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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, 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 2023-24 are as follows:

  • Topic 1: Testimony, Science, Literature: Primo Levi and Autobiography
  • Topic 2: Art, Love, and Devotion: Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna
  • Topic 3: Contemporary Women's Autobiography: Luisa Passerini and Igiaba Scego
  • Topic 4: Medieval Selves: Dante and Petrarch


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: Art, Love, and Devotion: Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna

This topic will examine the question of self-representation in the Renaissance through the works of Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna. Amorous desire and religious devotion are inextricably bound up with notions of the self, sexuality, and creative expression in the poetic and artistic production of these singular individuals who not only worked independently, but also shared one of the most famous friendships of the era.

Core texts

  • Buonarroti, Michelangelo. The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation. Trans. and ed. James Saslow (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).
  • —.  Michelangelo: The Poems.  Trans. and ed. Christopher Ryan (London: Dent, 1996).
  • Colonna, Vittoria. Sonnets for Michelangelo: A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. Abigail Brundin. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005.


Topic 3: Contemporary Women's Autobiography: Luisa Passerini and Igiaba Scego

As one of the major scholars in Italian twentieth-century autobiography put it, ‘the sheer number of autobiographical works written by women in Italy in the past century is arresting’ (Fanning, 2017). This topic will consider 20th- and 21st-century women’s autobiography by focusing on two core texts: Luisa Passerini’s collective and political autobiography Autoritratto di gruppo (1988) and Igiaba Scego’s postcolonial autobiography La mia casa è dove sono (2010).

Core texts

  • Luisa Passerini, Autoritratto di gruppo (1988)
  • Igiaba Scego, La mia casa è dove sono (2010)


Topic 4: 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.


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 MT. 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. In both cases, it will be a take-home coursework assessment.

Long Essay

For information on the Long Essay format, please check the following webpage or ask the course coordinator: . In the current academic year (2022-2023), both Long Essays will be averaged to produce the mark and will count equally. 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

For the current academic year (2022-2023), the written exam in Easter Term will again be in the take-home format and candidates will have two working days to complete it (see last year's exam paper for reference, but please note the reduced time window for completion). There will be four questions on each topic and a separate section with theoretical questions that may be answered by making reference to two or more works of autobiography or self-representation studied for the paper (see last year’s exam paper for reference). 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 between 1,200 to 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