Italian 212: Seminar on Dante: Writing the Vernacular Reader, From Dante to Boccaccio

Instructor: Professor Albert R. Ascoli

In the fifth canto of Dante’s Commedia, in one of the most famous episodes of Western literature, Francesca da Rimini blames the adulterous love she shares with her husband’s brother, Paolo, for both their violent deaths and eternal damnation, on an act of reading, solicited by a vernacular book and its author (“Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse” [A pander was the book and he who wrote it]). Almost half a century later, Giovanni Boccaccio gives his Decameron—whose one hundred novelle closely track, celebrate and parody Dante’s one hundred canto “holy poem”—the subtitle of “Prencipe Galeotto,” implying its possibly seductive function on its readers, defined explicitly to be “women at leisure.” In this course we will place these two pillars of an emergent romance vernacular tradition in the context of reading practices determined by a growing class of subjects literate in Italian, Occitan, Old French, and other “vulgar tongues,” even as we explore the ways in which their texts contribute to defining and shaping this new class of lay readers, both women and men. We will pay attention to the ways in which Dante redefines the author/reader relationship; how Boccaccio establishes himself as the reader, interpreter, and re-writer of Dante; how both look backwards to practices of reading in the medieval Latin and French traditions, and forward to their readers in other tongues (e.g., Chaucer, whose “Pandarus” is modelled on the character of the same name in Boccaccio’s Filostrato; Christine de Pizan whose debts to both the Italian authors are well known; and many, many authors of the 15th and 16th centuries throughout Europe).

Course Requirements: Students are expected to attend and participate regularly. Students taking the course for two credits will do the reading, plus in-class reports and other short assignments. Students taking the course for four credits will also develop one of their shorter assignments into a final research paper of 6000-7500 words (25-30 pages).

  • Elective Requirement: This course fulfills an elective requirement for the DE in REMS.