skip to content

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

This paper is available for the academic year 2018-19.

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 and lyric poetry, political theory, pastoral drama, comedy), as well as topics in the visual arts and historical topics. 


Topics for 2018-19 are as follows: 

1. Lyric Poetry

This topic examines the trend for Petrarchan lyric poetry in the sixteenth century, asking why this particular genre was such a massive success of the new printing industry. We will look first at the ways in which Petrarch's model was adapted and adopted as a lyric standard, particularly by the 'Godfather' of the genre, Pietro Bembo. We will then examine the work of some of the more idiosyncratic poetic voices of the period, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose lyric voice is very different from his artistic 'voice' in other media, as well as the women writers Vittoria Colonna and Gaspara Stampa.

2.  Linguistic Thought 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, as well as the access to knowledge by means of translations, by the less learned. You do not need a background in linguistics to study this topic.

3. The Counter Reformation

This topic considers the historical period post 1560 and the beginning of the so-called Counter Reformation. It examines the religious upheavals that took place, and considers their implications for cultural production in the period. The effects of the Counter Reformation are assessed through historical analysis, as well as analysis of the visual arts, literary production, censorship practices and Indexes of Prohibited Books.

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. Leonardo da Vinci: Vision and Creation

This topic will examine the multi-dimensional worlds created by the words and images of Leonardo da Vinci, through study of the interplay between text and image in Leonardo's notebooks.

6. Chivalric Poetry: Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso

The Orlando Furioso(1516, and 1532 definitive edn) 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. Not all topics will be covered in lectures, although 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 Abigail Brundin
Dr Helena Sanson