Gene Adam Brucker, 1924-2017

Berkeley scholar of the Renaissance remembered

September 14, 2017
Gene Adam Brucker

A scholar who transformed our understanding of the Italian Renaissance has died.

Gene Adam Brucker, who was born in Cropsey, in rural Illinois, in October 1924, attended school during the Depression and then enrolled at the University of Illinois. His university career was interrupted by the entry of the US into the Second World War. He enlisted in the army, worked in a transport equipment depot in Marseilles and was on his way to Japan when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Returning to university, Professor Brucker completed a BA in history (1946) and then an MA (1948), submitting a thesis on the French Revolution. A Rhodes Scholarship brought him to Wadham College, Oxford, where, despite his sparse knowledge of Italian, his interests began shifting towards Renaissance Italy. After completing an essay at Oxford on Machiavelli, therefore, he went on to do a PhD at Princeton University on 14th-century Florence (1954). One of his supervisors was Theodor Mommsen, part of the generation of refugee academics from Central Europe who did so much to transform the study of European history in the US.

Directly after gaining his doctorate, Professor Brucker took up a position at the University of California, Berkeley. He was to remain at Berkeley from 1954 until he retired as Shepard professor of history emeritus in 1991.

A deeply committed archival researcher, Professor Brucker made extensive use of Florence’s unparalleled collection of documentary material. This enabled him to go well beyond the standard literary sources and focus on “civilisation” to illuminate class, gender, religion, factionalism, economics and family life. Two of his books, Florentine Society and Politics, 1343-1378 (1962) and The Civic World of Renaissance Florence (1977), offer definitive accounts of how Florence became a Renaissance powerhouse.

Immersion in the archives also enabled Professor Brucker to produce a more popular book, Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (1986), which some have suggested could make a great film. This reconstructs the poignant story of a 15th-century love affair between a man from a patrician background and a woman of lower social status who claimed that they had been secretly married and took him to court when he wed someone from his own class.

Professor Brucker also served as president of the Renaissance Society of America, receiving its lifetime achievement award in 2000, and as acting director of the Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. He died on 9 July and is survived by a son, two daughters and two stepchildren.

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