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
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,
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
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.