John Rosselli (1927-2001)

With John (Giovanni) Rosselli, who died in Cambridge on January 16, 2001, the world of Anglo-Italian scholarship lost an author of the highest distinction, whose expertise ranged from social and economic history to political journalism and musicology.

Born in 1927, the son of the famous anti-fascist Carlo Rosselli and his English wife, he grew up first in France, moving after the German invasion of 1940 to England and then to the United States, where he graduated in humanities summa cum laude at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. The war ended, he decided to live in England. After serving in the British Army as sergeant monitoring traffic through the port of Trieste, he settled down to work for a PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) at Peterhouse, Cambridge, winning the Thurwell Prize with his thesis, ‘Lord William Bentinck and the British Occupation of Sicily, 1811-1814’.

In 1951 he joined the staff of The Manchester Guardian (to-day’s The Guardian), Britain’s leading newspaper in the sphere of liberal politics. Here the rose from leader-writer to features editor, with a side-line as critic of opera. In 1964 he resigned to take up an academic career as Reader in History at the University of Sussex, during which he built up a body of original work of the highest quality, beginning with the expansion of his doctoral thesis into a full-lenght biography, Lord William Bentinck: the Making of a Liberal Imperialist, 1774-1839 (1974), which moves on from Sicily to Bentinck’s activity as governor of Bengal. This led Rosselli to an interest in Bengal itself, whose language he learned to speak and write fluently; and his work on nineteenth-century Bengali culture has long been recognised as original and important.

Finally Rosselli turned his attention to musicology, opening up a hitherto neglected field with his books, The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi: the Role of the Impresario (1984), Music and Musicians in Nineteenth-Century Italy (1991) and Singers of Italian Opera: the History of a Profession (1992). To these should be added a number of articles for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) and an invaluable contribution to La Storia dell’Opera Italiana (EdT, Torino), the relevant volume appearing in 1987. To all these studies he brought the discipline of a trained historian, with te result that his view are invariably well-balanced and free from tendenciousness. Lastly came three biographies in the Cambridge University Press series of musical lives: Bellini (1996), Mozart (1998) and Verdi (2000). Though modest in lenght, each is a nugget of scholarship and insight, offering new perspectives on its subject. The first of them contains fresh discoveries regarding the composer’s last months.

After his wife’s death in 1989 Rosselli moved first to Cambridge, then to a village near Siena, eventually to Florence. He accepted cordially our invitation to join the Comitato Scientifico of the Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini. Sadly his final illness prevented him from attending the subsequent meeting.
A liberal of deep moral and intellectual strenght — ‘an aristocrat of the mind’, as one of his colleagues put it — he wore his immense learning lightly. His writing is clear, to the point, and leavened by touches of humour, which make it a pleasure to read. A devoted family man, he was also a delightful companion, both instructive and entertaining. His studies in field of Italian opera will always remain fundamental.

Estratto da «Studi pucciniani», 2, 2000