Prominent Renaissance scholar and former Yale adjunct history professor Vincent Ilardi, who donated a seminal collection of microfilm to Sterling Memorial Library in 1991, died Jan. 6 in Holyoke, Mass. He was 83.
Ilardi’s death follows a years-long battle with prostate cancer, according to a press release from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was a professor emeritus of history. Although he attempted to continue his research despite his illness, the cancer’s spread forced him to cease work last fall.
“He was a dedicated scholar and this charming host who was always full of stories and remembrances,” said Jeanne Potash, a longtime friend of Ilardi and his wife Nina, calling him “a great friend, as well as teacher.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Ilardi was born in Newark, N.J. His parents took him back to their Sicilian village when he was still an infant. Educated by Sicilian priests and nuns until age 15, Ilardi acquired a healthy skepticism for the Catholic Church, an attitude later reflected in his academic work.
Returning to Newark just before World War II broke out, Ilardi joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and eventually became an engineering officer on a hospital ship off the coast of Italy.
Ilardi completed his undergraduate work at Rutgers University and went on to earn a doctorate in European history at Harvard. He taught briefly at Carnegie Technical Institute, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh before joining the faculty of UMass Amherst in 1957, where he taught Renaissance history for 38 years. He was a popular professor with students and colleagues alike.
“He had a very humane touch with his students,” UMass Amherst history department chair Audrey Altstadt said. “He treated them as if he really thought about them as individuals, not just as numbers or as names on his roster.”
At Yale, where he was a visiting professor and adjunct professor from 1990 to 2000, Ilardi is best remembered for the more than 2 million documents he donated to Sterling Memorial Library’s microfilm collection in 1991. The microfilms provide an unparalleled — and eclectic — look at Renaissance civilization, politics and diplomacy. Included in the collection are not only tracts on cattle care and papal court correspondence but also letters concerning eyeglasses, which later became the focus of his research.
Through his collection and visits to museums across Italy, Ilardi discovered that eyeglasses in Italy were in use about 50 years earlier than previous research suggested. His research culminated in the 2007 book “Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes,” which won the John Frederick Lewis Award, given to the best book by an American citizen published by the American Philosophical Society in a given year.
Ilardi’s collection became an integral part of his Yale courses in Renaissance diplomacy and paleography — the study of deciphering and analyzing handwriting. Visiting scholars frequently used the collection, said Sterling librarian Sue Roberts, who worked with Ilardi to bring the documents to Yale.
Many of the friends Ilardi made during his Italy research visited his Massachusetts home every summer. Ilardi and his wife Nina, who died in 2006, frequently hosted pool parties that gained renown for Ilardi’s travel stories and Nina’s hospitality.
“People would drop in … for just the sheer joy of being around the Ilardis,” said Potash, the Ilardis’ longtime friend.
Potash’s husband Robert, who taught alongside Ilardi at UMass for decades, agreed.
“He only added friends. I don’t know if he ever lost a friend,” he said.
Ilardi is survived by a son, Vincent Michael Ilardi, of Lakewood, N.J.
A joint memorial service for Vincent and Nina Ilardi will be held on May 8 in Memorial Hall at UMass Amherst. There will be no funeral.