In memoriam: Pietro Nivola

Pietro Nivola

Pietro Nivola, a scholar and a gentleman, and a pillar of the Brookings Institution, died too young this week after a struggle with cancer that the hackneyed word “valiant” does not begin to describe.

Pietro’s association with Brookings, which spanned more than three decades, was astonishing for its productivity and even more for its variety.  The first of the eleven books he published with the Brookings Press dealt with energy conservation; the last, with the war of 1812.  In between he addressed environmental protection, trade and industrial policy, urban problems, and federalism, among other topics.

In two volumes on the rise of political polarization in the United States, Pietro helped shape the national debate.  He conceived these volumes and the project on which they were based, he edited the numerous essays they comprised, and he coauthored two chapters.  Well before partisan polarization had reached its current intensity, he discerned its risk, and he was determined to do what he could to understand and lean against it.

His sense of time went against the grain of his times.  As news cycles shrank and experts weighed in on hourly developments, Pietro insisted that research centers should stay focused on large issues that required long-term, evidence-based responses.  Such proposals might not garner immediate media attention, and they might not find eager buyers in the political marketplace.  No matter, he said; this wasn’t the right way of keeping score.  Our mission was to be ready when the time was right.

In everything he did, Pietro was a craftsman—careful, patient, and precise.  He valued concision and searched tirelessly for le mot juste.  He reworked each paragraph—indeed, each sentence—until it met his exacting standards.  He knew that every piece of writing, long or short, has its own appropriate architecture, and he would not stop until he found it.

These attributes made Pietro a superb editor as well.  Editing is a thankless task.  Authors often love their words unconditionally—in the case of first drafts, unwisely but too well.  Editors must push authors to abandon some of what they love, much as doctors tell overweight patients to eat less.  In both cases, the reward for good advice is resistance mixed with resentment.

Pietro’s editing revealed not only his intellect but also his character.  He was firm and could be relentless, but he was always gentle and thoughtful.  Shortly before he retired in 2013, he worked with his revered mentor, James Q. Wilson, on what turned out to be one of Wilson’s last published works.  Prof. Wilson was in poor health, and his first draft did not come close to the mark.  Over a period of months, with unfailing tact, Pietro steered draft after draft until the ship finally reached port.  It was like a son doing for an aging father what the father once did for the son—a perilous role reversal that few of us can carry off.

Too many scholars lead unbalanced lives.  Pietro made time for everything that mattered—family, friends, a rich social life, intense physical activity, and cooking that merited at least one Michelin star.  Because his life was so rounded, he welcomed retirement when he judged that the time had come, and he enjoyed every day, even when he knew his days were dwindling to a precious few.

Pietro’s father Constantino was an artist, and so in his own way was Pietro, whose scholarship and diverse interests were his chosen media.  As I left the Governance Studies office the day after his death, I looked with fresh eyes at one of the several paintings by Constantino Nivola that adorns our walls.  A myriad of lines, each painstaking executed, cohere into a vivid depiction of a big city that becomes richer as one takes it in as a whole.  That was Pietro’s life—each element carefully wrought, coming together in a full life well lived.  He taught us how to live, and in his final months he taught us how to die.

Note: The Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program has established an internship program in Pietro’s name and memory. For more information or to donate to the Pietro S. Nivola Internship in Governance Studies, please contact Courtney Dunakin at or 202-797-6018.