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IT4: Autobiography and Self-Representation in Italian Culture

This paper is available for the academic year 2021-22.

Telling stories about ourselves and our lives is a universal human cultural trait, but it takes distinct forms in different cultures and different periods. This course follows the pattern of the Italian "Texts and Contexts" course in Part 1A by ranging over a wide range of periods in Italian culture, from medieval to modern. Instead of the contextual approach of the 1A course, however, here texts are studied in relation to a single overarching aspect; the theory and practice of 'self-representation' or 'autobiography', with particular attention paid to questions of gender and race. You will be required to study single texts in detail, from works of literature in prose and poetry, to letters and essays, but also to compare and contrast different texts, across genres, forms and periods (including going beyond the core texts if you wish). You will also be introduced to some of the core theoretical issues at stake in studying autobiography and self-representation.



Topics for 2021-22 are as follows:

  • Topic 1: Testimony, Science, Literature: Primo Levi and Autobiography
  • Topic 2: Medieval Selves: Dante and Petrarch 
  • Topic 3: 20th/21st-Century Women's Autobiography: Aleramo and Scego
  • Topic 4: Women and Letters in Early Modern Italy: Voices from the Margins


Topic 1: Testimony, Science, Literature: Primo Levi and Autobiography

Primo Levi (1919-87) experimented with a wide array of autobiographical modes, making him one of the most complex and fascinating practitioners of the form in the modern period. He was best known as a Holocaust survivor and author of major testimonial works that bore witness to his time in Auschwitz. He was also a scientist and author of a highly influential and unusual autobiography of his life as a chemist. This module looks at these two key works by Levi in order to explore how autobiography shifted under the weight of history and modernity in the 20th century.

Core Texts

  • Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (1947; 2nd edition 1958)
  • Primo Levi, Il sistema periodico (1975)


Topic 2: Medieval Selves: Dante and Petrarch

This topic will look at two of the major figures of Italian medieval literature and the ways in which each uses poetry as a means of self-representation. Both the Vita nuova and the Canzoniere tell tales of love for a very particular woman, the death of that woman, and the poet's subsequent search for direction in her absence. But above all, both texts virtually invent an idea of authorship and of what a poetry collection looks like that is influential to this day.

Core texts

  • Dante, Vita Nuova. Students should if possible buy Vita Nova, trans. by Andrew Frisardi (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012). Otherwise any other edition with a facing-page English translation will do.
  • Petrarch, Canzoniere. Students should if possible buy the edition published by Indiana University Press, ed. and trans. Mark Musa. Otherwise any other edition with facing page English translation will do. Read as much of the Canzoniere as you can. Lectures, supervisions, and exams will focus on the following poems: 1–12, 16, 35, 60–62, 70, 74, 81, 82, 90, 126, 128, 134, 159, 264, 267, 268, 286, 302, 320, 365, 366.


Topic 3: 20th/21st-Century Women's Autobiography: Aleramo and Scego

Core texts

  • Sibilla Aleramo Una donna (1906)
  • Igiaba Scego, La mia casa è dove sono (2010)


Topic 4: Women and Letters in Early Modern Italy: Voices from the Margins

This topic will look at letters written by the Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco (1546-1591), and the literary nun Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652), in order to ask questions about the early modern letter as self-representation, about the self-fashioning of letters in general, and women's letters in particular. The voices of these two women are far from representative, but come from the margins and are polemical and extreme in different ways.

Core texts:

  • Veronica Franco: A useful modern edition and translation including a selection of Franco's letters is the one published in the Chicago 'Other Voice' series: Veronica Franco, Poems and selected letters, ed. and trans. by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) [The 15 letters included here are cited only in translation, however.] The introduction to this volume is particularly useful. The Italian edition of Franco's letters is Veronica Franco, Lettere, ed. Stefano Bianchi (Rome: Salerno, 1998)
  • Arcangela Tarabotti: A modern Italian edition of Tarabotti’s letters has been published: Arcangela Tarabotti, Lettere familiari e di complimento, ed. Meredith Ray and Lynn Westwater (Turin: Rosenberg and Sellier, 2005). A modern English translation is also available by the same editors: Arcangela Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, ed. Ray and Westwater (Toronto University Press, 2012)


Preparatory reading: 


The main preliminary reading for this paper is the primary texts listed above. In addition, you should look at some of following theoretical and general work:

           Preliminary reading on autobiography in general:

  • L. Anderson, Autobiography (London: Routledge, 2000)
  • P. Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (1975): see 'The Autobiographical Contract' in T. Todorov, ed. , French Literary Theory Today (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982)
  • J. Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980)
  • R. Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960)
  • J. Sturrock, The Language of Autobiography (Cambridge: CUP, 1993)

           Preliminary reading on autobiography in Italy:

  • 'Autobiography', entry in Oxford Companion to Italian Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2002)
  • A. Battistini, Lo specchio di Dedalo. Biografia e autobiografia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990)
  • F. D'Intino, L'autobiografia moderna. Storia, forme, problemi (Roma, Bulzoni, 1998)
  • M. Guglielminetti, 'Biografia e autobiografia', in Letteratura italiana. Vol. v. Le questioni, edited by A. Asor Rosa (Turin: Einaudi, 1986), pp.829-86
Teaching and learning: 

Each topic will be taught in a series of 4 lectures  / seminars and 2 supervision during MT and LT.  There will be revision teaching in ET.

For the It.4 Moodle site, please see here


The paper will be assessed either by a written exam in the summer or by Long Essay. There will be at least four questions on each topic and you will be required to answer three questions on three different topics.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Helena Phillips-Robins