RODERICK CAVALIERO 1928 - 2018: A TRIBUTE BY HARRIET CULLEN

September 14, 2018

RODERICK CAVALIERO 1928 - 2018:  A TRIBUTE BY HARRIET CULLEN

The old-timers at KSMA are all sad to hear of the death of Roderick Cavaliero, who has died at the age of 90. He was involved for many years with the Keats-Shelley House and the Association. His official career had been as a British Council Administrator, holding senior positions in Brazil, India and Italy, accompanied by his wife Mary and his growing family, but he was also a talented historian who wrote in retirement of the rise and fall of empires and dynasties in the countries where he had worked, in a series of well-researched books studded with colourful detail. In fact, he could have been said to have four careers which sometimes overlapped: teacher, public servant, author and champion of British Romanticism.

Roddy was born in Kent in 1928 and received a conventional English education – too much so, even being sent to boarding school at the age of 6.  But as a wartime schoolboy he was made aware of his exotic name, when other boys taunted him as “Mussolini”, and he riposted with “Hitler Youth!”.  The Cavalieros were thought to be a Sephardic family which had come to England in the 1880s from Algeria, possibly of Crusader stock, and Crusader myth was something he would absorb eagerly in a post-university stint of six years teaching history in Malta. It inspired his first book, The Last of The Crusaders, of the decline and fall of the monk-soldier Knights of Malta, whose last hundred years were spent fighting Barbary pirates and policing the Mediterranean.

His final British Council posting after New Delhi and Rio took him to Rome, as Director of the Council.  In retirement from this, in 1990, he joined the British School, rapidly becoming Chairman of its management committee, and spent four years overhauling its financial and charitable status, introducing the unknown concept of fund-raising, and coming to terms with the conceptual art of its young bursary winners which contrasted dramatically with his beloved churches (Roddy used to explore a new one every day on his way to work). At the same time he overhauled his wardrobe. As female colleagues recall, the formal dark suits went, and were replaced by colourful Hawaiian shirts, referred to as “Roddy’s Tropicana”.

By tradition in Rome in that time, the Chairman of the BSR also de facto became Chair of the Rome Committee of its much smaller and independent cousin, the Keats-Shelley House. To promote the British poets and the spirit of Romanticism abroad became one of Roddy’s last missions,  and he embraced with gusto the duties of celebrating the bicentenaries of Keats and Shelley at festivals in Recanati and Lerici, holding forth in fluent if fractured Italian with the formidable Contessa Leopardi at the joint Leopardi-Keats party, and giving an impromptu speech on the drowning of Shelley at the helm of a heavily packed boat cruising around the Gulf of Lerici.   His love of the Romantics spawned two new books on the theme.  Italia Romantica (2005), subtitled English Romantics and Italian Freedom, was a vivid history of pre-unification Italy, struggling to recover after Napoleon and seen through the eyes of Romantic travellers and poets, notably Keats, Byron and Shelley, although Keats “did not go to Italy… to escape northern prigs, only northern weather”.  Ottomania: The Romantics and the Myth of the Islamic Orient (2010) focused on the further-flung Romantic obsession, and in addition to the English brought in many Continental European Romantics in pursuit of their oriental ideal, including Pierre Loti, Rossini and Delacroix. 

In his second retirement finally back in England, while finishing his books, he continued to support the Keats-Shelley House, now as a Trustee and Treasurer of KSMA.  He was a scrupulously efficient Treasurer and a powerful presence on the Committee, earning the Quevedo sobriquet “un poderoso caballero/… Don Dinero…” although he liked to say that anyone who ran a garage could do it.  He was largely responsible for the recruitment of two young women Curators of the House, in the fine and almost unbroken tradition of Vera Cacciatore:  Bathsheba Abse, MBE, 1990-1996, and Catherine Payling, MBE 1997-2011, and after mentoring them in their roles – only to an extent, as both were formidable incumbents - succeeded in radically changing their lives. Sheba would meet and marry an Italian diplomat, Giuseppe Morabito, and Catherine would meet and marry KSMA Trustee Professor Duncan Wu, their friendship blossoming after his official visit to inspect the Keats-Shelley House Library.  He was a regular contributor of reviews of new books for the Keats-Shelley Review.  He also acted as KSMA Friends Secretary, mastering the new email to maintain a lively correspondence with stragglers, and with winners of the Keats-Shelley Prize.  He was an ebullient, larger-than-life and unpredictable personality.  Sometimes, in emotional moods, he would denounce his Romantics in favour of Browning; once, vehemently advancing his opinion at a meeting, he broke a chair.  We salute his memory, and we extend our condolences to his five loving and talented son and daughters, Rohan, Louisa, Mia, Rosie and Juliana, and his ten grandchildren.