In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Histories of Italian Literature
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Primary Texts
  • Bibliographies
  • Research Tools
  • Journals
  • Historical and Cultural Background
  • Italian Literature in Comparative Perspective

Renaissance and Reformation Italian Literature
Monica Calabritto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0226


Since Jacob Burckhardt’s pioneering work Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860) Italy and Italian politics, society, and culture in the 15th and 16th centuries have been identified with the period called the Renaissance. If one accepts the term Renaissance to define this period, the Italian literature in the vernacular between the second half of the 14th century and the first half of the 16 century can be called Renaissance literature. General characteristics of this period are a renewed emphasis on the individual self (both body and mind), a new perception of time and space spurred by the acquisition of a historical distance from the past—Latin and Greek Antiquity—and the astronomical and geographical discoveries, a new political attitude detached from Christian morality, and a religious world impacted by the Protestant Reformation. Florentine civic humanism, which began in the 14th century and continued throughout the 15th century, played an important role in shaping the notions of history and civic community. The period between the second half of the 16th century and 1650 sees the Catholic Reformation playing a large role in Italy, first with the Council of Trent and, then, with the work of popes bent on eradicating religious heresy from the Italian states. From a political point of view, after the sack of Rome in 1527, the fragile equilibrium among the Italian states, already shaken by the invasion of French king Charles VIII in 1494, was completely destroyed, and much of Italy became de facto a domain of the Spanish kingdom. The culture and literature of this period were characterized by the interest for simulation and dissimulation, codes of behavior and honor. During these centuries Italy did not have a cultural center that irradiated to other cities. Several cities were important for the creation and development of various literary genres, and they were all located in the center and north of the country: Ferrara, Urbino, Mantua, Florence, Venice/Padua, Rome, and, to a lesser extent, Milan. Florence was at the forefront in the choice of the vernacular as the language in which literature should be written. In many histories of Italian literature the period discussed above begins with the work of Francesco Petrarca and his Rime, and it ends with the work of Giambattista Marino and the development of the genre of the romanzo. In literature, this period witnessed the original elaboration of Plautine comedies into the genres of the commedia erudita, the birth and development of commedia dell’arte, the favola or dramma pastorale, and the romance epic poem and the dialogue, besides the elaboration of the genre of the novella and the modification of the epistolary genre.

General Overviews

While the website Rinascimento of Italica provides the general public and undergraduate students with a reliable introduction to the Italian Renaissance from a literary, cultural, and historiographical point of view, the remaining texts in this category approach Italian literature of the Renaissance and the Reformation from an interdisciplinary perspective. Dionisotti 1967 establishes a fruitful interaction between cultural history and political geography, which many writers since then have adopted. Dionisotti also emphasizes the gap between humanism and the Renaissance in terms of language (Latin/vernacular), and the great changes brought by factors such as printing and the academies. Focusing on the notion of history and time, Gardini 2010 offers a valuable synthesis for scholars and students alike of the historiography on the Renaissance from Burckhardt to the present time. Migiel and Schiesari 1991 and Shemek 1998 provide original interpretations of fictional and nonfictional texts informed by gender and feminist theory, productively relating them to historical analysis, textual criticism, and psychoanalytic theory. Cox 2008 is a seminal study of the reasons leading to the emergence and the decline of Italian women’s writing in elite literary culture during the long 16th century (1490–1610) and within the context of a specific genre—Petrarchist lyric—and a specific language and idiom—the vernacular normalized by Pietro Bembo. Brown 1995 aims to reassess categories such as modernity, periodization, and the importance of individualism, which have been subjects of discussion and debate among scholars in the field. Bolzoni 1995 offers a fascinating analysis of the interaction between techniques of visualization of knowledge linked to memory and the spreading of print in vernacular in the 1500s. Strappini 2001 gives a bird’s-eye view of 17th-century Italian literature in relation to three elements essential for understanding this period: book trade, collecting, and institutions.

  • Bolzoni, Lina. La stanza della memoria: Modelli letterari e iconografici nell’età della stampa. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1995.

    The book, translated into English in 2001, shows memory as an essential device in 16th-century Italy for understanding and interpreting the transmission of classical culture through new modes of diffusion of knowledge, such as print, and the renewed interaction between words and images established by rhetoric, mnemonics, and the interest for an encyclopedic organization of knowledge.

  • Brown, Allison, ed. Language and Images of Renaissance Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    The essays are divided into three categories—ancient political models; social context; and body in politics, art, and literature.

  • Cox, Virginia. Women’s Writing in Italy, 1400–1650. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

    The study situates the production of Italian women writers in this period in relation to the advent of humanism, the spreading of the vernacular as a literary language, the “misogynistic turn” of the baroque, and the militant classicism of the Arcadia at the end of the 17th century

  • Dionisotti, Carlo. Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1967.

    A seminal work on the history on Italian literature in the 15th and 16th centuries, it consists of several essays written between 1946 and 1966. Against De Sanctis’s idea of a unified history of Italy, Dionisotti chooses geography as the interpretive lens through which he analyzes the history of Italian language and literature. The essay that gives the title to this book is outstanding among many excellent pieces.

  • Gardini, Nicola. Rinascimento. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 2010.

    A general study of Italian culture from the mid-14th century to the first half of the 16th century, with a particular focus on the intellectuals’ treatment of history and their perception of time, from Petrarch to Guicciardini.

  • Italica. Rinascimento.

    The website contains essays on the Renaissance, myth and allegory, Petrarca and the erudite comedy, and monographs on topics such as imitation and the historiography on the Renaissance from the 18th century to the present time. It also includes summaries and interpretations of many canonical texts written during the Renaissance and biographical information about the most important Italian authors of the period.

  • Migiel, Marilyn, and Juliana Schiesari, eds. Refiguring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

    A collection of eleven essays ranging from philological and literary aspects to social topics such as rape, focused on the theme of gender.

  • Shemek, Deanna. Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    The book offers an in-depth reading of texts, literary and not, within the historical frame of gender, power, and literature in 16th-century Italy, relying on the methodological criticism of Bakhtin, Foucault, and Lacan.

  • Strappini, Lucia, ed. I luoghi dell’immaginario barocco: Atti del convegno di Siena, 21–23 Ottobre 1999. Naples: Liguori, 2001.

    Collection of essays on institutions, book trade and collecting, theater, melodrama, and narrative in 17th-century Italy.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.