HIST 235: Dante's Italy

Instructor: Victoria Morse
Spring 2008

Course Description
Italy at the end of the Middle Ages was an intricate patchwork of small states woven together by a vibrant and distinctive culture. We will examine the politics, law, economic life, culture, and spirituality of the independent city states like Florence and Milan, the Papal States (centered on Rome), and the Kingdom of Naples through texts, including selected works by Dante, buildings and city plans, and works of art. Our goal will be to develop a vivid sense of what life was like in the Italy of Dante, Boccaccio, Giotto, and Petrarch.

HIST 235 Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 112kB Dec14 12)

This course and the assignment were part of the planning process for an off-campus studies program in Italy

Presenting an Italian City

Students will work in small groups to prepare a presentation on a key monument or artifact from an important Italian city in our period. All presentations should answer this question:

How does your city and artifact help us understand Dante's Italy?

Approach this by asking "How does it fit with the themes and issues we have been discussing? Does it help you understand more about them? Or make you question the ways we have been talking about them? Raise new ones?"

Think about in terms of travel as well: if you were able to visit this site, what would you hope to learn from it? What can you tell us about it that will make us want to visit it?

What to do:

  1. Look over the list of possible topics and dates. Choose a topic that seems interesting to you and a presentation date that fits your schedule.
  2. Find out about your topic: find images, journal articles, encyclopedia articles, references in books. Read and look. Divide up the reading among the group, but be sure that all group members spend time relating what they read to the object and looking at the object.
    Look in the following places:
    a. specialized encyclopedias, especially Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia (see MARS Subject guide). Compile a list of keywords that will help you search. Keep track of recommended bibliography.
    b. Check Bridge for books.
    c. Find journal articles on your city using IMB and Bibliography of the History of Art.
    d. Find maps and images from ArtStor, the web, and books and articles.

    For the research component, you should look for an overview of your city in our period to give context (go with the most recent you can find unless you have a good reason to prefer an older work). Figure out where your artifact is likely to be discussed. What larger categories besides the city include it? Examples might be books about sculpture in medieval Italy or articles on city planning or studies of a particular artist or type of painting (like fresco). Think about the different ways in which knowledge is divided up by specialists who deal with your artifact. Remember to look for the bigger topics it is part of (pilgrimage, for example, or urban sanitation), not just specific treatments.

    Find a map or maps of your city in our period, plus aerial views and other relevant images. Draw a map of the city by hand. Think about the city's shape and topography; the network of streets and piazze; the placement of important buildings and monuments. Turn this in (it will be graded on comprehensiveness and effort, not on artistic excellence!) and consider using one or several of these materials in your presentation to the class.
  3. Get together as a group and synthesize what you know.
  4. Figure out what would be relevant to the course and interesting to hear about. The presentations should be no more than 20 minutes total, so be very selective! Focus on ideas and interpretation rather than mere information and remember that it takes quite a bit of time to talk about even one image. Keep your focus on historical and contextual questions more than on analysis of the form or aesthetics of the piece. See the questions below. Carefully select images of your artifact that will help the audience understand the points you want to make. For example, if you want to emphasize the setting or location, do your images show this?
  5. Decide on a presentation strategy: what will bring this item alive for people while answering their questions about what it is, why it was made, what it can tell us about Italy in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century? What will you need in the way of images, handouts, and texts? What can you say that will lead the audience to study the images you show closely? How do you get people to really look?
  6. Meet with the professor to ask questions, talk over approaches to presenting, check your bibliography, and any other issues.
  7. Present clearly, effectively, and passionately. Be lively and interesting and accurate. Don't try to tell us too much. Try to make us want to go there. In addition, each group should provide (on paper or electronically) a list of about 8 resources that a) document where you got your images, information, and arguments; and b) provide a starting place for anyone intending to do further research on your topic.

Some questions to consider:
  • do we know the artist, architect, or other responsible person? If so, what other work did they did do? Where is/was it? Do we know anything about their life?
  • what is the medium of the work? What should the class know about the medium that is relevant to understanding the work? Was it widely used at the time? In what circumstances? Was it cheap or expensive? Was it hard or easy to work with?
  • what is the content of the work? This could be the subject of a painting, the function of a building, the purpose of a fountain or decorative feature etc. Why is it significant? What would it have meant in its own day and its own place? Who was the patron? Why would someone have paid to create this item?
  • how does this work fit with others of its time? What comparisons help you to understand it better? Are they local to the place, specific to the artist, specific to the medium, or do they have to do with content? Or something else?
  • what readings or ideas from our class can you connect your artifact to? If you have good textual primary sources (perhaps quoted in an article), be sure to share these with the class and explain what they tell us.
  • what does your artifact add to our understanding of Italy in this period? In particular, is it relevant to any of the themes or issues that we have been discussing? If so, what does it contribute to your understanding of them?
You will probably not be able to address all these questions (especially not in full) and you may find other, more important issues to address, but these questions will be a good starting point for you analysis.

Some possible topics: Fontana maggiore (Perugia); bacini (Pisa); Palazzo di Ragione (Padua); baptistery (Padua); baptistery (Florence); Palazzo Davanzati (Florence); medieval houses (Trastevere, Rome); papal palace (Viterbo); castello (Pavia); patrician houses (Venice)