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

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

This paper examines a period of radical political, religious, and cultural change in Italy. As well as engaging in detailed analysis of some of the most fascinating works of the period, students can explore broader questions, such as the ways in which traumatic historical events, cultural discoveries, and technological innovations allow the emergence of new ideas on the human condition, on self-representation, on the role of intellectuals, and on the status of women in society and literature. A range of topics, touching on a variety of literary genres can be explored. Students who are interested in doing an Optional Dissertation for this paper should contact the paper coordinator.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)  - Content Warning Paper IT8


Topic 1: Nature and the Pastoral

This topic explores the changing attitudes towards nature in this period as manifested in literature, the visual arts, and garden design.  Though the pastoral had a long tradition in Latin poetry from Theocritus and Virgil up through Petrarch, it was the sixteenth century that witnessed the advent of a new genre in the vernacular, the pastoral romance, in Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia.  Similarly, representations of landscape assumed greater prominence in the paintings and prints of this era, particularly in and around Venice, while across the peninsula a renewed interest in the suburban villa was accompanied by a profusion of innovative and elaborately designed gardens.  Many of these phenomena had their roots in classical antiquity but were given new life and form within the specific political and cultural conditions of Cinquecento Italy. 

Topic 2: Art and the Counter Reformation

One of the key battlegrounds between the Catholic Church and Protestant reformers was the cult of images, famously resulting in violent waves of iconoclasm in Wittenberg, Zurich, and other northern European cities beginning in the 1520s.  While in Italy no such dramatic incidents occurred, anxieties about art and its role within the Christian context mounted.  In the decades following the final decrees of the Council of Trent (1563), this topic became a popular literary subject, with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment forming a frequent focal point of debate.  This module will examine Italian texts alongside contemporary works of art in order analyse what impact, if any, public attitudes about reform actually had the production, patronage, and reception of the visual arts in the late sixteenth century.

Topic 3: "Constructing Women" in Early Modern Italy 

This topic will explore early modern views on women’s roles and their status in society, by investigating a number of conduct literature texts for and about women, by male and female authors, as well as works on the so called Querelle des femmes, the debate on the ‘inferiority’ or ‘superiority’ of women in relation to men. 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 text 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.

Topic 4: Beyond the Peninsula: Italy and the World

Though Italy was not itself a colonial power in the early modern period, it became ever more imbricated in European hegemonic extension across the globe in the sixteenth century.  Politically, different families of ruling elites were linked by marriage and allegiance to Imperial powers like the Habsburgs, while Italian merchants and bankers were essential in shaping the economic networks that linked these expansionist ventures.  Rome, as the epicentre of the Catholic Church, operated a vast missionary system in which orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and especially the newly founded Jesuits, sought to extend the reach of Christianity to all of humanity.  Finally, as collectors and producers of artefacts and knowledge, Italians were active participants in the epistemological discourses of the period.  This module will explore a range of sources, including epistolary and travel literature, cartographic production, costume books and contemporary fashion, imported crafts and naturalia, as well as visual representations of other peoples and cultures. 

Topic 5: Race in the Renaissance

This topic will explore the complex issue of race in the Renaissance, taking as its starting point Geraldine Heng’s productive framework that posits: “race; is one of the primary names we have—a name we retain for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes—attached to a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups.”  These differences can be selected based on a variety of factors, ranging from bodily traits and physiognomy to culture, religion, and social practices, as well as any intersecting nexus thereof.  We will examine literature, art, and material culture to elucidate concepts of race and racial formulations of this era.

Topic 6: Linguistic Thought in Early Modern Italy: The Vernacular Codification and Language

This topic examines the debates on the nature, definition and role of the literary vernacular in Renaissance Italy, in relation to the historical, cultural and social context. At the time, Italy was still a fragmented country, politically as well as linguistically, with a range of different vernaculars (later called dialects) being used in everyday language. The development and spread of the printing press across the peninsula meant there was an increased need for a more 'standardised' literary language. Lively debates developed among men of letters and theorists on the nature and definition of this literary vernacular, as well as the relationship between the vernacular(s) and the classical languages, in particular Latin, the language of culture par excellence and the language of the Church. This topic also discusses the process of codification of 'Italian' as a prestigious literary language, by means of grammars and dictionaries and investigates the access to the literary language by the less learned. You do not need a background in linguistics to study this topic. 

See the IT8 paper Moodle page for further details and bibliography

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.


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 examination will consist of TWO parts:

1) Lent term Coursework Essay: Answer ONE question from a list that will be released at the end of Lent term. You should write no more than 1,800 words. 

2) Easter Exam: A 3-hour timed online examination. Answer TWO questions. For each answer write no more than 1,500 words. Or Answer one question selected from those which are marked with an asterisk (*). Your answer should be no more than 3,000 words. 

Candidates for this paper may not draw substantially on material from their dissertations or 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.

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
Dr Jessica Maratsos