Few people have left as significant a legacy in their field as Donald Weinstein. Through his extensive studies in the U.S. and his Fulbright grant that took him to Italy in 1953, Weinstein’s crowning achievement was his text “Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance.” It radically reshaped scholarly conversation of the 14th and 15th Century Italian renaissance, and was only one feature of his illustrious career and remarkable life.
Professor Weinstein was born in Rochester, New York to Orthodox Jewish parents fleeing the Tsar’s persecution. He saw combat in the Second World War, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and the subsequent invasion of Germany in 1945. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his combat in the 4th Division. The G.I. bill, which gave veterans the opportunity to attend college following the war, allowed Weinstein to complete both a B.A. and M.A. at the University of Chicago, and then a doctorate at the University of Iowa.
Arriving in Florence on a Fulbright grant in 1953, Professor Weinstein began his exploration of the Italian renaissance that would cement his position as one of America’s pre-eminent postwar historians. Questioning the historical orthodoxy of the the renaissance as a rebirth of secular thought, Weinstein’s seminal text was a study of the Dominican friar Savonarola; its legacy on the study of the period is evident to this day. His Fulbright grant gave him unparalleled access to the National Library and Archives and his time in Florence became the foundation of his career.
“In his lucid, elegantly written book, Professor Weinstein took dead aim… at the reigning theory that the cultural rebirth of Florence was a purely secular phenomenon.” –New York Times
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Professor Weinstein went on to take up teaching positions at Roosevelt University and Rutgers University, before becoming chair of the University of Arizona’s history department which he immediately shaped into one of the countries most prominent. A further important text followed; the collaborative book of “Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom” that examined the social factors at work in the saints chosen for canonization.
After his retirement in 1992, Professor Weinstein continued to publish, using a dossier of depositions he studied in the Pisa Archives for this later work. A ‘micro-history’ of a 1578 Pisa street brawl was the result. Weinstein’s work continues to be relevant in academic circles; only last summer Yale University Press published his translation of an Italian Scholar’s account of the murder of the Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. In 1994, the Renaissance Society of America devoted a session to Civic Religion in Weinstein’s honor.
Donald Weinstein passed away on December 13, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona, at the age of 89. He was a highly talented historian and academic who embodied the values and ambitions of the Fulbright Program.