Francesco del Punta, a well-known and much admired scholar of medieval philosophy, sadly passed away yesterday. Upon hearing the news from his former student Luca Gili, I asked Luca to write an obituary for NewAPPS, and here it is.
After a long and dreadful illness, Francesco Del Punta (1941-2013) passed away yesterday evening. He was a great scholar and a great man, and he will be much missed. Del Punta is well known especially for his edition of Ockham’s commentary on Aristotle’s Sophistici Elenchi (St. Bonaventure, New York, 1978), and for his edition of Paul of Venice’s treatises De veritate et falsitate propositionis and De significato propositionis (Oxford, 1978).
Even though his family was originally from Pisa, Francesco Del Punta grew up in Milan, where he took his master degree in philosophy under the supervision of Mario Dal Pra. The lay background of the state university of Milan had a lasting influence on him, and perhaps this explains why he was referring to most of Aquinas scholarship as ‘devotional readings’ in his last years. This, however, never prevented him from admiring the work of the Dominican editors of Aquinas’ writings: I still remember his last meeting with the late fr. Jacques Bataillon, who travelled all around Europe to inspect manuscripts, and who edited Aquinas’ Sermones. This was the only occasion in which I saw FdP deeply moved: FdP knew that fr. Bataillon did not have much time left.
FdP always looked for serious scholarship, and by ‘serious’ he was referring to philological rigor. It has been like that from the very beginning of his long career: a few weeks ago I found accidentally in the library of my university what I guess was his first publication: Sulla traduzione di αὐτός in Platone (“On translating Plato’s αὐτός”, in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, 1960 (XV), pp. 292-294: FdP was only 19 years old!). His expertise was mostly philological and paleographical, but he was open to philosophical questions, and always encouraged his students to ask philosophical questions during his long seminars. We students used to refer to those seminars as the ‘Aristotelian madrasa’, because there was some kind of religious veneration for Aristotle, who was never read in translation, pretty much like the Quran.
His career stated at Oxford (Linacre College). In his late years, he was recalling with affection his first meeting with Gilbert Ryle and with Lorenzo Minio Paluello. The Oxford years were crucial for him, because he learned a new way of doing philosophy, which he had not been exposed to in Italy. He later moved to Cornell University. After a few years in the US, he came back to Pisa: first at the University of Pisa, then, from the beginning of the Nineties, at the Scuola Normale. It was there that I first met him, back in 2006.
In the 1980s, he started the ambitious project of editing all the works of Giles of Rome. In order to do so, he published several volumes containing a detailed description of all the manuscripts which preserved Giles’ works. In 1990 he founded a new journal devoted to Medieval Philosophy, Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale, which he edited almost until the end. The issues of Documenti e studi show that Del Punta’s interests were not limited to Latin medieval philosophy, but that he wanted to promote also the study of Arabic, Byzantine, and Late ancient philosophy.
He was not only a great scholar, but also a great teacher. Many of his former students are now established scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. I was the last one, both chronologically and intellectually, but I am deeply thankful for having had such a teacher. Many remember his edgy character, but this was only the way that a shy man used to hide his generosity. He was happy to spend entire afternoons with his students (in my case, he was trying to teach me how to read manuscripts), and I still remember that he brought me once to the Vrin bookshop in Paris and told me: ‘buy whatever you want, I will pay for you’.
My last exchange with him was a phone call. I took the occasion of his onomastic day to greet him and to wish him all the best. I always liked to play with the fact that he had a lay background, and so I thought that to greet him on the feast day of a Catholic saint might have amused him. He didn’t want to talk about his health, but he was rather interested in what I was studying at the moment, and got excited when I was entering into the details of my activities. This was FdP: he didn’t want to bother you with the bad news concerning his health, but was fascinated till the end by philosophy. May he rest in peace.