Gino Moliterno ANU
Peter Bondanella, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, Film Studies and Italian at Indiana University, died on 28 May. In an academic career spanning more than four decades Bondanella’s contribution to Italian Studies was extraordinary; the falling silent of his voice will be very sad news for all Italianists in the English-speaking world, especially those interested in cinema. His generosity of spirit, the depth and breadth of scholarship, love of Italian cinema, sardonic sense of humour, and determination always to contribute to the valorisation of Italian culture will be greatly missed. Federico Fellini perhaps summed up Peter’s style best when, in the foreword he contributed to The Cinema of Federico Fellini (1992), he wrote: ‘The most exciting aspect of Bondanella’s work is, in fact, his inextinguishable faith in the power of reason and systematization which reminds us in a nostalgic way of methods and choices inspired by respect and harmony’.
Born in 1943 into a household where, despite his surname, no Italian was spoken, Bondanella began what would be a most impressive academic career with a Bachelor of Arts Cum Laude from Davidson College, North Carolina, majoring in French and Political Science. He continued to pursue his interest in Political Science with a Masters degree at Stanford University but then took a decisive turn to Comparative Literature, focusing on the Renaissance, in the doctoral degree he completed at the University of Oregon. It was while working on his doctorate that, by his own admission, he taught himself Italian by meticulously translating the texts that he was studying into English. There soon followed a flurry of publications which included monographic studies of Machiavelli and Guicciardini as well as a co-edited and co-translated critical edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron. These were flanked by the co-editing, with his wife, Julia Conaway Bondanella, of the Macmillan Dictionary of Italian Literature (1979), a mammoth volume voted Best Reference Book by the American Library Association. At the same time, having developed a love of Italian films during a period of research in Europe, he had managed to introduce courses on Italian cinema into his teaching at Indiana University. A felt lack of suitable critical material in English for the study of Italian cinema led to his publication in 1983 of the monumental Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, a comprehensive history of Italian postwar cinema which soon became the go-to reference work for teachers of Italian cinema in the English-speaking world. Having won the American Association of Italian Studies President’s Award, Italian Cinema would go through three progressively updated and augmented editions and 55 printings before being definitively recast in 2009 as the magisterial 700-page A History of Italian Cinema. In between there were the many volumes devoted to his favourite director, Federico Fellini, from the early edited anthology of Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism (1978) to his authoritative The Cinema of Federico Fellini (1992), a penetrating and exhaustive thematic study of all of Fellini’s films facilitated by Bondanella’s discovery of a large number of previously unknown shooting scripts and sketch notebooks, subsequently acquired and brought to America to form part of the Fellini collection at Indiana University’s Lilly Library of Rare Books. The volume, with a foreword contributed by no less than Fellini himself, was awarded the Giovanni Agnelli Foundation Prize for Best Book in Italian Studies and was subsequently translated into numerous languages, among which Turkish and Chinese. In 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.
In parallel with his work on Italian cinema ran a ten-year research project which resulted in The Eternal City: Roman Images in the Modern World (1987), a wide-ranging historical study presented in a readily-accessible language which received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. After a monographic study of The Films of Roberto Rossellini (1993) and an English edition of Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1995), Bondanella tackled a subject much closer to home in his Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture (1997). He would return to Eco in 2009 with the edited critical anthology, New Essays on Umberto Eco, but not before co-edited English editions of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1997) and Benvenuto Cellini’s My Life (2002), a newly-translated critical edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince (2005), and English editions with critical commentaries of all three of Dante’s cantiche, Inferno (2003), Purgatorio (2005) and Paradiso (2006). In between all of these there was the bringing to fruition of a long-nursed pet project in his Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys, and Sopranos (2004). His final major publication, something of a last-ditch attempt to provide the most up-to-date summa on his favourite subject, was the edited critical anthology, The Italian Cinema Book (2014), a work he himself presented as “a readable, reliable, provocative and innovative treatment of the most important historical, aesthetic and cultural aspects of the Italian cinema throughout its long and glorious history” (p. 1).
Significantly, both in his teaching practice and in writing invariably characterised by rigorous scholarship and philology, he vehemently resisted the fashionable over-reliance on theory, especially in the analysis of films. As he once remarked in an interview : ‘Yes it’s nice to have a theory, but not if it gets in the way of reading a text or screening a film in its proper historical or aesthetic context. My goal is to teach students to appreciate something essentially foreign to them, to encourage them to take an interest in something that is initially difficult and confusing. I don’t think you’re going to accomplish this with cultural theory alone. There are, to be old-fashioned about it, such things as aesthetics and artistic form, not to mention taste. I think cultivating people’s taste these days is more important than ever, since one of the products of a consumer culture in our times has been precisely a leveling of artistic taste and a numbing of our sensibilities to art or literature that is not mainstream or highly predictable.’