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IT5: Italian Identities: Place, Language, and Culture

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

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 2023-24, a powerpoint about the course can be found here.


Topic 1 Florence: Boccaccio's Decameron​

Core text: Selections from Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron (recommended editions: either edited by Vittore Branca (various editions) or ed. by Amedeo Quondam, Maurizio Fiorilla, and Giancarlo Alfano (Milan: BUR, 2013)

Boccaccio’s language might take getting used to the original Italian. English translations can help in this, are inexpensive and widely available. 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.

Read as much of the Decameron as you can. Lectures and exams will focus on the following novelle:

  • Proemio; Introduzione and Conclusione (general and of each day)
  • I,1 I,5 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,7 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 Urbino: The essence of courtly life: Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano (1528)

By means of Baldassar Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano this topic offers a fascinating insight into Renaissance court life. Castiglione’s work, the ultimate ‘how to’ guide for aspiring courtiers, is considered one of the masterpieces of Italian and European literature. 

Core text: Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano (any modern edition)

Preliminary reading on Castiglione and the Renaissance:

•    Burke, P., 1988. 'Il cortigiano', in E. Garin (ed.), L'uomo del Rinascimento. Bari: Laterza, pp. 133-65; English version 'The Courtier', in E. Garin (ed.), Renaissance Characters, trans. by L. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 98-122.
•    Burke, P., 1995. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione's Cortegiano. Cambridge: Polity Press.
•    Burke, P., 1999. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Polity Press.
•    Cox, Virginia, 1992. Renaissance Dialogue: Literary Dialogue in its Social and Political Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (the chapter on Castiglione in particular).
•    Finucci, Valeria, 1992. The Lady Vanishes: Subjectivity and Representation in Castiglione and Ariosto. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
•    Hanning, Robert W., and David Rosand (eds), 1983. Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
•    Onofri, S., 2010, In viaggio con il Cortegiano: la fortuna europea del Baldassarre Castiglione di Raffaello, [Mantua]: Tre lune.
•    Mackenney, R., 2004. Renaissances: The Cultures of Italy, c.1300-c.1600. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
•    Ossola, C. (ed.) 1980. La corte e il "Cortegiano": I. La scena del testo. Rome: Bulzoni.
•    Ossola, Carlo, 1987. Dal "Cortegiano" all' "Uomo di mondo": storia di un libro e di un modello sociale. Turin: Einaudi, 1987.
•    Quondam, A., 2000. Questo povero Cortegiano: Castiglione, il libro, la storia. Rome: Bulzoni.
•    Woodhouse, J. R., 1978. Baldesar Castiglione: A Reassessment of 'The Courtier'. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. London: Batsford.


Topic 3 Between the Old and the New: Grazia Deledda's Sardinia

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.

Texts (you must read 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)

But students are 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.

For further information and a bibliography to prepare for the course, see the IT5 paper Moodle page.


Topic 4 Svevo and Trieste

La coscienza di Zeno (1923) is considered one of the most important novels of the Italian 20th century. It has been defined as a masterpiece of psychological realism, and it has been hailed as one of the seminal work of European modernism in the tradition of Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf. Italo Svevo is also the most important Italian writer who lived most of his life outside the Italian national borders. This topic explores La coscienza di Zeno as an expression of the peculiar and eccentric historical, linguistic, geographical, philosophical, and socio-economic identity of the city of Trieste. 

Primary text:
La coscienza di Zeno (1923). Text available at

Secondary reading:
Elizabeth Schächter, Origin and Identity: Essays on Svevo and Trieste (Northern UP, 2000), Chapter 1
Katia Pizzi, A City in Search of an Author: The Literary Identity of Trieste, Chapter 1 (part 1, part 2)
Richard Robinson, From border to front: Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno and international space

Special Issue of Modern Fiction Studies on Italo Svevo.
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', Modern Languages Review

G. Minghelli, 'In the Shadow of the Mammoth: Narratives of Symbiosis in La Coscienza di Zeno'
Gian-Paolo Biasin, Literary diseases. Theme and metaphor in the Italian novel (1975), Chapter 3, 'Zeno's Last Bomb'.
Gian Paolo Biasin, Literary Diseases: From Pathology to Ontology, MLN, 1967.
E. Saccone, 'Svevo, Zeno e la Psicanalisi'
A. Bonadeo, 'Ideale e reale nella Coscienza di Zeno'
P. Antonello, Rivalità, risentimento, apocalisse: Svevo e i suoi doppi. In, Identità e desiderio.
Deborah Amberson, An Ethics of Nicotine: Writing a Subjectivity of Process in Italo Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno
Treitel, Renata, Schopenhauer's Philosophy in Italo Svevo's "La Coscienza di Zeno", Modern Fiction Studies; Baltimore, Md. Vol. 18, Iss. 1,  (Spring 1972).
Other Critical Readings:

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


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. For each answer you will be expected to write between 1,200 and 1,300 words.

Candidates for this paper 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: 
Professor Helena Sanson