Whitfield, John Humphreys [Humphrey] (19061995), Italian scholar, was born on 2 October 1906 in Longcroft Avenue, Wednesbury, near Birmingham, the son of John Allen Whitfield, commercial clerk, and his wife, Florence Kate, née Organ. He was educated at Handsworth grammar school and Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he graduated with first-class honours in French (1928) and Italian (1929). He was assistant master at King Edward VII School, Sheffield, from 1930. On 28 April 1936 he married Joan Lilian Ethel Herrin (19051995), a lecturer in design, and daughter of Frederick Eli Herrin, master draper. They had two sons. The same year he was appointed university lecturer in Italian at Oxford University, where he remained until 1946, serving as a part-time temporary assistant civil officer in the naval intelligence department in 1943. In 1946 he was appointed Serena professor of Italian language and literature in the University of Birmingham, and remained in post until his retirement in 1974, becoming a dominant figure, in many ways the dominant figure, in Italian studies in the UK, particularly as chairman of the Society for Italian Studies from 1962 to 1974, and from 1951 an editor of the society's journal, then from 1970 to 1974 its senior editor.
Whitfield (known to his friends as Humphrey) wrote a remarkable number and range of scholarly books, articles, and reviews, covering most of Italian literature and some art history as well. His main books, and much of the rest of his writings, centred on the subject of humanism, not just as classical scholarship, but as a classically inspired secular, social, and humane ethic. Petrarch and the Renascence (1943) was concerned with Petrarch's role in reviving and promoting this ethic, which Whitfield traced through to the fifteenth century, particularly in Valla and Alberti. Machiavelli (1947) was a vindication of the humanist republican and defender of the common good against the image of the amoral apologist for tyranny wrongly derived, in Whitfield's view, from The Prince. Dante and Virgil (1949) contrasted Dante's otherworldly dogmatism unfavourably with Virgil's secular and humane values. Giacomo Leopardi (1954), Whitfield's most personal book, argued for Leopardi as a latter-day humanist, a defender of human dignity in the face of a hostile nature, yet with a constant feeling for the beauties of the world; Leopardi's criticism of the scientific confidence and economic materialism of his time was, Whitfield insisted, wholly relevant to the present. He was not the first to develop these arguments, and did so with a degree of overstatement, but the fact that they came to be widely taken for granted owes something to the scholarly energy with which he put them forward. A Short History of Italian Literature (1960) was unrivalled in its time, and would remain so for many decades, as a concise, detailed, and strongly expressed introduction to the subject for English readers.
Whitfield was not much interested in historical explanation, though certainly capable of it where he thought it relevant, as in Machiavelli. Nor was he much interested in the formal properties of literature, so his purchase on that of his own century was limited. He was wholly out of sympathy with the aesthetic criticism that dominated literary scholarship in Italy until the 1960s, and with the new philology that increasingly challenged it through a focus on textual, linguistic, and cultural history, represented also by leading contemporary Italianists in Britain such as Carlo Dionisotti, Roberto Weiss, Giovanni Aquilecchia, and Cecil Grayson. In fact he shared something with both tendencies: the aesthetic critics' emphasis on the description and evaluation of poetic effect, and the new philologists' textual and historical rigour. He shared even more, however, with F. R. Leavis, through his personal and moral engagement with the essential properties, as he saw them, of the writers he thought most significant and most relevant to the present; his first scholarly article, Approach to Ariosto (1936), was published in Leavis's Scrutiny. Yet his mix of qualities as a writer was absolutely his own, compounded by extensive erudite references to French and Latin as well as Italian and English writers, a vigorously adversarial approach to the scholars he disagreed with, and an expressive, mannered, slightly antiquated style.
As a promoter of Italian literature in Britain by his teaching and writings, Whitfield's achievements were great, particularly through his powerful assertion of the relevance of the major Italian writers to the British and European cultural traditionsthough his books are not easy to read, and not only because of the multitude of untranslated quotations from Latin and French. He was a compelling, idiosyncratic, and combative lecturer and tutor, sometimes a shock, as one obituarist remarked, to undergraduates who had been used to gentler treatment at school (The Independent, 8 March 1995). As an immediate colleague or friend, he inspired admiration and affection. He gave a great deal to the Society for Italian Studies over the years; however, at a time when Italian studies were rapidly expanding in the UK and new approaches and interests were coming to the fore, it was not altogether for the best that the society was so long dominated by a figure of such uncompromising, often disputatious public attitudes.
Whitfield's distinction was recognized by many honours, notably the British Academy's Serena medal for Italian studies (1984), and appointment as cavaliere (1960), then commendatore (1972) of the Italian Republic. He was presented with a Festschrift in 1975, its contents as wide-ranging as his own scholarship. He died at his home, 2 Woodbourne Road, Edgbaston, on 20 February 1995, of a heart attack, eleven days after the death of his wife, for whom he had cared devotedly. He was survived by his two sons.
G. W. Slowey, A bibliography of the published writings of Professor J. H. Whitfield, Essays in honour of John Humphreys Whitfield, ed. H. C. Davies and others (1975), 812 · The Times (1 March 1995) · The Independent (8 March 1995) · The Guardian (10 March 1995) · P. Boyde, Contribution to a celebration of the life of John Humphreys Whitfield, Birmingham, 9 Dec 1995, priv. coll. · Renaissance Studies, 10/1 (March 1996), 1225 · Italian Studies, 51 (1996), 14 · WWW · private information (2012) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
U. Birm. L., papers
obituary photographs · photograph, repro. in Davies and others, eds., Essays in honour of John Humphreys Whitfield, frontispiece · photograph, repro. in Italian Studies
Wealth at death
£298,636: probate, 20 July 1995, CGPLA Eng. & Wales