Skip to main content

Raffaella Cribiore (1948-2023)

The news of Raffaella Cribiore’s accidental death from drowning on July 13 (at Finale Liguria in Italy) was a great shock to her many friends across the world of classical studies. She had been looking forward to the colloquium on spaces for learning in the ancient world, as part of the Entretiens Hardt series, co-directed by her with Daniel Anderson. This colloquium, to be held next month, will now be a memorial to her. Its topic reflects the realm in which Raffaella was the most important scholar since H. I. Marrou, ancient education.

Raffaella was born in Varese, Italy, on March 27, 1948, the daughter of Mario and Stefania Razzini. She received her Laurea from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, magna cum laude, in 1972, studying particularly with the great papyrologist Orsolina Montevecchi, to whom she remained devoted. Her education was interrupted by a move to New York and years of raising her family, but she returned to graduate school in the mid-1980s and received her M.Phil. (1990) and Ph.D. (1993) degrees from Columbia University. Her revised dissertation (Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt) was published three years later and quickly achieved classic status, at least as measured by being the most-stolen book from classical libraries (a status she was proud of). It was a revolutionary achievement, the first study of school texts based on an investigation of the materiality of these texts, both supports and handwriting. Even if I was never able to retrain my eyes to be as observant as hers, I learned more from it than from any other dissertation I directed.

There followed over the next twenty years four more single-author books, beginning with Gymnastics of the Mind, which won the Goodwin Award for 2004, and continuing with three books on Libanius, for whom she had a respect and even affection quite beyond common measure. There was also our joint volume collecting and studying Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, a project that owed its origin to the typology of handwritings that she had developed and the uncommon sensitivity to hands that she possessed. Another book, Listening to the Philosophers: Notes on Notes, is in press at Cornell University Press, and a volume of school texts in Coptic on ostraca in the Columbia University collection, co-edited with Jennifer Cromwell, is out to referees at another publisher. More than five dozen articles and a host of reviews round out the scholarly production of these three decades.

In the first half of this period, Raffaella served as curator of papyri at Columbia, while teaching part-time in the Department of Classics. In 2008 she moved to New York University as Professor of Classics, which gave her greater scope for her love of teaching and allowed her to work with graduate students. She also accumulated a range of professional offices, editorial boards, honors, and the like, particularly serving both the American Society of Papyrologists and the Society for Classical Studies in various roles.

Although she liked to portray herself as preferring the life of the scholarly hermit, tucked away among her books in her house on Sutton Place, Raffaella is more widely remembered for her joyous sociability and kindness; she was of course a superb cook. Less predictable perhaps was her affection for the inelegant life of a member of an excavation team. She arrived at Amheida, in the Dakhla Oasis, just after we had discovered a room with poetry on the walls—a teacher’s model for a class, in fact. The miracle of the person in the world best qualified to study and publish these couplets arriving at just that moment remains a vivid memory. She tried in subsequent years to dress down to field standards, but she could never shed her elegance, two orders of magnitude above the rest of us, not to speak of her opinion that pesto should have less garlic than I wanted.

Alongside the scholarly work, Raffaella had a bent for story-telling, reflected in a volume of stories for children, Martina’s Town, published in 2010. It was named after her daughter Martina, who survives her along with Raffaella’s son Federico and her beloved grandchildren, Martina’s daughter Stefania Cribiore-Nieves and Federico’s daughter Ottavia Cribiore-Shirtz, as well as her brother Edoardo Razzini.

Roger Bagnall

Thanks to Martina Cribiore, David Levene, and Bethany Wasik for help in preparing this notice.

Lighted candle with black background