Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905-99)

AHA Staff, November 1999

Paul Oskar Kristeller, emeritus professor of philosophy at Columbia University who was widely considered the world's foremost authority on Renaissance thought and philosophy, died June 7, 1999, at his Manhattan home at the age of 94.

Professor Kristeller taught at Columbia from 1939 to 1976 and continued his scholarly work into the 1990s as the University's F.J.E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy Emeritus. "The Columbia University community is deeply saddened by the loss of one of its greatest scholars, Paul Kristeller," said Columbia President George Rupp. "His mastery of ancient texts was unsurpassed, as was his tenacity in tracing the influences of those texts in medieval and Renaissance thought. He was a professor of immense knowledge and imposing erudition, and he earned the warm respect of fellow scholars all over the world.

"We are honored that Professor Kristeller was a Columbian for six decades," added Caroline Walker Bynum, a professor at Columbia and a scholar of the Middle Ages. "Paul Kristeller was one of the great scholars of the 20th century in terms of cataloging manuscripts of the period and discovering manuscripts. He was a master interpreter of the Renaissance and, I believe, a master of the archives."

Professor Kristeller wrote more than 200 books and articles. The major project of his career was a six-volume, 4,000-page "field guide" to Italian Renaissance manuscripts and documents in libraries around the world. His descriptive list of uncatalogued or incompletely catalogued manuscripts from 1300 to 1600 is recognized as one of the most important contributions to medieval and Renaissance study, providing invaluable sources for future scholars. He began collecting information for the catalogue during the 1930s and published the first two volumes in 1963 and 1967, respectively. He published the sixth and final volume, Iter Italicum, or "Italian Journey," in 1991.

A former president of the Renaissance Society of America and the Medieval Academy of America, Professor Kristeller received many honorary degrees and academic honors from major universities and academic societies in Europe and the United States. In 1984, he was named a MacArthur Fellow at age 78, making him the second oldest recipient of the award at that time. In 1989, he received the American Historical Association's Award for Scholarly Distinction. In 1995, during his 90th birthday celebration, he was honored by Columbia for his lifelong scholarly achievements with the Nicholas Murray Butler Cold Medal. The award, named for the late Columbia president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is given every five years to an individual who has made a distinguished contribution in philosophy or educational theory, practice or administration

Born in Berlin on May 22, 1905, Kristeller received a PhD from the University of Heidelberg in 1928. Part of the intellectual flight from Nazi terror in Europe, he came to this country in 1939, taught briefly at Yale University, and joined the Columbia faculty later that year. He was appointed associate professor in 1948, full professor in 1956, and Woodbridge Professor in 1968. He became professor emeritus in 1973 but continued as a special lecturer until 1976. Columbia awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 1974.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Edith Lind, and is survived by a niece and a nephew.