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In Memoriam: Deno Geanakoplos


New Haven, Conn. — Deno John Geanakoplos, the Bradford Durfee Professor Emiterus of Byzantine History, Renaissance History, and Orthodox Church History at Yale University, died on October 4 in Hamden, CT. He was 91 years old.

Professor Geanakoplos was a renowned scholar of Byzantine cultural and religious history and Italian Renaissance intellectual history. Author of 13 books and over 100 articles, he was considered one of the foremost Byzantine scholars in the world.

His work showed the pivotal role that Byzantine scholars who emigrated to Italy played in unlocking and interpreting ancient Greek texts vital to the Italian Renaissance, systematically documenting their interactions in the west. He deeply probed the encounters between the Greek and Roman churches over centuries of recurring schism and attempted reunion, including the councils of Lyons, Basel and especially Florence, during which the churches agreed to reconcile. Geanakoplos was the first Orthodox lay person invited to attend Vatican Council II in 1962. In 1966, he was awarded the Greek government’s highest honor, the Gold Cross of the Order of King George I, for his contributions to Hellenic culture.

Born in 1916 in Minneapolis, Minn., Geanakoplos studied music before becoming a historian. He earned a diploma in violin from the Juilliard School of Music in 1939 and then played in the first violin section in the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under Dimitri Mitropoulos. Simultaneously, he pursued a B.A. in history from the University of Minnesota, receiving it in 1941. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army with a school friend, Sydney Ahlstrom. Both eventually became history professors at Yale.

Geanakoplos was sent to North Africa, where he learned French, and then was in the first wave of American soldiers to reach Sicily, where he learned Italian. The first lieutenant played solo violin concerts in various halls across Italy, including three in the San Carlo opera house in Naples. Increasingly interested in Italian culture, he managed to enroll and complete the Dottore in lettere at the University of Pisa in 1946, writing his dissertation in Italian. Leaving the Army as a captain, he returned to the symphony and the University of Minnesota, where he was awarded an M.A. in 1946. He enrolled in the Graduate School of Harvard University in 1947, completing his Ph.D. in history in 1953, meanwhile serving as concertmaster of the Harvard-Radcliffe Symphony Orchestra.

Professor Geanakoplos’s first teaching positions were at Brandeis University and at the Greek Theological Seminary in Boston. From 1954 to 1967, he taught medieval history at the University of Illinois, before joining the faculty at Yale, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. After his son John joined the Yale economics faculty in 1980, they became only the third father-son pair to be tenured professors concurrently in the university’s history.

Deno Geanakoplos was elected president of the American Society of Church History in 1983 and was a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, the American Historical Association and the Renaissance Society of America. In 1975 he was awarded the title of Archon “Teacher of the People” by the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople. He won Guggenheim, Fulbright and American Council of Learned Societies grants and lectured at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Rome, Paris, Athens, Bologna and Thessalonike, among others, in each case speaking in whichever of his eight languages was appropriate to the location.

At Yale, he was affiliated with the departments and programs in Medieval Studies, Renaissance Studies and Russian and East European Studies and the Divinity School, in addition to his primary appointments in History and Religious Studies.

Geanakoplos’ books include “Emperor Michael Paleologus and the West,” “Greek Scholars in Venice,” “Byzantine East and Latin West,” “Byzantium: Church Society and Civilization” and a textbook titled “Medieval Western Civilization and the Byzantine and Islamic Worlds.” He edited several journals, including “Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies”; “Medieval and Renaissance Studies”; and “Greek Orthodox Theological Review.”

Outside of academia, he remained a lover of classical music and all the arts, and an avid fan of tennis, dating back to his days on the varsity tennis team at the University of Minnesota.

A long-time Yale colleague, Gaddis Smith, the Larned Professor Emeritus of History, says, “He was a wonderful, outgoing man—a scholar’s scholar.”

Professor Geanakoplos is survived by his son John Geanakoplos, the James Tobin Professor of Economics at Yale and former Director of the Cowles Foundation; and his daughter, Constance Geanakoplos of New York City, a concert pianist. Both are alumni of Yale College. His wife of 48 years, Effie Geanakoplos, a clinical social worker and instructor in psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, predeceased him in 2001.

Funeral services were held on October 11 at St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church in Orange, Conn., just outside New Haven.


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