Ronald G. Witt, a historian who redrew the map of the Renaissance through influential studies that identified the first stirrings of Italian humanism in a period well before the birth of its traditional father, Petrarch, died on March 15 at his home in Durham, N.C. He was 84.
His wife, Mary Ann Frese Witt, said the cause was heart failure.
Professor Witt was a disciple of the eminent German historians Hans Baron, who coined the term “civic humanism” to describe the political culture of 15th-century Florence, and Paul Oskar Kristeller, who emphasized the work of medieval rhetoricians in preparing the ground for Renaissance humanism.
In his studies of the humanist Coluccio Salutati, chancellor of Florence in the late 14th century, and in two sweeping works, “‘In the Footsteps of the Ancients’: The Origins of Humanism From Lovato to Bruni” (2000) and “The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy” (2012), Professor Witt persuasively revised previous ideas about the evolution of Italian humanism.
“His books have been major influences on the way the Renaissance is now taught in America and around the world,” James Hankins, a Harvard historian who studied under Professor Witt, wrote in an email.ntinue reading the main story
Immersing himself in medieval manuals of Latin rhetoric and grammar, and closely examining letters and speeches, Professor Witt examined two powerful currents in the development of modern ideas about language and history. The “traditional book culture,” as he put it in “The Two Latin Cultures,” one nourished in cathedrals and monasteries, began to rely on classical models in teaching grammar. At the same time, the lay practitioners of public speech — the lawyers and notaries who composed speeches and public letters for political officials — continued to consult medieval manuals of rhetoric.
The two cultures did not proceed in succession, with literary humanism superseding the medieval, scholastic world of the law, he argued. Rather, he said, they coexisted and eventually intertwined.
Turning his attention to historical and literary developments in the city-state of Padua in the 13th century, Professor Witt, in “‘In the Footsteps of the Ancients,’” pushed the birth of humanism back more than 50 years from its traditional date in the mid-14th century.
Going back even further in time, he argued that the humanist project of the Paduan poets Lovato dei Lovati and Albertino Mussato could not be understood without reference to literary changes of a century or more before them. By this reckoning, Petrarch, far from being the founding father of humanism, belonged to its third generation.
“‘In the Footsteps of the Ancients’” was awarded the Renaissance Society of America’s Gordan Prize and shared the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, given by the American Philosophical Society.
Ronald Gene Witt was born on Dec. 23, 1932, in Wayne, Mich., and grew up in Plymouth. His father, Elmer, a German immigrant, was an engineer with Detroit Edison. His mother, the former Iris Palmer, was a homemaker.
With the thought of entering the foreign service, he studied political science at the University of Michigan, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954. But it was the history courses he took that grabbed hold of his imagination.
He began teaching at Harvard as an instructor in 1964. In 1971 he joined the history department at Duke University, where he was distinguished professor of medieval and Renaissance history on his retirement in 2004.After studying history and teaching for two years in France on a Fulbright scholarship, he enrolled in Harvard, where he was awarded a master’s degree in history in 1958 and a doctorate in 1965.
Professor Witt’s dissertation evolved into the book “Coluccio Salutati and His Public Letters” (1976), a study of the provincial notary turned civil servant, based largely on the letters he wrote as chancellor of Florence from 1375 until his death in 1406. Professor Witt returned to Salutati in “Hercules at the Crossroads: The Life, Works and Thought of Coluccio Salutati” (1983), the first full-length biography of his subject.
“Before Salutati, humanism was a movement consisting of scattered geniuses without a center,” Professor Witt told the reference work Contemporary Authors. “Through his vast literary correspondence and his patronage of Greek studies, his own scholarly achievements and concern to train disciples in the city, Salutati was responsible for making Florence the capital of Italian humanism in the first half of the 15th century.”
With his wife and others, Professor Witt edited “The Humanities: Cultural Roots and Continuities” (1980), a two-volume textbook that went through several editions. He also edited, with Marcel Tetel and Rona Goffen, “Life and Death in 15th Century Florence” (1989). Several of his essays were collected in “Italian Humanism and Medieval Rhetoric” (2001).
In addition to his wife, who taught French and Italian languages and literatures for many years at North Carolina State University, he is survived by a son, Eric; two daughters, Martha Witt and Daria Witt; and four grandchildren.