Giorgio Levi Della Vida

Giorgio Levi Della Vida (August 21, 1886, Venice December 25, 1967, Rome) was an Italian Jewish linguist whose expertise lay in Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic languages, as well as on the history and culture of the Near East.


Born in Venice to a Jewish family originally from Ferrara, he moved with them first to Genoa and then to Rome, from whose university he graduated in 1909 with the Hebraist Ignazio Guidi. Immediately after graduation, he participated in numerous research expeditions to Cairo, Athens (for the Italian School of Archaeology), and Crete.

In 1911 he returned to Rome, where he worked with Leone Caetani, historian of the Near East, on the editorial staff of the Annals of Islam. He developed strong ties of friendship with Michelangelo Guidi, son of Ignazio and an illustrious Islamist himself, as well as with Gaetano De Sanctis, Ernesto Buonaiuti, Giorgio Pasquali, Luigi Salvatorelli, and the Barnabite priest Giovanni Semeria. Since he had always been deeply interested in religious matters, he used his connections with Semeria and Buonaiuti (excommunicated for his Modernist convictions) to undertake some of the biblical studies he had neglected during his completely secular upbringing.

From 1914 to 1916, Levi Della Vida headed the department of Arabic language and literature at the Eastern University of Naples.

During the First World War, he acted as an army interpreter, achieving the rank of lieutenant. Afterwards, he was assigned to the department of Semitic Philology at the University of Torino, a post he only held until 1919. In 1920, he went to work for Ignazio Guidi at the University of Rome as a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Languages.[1]

In those years, he began to collaborate with some newspapers. He wrote for the Roman daily Il Paese, which ceased publication at the end of 1922, after its offices were destroyed by Fascist squadristi. Levi Della Vida was also a victim of aggression on the part of the Fascists at around the same time.

At the invitation of Salvatorelli, who was the associate managing editor, he began to contribute to La Stampa, where he testified to the political climate in Rome in the days following the passing of Giacomo Matteotti. On occasion, he also had contact with various leaders of the anti-Fascist opposition, including Giovanni Amendola, Carlo Sforza and Claudio Treves.

In 1924, he became president of the National Union of Liberal and Democratic Forces, founded by Giovanni Amendola, and the following year he signed the Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. In his autobiography, he claims not to have been particularly interested in political activism; he was, however, convinced that the critical period when Italy was faced with the rise of Fascism required every citizen to take responsibility by participating in political life.

In the 1920s, he made the acquaintance of Giovanni Gentile, a professor in Rome, with whom he began to collaborate on the Enciclopedia Treccani as an expert in Hebrew and other Semitic languages.[2]

Levi Della Vida was among the twelve Italian university professors who refused to pledge the oath of loyalty to the Fascist leader and regime imposed by article 18 of the Ordinary Law on August 28, 1931. Because of this refusal, Della Vida was expelled from his post at the university in 1932.[3][4]

He continued, however, his collaboration with the Enciclopedia Treccani, for which he edited the entry on Hebraism, among the many he completed.

At this time, he was assigned by the Vatican Library to catalog its wealth of Arabic manuscripts, from which he culled a first selection for publication in 1935, followed by a second one thirty years later.[5]

After the promulgation of the racial laws in 1939, he fled to the United States where he was offered teaching posts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as well as at the University of San Diego in California.[6] In his later years, he would donate his personal collection of books and manuscripts to the library at the latter institution, as a token of thankfulness for the hospitality and tenure received there.[3][4]

He returned to Italy in 1945, where he was reinstated to his post at the University of Rome, teaching Muslim history and culture until his retirement in 1959. In 1947. he was elected a member of the Accademia dei Lincei.

Levi Della Vida died in Rome in 1967 after a brief illness.

The University of California Los Angeles has created an editorial series in his name, The Giorgio Levi Della Vida Series in Islamic Studies, which joins the Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award (a bursary) in recognising exceptional scholarly work on Islamic studies. He also played an indirect but potentially important part in establishing contemporary generative linguistics and cognitive science—Noam Chomsky has credited Levi Della Vida with helping to stimulate his early interest in linguistics as an undergraduate, describing his course as 'the one freshman course that I found really engaging'.[7]


Levi Della Vida's interests and linguistic research spanned many areas, including Semitic philology, Jewish and Islamic history, the Punic alphabet, and Syriac literature. The catalogue of his work reflects such a spectrum of passions.

In addition to his scholarly publications, he penned an autobiography in 1966, recently republished as Fantasmi ritrovati (Napoli, Liguori, 2004).

Journal articles


  1. Gabrieli, F. La storiografia arabo-islamica in Italia, Napoli, Guida, 1975, pp. 63-71.
  2. Gabrieli, F., 1975.
  3. 1 2 Goetz, H. Il giuramento rifiutato: i docenti universitari e il regime fascista, Firenze, La nuova Italia, 2000.
  4. 1 2 Boatti, G. Preferirei di no. le storie dei dodici professori che si opposero a Mussolini, Torino, Einaudi, 2001.
  5. Gabrieli, F. Orientalisti del Novecento, Roma, Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino, 1993, pp. 33-38.
  6. Dizionario del fascismo, edited by V. de Grazia and S. Luzzatto, Torino, Einaudi, 2003.
  7. Item on the LINGUIST List, the international online community of professional linguists. At (accessed August 29, 2009).


External links

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