Giorgio Levi Della Vida

Giorgio Levi Della Vida (August 22, 1886, Venice - December 25, 1967, Rome) was an Italian Jewish linguist who focused on Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic languages, as well as on the history and culture of the Near East.

Born in Venice to a Jewish family originally from Ferrara, he moved with his family first to Genoa and then to Rome, from whose university he graduated in 1909 with the Hebraist Ignazio Guidi. Immediately after graduation, he participated in numerous research expeditions to Cairo, Athens (for the Italian School of Archaeology), and Crete. He returned definitively to Rome in 1911, where he worked with the great historian of the Near East, Leone Caetani, on the editorial staff of the "Annals of Islam". He developed strong ties of friendship with Michelangelo Guidi, the son of Ignazio and himself an illustrious Islamist, as well as with Gaetano De Sanctis, Ernesto Buonaiuti, Giorgio Pasquali, Luigi Salvatorelli, and the Barnabite priest Giovanni Semeria. Since he was always deeply interested in problems of religion, he used his connections with Father Semeria and Ernesto Buonaiuti (excommunicated for his Modernist convictions) to undertake some of the biblical studies neglected by the completely secular basis of his cultural upbringing.

From 1914 to 1916 Levi Della Vida headed the department of Arabic Language and Literature at the Eastern University of Naples. During the First World War, he acted as an interpreter, achieving the rank of lieutenant. Afterwards, he was assigned to the department of Semitic Philology at the University of Torino, a post he held only from the end of his military service until 1919. In 1920 he went to work for Ignazio Guidi at the University of Rome as a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Languages.

In those years he began to collaborate with some newspapers: he wrote for the Roman daily Il Paese, which ceased publication at the end of 1922, after its offices were destroyed by Fascist "squadristi". Levi Della Vida was, in his turn, also a victim of aggression on the part of the Fascists. At the invitation of Salvatorelli, who was the associate managing editor, he began to contribute to La Stampa, where he testified to the political climate in Rome in the days following the passing of Giacomo Matteotti. On occasion, he also had contact with various leaders of the anti-Fascist opposition, including Giovanni Amendola, Carlo Sforza and Claudio Treves. In 1924, he became president of the National Union of Liberal and Democratic Forces, founded by Amendola, and the following year he signed the Manifesto of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. By his autobiographical testimony, he claims not to have been particularly interested in political activism; however, he was convinced that such a time of crisis, when Italy was faced with the rise of Fascism, required every citizen to assume responsibility.

In the 1920s he made the acquaintance of Giovanni Gentile, another professor in Rome, and he began to collaborate with him on the "Enciclopedia Treccani" as an expert in Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

He was one of the twelve Italian university professors who refused to pledge the oath of loyalty to the Fascist leader and regime imposed by article 18 of the Ordinary Law on August 28, 1931. Following this refusal, the next year Levi Della Vida was expelled from his post at the university. He continued, however, his collaboration with the "Enciclopedia Treccani", of which he was the editor of the entry on Hebraism, among others. After that, he was assigned by the Vatican Library to catalog its treasury of Arabic manuscripts, from which he culled a first selection for publication in 1935, followed by a second thirty years later.

After the promulgation of the racial laws, in 1939 he fled to the United States, where he was offered teaching posts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as well as at the University of San Diego in California, at whose library he would generously endow a university chair later in his life, as a sign of gratefulness for the hospitality.

He returned to Italy in 1945, where he was reinstated to his post at the University of Rome, where he taught Muslim history and culture until his retirement in 1959. In 1947 he was elected a member of the Accademia dei Lincei. He died in Rome in 1967 at the age of 81, after a brief illness.

The University of California Los Angeles has dedicated an editorial series in his name: "The Giorgio Levi Della Vida Series in Islamic Studies." They also reward the best studies in Islamic culture with the "Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award."


Levi Della Vida's interests and linguistic research spanned vast areas including Semitic philology, Jewish and Islamic history, the Punic alphabet, and Syriac literature:
* "Gli ebrei: storia, religione, civiltà", Messina-Roma, 1924;
* "Storia e religione nell'Oriente semitico", Roma, 1924;
* "Elenco dei manoscritti arabo-islamici della Biblioteca Vaticana: Vaticani, Barberiniani, Borgiani, Rossiani", Città del Vaticano, 1935;
* "Ricerche sulla formazione del più antico fondo dei manoscritti orientali della Biblioteca Vaticana", Citta del Vaticano, 1939;
* "Secondo elenco dei manoscritti arabi islamici della Biblioteca Vaticana". Città del Vaticano, 1965;
* "Arabi ed Ebrei nella storia", Napoli, 1984;
* "Iscrizioni puniche della Tripolitania, 1927-1967". Roma, 1987;
* "Visita a Tamerlano: saggi di storia e letteratura", Napoli, 1988;
* "Aneddoti e svaghi arabi e non arabi", Milano-Napoli, 1959.

In addition to his scholarly publications, he also penned an autobiography in 1966, the recently reedited "Fantasmi ritrovati" (Napoli, Liguori, 2004).


* Francesco Gabrieli, "La storiografia arabo-islamica in Italia", Napoli, Guida, 1975, pp. 63-71;
* IDEM, "Orientalisti del Novecento", Roma, Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino, 1993, pp. 33-38;
* S. Moscati, "Ricordo di G. Levi Della Vida", Roma, 1968;
* H. Goetz, "Il giuramento rifiutato: i docenti universitari e il regime fascista", Firenze, La nuova Italia, 2000;
* G. Boatti, "Preferirei di no. le storie dei dodici professori che si opposero a Mussolini", Torino, Einaudi, 2001;
* "Dizionario del fascismo", a cura di V. de Grazia e S. Luzzatto, Torino, Einaudi, 2003

External links

* (English)

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