Remembering Widener Professor Robert Melzi

January 31, 2013

Melzi_at_Chalk blog

Dr. Robert C. Melzi, a professor emeritus of romance languages, died on March 5, 2012, at the age of 96.  Rosemary Cappello ’83, editor of the literary journal Philadelphia Poets, offered this remembrance.

By Rosemary Cappello ‘83

I first met Bob in 1979, when I started college at Widener and studied Italian with him. We had an instant rapport, for I was struck by his similarity to my father, John Petracca, who also was an Italian immigrant. But mainly I appreciated Bob’s integration of Italian culture, notably its literature and music, with the study of the language. Also of note were Bob’s eager demeanor, his ready smile, and effervescent sense of humor, all of which can be summed up as a zest for life.

It took me a while, after graduation from Widener, to refer to him as Bob, so great was my respect for him. After all, his career in Widener’s Romance Language Department spanned 30 years and the briefest conversation with him left one feeling that here was an outstanding scholar, erudite on many subjects. He retired in 1990, having also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Saint Joseph’s University, Villanova University, and Bryn Mawr College.

From 2003 until 2010, Dr. Melzi was Italian consultant to Philadelphia Poets, the literary journal which I edit and publish, and his Italian translations of many poems appeared within its pages.

It wasn’t until I read his online obituary that I learned this little-known fact: he escaped from Europe during the Holocaust. His real name was Italo Liebman, born in Milan to an eminent Jewish/Italian family, and he had to flee for his life when Mussolini aligned with Hitler and anti-Semitism prevailed. He changed his name and made his way to New Jersey, where he, who had graduated from the University of Padua, worked on a chicken farm in order to make a living. Eventually, he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania where his talents as a linguist, scholar, writer, and educator were recognized, and soon his academic career resumed. Throughout the years, he made significant contributions to literature, such as The Bantam New College Italian American Dictionary which he compiled, as well as the many scholarly works he published. In his later years, he wrote about the treatment of Jews during the Italian Renaissance.

Above all, he was a loving and beloved person who made everyone, including older students such as me, feel at home on the college campus. Our association continued after my graduation; he was supportive of my work in poetry, and immediately helpful when called upon for translations or help with the Italian language. His knowledge of English was exemplary as well. His vast contributions to Widener made him superlatively deserving of the Widener-PMC Alumni Association’s R. Kelso Carter Award in 2006.

His expertise, jovial nature, and friendship are missed.



  1. I agree with what you said about Dr. Melzi. As a reference librarian in the Wolfgram Memorial Library, Dr. Melzi and I often interacted as he sought to verify sources he came across or was using in his research. WE progressed to becoming friends. Our Italian heritage was the bond that united us. Over the years I met his wife and we attended the President’s welcoming faculty party at the Billie Kirkbride House. With Mr. Lee Brown, former director of the library and Mrs Brown, Dr. Eleanor Logan, Dr. and Mrs. Melzi and my husband and I, DR Melzi would joke about our ages and the number of years represented at our table.!!!!
    He always encouraged me to speak my Italian dialect and would address me in his perfect Italian. When I said, I was reluctant to speak to him in Italian he said it was important to use the language I knew so that it would not be lost.
    We mourned his wife’s passing and his son’s untimely death. His daughter was coming to the library to do research and I had been assisting her for some time before the night Dr. Melzi came in and said “do you know that Marie is my daughter?” I replied, “no wonder we get along so well and I like her so much!” Before his “grandson and namesake” (his words) came to the Summer New Student Orientation event, he called me and asked me to look for him and encourage him to come to the library during his time here. I was at the library table on the day Robert Melzi came in with his mother and we were able to meet and speak of his grandfather.
    A true gentleman, scholar, wonderful family man and friend. I miss his nearly daily visits to the library and our talks together. He was so interested in his research and contributing to the literature of his discipline and he did so long after most people would have retired.
    HE never really retired. In my capacity as a librarian and by assisting Dr. Melzi in his various endeavors, I learned a great deal
    about scholarship and writing and living life to the fullest.

    I am happy to hear of your personal experiences with him, Rosemary Cappello. I too, was an older student, Neumann’79 and Drexel ’81.

    Terri Cartularo

    • Thank you so much, Teresa Calabrese Cartularo, for your response, in which you paint such a clear picture of Dr. Melzi. I’m glad that you brought up the way he encouraged those who knew the Italian dialects to keep them going. He bemoaned the fact that television was bringing an end to them in Italy. Actually, they are not really dialects but languages unto themselves, for they derive directly from the Latin language, at least I am sure that Sicilian and Neapolitan do. At any rate, there was a student in our class named Rose Pizzirusso who knew a particular Italian “dialect,” and Dr. Melzi was eager for her to share this knowledge with him. I was hoping that Ms. Pizzirusso and others in our class would see this tribute and send in their reminiscences. I’m certainly glad that you did! By the way, I knew his wife Marie also, and we had in common that we were both shoemakers’ daughters. I forgot to add, in my piece, that Italian food was part of the Italian culture we studied, and Dr. Melzi continually raved about Marie’s cooking. They had a long and happy marriage. Thanks again, Terri, and next time I need to do research, I know where to go!

      • Thank you Rosemary for your reply to my comments. I loved him as a grandfather I think because I had to leave my grandparents in Montepaone, Catanzaro at the age of 4 and a half. I distinctly remember crying at the leave taking and my mother saying” don’t cry, you will see them again” and I replied ” I will never see them again” and I did not. WOrld War II came and we did not even have pictures of them. Nowadays we can call and Some Skype but those were very different times. I hope, as you do ,that others will contribute to our discussion. YEs, they were indeed a special couple Marie and Dr. Melzi.
        I’d be glad to assist you in your research.

  2. Hi, Terri, and thanks for your response. I know what you’re saying about the difficulty of leaving family behind when you came to America. Even though I was born here, I sensed my father’s yearning for the “old country” and felt that I inherited that longing. This is not limited to Italian immigrants, for many from other countries miss their native lands and place their feelings in their writings. I’m hosting an “Ethnic Voices” poetry reading on Sunday at the Manayunk Art Center, and several Italian/American poets, among other nationalities, will be reading. I know you’d appreciate hearing the many stories similar to your own. It’s from 3 till 5 and the address is 416 Green Lane (rear).

    Getting back to our class with Dr. Melzi, there was one student, not an Italian, who learned the language so well that he landed a job as a translator. But I know that there are many who love the Italian language for its musicality, and for those who like to travel to Italy, it’s great to know the language. When I was in Italy, every Italian I met encouraged me to speak the language, and were not critical of my American accent.

    There’s a website called i-Italy that you might like to check out. It often holds interesting discussions, such as the importance of teaching Italian in our schools. I added my input to that one, as I think it’s sad that Italian is not more widely available to students in our schools. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity of studying with Dr. Melzi!



    • Would love to come on Sunday but have tickets for Peter NEro concert. Thanx for website name.

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