Obituaries

Luciano Rebay, 86; scholar of modern Italian literature

Luciano Rebay taught at Columbia University for more than 45 years.
Columbia University
Luciano Rebay taught at Columbia University for more than 45 years.

On the shores Martha’s Vineyard, where he spent summers since the 1960s, Luciano Rebay would step into the surf to cast for striped bass, and more often to swim with an elegance and strength that caused companions to pause and watch.

“Luciano had a way of wading in until he knew it was just deep enough to accept his entire body, and then he would dive into the waves,” said his friend Peter Sacks, a painter and poet. “There was a beauty about that, as you would see him giving himself to the elements.”

In every moment “there was an intensity of appreciation in Luciano, and it gave him a kind of light,” Sacks said. “He really was a shining presence.” That beacon was as powerfully present in the classrooms of Columbia University, where Dr. Rebay taught for more than 45 years, and in the lessons he offered in each conversation at work, at home, or on the beach. A scholar of modern Italian literature, he focused on poets such as the Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale, whose work “is always trying to express something beyond the power of words to convey,” Dr. Rebay wrote in The New York Times in 1966.

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During shoreline walks, the cresting surf or the light from a sunset might call to mind a line from Montale or Dante. “It was very personal to him. It wasn’t academic,” said Sacks, who is also an English professor at Harvard University. “You didn’t think he was straying into the pages of some old book. He was very much breathing the air of what he had read and what he remembered.”

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On July 14, a fisherman chanced upon Dr. Rebay’s body floating in the waters off West Tisbury. Authorities said his death was not considered suspicious and tests are pending. Dr. Rebay was 86 and when not at his Lambert’s Cove home on the Vineyard he lived in New York City, not far from Columbia.

“He was very ambitious professionally, and had a real drive and real intellectual curiosity as a scholar, but at the end of the day, what really anchored him was our family,” said his daughter Alexandra of Basking Ridge, N.J.

Before moving to the United States, Dr. Rebay had met Martha Krauss, an American on a Fulbright scholarship in Europe, and they married in London in 1952. At the time, he didn’t speak English and she knew no Italian, so “we spoke only French to each other for many years,” she recalled.

“He was a quintessential family man, absolutely passionate about his three women, or his three girls, as he used to call us,” said their other daughter, Ilaria of Chicago.

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Yet year after year, Columbia students considered themselves Dr. Rebay’s extended family, at least academically.

“I owe my vocation to him. He was my mentor in all things,” said Pellegrino D’Acierno, a former student of Dr. Rebay who is now the distinguished professor of Italian and Italian American studies at Hofstra University.

“He educated a whole generation of Italianists at Columbia, maybe two generations,” D’Acierno said. “It was more than our Italianization in intellectual and cultural terms. Something more was at stake. He taught us how to read poetry as an act of love.”

Born in Milan on April 23, 1928, Luciano Rebay was a youth during World War II. His father, who was blind, played organ in Catholic churches until the rise of fascism, when Mussolini’s forces wouldn’t let him work because of his anti-fascist views. In order to support the family, his mother joined the dominant party so she could teach.

“It was not an easy childhood and they had to be evacuated from Milan during the bad bombings,” his wife said. “His adventures were amazing. I always tried to get him to write them down, but he never did.”

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While Dr. Rebay’s daughters were growing up, he told them about his less dangerous adventures. “From the very beginning when we were kids we used to love to hear him tell tales of growing up during the war,” Alexandra said. “These were better than bedtime stories for us.”

‘There was an intensity of appreciation in Luciano, and it gave him a kind of light.’

There also were darker moments he couldn’t tell young children. He spoke in later years about running messages for those who opposed the fascists, and of the time a friend went to Switzerland to secure money for the resistance. Upon returning, the friend was shot and killed by the fascists as Dr. Rebay watched.

“That really colored his life: the loss of his friend,” his wife said. Those experiences may also have set Dr. Rebay on a path toward literature. “I think that for him, reading became an escape from the day-to-day fascism.”

Dr. Rebay graduated from the University of Aix-en-Provence in 1951. He taught Italian at schools in France and England, and wrote for two Italian publications as a London correspondent before he and Martha moved to New York.

In 1957, Dr. Rebay began teaching Italian at Columbia and he graduated from the university in 1960 with a doctorate. The following year he became a US citizen and he taught at Columbia until 2005, when he retired as the Giuseppe Ungaretti professor of Italian literature emeritus.

Among his many honors, Dr. Rebay received a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He also served as chairman of Columbia’s Italian department, as a member of the university Senate, and as director of what was then Columbia’s Casa Italiana.

His love of poetry was such that when Ilaria was assigned a school essay on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she sought his help “and six hours later I regretted my question,” she recalled with a laugh. “I couldn’t shake him off. I understood that sonnet better than anyone else in my school.”

The family has made no immediate plans for a service for Dr. Rebay, who in addition to his wife and two daughters leaves a grandson and a brother, Lucillo, who lives in Italy.

On the Vineyard, among Dr. Rebay’s many friends was Mark Wolf, a senior US District Court judge.

“I’ve known Luciano for about 25 years,” Wolf said. “We would go to the beach and talk for hours. Once we were walking and neither of us had a watch. He said he could tell time by the sun, and I showed up two hours late for a dinner party.”

Rose Styron and her late husband, the novelist William Styron, also were friends. “He was often quoting poetry that he had translated from the Italian into English,” she said of their walks along the shore, and Dr. Rebay was particularly fond of a line from Dante that she had inscribed on her husband’s headstone: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.”

William Styron had used the quote as the last line in “Darkness Visible,” his memoir about his struggle with depression, an experience he and Dr. Rebay had shared.

“Of all poets, Dante seemed to him to be the great light,” Sacks said of Dr. Rebay.

Informed both by his studies of literature, and the darkness he had witnessed as a youth, Dr. Rebay “was one of those people who could truly recognize greatness in the achievements of others,” Sacks said. “He had this very strong sense of what was possible for humans at their worst, and also at their best.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.