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Durham University

School of Modern Languages and Cultures: Italian Studies

Science and Culture in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy

Academic Year 2020-21 - NOT RUNNING

This module explores the culture of Renaissance and early modern Italy (that is, the period from, roughly, 1300 to 1650) focussing on the intersections between science, literature and the arts. Without question, this is a topic of great relevance for both the Renaissance and contemporary society, and the aim of the module will be to provide students with the knowledge and the intellectual equipment to have an interdisciplinary understanding of the relations between sciences, the arts and the humanities as they developed in Italy from the beginning of Humanism to the end of the early modern era. The module will deal with fundamental historical questions, which are at the roots of the contemporary distinction between science and the humanities (the ‘two cultures’).

Primary sources will be selected from canonical and less-known texts, images and artefacts from the Renaissance period, looking for exemplary cases of interplay between different domains of knowledge, disciplines, artistic and scientific activities. Students will be encouraged to reflect on questions at the roots of the alleged divide between the sciences and the humanities through a series of case studies that include classical literary authors, as well as artists, philosophers and scientists. The primary sources will vary from year to year, but typically they include Dante (his idea of knowledge as ‘scientia’), Boccaccio (both writing on medicine, the human body and the plague), and Ariosto: paintings and writings by Leonardo da Vinci, Giordano Bruno’s combative dialogue The Ash Wednesday’s Supper, Galileo Galilei’s writings on his telescopic discoveries, and the relations between art and scientific knowledge in Caravaggio’s paintings. Other topics and sources will be selected during the course of the year in consultation with the students.

Students will be encouraged to explore the vast fields of the Italian Renaissance world and to adopt a critical and problem-based approach to their field of study.

The module does not require previous knowledge of any modern scientific discipline or theory.

The assessment is based on a research project (3,500 words) arising from one of the topics of the lectures. Students will receive guidance and feedback on a summative project proposal (1,500 words) to be handed in around week 6. See the Faculty Handbook for more information.

Possible topics for research projects include:

  • Dante and the idea of ‘scientia’
  • Nature, and environment in Dante’s Comedy
  • The representation of the plague in Boccaccio
  • Art as science in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings
  • Italian as a language of science in Bruno and Galileo
  • Giordano Bruno’s interpretation of Copernicus
  • Nature, Scripture and Galileo’s celestial novelties
  • The moon in Renaissance literature and science
  • Science, religion and censorship in early modern Italy
  • Caravaggio and the early modern senses

Module Coordinators:

Dr Ita Mac Carthy (, Room tbc, Elvet Riverside I

Further details of pre-requisites, co-requisites, aims, contact hours and assessment