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IT5: Italian Identities: Place, Language, and Culture

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. 

  • Topic 1 Florence: Boccaccio's Decameron​

Core text: Selections from Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron

Students should if possible purchase or otherwise get their hands on an edition with notes by V. Branca. Read as much of the Decameron as you can. Lectures and exams will focus on  a selection of novelle (all details on the IT5 Moodle webpage).


  • Topic 2 Urbino: The essence of courtly life: Castiglione's Il libro del Cortegiano​​ (1528)

Core text: Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano


  • Topic 3 Sicily: Giovanni Verga

​Core texts: I Malavoglia (1881), Mastro Don Gesualdo (1889)

Suggested reading: a selection of novelle from Vita dei Campi and Novelle Rusticane. Students are also encouraged to familiarize themselves with Verga's earlier prose works (Il Marito di Elena, Tigre reale, Eros, Storia di una capinera) in order to better understand the specificity of his Verismo literary production.


  • Topic 4 Rome: Belli's Sonetti romaneschi

​Core text: Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, Sonetti (published posthumously) [In Roman dialect, with glosses in standard Italian]

All the sonnets are freely available online here. N.B. The Romanesco can be off-putting initially, but apart from specific vocabulary, it soon becomes easy once you recognize certain repeating features. There are some good English translations too, e.g. by Allen Andrews, Anthony Burgess (only Biblical sonnets), Mike Stocks, Michael O’Sullivan, Robert Garioch (excellent, but in Scots).

For more details see the Moodle page for this course. 

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. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


One three-hour examination will be set. You will be required to answer three questions.

This paper is also available for examination by Long Essay.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Helena Sanson