215: Seminar in Renaissance Literature and Culture: Petrarch’s Old Age

W 2-5 | 6331 Dwinelle | Instructor: Albert Ascoli

Units: 2 or 4

Reading knowledge of Italian and Latin highly desirable.
Course Conducted in English

Francis Petrarch has, more than any other single figure, served the emblematic purposes of those attempting to define the Renaissance.  If it is no longer possible to think of him (or anyone) as the “first modern man person,” we cannot deny his initiating role in both Renaissance lyric poetry in the vernacular and the Latin Humanist reclamation project, not to mention his early, influential contributions to characteristic early modern forms of representation (the sonnet sequence, the Triumph, the pastoral, the diatribe, both biography and autobiography, and, perhaps most notably of all, the epistolary collection).  This course will take as its loose focal point Petrarch’s lesser-known late gathering of letters, the Seniles, or Letters of Old Age, as we explore Renaissance conceptions of the human life span as these interact with the construction of cultural histories.  As is well known, the medieval-early modern concept of the shape of a human life differs considerably from our own.  From Dante’s “New Life” to Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.”  From this perspective, Petrarch offers an exemplary “case” as he filters available classical (Cicero, De Senectute) and Christian (the Pauline “homo vetus”) discourses on old age, while grappling with the existential crisis represented by his own deterioriating body, the failures of contemporary medicine, and the struggle to find a life after death in the fame he hopes his works will bring him (as in the famous closing entry in the collection, his Letter to Posterity.  In closing we will look at works from the later Renaissance that ring changes on the theme of old age, including Montaigne’s Essais and Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Course Requirements: Students are expected to attend and participate regularly. There will be occasional in-class presentations and some shorter writing assignments. The principal assignment for the course is a research paper of ca. 6000 words (ca. 25 pages).  Topics must be closely related to the concerns of the course although they may focus on authors and texts not directly treated in seminar (whether from Italy or another national/linguistic tradition). Students enrolled for two credits will not write a final essay, but will complete all other course assignments, plus two shorter papers (ca. 5 pages) over the course of the semester.

Prerequisites:  Graduate standing or consent of instructor.  Reading knowledge of Italian and/or Latin highly desirable.