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IT5: Italian Identities: Place, Language, and Culture

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

Can we speak of an Italian culture and society (and language) if Italy de facto did not exist before 1861 as a political entity? Can we speak of a single Italian identity in Italy's history or should we rather consider several Italian identities? From the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century Italy was a politically and linguistically fragmented country. To more adequately understand Italy's tradition and culture through the centuries, one must then consider the variety of political and cultural centres that developed across the peninsula: from the 'comuni' and the 'signorie', to the republics, the Renaissance courts, the papal state, the dukedoms and the kingdoms, to the creation of a unified state in 1861, following the Risorgimento process. The aim of this paper is to acknowledge the richness and variety of Italy's local traditions, which often remain undifferentiated under a general umbrella of 'Italian' culture: it will offer students the possibility to gain a more detailed understanding of the country's history, language and culture by focusing on its local identities and texts of various genres that chronologically range from the Middle Ages to the present times. 


For students interested in taking this paper in the Academic year 2021-22, a powerpoint about the course can be found here.



Topics for 2021-22 are as follows:

Topic 1 Florence: Boccaccio's Decameron​

Core text: Selections from Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron (students should if possible purchase or otherwise get their hands on an edition with notes by V. Branca).
Boccaccio can be difficult to read in the original Italian. If you're having trouble, try reading an English translation of the story in question first so that you know what to expect and then try reading the story in the original. The Brown University Decameron web site (see below) has a hyperlinked original text plus translation that will allow you to skip back and forth as needed. Inexpensive editions of English translations are also widely available.

  • Read as much of the Decameron as you can. Lectures and exams will focus on the following novelle:
  • Proemio e Introduzione
  • I,1 I,6
  • II,3 II,5 II,10
  • III,1 III,3 III,4 III,7 III,9
  • IV,1 IV,7 IV,8 IV,9
  • V,9
  • VI,1 VI,2 VI,3 VI, 4 VI, 5 VI, 7 VI,8 VI,9 VI, 10
  • VII,6 VII,8
  • IX,3 IX,7 IX,8
  • X,6 X,10

Other Resources:

  • (primary sources on the plague in Florence, maps of places referenced in the novelle, bibliography, bilingual hypertext)
  • Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism ed. by Thomas Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki, Annali d’Italianistica, 2006.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Boccaccio ed. by Guyda Armstrong, Rhiannon Daniels, and Stephen J. Milner, 2015
  • Kirkham, Victoria. The sign of reason in Boccaccio's fiction. Florence: L.S. Olschki, 1993.
  • Levenstein, Jessica. "Out of Bounds: Passion and the Plague in Boccaccio's Decameron."Italica Vol. 73, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 313-335
  • Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The World at Play in Boccaccio's Decameron. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.
  • Migiel, Marilyn. A Rhetoric of the Decameron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • Migiel, Marilyn. The Ethical Dimension of the Decameron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015
  • Morosini Roberta., ed. Boccaccio Geografo, Firenze: Polistampa, 2010.
  • Ricketts, Jill M. Visualizing Boccaccio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Wallace, David. Boccaccio: Decameron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
  • Watson, Paul F. "The Cement of Fiction: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Painters of Florence" MLN Vol. 99, No. 1, Italian Issue (Jan., 1984), pp. 43-64
  • The Decameron First Day in Perspective,ed. by Elissa B. Weaver, Toronto, 2004.
  • The Decameron Third Day in Perspective,ed. by Francesco Ciabattoni and Pier Massimo Forni, Toronto, 2014

Supervisors will guide students to other resources according to their interests.

Topic 2 Comic Theatre in Renaissance Italy

This topic will explore the rich theatre production of Renaissance Italy, focusing in particular on some of its most experimental, exuberant, irreverent and successful comedies. It will trace the evolution of the comic genre, starting from the humanist revival of ancient drama, which determined the dominance of classical models in European theatre, to the birth of commedie erudite, which marked a new kind of production, blending Latin and Greek plots with elements of Italian literary tradition. Some of the best-known men of letters of the time devoted their efforts to comic theatre, among them Bernardo Bibbiena, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Pietro Aretino. Their works are rich in stylistic inventions, immoral plots and unforgettable characters, scurrilous language and clever twists, while also bringing to the stage proto-feminist issues and political satire. Meant to delight and entertain, they also reflect and question Italy’s historical context and socio-cultural fabric. While studying some of the masterpieces of Italian Renaissance theatre, students will also be able to delve into the fascinating world of Italy’s courts, in Urbino, Florence, Rome, as well as its literary academies, such as the Intronati in Siena.

