Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Herbert Bloch

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Herbert Bloch

Article excerpt

18 AUGUST 1911 *; 6 SEPTEMBER 2006

HERBERT BLOCH was born in Berlin, Germany, on 18 August 1911, and died on 6 September 2006, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was elected to the APS in 1958.

His paternal grandfather was a beloved local doctor in the town then known as Ronsperg in Bohemia, now Pobëzovice in the Czech Republic. His father, Ludwig Bloch, a director of the Dresdner Bank in Berlin, married Alice Gutman, the daughter of the bank's owner. Bloch's mother died in 1940, and his father died in the Jewish Hospital of Berlin in 1943. His younger brother, Egon, was deported to Auschwitz in the same year.

Remarkably, Mrs. Bloch came into the marriage with a companion, Anna Holesch, who became "Tante Anny" to Herbert and Egon. She survived the Second World War in the Blochs' apartment, preserving its contents despite pressure from the Nazis, and continued to live there until her death in 1955. A firm Catholic, she was perhaps the first influence that led to Bloch's lifelong interest in medieval Christianity. Though he was bar mitzvah'd, he never became an observant Jew, and toward the end of his life attended the Unitarian Universalist Church in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Between 1930 and 1933, Bloch completed seven semesters at the University of Berlin, which despite the ravages of the First World War and its aftermath retained much of its former glory as one of the leading universities of Europe. Among his teachers were the philologist and historian of Greek thought Werner Jaeger, later to be his colleague at Harvard, and the art historian Gerhart Rodenwaldt, to whose humanity and brilliant teaching he was later to pay high tribute. Another of his admired teachers was the medievalist Erich Caspar, whose many works included a study of the forgeries of Peter the Deacon, the twelfthcentury librarian and chronicler of the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino and its learned but unscrupulous librarian were later to become central to Bloch's own interests, partly because of his own background and training, partly through several strokes of fate.

By 1932 the rise of the National Socialist party was already starting to affect all aspects of public life, and by the time the party came to power in the first half of 1933, Bloch had read Mein Kampf and seen what lay ahead. Thus came the first of two extraordinary moves in his life. Having never slept a night away from his family, he now went against the wishes of his father and decided to move to Italy and finish his education there. He enrolled in the University of Rome and, having quickly acquired fluent Italian, received his doctorate under Arnaldo Momigliano in 1935 and his "perfezionamento" in 1937. His first major work, published in three long articles between 1936 and 1938, had a subject that might have seemed dry and sterile, the brick stamps of ancient Rome. These are the stamped inscriptions that brickmakers placed on bricks to mark their place, and often their date, of manufacture. Hitherto scholars had studied and published these texts without noticing their significance for the buildings in which they were found, some of them masterpieces of Roman architecture such as the Pantheon and Hadrian's villa at Tivoli. Bloch's exhaustive study of these stamps, many of which he discovered in or near the buildings that incorporated them, enabled him to reconstruct whole phases of Roman architectural history, and at the same time to add new knowledge about the organization of an ancient industry as well as new dates and personalities in the social and political history of Rome.

This advance was made possible in large part by Bloch's presence in Italy when the capital was undergoing extraordinary changes. Mussolini was transforming the layout of the modern city of Rome, and at the same time pouring money into the archaeology of Italy and its overseas possessions. Among the sites that benefited from this retrospective nationalism was Rome's own port city of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. …

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