History Remembers John Walton Barker (1933-2019)

John Barker
John Barker (1933-2019)

Professor Emeritus John W. Barker passed away on October 24th at the age of 86.  Barker was an expert in late Byzantine and Venetian history whose work helped define Byzantine studies in the twentieth century.  His biography of the Renaissance-era emperor Manuel II Palaeologus: 1391-1425: A study in late Byzantine Statesmanship (1969), and numerous other studies, have shaped scholarly perceptions of that period for decades.  In 1975 he helped found the Byzantine Studies Conference (now the Byzantine Studies Association of North America), which continues to be the main venue for presenting current research on Byzantine studies in the western hemisphere.  He hosted the second Byzantine Studies Conference in 1976 and the 23rd in 1997.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Barker received his MA (1956) and PhD (1961) from Rutgers University.  He joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1962 and taught for nearly four decades until his retirement in 1999.  Dedicated to public engagement with the humanities, Barker wrote Justinian and the later Roman Empire (1966) for a popular audience, lectured regularly for the UW Extension, and led educational tours of the Mediterranean.

Barker was an ardent and deeply learned connoisseur of classical music, especially opera and oratorio, and a particular devotion to the oratorios of Handel.  He was a reviewer for the American Record Guide for 62 years and collected over 110,000 classical music recordings.  His interests in history and music combined in a post-retirement career as a music historian that produced Wagner and Venice (2008), Wagner and Venice Fictionalized: Variations on a Theme (2012) and The Pro Arte Quartet: a century of History and Legacies (2011).  Barker was perhaps best known in Madison as the main classical music critic for the Isthmus newspaper for twenty years, writing an estimated 330 reviews.  His editor, Catherine Capellaro, noted that Barker’s “knowledge of the historical context, composers and genres was deep and detailed.”  At a concert given in his honor by the Middleton Community Orchestra this September, Barker explained, “I am a teacher by instinct, and by definition that is someone who loves his subject so much he can’t bear to have people not know about it.”

A week before his death, the Byzantine Studies Conference again came to Madison, and Barker was able to meet with a graduate student who is writing a new study of Manuel II Palaeologus, to whom he gave his personally annotated copies of key texts that he had used in his own research six decades ago as well as his unwavering encouragement.