skip to content

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

This paper is available for the academic year 2017-18.

This paper examines a period of radical political, religious, and cultural change in Italy. It offers the opportunity to trace the development of Italian history and culture, from the serene Classicism of the early decades of the century (the so-called 'High Renaissance') to the less harmonious and more self-consciously 'artful' productions of the age of the Counter Reformation. 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, lyric poetry, political theory, pastoral drama, comedy), as well as other topics in the visual arts and historical areas. Recommended reading for each topic is suggested as a guideline and starting point.


Topics for 2017-18 are now confirmed and are as follows: 

1. Court Culture 

This topic examines the evolution of courtly culture over the period, from a variety of angles. Students might like to consider the cultural production of a particular court; the ‘politics’ of art in the courtly environment; the development of specific genres (portraiture, drama); the use of spectacle. The key text linking all these themes is Castiglione’s handbook of courtly etiquette, Il libro del cortegiano.

2.  Printing and popular piety

For this topic we will examine the range of cheap books, pamphlets, prayer sheets and amulets that became widely available after the invention of the printing press in Italy, and ask how they were used and what impact they had on the practice of religion in ordinary households. 

3. Chivalric Poetry

At the core of this topic is Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance Italy and of the entire history of the Italian literature.

4. The Questione della lingua: debates on the literary language

This topic examines the debates on the nature, definition and role of the literary vernacular in 16th-century Italy, in relation to the historical, cultural and social context. It discusses the relationship between Latin and the vernacular, the codification of Italian as a prestigious literary language, as well as the first vernacular grammatical production. It also investigates the access to the literary language by the less learned. Please consult the full reading list.

5. The status of women: theory and actuality

This topic deals with the rich conduct literature published for and about women in the Cinquecento, as well as with the discussions on the nature of women and their role in society. Feminine models of behaviour delineated in conduct books are examined against the reality of women's everyday condition. Please consult the full reading list.

6. Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna and the private gift [This topic is cross-listed with It9]

This topic examines an exchange of spiritual gifts of poetry and drawings between the poet Vittoria Colonna and the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. It considers the way in which the gifts were given and received, and what their intended uses and meanings might have been. It also considers the relative efficacy of artworks and poems as personal, devotional tools. 

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.

If you are spending your Year Abroad in Italy and you are interested in the visual arts, make a trip to the Uffizi galleries and the Accademia in Florence, the Villa Doria Pamphili (16th century painting and sculpture) and the Villa Farnesina (frescoes by Raphael and his pupils), both in Rome. You could also view the works by Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican Museums. For the court culture option, try to see the Palazzo Vecchio, the Pitti and the Uffizi in Florence, or visit Mantua (the Ducal palace and the Palazzo Te), Urbino and Ferrara.

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 password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


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