived. indeed, it now flourishes, to the benefit of generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as of Venice itself.

Mallett's involvement in the cultural and academic life of Venice led to him becoming a "corresponding member" of the Deputazione Veneta di Storia Patria, and to contributions to the multi-volumed Storia di Venezia. He also succeeded Hale as chair of the British and Commonwealth committee of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports the study of Venice past and present. He served for many years as an active committee member of the British organisation Venice in Peril where – among much else – he championed the view that concern for that city was felt, and should be encouraged, "north of Watford".

These activities, all conscientiously pursued, brought him well deserved recognition in the UK and abroad. He was granted fellowships of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He received the British Academy's Serena medal for italian studies (1998). He was made a Commendatore dell'Ordine al Merito of the italian Republic and held a visiting professorship at Yale. He was appointed OBE in 1998. Most recently, in November 2007, he received – along with his close colleague and friend Lady Frances Clarke – an honorary DLitt from Warwick University at a special ceremony, done with great style, in Venice itself.

Mallett himself was modest about such achievements. in many ways he was an undemonstrative man, but those who got to know him quickly came to appreciate his love of Italy, his enthusiasm for Mozart and Italian opera and his enjoyment of good food, fine wine and congenial company. He was extremely loyal and supportive to colleagues, students and friends.

Above all, he loved his family and his home, and was devoted to his wife Patricia. They met when she too was a student at the British School at Rome and they married in 1961. Latterly, he helped sustain her through a distressing and terminal illness. in this difficult time, he was closely supported by his two sons. They have clearly inherited his love of home and Italy, and with the help of colleagues and friends they are determined to see their father's unfinished work through to publication.

John E. Law

Michael Edward Mallett, historian: born Southend-on-Sea, Essex 14 July 1932; Assistant Director and Librarian, British School at Rome 1962-66; Lecturer in History, Warwick University1967-70, Senior Lecturer 1970-74, Reader 1974-78, Professor 1978-99 (Emeritus), Head of Department of History 1980-83, Chair, Faculty of Arts 1985-88; OBE 1998; married 1961 Patricia Sullivan (died 2004; two sons); died Abersoch, Gwynedd 2 September 2008.


 

The Guardian, Thursday 25 September 2008.

 
Eminent Renaissance historian and pillar of Warwick University

The Renaissance historian Michael Mallett, who has died aged 76, claimed that he told "a tale of two cities" - Florence and Venice - but his studies of military and diplomatic history confirm that his command ranged well beyond those two republican states.

Mallett was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, although earlier generations of his family lived in the north-west. He was educated at St Edward's school in Oxford and, following national service, graduated in modern history from Worcester College, Oxford, in 1955.

His choice of 15th-century Italian history for doctoral research caused him to feel somewhat detached from the historical establishment, but he regarded this as no great loss, for he was supervised by his future collaborator, the charismatic John Hale, and his research introduced him to stimulating academic communities at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and the British School at Rome, where he was scholar in medieval studies in 1957.

It was at the school that he met Patricia Berenice Sullivan, an artist, whom he married in 1961. His thesis on the economic relationship between Pisa and Florence in the 15th century was submitted at Oxford in 1959 and created the basis for his first book, The Florentine Galleys in the Fifteenth Century (1967).

After brief appointments as assistant history master at Eton college, where Prince Richard of Gloucester was among his pupils, and as lecturer and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, Mallett returned to Rome in 1962 as assistant director and librarian of the British School, where his interests in medieval and Renaissance history complemented the archaeological emphasis of the director, JB Ward-Perkins.

His Roman years had an enduring impact, both personally and academically. His colleague Luciana Valentini became a lifelong friend. Across the Tiber, ecclesiastical history was being made at the reformist Second Vatican Council, and this partially inspired Mallett's somewhat surprising choice of subject matter for his second book, The Borgias (1969).

Meanwhile, Hale had become the founding professor of history at Warwick University and was preparing to realise his dream of taking British undergraduates to study Italian Renaissance history in Venice. In January 1967 Mallett took up a lectureship in history at Warwick to assist Hale with this venture. Their collaboration extended beyond teaching, for they had complementary interests in the history of warfare.

In Mallett's case this resulted in Mercenaries and Their Masters (1974). They then joined forces to produce The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State: Venice circa 1400 to 1617 (1984).

When Hale left Warwick in 1970, Mallett assumed responsibility for the department's Venetian operations, which were then so modest that the collection of books for the students' use could be transported around the city in a perambulator. Under his patient guidance, the Venice programme took shape. He was joined by Martin Lowry, and later, Humfrey Butters to form a concentration of Italian Renaissance historians, the like of which did not exist in any other British university. Art history students became part of the annual autumnal Warwick presence in the city.

By the 1980s Mallett's quiet diplomacy and generous hospitality ensured that the students were well received by their Venetian hosts. By the 1990s Warwick had a well-resourced teaching centre in the city and made a widely recognised contribution to Venice's cultural life. Mallett assumed the role of a benevolent patron, caring for his research students, providing teaching opportunities for younger scholars, and administering the British end of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation for research into the history, culture and geography of Venice. Through friendship with Ashley and Frances Clarke, he demonstrated his commitment to the city by serving on the Venice in Peril committee.

However, the Venetian initiatives did not exist in a vacuum. At Warwick, Mallett's ascent of the academic ladder was as measured as the man himself: senior lecturer in 1970, reader in 1974, professor in 1978, head of department (1980-83), chair of the faculty of arts (1985-88). He was also a key contributor to the interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, which was recognised internationally as a centre of excellence and which supported Mallett's editing of three volumes of the letters of Lorenzo de Medici (1989, 1990, 1998). His detailed commentaries on the letters were largely derived from ambassadorial dispatches housed in various Italian archives, between which he travelled with backbreaking quantities of index cards.

His honours included the British Academy's Serena Medal for Italian Studies (1997), an OBE (1998) and he became a Commendatore dell'Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana. Following his retirement in 1999, he worked on a history of the Italian wars and a study of podestà (judges) in the Italian states. But progress was hampered, first by the need to care for his terminally ill wife, to whom he was devoted, and then by the gradual deterioration in his own health. Though the journey was clearly a strain for him, he paid his last visit to Venice last November, to receive an honorary DLitt from Warwick, the university he served so assiduously for 32 years.

He is survived by his two sons.

· Michael Edward Mallett, historian, born July 14 1932; died September 2 2008