Obituary in the Independent Published: 28 March 2007

John Allitt

Art historian and Donizetti scholar

John Stewart Allitt, musicologist and cultural historian: born Calais, France 13 May 1934; married 1962 Anna Lomazzi (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1966), 1970 Eleanor Cobb (two daughters); died Coventry 1 March 2007.

John Allitt played a significant part in the cultural life of Britain in three distinct fields: as a lecturer at the Central School of Art (now Central St Martins) in London, as an international expert on the music of Gaetano Donizetti, and as a leading contributor to the work of the Temenos Academy.

His early years were turbulent. Born in 1934 at Calais of English parents, he fled with his mother before the German armies at the age of six, diving behind a sugarbeet pile when machine-gunned from the air. Between the ages of eight and 12 he was seriously ill. In 1946 the family moved to Milan, and Allitt had a vivid memory of being taken by his father to the shed in which Mussolini had been shot by partisans.

At school in Switzerland he heard his first Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale - a defining moment. In Milan he drank in performances at La Scala while still a boy, standing at the back of a box and peering through the heads and hats at the stage below. Later, he studied Art History and Italian Literature at Leeds University. A failed marriage in Italyft him a struggling single parent, until his second marriage in 1970 and the birth of twin daughters proved a source of lasting happiness.

From 1964 Allitt taught at the Central School of Art in London. As Senior Lecturer in Art History, he joined the painter Cecil Collins in presenting a very different view from that officially sanctioned. Both viewed the increasingly dated Modernism - hard-edged abstraction was then in vogue - as empty of meaning and hostile to real creativity: "a world where the soul wanders unadopted, confused - dying", as Allitt wrote. They emphasised the importance of the representative element in art as a vehicle for the expression of the inner life, and a generation of students, many of whom are painting today, responded with enthusiasm.

During these same years Allitt was exploring the music of Donizetti, travelling to the composer's home town of Bergamo whenever possible. He discovered the neglected early compositions of Donizetti and the importance of his teacher, J.S. Mayr, a significant composer and theorist who was the link between German music and Italian Romantic opera.

In 1973 Allitt became Founding Chairman of the Donizetti Society and the first modern performances of forgotten works by Mayr and Donizetti followed, at St John's, Smith Square, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. For Allitt, their music went far beyond the Romantic expression of emotion: its roots were metaphysical and could be traced back to the Renaissance and the world of Petrarch. His first book, Donizetti and the Tradition of Romantic Love, appeared in 1975; and in 1981 Allitt received a knighthood (Ordine di Cavaliere) from the Italian Republic for services to culture. Two subsequent books, J.S. Mayr: father of 19th century Italian music (1989) and Donizetti: in the light of Romanticism and the teaching of Johann Simon Mayr (1991), are regarded as authoritative.

The third of Allitt's services to culture lay in his work with the Temenos Academy, the movement led by the poet and scholar Kathleen Raine and affirming that the arts, and civilisation itself when properly understood, can only flourish when drawing upon the resources of the spirit and the depths of the imagination.

Allitt frequently contributed to the original journal Temenos Review (1981-91), and when in 1991 the Temenos Academy grew out of this he delivered one of the three inaugural addresses. He served until shortly before his death on its Academic Board and lectured on a wide range of subjects - the Cambridge Platonists and Traherne, Botticelli, Goethe, Martin Buber and others; but his gifts found their fullest expression in the many seminars he taught, above all those on the Divine Comedy, in which he presented the fruits of a lifetime's loving study of Dante's great epic.

John Allitt was a man of courtesy and conviviality, imbued with the culture of Europe. Last year he published in Italy La Musica Classica Inglese 1800-1960 and two further works in Italian await publication, including one on the work of Thomas Traherne. Behind all his activity there lay an eager life of the spirit. Always deeply rooted in Christianity, in 1997 he entered the Orthodox Church together with his beloved wife, Eleanor.

Stephen Cross