Core texts (students must study at least 3 of the following comedies; any Italian editions):

  • Bernardo Bibbiena, La Calandria (1513)
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, La Mandragola (1518)
  • Pietro Aretino, La Cortigiana (1525)
  • Accademia degli Intronati, Gl’ingannati (1532)

The English translation of La Cortigiana, La Calandria and La Mandragola are available online in Beecher & Beecher, Donald, 2008-2010. Renaissance Comedy the Italian Masters. Volume 1 & 2, Toronto: University of Toronto Press. The English translation of Gl’Ingannati is in Giannetti et al., 2003. Five Comedies from the Italian Renaissance, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Topic 3 ‘Between the old and the new: Grazia Deledda’s Sardinia’ 

In 1926, the Sardinian Grazia Deledda (1871-1936) became one of the few women to receive a Nobel prize. But the path to literary recognition had not been an easy one. She had to struggle against odds to have her voice heard as a writer: she had to overcome the obstacles of language and culture and the hostility of her own community. Deledda grew up speaking dialect, had little formal schooling, and was born into an insular world that strongly frowned upon women who had intellectual aspirations and hoped for literary recognition beyond the world of domesticity. A very prolific writer, her works uniformly testify to her love for her native island, whose landscape is often portrayed as a metaphor for the difficulties in her characters’ lives. Her fiction often encapsulates the tension and conflict between the ancient ways of a world rooted in archaic values and the new modern mores brought along by political, cultural and social change. Peasant culture, moral codes and dilemmas, love and passion, religion and magic, temptation, sin and expiation, and sin, are dramatized in her writings. Her narratives speak to modern readers and touch upon topics and themes that are still nowadays debated issues: gender and feminism, social order, transgression, and economics.

 Core texts (students must study at least 3 of the following novels; any Italian editions)

  • Elias Portolu (1903)
  • Cenere (1904)
  • Canne al vento (1913)
  • Marianna Sirca (1915)
  • La madre (1920)

Students are also strongly encouraged to further explore Deledda’s rich oeuvre (novels, short stories, and theatre). Note that her posthumous Cosima (1937) is considered to be partly autobiographical. 

Topic 4 Italo Svevo and Trieste

Primary Text:

  • La coscienza di Zeno (1923)

Secondary reading:

  • Elizabeth Schächter, Origin and Identity: Essays on Svevo and Trieste (Northern UP, 2000) 
  • Enrico Ghidetti, Italo Svevo. La coscienza di un borghese triestino (Editori Riuniti 1982)
  • Moloney, B. Italo Svevo: a critical introduction. Edinburgh, 1974.
  • Nanni, L., ed. Leggere Svevo: antologia della critica sveviana. Bologna, 1974.
  • Bon, A. Come leggere La coscienza di Zeno di Italo Svevo. Milano, 1977.
  • Lavagetto, Mario. L’impiegato Schmitz: e altri saggi su Svevo. Torino : Einaudi, 1986.
  • Katia Pizzi, A City in Search of an Author: The Literary Identity of Trieste
  • C.C. Russell, 'Italo Svevo's Trieste'
  • Esman, A. 'Italo Svevo and the first Psychoanalytic Novel' International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 82:1225-1233
  • M B. Moloney, 'Psychonalysis and Irony in La coscienza di Zeno'
  • G. MInghelli, 'In the Shadow of the Mammoth: Narratives of Symbiosis in La Coscienza di Zeno' .pdf
  • G.P. Biasin, 'Literary Diseases'
  • E. Saccone, 'Svevo, Zeno e la Psicanalisi'
  • A. Bonadeo, 'Ideale e reale nella Coscienza di Zeno'
Preparatory reading: 

The preparatory reading for this paper is the primary texts listed above. In addition, students may wish to consult the following preliminary readings on Italian history, identity, regionalism, polycentrism, language:

  • Asor Rosa, A., 1989. 'Centralismo e policentrismo nella letteratura italiana unitaria', in Id. (ed.), Letteratura italiana. Storia e geografia, vol. III, L'età contemporanea. Turin: Einaudi, pp.5-74.
  • Coletti, V., 1993. Storia dell'italiano letterario: dalle origini al Novecento. Turin: Einaudi.
  • Dionisotti, C., 1967. Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana. Turin: Einaudi, pp.1-54, 89-124.
  • Duggan, C., 1994. 'The geographical determinants of disunity' in Id., A Concise History of Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Levy, C. (ed.), 1996. Italian Regionalism: History, Identity and Politics. Oxford: Berg.
  • Raimondi, E., 1998. Letteratura e identità nazionale. Milan: Bruno Mondadori.
Teaching and learning: 

There will be 6 discussion seminars, to which students will be expected to contribute, interspersed between a series of 12 lectures - 3 on each of the four topics:

Michaelmas Term:

Two introductory seminars;
three lectures and one seminar on Topic 1;
three lectures and one seminar on Topic 2

Lent Term:

Three lectures and one seminar on Topic 3; three lectures and one seminar on Topic 4

These lectures/seminars will be supplemented by 8 supervisions, organised and run by members of the department.

For the It.5 Moodle site, please see here


One three-hour examination will be set. You will be required to answer three questions.

Course Contacts: 
Professor Helena Sanson