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IT4: Autobiography and Self-Representation in Italian Culture

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

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, including literature and art, from medieval to modern. Instead of the contextual approach of the 1A course, however, here works 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 works in detail, from works of literature in prose and poetry, to self-portraits and memoirs, 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 2023-24 are as follows:

  • Topic 1: Family, Memory, History: Primo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg
  • Topic 2: Medieval Selves: Dante and Petrarch
  • Topic 3: 20th/21st-Century Women's Autobiography: Sibilla Aleramo and Igiaba Scego
  • Topic 4: Painting the Self: Sofonsiba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi


Topic 1: Family, Memory, History: Primo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-91) and Primo Levi (1919-87) were from the same generation, both from Turin, both with Jewish backgrounds. In different ways, their lives were both caught up in the extreme turmoil of Fascism, the war and the Holocaust and they both  experimented with unusual autobiographical modes of writing to reflect on that history and to situate themselves in worlds of  family, work and memory. Together they provide fascinating insights into the forms of autobiography in the modern period. This topic looks at two key works by Levi and Ginzburg, separately and in comparison.

Core Texts

  • Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare (1963)
  • 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 Voices: Sibilla Aleramo and Igiaba Scego

Sibilla Aleramo’s Una donna (1906) was one of the first feminist texts written in Italy. It is both an autobiography and a feminist manifesto. Igiaba Scego’s La mia casa è dove sono (2010) confronts Italy’s unacknowledged colonial past, examines notions of what it means to be Italian, telling a highly personal story about the relation of identity to the places in which we live. In this module, we will investigate questions of race and gender, conceptions of selfhood and self-determination, and the political and social implications of writing autobiography.

Core texts

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


Topic 4: Painting the Self: Sofonsiba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi

Even though painting was an art largely reserved for male practitioners in the early modern period, a few noteworthy women artists emerged in Italy in the sixteenth century.  This topic will examine the works and careers of Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Artemisia Gentileschi as means of exploring how female artists grappled with the intersecting challenges of cultural expectations, economic and legal constraints, and concepts of representation within the genre of self-portraiture.

Core objects:

  • Sofonisba Anguissola, Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, c. 1559 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena)
  • Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1579 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)
  • Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1615-17 (National Gallery, London)
  • Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c. 1638-9 (Royal Collection Trust, Hampton Court Palace)



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)
  • M. Di Battista, and E. Wittman, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014)
  • P. Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (1975): see 'The Autobiographical Contract' in T. Todorov, ed. , French Literary Theory Today (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982)
  • L. Marcus, Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)
  • J. Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980)

           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)
  • U. Fanning Italian Women’s Autobiographical Writings in the Twentieth Century: Constructing Subjects (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017)
Teaching and learning: 

The course will be introduced through one general seminar session at the start of each of MT and LT. Each topic will be taught in a series of 4 lectures / seminars and 2 supervision sessions during MT and LT. There will be revision teaching in ET.

For the IT4 Moodle site, please see here


The paper will be assessed either by a written exam in Easter Term or by Long Essay.

Long Essay

For information on the Long Essay format, please check the following webpage or ask the course coordinator: .For each Long Essay, candidates will be asked to write no less than 3,500 words and no more than 4,000 words.

Written exam in Easter Term

The written exam in Easter Term will be a 5-hour timed online exam which students take in their own space using their own device and during which they have access to resources. There will be four questions on each topic and a separate section with theoretical or general questions that may be answered by making reference to two or more works of autobiography or self-representation studied for the paper (see past exam papers for reference, although note that texts and rubrics may be different). Candidates will be required to answer three questions and are expected to show knowledge of texts from three or more of the topics taught for this paper. For each answer, candidates will be asked to write no more than 1,300 words. 

Candidates may not draw substantially on material which they have used or intend to use in another scheduled paper. Candidates may not draw substantially on the same material in more than one question on the same paper.

Course Contacts: 
Prof Robert Gordon