Iter Kristellerianum: The European Journey (1905-1939)

By Kristeller, Paul Oscar; King, Margaret L. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Iter Kristellerianum: The European Journey (1905-1939)


Kristeller, Paul Oscar, King, Margaret L., Renaissance Quarterly


At its Annual Meeting in April 1995, the Rellaissance Society of America will be honoring the career of Paul Oskar Kristeller, whose international reputation as a Renaissance scholar is well known to this audience. We are all in debt to Kristeller for what he would proudly entitle his "contributions." These include, among innumerable others, studies on Marsillo Ficino and the classical and scholastic origins of humanism, a multi-volumed catalogue of the uncatalogued manuscripts in European collections (more than a life work all by itself), and reminders in the form of essays, articles and lectures of the need to adjust our theories and our inclinations to what used to be called, in a simpler age, facts. What follows, in anticipation of the spring's festivity, is Professor Kristeller's narration of his experences until his arrival in the United States and establishment at Columbia University in New York City a little more than a half-century ago. These events were recounted in two conversations in August 1994, to an admirer who has collated her notes with Professor Kristeller's own longhand narration, composed subsequently, and edited the report to fit the space available here. The manuscript narrative, a transcription, and a complete set of notes are on file in the office of the Reinaissance Society. In the text below, Kristeller's own words appear in italics.

1. Childhood in Berlin

Paul Oskar Kristeller was born in Berlin on 22 May 1905, on the same day his father died of a heart attack. He was raised in his early years by his mother, Alice nee Magilus, who cut off relations with his father's family which had behaved badly toward her. She raised her child alone with the ample support of her parents. His mother's father, Jullus Magnus, was a respected and wealthy banker from

Hanover, where his ancestors included the Grand Rabbi of the Kingdom of Hanover. Her mother, Margarete Magnus nee Mossner, belonged to a distinguished and wealthy family that had been living in Berlin for several generations. Kristeller's grandfather was well-respected in Berlin, where he was elected as a representative to the city government: a rare achievement for a Jew. Old Prussia and imperial Germany had some anti-Semitism, but . . . Jews had many rights and duties, including military service, and were admitted to public grammar schools and high schools, and university studies especially of law, medicine and economics. They were excluded only from higher positions as judges, hospital directors, army officers and university professors, but also these positions became accessible to them as soon as they accepted baptism. There are many striking examples in my own family. An uncle of my maternal grandmother Mossner lent a sizable sum of money to Prince Wilhelm of Prussia during the Revolution of 1848 when he had to flee to England. When Wilhelm (the later King and Kaiser Wilhelm I), returned, my ancestor accepted baptism and became a ge legal of the Prussian army. In other words, anti-Semitisin under Prussia and the German Empire was harmless, if compared with th cruel and bloody racial anti-Semitism of the Nazis. . . .

Kristeller's grandparents were Jewish, but they did not keep kosher, did not observe the daily rituals, observed only the high holy days, and belonged to a Reform Synagogue. They also had many Christian and especially Lutheran _friends and connections. They had a large house, in a good neighborhood, with three floors, of which two were rented, whereas the third _floor and the garden weere placed at the disposal of my mother and me. They traveled extensively, especially to Switzerland, and took my mother and me along on their journeys. . . .

My earliest memory goes back to 1909 when I traveled with my grandparents to Switzerland at the age of four. The episode I was told more than once by my grandparents, I was walking around with my grandparents under a bridge, when two strangers stopped to admire me and to talk to me. …

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