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Obituary: Professor Peter James Armour

Professor Peter Armour, previously a Lecturer in the Department of Italian at the University of Leicester, died on the evening of Tuesday, June 18, aged 61. He spent seven years at this University from 1972 to 1979, working with the late Professor Harry McWilliam to establish the newly-created Italian Department on firm foundations.

When Peter joined the Department, Italian had only just emerged as an independent department and was still a relatively small discipline. Peter assisted in the establishment of the BA Single Honours in Italian and the three-language Modern Language Studies degree, and helped to develop the participation of Italian in Combined Arts and as a supplementary subject. Peter contributed courses to all of these degrees, both in his specialist area (Dante) and on a wide range of other topics and authors from medieval lyric poetry through Renaissance Florence to nineteenth and twentieth century prose fiction, as well as sharing in the teaching of Italian language and taking a full share of departmental administration.

Peter’s years in Leicester were very happy ones, characterised by a broad range of activities which brought him many and lasting friendships. In those days, before the invention of research assessment and quality audits, there was time for participation in activities outside the strict limits of the Department and its needs. Peter was, for example, a regular and active contributor to the Adult Education programme at Vaughan College, where he lectured in particular on Dante’s Divine Comedy and also on Galileo. His students in those classes, as likewise the members of the Dante Alighieri Society, retained a great affection for him as an inspiring teacher and he was much in demand as a speaker at meetings of that society. One of his last public engagements was to return to Leicester in mid-April to lecture to them. Although already very weak from cancer, he refused to let down his faithful fan club.

Peter had come in to Italian studies as a slightly mature student after a period of study at the Gregorian University in Rome. When, after three years there, he decided to change career, he returned to England and read for the BA Honours degree in Italian at the University of Manchester. He graduated in 1966 with First Class honours and went immediately, as one could then, as assistant lecturer in Italian to the University of Sheffield. 

His research interests in Dante were already developing, but it was not until he was established at Leicester that he began work towards a higher degree. For his PhD, completed in 1980, Peter took as his subject the second cantica of the Divine Comedy, and in particular the problematic interpretation of the gate of Purgatory. The thesis, characterised by a meticulous attention to detail, as was all his work, carefully analysed previous interpretations before propounding his own striking and convincing solution. The quality of the thesis was recognised by its subsequent publication, soon afterwards, by Oxford University Press (The Door of Purgatory: A study of multiple symbolism in Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’, 1983). 

Thereafter the Purgatorio continued to be one of the main focuses of Peter’s research, bearing fruit notably in studies on the Exodus theme, on the mysterious figure of Matelda in the Earthly Paradise, and especially in his second monograph on the last section of the second cantica – Dante’s Griffin and the History of the World. A study of the Earthly Paradise (Oxford, 1989). 

Such was Peter’s passion for research on Dante and his belief that Dante’s work could and should be read always on many levels simultaneously, that he returned frequently to themes and ideas which fascinated him and on which it seemed to him that there was still more to be said. Beginning with his contribution to the festshrift for Harry McWilliam in 1991, Peter had become fascinated by the popular reception of Dante’s Comedy and he began to develop a study of the oral reception and transmission of the Comedy, a topic on which he was actively working at the time of his death and which he felt was extremely important nowadays for combating the erroneous view that Dante’s poem was written only for an elite.

Alongside his research on Dante, Peter also worked on Michelangelo and in particular the interpretation of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, designed for the tomb of Pope Julius II. This was the subject of his inaugural lecture, and of several publications which it was his intention to gather together in a single volume, but it was also a topic that proved very popular with lay audiences, with its combination of clear and lucid scholarship, well chosen illustration and accessible presentation.

Though Peter’s move to London in 1979 brought difficult times to the Department of Italian at Leicester (this was the beginning of the Thatcherite cuts on university funding), for him it was a very stimulating development. He spent five happy years at Bedford College in Regent’s Park, working for his old professor, Gianni Aquilecchia, and delighting in walking to work past the lions at the zoo, and then five fruitful though less easy years at University College, before being appointed Professor of Italian at Royal Holloway. After seven years as Head of Department and a further six as senior professor, Peter was looking forward to early retirement and the opportunity that would provide to devote himself full-time to his research. Sadly the cancer which had first been diagnosed early in 2001, returned this spring and proved incurable.

Peter had an international reputation as a Dante scholar and was in demand all over the world as visiting lecturer and conference speaker. But he was utterly without snobbery or a concern for status. He was as happy to contribute to modest seminars as to major conferences. He was a tremendously supportive colleague, playing a full part in departmental and university administration, and above all a caring and stimulating teacher. His graduate students were aware of the immense care he took over supervising their theses and responded with a lasting affection and gratitude. He read the work of colleagues willingly and assiduously and was always able to make valuable suggestions for improvement.

Peter was easy to get on with and made friends readily with people of all ages and backgrounds. He enjoyed socialising in the senior common room and was a regular there in his days at Leicester, enjoying the company of colleagues of many different disciplines. Unfailingly kind and modest about his own achievements, but always ready to promote others, Peter was a wonderful colleague; he will be deeply missed in the world of Italian studies.

Jane Everson
July 2002  

  • Donations in Peter Armour's memory may be made to St John's Hospice, 60 Grove End Road, London NW8.

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