John Larner: Historian of Italy and Marco Polo, dies





John Larner was one of a group of post-war British and American historians who changed our perceptions of Italy during the Renaissance. He then turned to the history of exploration and became an authority on Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

The adopted son of a schoolteacher mother and a father who worked as a park-keeper on Hampstead Heath, Larner was a grammar-school boy from suburban London who after National Service gained a place at New College, Oxford in 1951. His mother died in his first year there (he had lost his father at the age of nine) and it was a source of immense regret that he could never repay the sacrifices she had made for his education. Instead he threw himself into his work, received a first-class degree and was steered towards an interest in Italy by the seminars on the Renaissance of his tutor, Harry Bell. Considered gifted enough to pursue an academic career without a doctorate (commonly then considered an unnecessary inconvenience) Larner received a scholarship at the British School at Rome in 1954.

By his own admission, Larner did little work there in his first two years. Instead he bought a scooter, explored Italy and enjoyed the constant round of parties which were a feature of the British School in those days. At the end of two years, just as he was allegedly considering a career as a fruit-and-wine importer, he was offered a third year's scholarship. The considerable amount of charm which must have been deployed to obtain that offer suggest that the Larner persona was now firmly in place. To the end of his life he exuded a warmth and vitality that disguised his immense capacity for hard work. He did not waste the chance he had been given.

The result was The Lords of Romagna, published in English in 1965 and translated into Italian in 1972. The regional study had become integral to research into Italian history: but Larner was original in moving away from fashionable Tuscany and Rome, to study the politics of a comparative rural backwater....


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