‘He would create an aura of magic’: Former Lehman Professor Joseph Tusiani dies at 96

Joseph Tusiani, Lehman College professor emeritus of languages and literatures, who passed away April 11
Photo courtesy of Maria Passaro

He was a Lehman College professor emeritus of languages and literatures, a humanist, a translator and a prose writer, who wrote poetry in Italian, English, Latin and the dialect of the Gargano.

Professor Joseph Tusiani, who lived in the Bronx for more than 50 years, passed away on April 11, at the age of 96.

He was born in Italy in 1924 and immigrated to the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx in 1947. Tusiani taught for 35 years before retiring in 1983.

Maria Passaro, a professor in the modern languages department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, worked with him for a decade and was taught by him as well. She said that he was a major influence on her career.

“To me, he was first and most of all, the professor that first taught me to love Italian literature,” Passaro said. “Married, a mother of two, my decision to go back to school was made after I attended a lecture on Dante’s Divine Comedy, presented by Professor Joseph Tusiani at Herbert Lehman College CUNY, in 1968.”

Tusiani was known for the translations of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Michelangelo’s poetry, Pulci’s Morgante, and many other great Italian poets, from Dante’s Lyric Poems, to Marino, Metastasio, Alfieri, Foscolo, Leopardi and Manzoni.

In 1954, he was the first American to be the recipient of the Greenwood Prize of the Poetry Society of England.

“Tusiani’s poetry can be defined as poetry of contrasts and conflicts whose common thread is faith and religion,” Passaro said. “Professor Tusiani is not with us any longer, but his work and most of all his poetry in Italian, in English, in Latin and in the dialect of his native Gargano will live forever.”

Meeting him more than 50 years ago set her on the path to teaching. Passaro attended most of the undergraduate courses taught by Tusiani at Lehman College. He also taught her Italian at Fordham University when she was studying for her masters.

“In class as he read poetry, he would create an aura of magic: the only sound that could be heard was his deep voice and 15 or 20 heartbeats,” Passaro said.

In fact, when she used to contribute articles to a magazine, “La Follia di NY”, Tusiani gave her permission to translate all of his books of English poetry into Italian.

Passaro told the Bronx Times if it wasn’t for Tusiani who knows what kind of teacher she would be today.

While he was never married, he took care of his mom. He is survived by his brother, Michael, and sister-in-law, Beatrice, his niece, Paula and nephew, Michael and their children Alexa, Julia, Sarah, Samantha, Matthew and Michael.

“He was very kind,” she said. “He wanted to help people. When someone is a good teacher you try to imitate him. His gift was really writing. As far as I know, in any Italian American course that would be taught we cannot ignore him.”

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