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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 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.



1. 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.

2. Matteo Bandello’s Novelle

This module concerns 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. Drawing on different styles and narrative models, Bandello succeeds in offering his public a mosaic of stories in which the boundary between history and fiction is constantly blurred. The multi-faceted world depicted in the novelle and in their dedicatory letters was the result of the social and literary ideals that characterised courtly societies in Italy and the rest of Europe. At the same time, the stories reveal the profound anxiety that affected these societies, which were beset by political violence. Bandello’s novelle soon began to circulate in France, Spain, and England, and were used as sources by various authors, including Shakespeare and Cervantes. This module will explore some of these cases, including the famous tale of Romeo and Juliet.

3. The Politics of the Emotions in Renaissance Oratory [Lent Term]

This topic examines the social and political functions of the emotions in the early modern period by looking at the genre of vernacular oratory. The authors of the orations selected for analysis were profoundly aware of the characteristics of oratory as a literary genre, and used them to promote political views and to produce powerful representations of past and present times. Manipulating the audience's emotional responses through a set of codified procedures was a fundamental element in their strategy of legitimation of their discourses. Orations served different purposes depending on the context of their production and circulation: they could be delivered orally on a specific occasion, appear within histories, be published in collections (often achieving great popularity, as witnessed by their numerous reprints), or circulate in manuscript form within a restricted group of readers. The lectures will discuss in detail some of these instances. In order to do so, they will also consider texts in the classical rhetorical tradition in which emotions were codified, as well as their humanist reception.

4. Representing the Author in the Renaissance: Verbal and Visual Portraits and Self-Portraits [Lent Term]

This topic examines sixteenth-century visual and verbal representations and self-representations of men and women of letters. Traditional classical and humanist models of portraying the author, as well as issues of gender, are taken into consideration, to highlight the changes in the social and symbolic function of intellectuals in the Renaissance.

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: 
Dr Alessia Ronchetti
Professor Abi Brundin
Professor Helena Sanson