Leonard Barkan


Leonard Barkan will transfer to emeritus status on July 1, 2022. As the Class of 1943 University Professor of Comparative Literature, he has taught a broad array of courses, ranging from explicitly literary subjects, such as Shakespeare’s plays, to classes on the interaction of the visual arts and literature, such as the intersection of Greek and Roman myth in its material legacy in sculpture excavated during the Renaissance in Rome. Even in the most literary of contexts, he has brought the vividness of the text to life via a longstanding engagement with drama, and his magnetism as a raconteur has captivated generations of students at five major universities. 

Leonard grew up in Greenwich Village, New York City, the child of non-observant Jewish Marxists. He attended the celebrated Horace Mann High School and after taking his bachelor of arts at Swarthmore College in 1965, he studied at both Harvard University and Yale University, receiving his Ph.D. from the latter in 1971 before moving to California for his first academic position, at University of California-San Diego. He moved subsequently to Northwestern University, where he was an associate professor of English and art history before an appointment at the University of Michigan in English and fine art. His next position was at New York University as the Samuel Rudin University Professor of Humanities before he settled in Princeton in 2001. Along the way, in 1968, he taught briefly at Miles College, a Historically Black College outside Birmingham, Alabama. 

There’s no surprise that in the course of his career, Leonard has published extensively in the many areas closely aligned with his teaching. His first book, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (Yale University Press), was published in 1986, and followed swiftly the next year by Renaissance Plays: New Readings and Rereadings (Northwestern University Press). The first of these already exemplifies Leonard’s mastery of the diverse intellectual empire of comparative literature, commanding not only literary sources, but also engaging with the visual arts, anthropology, and psychology. In deploying the tools of these disciplines, he followed the theme of metamorphosis from Ovid through Dante and Shakespeare, limning the history of “paganism” from the early church fathers through Velázquez. 

In 1991, Leonard’s study of the trope of replacement, whereby the substitution of one word for another enables a new kind of figuration, became the focus of Transuming Passion: Ganymede and the Erotics of Humanism (Stanford University Press). The book was accounted a major contribution to the intellectual history of homoeroticism with its imaginative interpretations of art and literature. 

The year 2001 saw the publication of Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (Yale University Press), in which Leonard studied the encounter with antiquity that had been enabled by the excavation of Classical sculptures in Renaissance Rome. 

After his arrival at Princeton, Leonard continued to publish important academic works, such as his investigation of the writing on Michelangelo’s drawings, Michelangelo: A Life on Paper (Princeton University Press, 2010) and his study of the confluence of painting and poetry in Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures (Princeton University Press, 2012). Much of his work in the new century, however, has taken a turn toward memoir. His highly amusing account of a year living in Rome is the focus of Satyr Square (Northwestern University Press, 2008), and in 2016 he published Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First-Century Companion (University of Chicago Press). The latter engages with the lives of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Berlin Jews of particular interest to him: the salonnière Rahel Varnhagen, the art collector James Simon, and the celebrated writer Walter Benjamin. Both of these are “coming-out” books of a sort, the first about Leonard’s coming-out as gay, the second on his coming-out as a Jew. Both of these aspects of Leonard’s identity had been sources of ambivalence and concealment earlier in his life, but in Rome, he fell in love and gave himself over to confession and self-deprecation in asserting his sexual identity. He was slower to celebrate his Jewish heritage but went to Berlin to find a way to understand his Jewish heritage within the cultural milieux of the aforementioned stars of Berlin Jewry. Recent work has followed along this line: The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance (Princeton University Press, 2021) is, of course, as its title announces, a historical study of the role of food in European culture, but anyone who knows Leonard and his deft hand in the kitchen will savor much of him in the book. His latest work, Reading Shakespeare, Reading Me (Fordham University Press, 2022) understands reading the Bard as an attempt to read and understand himself. 

Leonard’s great scholarly achievements have brought him numerous honors. He was the Rudolf Arnheim-Gastprofessur at the Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte at the Humboldt University of Berlin from 2014 to 2015 and he spent a month as a visiting professor at Harvard’s I Tatti Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. He won the Berlin Prize in 2009 as well as the 2011 Harry Levin Prize. He was, moreover, a co-winner of the 2001 PEN/Architectural Digest Award for Literary Writing on the Visual Arts. The Gods Made Flesh and Unearthing the Past have won prizes from the Modern Language Association, the College Art Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, Architectural Digest, and Phi Beta Kappa. He has also won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It seems the only thing he didn’t win was the Hamantaschen-Latke Debate with Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber!

Written by members of the Department of Comparative Literature faculty.