First-Year Studies: The Three Crowns of Florence: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and the Beginnings of Modern


In the arc of two generations, between the 13th and 14th centuries, three writers emerged in Tuscany who shaped both the Italian language and Western literature. Their major works, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Petrarch’s Canzoniere, and Boccaccio’s Decameron offered monumental examples of epic poetry, lyric poetry, and narrative prose, respectively, all in Tuscan Italian. This course will offer a careful reading of these important texts. Dante’s Divine Comedy is, in many ways, a consummation of medieval culture—a prism through which he filters classical and medieval civilization and melds them in one magnificent and totalizing Christian vision embracing art, literature, philosophy, science, history, and theology. Like all concepts of heaven and hell, it is a repository for dreams of ecstasy, fantasies of horror, and, ultimately, moral guidance. A generation later, Petrarch puts together his Canzoniere, a collection of lyric poems that establish the form and tenor of the sonnet for succeeding centuries but also project moral concerns in the more “modern” context of individual sensibilities and internal psychology. In the Decameron, Boccaccio (Petrarch’s contemporary) offers 100 delightful short stories—many amusing, some exemplary, all rooted in the real and practical world of the emerging modern mercantile society that characterized the 14th century. It is a worldview that is as totalizing as it is different from that of Dante. Through close reading of these rewarding texts, we will trace some of the salient ideas of the late Middle Ages and consider some of the transformations that occur in attitudes and esthetics as a more “modern” sensibility emerges. The possibilities for conference projects are vast. In the first semester, they might include antecedents and analogues of the Divine Comedy, such as the Aeneid, the Odyssey, Platonic myths, or medieval mystical literature, as well as other works by Dante, pictorial representations of heaven and hell, and contemporary films. In the second semester, projects might continue the work of the first semester or address courtly love poetry, Chaucer, the sonnet, or narrative traditions.