From Covid-19 to the Black Death: Pandemics and Epidemics in Italian Literature and Culture

This course is mainly concerned with four key pandemics or epidemics impacting Italy, which have inspired literary and cultural outputs of exceptional quality: the Black Death of 1346-1353, the 1629-1631 Italian Plague, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the first unit, we consider the current pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The bestselling author Paolo Giordano muses on what contagion means for humanity in How Contagion Works (2020). Famed Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben put forward his rationales for opposing government mandates on vaccination from a biopolitical perspective.

Unit 2 studies various previous epidemics impacting Italians in order to understand what lessons they hold for us today. The Italian American communities and spokesmen vigorously argued against any potential medicalized prejudice that the 1918 Spanish Flu might bring. Considered the first Italian novel, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827/1840) frames the main plot through the early modern bubonic plague centered in Milan, which moves the narrative forward particularly beginning in chapter 31. We also examine the ramifications of the infamous medieval plague through the frame story of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (circa 1350s).

Unit 3 covers two novels from other European cultures as a comparison with the Italian perspectives, including Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) set in North Africa and Sjón’s Moonstone (2013) set in Iceland. The final unit examines the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which lurks behind the story told in Separate Rooms (1989) by Pier Vittorio Tondelli, an influential gay Italian writer who eventually died of the disease.

Through analyzing these literary texts, we study topics ranging from fear of diseases and xenophobia to biopolitics and wellbeing during isolation. The course is equally a journey through horror and injustice and one through survival and resilience.

Prerequisites: No prerequisites. Precludes credit for ITAL 409.

Language of instruction: English