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

This paper is available for the academic year 2019-2020.

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. Matteo Bandello's Novelle

This topic considers the evolution during the Renaissance of the novella genre, as exemplified by Matteo Bandello's corpus of short stories, which became highly popular across sixteenth-century Europe.

2.  Language Codification and Linguistic Debates in Early Modern Italy

This topic examines the debates on the nature, definition and role of the literary vernacular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century 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 of this literary vernacular, as well as its terminology. But early modern linguistic thought in the Italian peninsula also concerns the relationship between the vernacular(s) and Latin, the language of culture par excellence and the language of the Church, as well as other classical languages. This topic also traces the different stages of the process of codification of 'Italian' as a prestigious literary language, by means of, among others, grammar production and dictionaries. It also investigates the access to the literary language by the less learned. You do not need a background in linguistics to study this topic. 

3. 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.

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 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. 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. The Politics of the Emotions in Renaissance Oratory

This topic examines the social and political functions of the emotions in the early modern period by looking at the genre of vernacular oratory. It will also consider texts in the classical rhetorical tradition in which emotions had been codified, as well as their humanist reception, and it will discuss some specific values assigned to the emotions in the oral and/or written contexts in which vernacular orations circulated. 

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