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IT5: Italian Identities: Place, Language, and Culture

This paper is available for the academic year 2022-23.

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.


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 Venice: Venice: Lodovico Dolce and Titian

In Cinquecento Italy the comparative superiority of regional styles became one of the fundamental concerns of the emergent literary genre of art criticism.  It also formed an essential rhetorical trope for the assertion of campanilismo, or excessive pride in one’s own city.  Lodovico Dolce was a prolific editor, translator, critic, scholar, and author based in Venice, who, in 1557 wrote his Dialogo della pittura, intitolato L’Aretino.  This book was strident rebuttal to Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, which had championed the Florentine Michelangelo as the pinnacle of the arts.  Lauding instead Titian, his native city’s greatest painter, Dolce’s expansive dialogue offers incisive commentary on a wide range of topics from across the cultural sphere.  His work allows us to examine numerous contemporary issues such as: pleasure versus intellectual edification, art and decorum, gender and representation, as well as offering a glimpse of the fertile world of Venetian publishing in the sixteenth century.

Core text:

  • Roskill, Mark.  Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento.  New York: Published for College Art Association of America by New York University Press, 1968.

(Please note, despite its title this is in fact a facing-page translation of the full text of Dolce's Dialogo.  You may consult the English version, but it is the original Italian that will be the focal point of the course.)

Excerpts will also be taken from:

  • Aretino, Pietro.  Lettere sull’arte di Pietro Aretino.  Commentary by Fidenzio Pertile, ed. Ettore Camesasca, 3 vols.  Milan: Edizioni del Milione, 1957-60. 
  • Barocchi, Paola, ed.  Trattati d’arte del Cinquecento, Fra Manierismo e Controriforma, vol. 1.  Bari: Laterza, 1960.
  • Vasari, Giorgio.  Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori: nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568, ed. Paola Barocchi, 6 vols.  Florence.

Further reading on Dolce, art criticism, and Renaissance print culture:

  • Aymonino, Adriano.  “Ludovico Dolce’s Aretino: Its Foundational Role in the Theory of Classicism and its Eighteenth-Century Revival,” Artibus et Historiae 78 (2018): 201-218.
  • Cox, Virginia.  The Renaissance Dialogue: Literary Dialogue in its Social and Political Contexts, Castiglione to Galileo.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Di Filippo Bareggi, Claudia.  Il mestiere di scrivere: Lavoro intellecttuale e mercato librario a Venezia nel Cinquecento.  Rome: Bulzoni, 1988.
  • Grendler, Paul F.  The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Land, Norman.  The Viewer as Poet: The Renaissance Response to Art.  University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1994.  Esp. “Ch.6: Pietro Aretino’s Art Criticism.”
  • Malato, Emnrico, ed.  Storia della letteratura italiana, IV: Il primo Cinquecento.  Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1996.
  • Marini, Paolo and Paolo Procoaccioli, eds.  Per Lodovico Dolce. Miscellanea di Studi. I: Passioni e competenze del letterato.  Rome: Vecchiarelli editore, 2016.
  • Pastore Stocchi, Manlio and Girolamo Arnaldi, eds.  Storia della cultura veneta, III.2: Dal primo Quattrocento al Concilio di Trento.  Vicenza: Neri Possa, 1980.
  • Puttfarken, Thomas.  “The dispute about disegno and colorito in Venice: Paolo Pino, Lodovico Dolce and Titian,” in Kunst und Kunsttheorie 1400-1900, ed. Peter Ganz et al., 75-99.  Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1991.
  • Richardson, Brian.  Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular Text, 1470-1600.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • —.  Printing, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Schlosser, Julius von.  La letteratura artistica: manuele delle fonti della storia dell’arte moderna, 3rd ed. trans. Filippo Rossi, updated Otto Kurz.  Florence: 1967.
  • Sgarbi, Marco. “Ludovico Dolce e la nascita della critica d’arte: Un momento della ricezione della poetica aristotelica nel Rinascimento,” Rivista di estetica 59 (2015): 163-182.
  • Terpening, Ronnie H.  Lodovico Dolce, Renaissance Man of Letters.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Wright, D. R. Edward.  “Structure and Significance in Dolce’s L’Aretino,The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45:3 (1987): 273-283.

On Pietro Aretino (a key figure in the dialogue):

  • Cairns, Christopher.  Pietro Aretino and the Republic of Venice: Researches on Aretino and his Circle in Venice, 1527-1556.  Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1985.
  • Faini, Marco and Paola Ugolini, eds.  A Companion to Pietro Aretino.  Leiden: Brill, 2021.
  • Waddington, Raymond.  Aretino’s Satyr: Sexuality, Satire, and Self-Projection in Sixteenth-Century Literature and Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), esp. “Ch.2: Aretino and Print Culture,” 33-55.

