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IT8: Italian Literature, Thought, and Culture, 1500-1650

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

This paper examines a period of radical political, religious, and cultural change in Italy. As well as detailed analysis of some of the most fascinating works of the period, students can explore broader questions, such as the impact of the massive expansion of the printing industry on literary culture, or the true nature of the cultural impact of the Counter Reformation. There are no set texts for this paper, but students may choose from a number of topics covering the most crucial and exciting developments of the period, as well as some of the major works. A range of literary genres can be explored (chivalric poetry, pastoral drama and commedia dell'arte, comedy, novelle, prose writing).


1. Religious change in early-modern Italy: from ‘failed’ Reformation to Counter Reformation

The sixteenth century was a period of seismic religious change across Europe, with Italy at the heart of new developments. This topic will look at some of the religious upheavals that took place, and consider their implications for cultural production in the period. Through historical analysis, as well as analysis of the visual arts and literary production, we will aim to map the changing devotional landscape in Italy. We will pay particular attention to the role of the printing industry in feeding or repressing religious change, including analysis of censorship practices, the Inquisition and the new Indexes of Prohibited Books.


2. Lyric poetry, the unexpected Renaissance ‘best-seller’

This topic examines the trend for Petrarchan lyric poetry in the period, looking first at the standardisation of the genre, and then at some of the more idiosyncratic poetic voices that emerged in the sixteenth century, including a surprisingly high number of women poets who seemed to be breaking all the rules. We will also seek to account for the great success of this genre in the new print market, asking what it was about the lyric genre that so appealed to Renaissance readers.


3. Text and image for devotion, medicine and magic in the Renaissance [N.B. This topic is cross-listed with paper IT9]

This topic examines the ways in which simple texts and images, both printed and manuscript, were deployed for a range of ‘talismanic’ purposes by Renaissance readers and viewers. Texts and images were worn, eaten, applied to the body, buried, recited, gifted and stolen. We will seek to recapture the potency attached by ordinary people to these kinds of works, the reasons for it, as well as looking at individual examples of talismanic text and image and seeking to ‘read’ these works as scholars of word and image.

4. "Constructing Women" in Early Modern Italy

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a rich number of works were published in Italy dealing with women's nature and their role in society, their education, and their behaviour within the family and the domestic context, or at court (and in the convents). This rich production comprises texts of different genres, ranging from prose and poetry, to sermons and letters, diaries or legal documents, as well as prescriptive treatises and dialogues that aimed to 'construct' an ideal model of women, in the different stages of their lives. Feminine models of behaviour were delineated by male and female authors, just as male and female authors also expressed unconventional and disruptive ideas about and roles for women. The subject of women generated a lively debate. 

This topic aims to explore the origins of the Early modern 'ideology' of women in the literary context of the Italian peninsula, by examining texts of different genres, also with a particular focus on conduct literature for and about women. Students are encouraged to extend their exploration to other texts (theatre, epic poems, etc.) and to different fields (domestic context, the court, the convent), according to their interests, and to do so by taking into account also the reality of women's everyday condition.

5. Early Modern Theatre and Commedia dell'Arte

This topic considers the heterogeneous theatrical panorama of Early modern Italy, starting from Renaissance tragedy and commedia erudita to more hybrid genres such as melodrama, pastoral play, tragicomedy. It will then focus on Commedia dell’Arte, a form of professional theatre which emerged during the first half of the sixteenth century. It will look at its performative and linguistic features and its development in relation to historical and cultural context. Special attention will be paid to moral and intellectual prejudice actors and actresses had to face in early modern Italy and to the strategies of self-fashioning they set-up consequently. These strategies allowed the transformation of some professional actresses into dive, for the first time in modern Europe. The close analysis of a selected corpus of scenarios and plays will provide an insight on commedia dell’arte techniques and will offer textual evidence for the process of the construction of a new idea of actors.

6. Chivalric Poetry: Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso

The Orlando Furioso (1516, and 1532 definitive edition) by Ludovico Ariosto is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance and of the entire history of the Italian and European literature. Upon the publication of its first edition of 1516, itenjoyed immediate popularity, and was to influence greatly the literature (and visual arts) of the Renaissance, in Italy and beyond (the poem was translated into a range of other languages). An original continuation of Matteo Boiardo’s earlier poem Orlando Innamorato, the subject matter of the Orlando furiosois ‘Le donne, i cavallier, l’arme, gli amori, le cortesie, l’audaci imprese’,the 46 cantos of the poembringing together, in a world populated by intrepid knights and warriors, adventurous female figures, magical creatures, continuous travels, irony and wit, a number of episodes that find their sources in the classical world, as well as from the epic poetry and romances of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, and contemporary events.

N.B. This topic is taught by supervision only. There will also be a session at the UL Rare Books room to examine together various editions (and translations) of the poem.

Preparatory reading: 

For those coming to the study of Renaissance culture for the first time, Peter Burke's The Italian Renaissance (Cambridge, 1986) is a good introduction. For reference, the Thames and Hudson Concise Encyclopedia of the Italian Renaissance, ed. J. R. Hale, is useful.

If you are interested in studying Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, you are advised to tackle it in advance, given its length. Calvino's brilliant Mondadori anthology/retelling (L'Orlando furioso raccontato da Italo Calvino) offers a good first approach to the poem.

Teaching and learning: 

The paper will be taught through a combination of lectures, supervisions, and seminars. Students are strongly encouraged to attend all lectures in order to gain a broad insight into the period. Supervisions and/or seminars will be used to follow more closely the particular paths that individual students have chosen. In order to organise supervision, students will be asked to identify their four chosen topics at the start of the academic year, although there will be scope for changing these later on.

For the It.8 Moodle site, please see here.


The paper is assessed by examination (3 hours), in which there will be a choice of essay questions relating to each topic in that year's list. You will be required to answer three questions. There will be no sections on the paper, and no obligation to answer any particular combination of questions, as long as the same material is not used in more than one question.

Past exam papers are available on Moodle.

The examination can be substituted by an optional dissertation on any topic in the period 1500-1650.

Course Contacts: 
Professor Helena Sanson
Professor Abi Brundin