On Titian and Venetian art:

  • Freedman, Luba.  Titian’s Portraits through Aretino’s Lens.  University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1995.
  • Humphrey, Peter.  Titian.  London: Phaidon, 2007.
  • Meilman, Patricia, ed.  The Cambridge Companion to Titian.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Nichols, Tom.  “Tintoretto, prestezza and the poligrafi: a study in the literary and visual culture of Cinquecento Venice,” Renaissance Studies 10:1 (1996): 72-100.
  • Rogers, Mary.  “Decorum in Lodovico Dolce and Titian’s Poesie,” in Decorum in Renaissance Narrative Art, ed. Francis Ames-Lewis and Anka Bednarek, 111-120.  London: Department of History of Art, Birbeck College, 1992.
  • Rosand, David, ed.  Titian: His World and his Legacy.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
  • —.  “Ut Pictor Poeta: Meaning in Titian’s Poesie,New Literary History 3:3 (1972): 527-546.
  • Tiziano e Venezia: Convegno Internazionale di Studi Venezia: 1976.  Vicenza, 1980.


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 Carlo Levi’s South(s)

Between 1935 and 1936, the Turinese painter and doctor Carlo Levi was sent to confinement in Aliano and Grassano, two small villages in Lucania (now Basilicata), by the fascist regime who wanted to punish him for his antifascist activity. This experience put him into close and abrupt contact with a reality that was completely ‘other’ to his urban and industrial background in Turin: the peasant South with its nature and rituals.

This topic will consider Italy’s Southern Question and some of the differences between North and South through the lens of Carlo Levi’s memoir of his confinement Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945) and its filmic adaptation directed by Francesco Rosi (1979). In addition, Levi’s paintings will be taken into consideration to reflect on how the radical alterity of the South was conceptualised and represented by the author across different media. Finally, selected passages from Levi’s reportage from Sicily Le parole sono pietre (1955) will be analysed, in order to understand the evolution of Levi’s approach to southern Italy.

Core Texts and Film:

  • Carlo Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945) 
  • Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, dir. by Francesco Rosi (1979) 
  • Carlo Levi, Le parole sono pietre (1955) [relevant passages will be indicated by the lecturer]

Secondary reading:

  • Daniela Bartalesi-Graf, Voci dal sud: A Journey to Southern Italy with Carlo Levi and his ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ (New Haven: Yale UP, 2011)
  • Carlo Levi e la Lucania: dipinti del confino, 1935-36
  • Gigliola De Donato and Sergio D’Amaro, eds, Carlo Levi e il Mezzogiorno (Foggia: Grenzi, 2003)
  • Gigliola De Donato, ed., Oltre la paura: percorsi nella scrittura di Carlo Levi (Rome: Donzelli, 2008)
  • Roberto Derobertis, ‘Southerners, Migrants, Colonized: A Postcolonial Perspective on Carlo Levi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli and Southern Italy Today’, in Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Identity, ed. by Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 157–172
  • Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, ‘Francesco Rosi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli: Towards a Cinema of Painting’, Italica, 86.2 (2009), pp. 272–292
  • Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, Carlo Levi’s Visual Poetics: The Painter as Writer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
  • Joseph Farrell, ed., The Voices of Carlo Levi (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007)
  • David Forgacs, Italy’s Margins: Social Exclusion and National Formation Since 1961 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014) [In particular chapter 3: ‘Souths’]
  • Riccardo Gasperina Geroni, Il custode della soglia: il sacro e le forme nell’opera di Carlo Levi (Milan: Mimesis, 2018)
  • Antonio Lucio Giannone, ed., Cristo si è fermato a Eboli di Carlo Levi (Pisa: ETS, 2015)
  • Patrick McGauley, Matera, 1945–1960: The History of a ‘National Disgrace’ (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019)
  • Gaetana Marrone, The Cinema of Francesco Rosi (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020)
  • Martina Piperno, ‘Myth and Classical Antiquity in Carlo Levi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli’, in Echoing Voices in Italian Literature: Tradition and Translation in the 20th Century, ed. by C. Piantanida and T. Franco (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2018), pp. 120-137.Jane Schneider, ed., Italy’s Southern Question: Orientalism in One Country (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Natalia Samonà, Tra passato e futuro: il Meridione rurale in Carlo Levi, Rocco Scotellaro e Vittorio De Seta (Acireale: Bonanno, 2018)
  • Pia Vivarelli, Carlo Levi e la Lucania: diario pittorico 

Useful websites:

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 Heather Webb